One of my most unexpected relationships came with a man named Manuel. Let me set the scene. I grew up on what amounted to a small farm in the middle of town. Dad had two acres that he cultivated, over an acre in orchard, a good sized vineyard, a donkey he ploughed with. He raised rabbits, chickens, some years pigs or turkeys and he had a cow and calf. His full time job was manager of the city utilities. The “farm” was his evening and weekend work done because he loved it. As he aged, and herniated a disc, he needed help with this so he hired a laborer named Manuel. Manuel had a wife and 12 children.
They lived in a tiny, run down house not far from us geographically but still a world away from our lower middle class neighborhood. I know my father thought of Manuel as a good man, hard working and honest, a man to be trusted. He got him a job as groundskeeper at City Hall. But, born in Kentucky in the late 1800s, Dad’s ideas of class were set. I don’t think he ever considered the idea of Manuel as a friend or thought of inviting him into our home. Manuel was hired help.
I was a kid in junior high who liked to hang out in the orchard. I got to know Manuel just talking to him there. He was a sweet man who loved his family deeply and who never complained about his life. I started taking Christmas goodies for his family but did it quietly. Something told me not to talk about this at home. When I went away to school one of the first things I did on vacations at home was to head out back to find Manuel and say hello. He spoke very broken English but the smile that lit his face when I came was all the welcome I needed.
After I married and lived out of state Manuel’s wife died of cancer. My elderly parents sold the place and moved to Phoenix to be near my brother. The next time I went back to my home town I went to City Hall to try to find Manuel but he had gotten too old for the job. I found no one at the old house where he had raised his family. We had never communicated except when I was home and went out to see him. Still,
without know it, he mentored me in patience, acceptance and understanding, perhaps more than anyone else in my life. I tell myself that those smiles he gave me meant I brought a little gladness to him. I hope so. He deserved so much more than just a little gladness.