"Are we there yet?"
All I had said was, "Some kids are so excited to get there that they keep asking all the time."
Foolish me. I just gave Jeffy permission to exercise his sense of humor – every five minutes!
AJ would giggle each time, but Elliot was getting a little frustrated.
"Daniel Jeffrey, can't you just enjoy the scenery like we are? It's really annoying."
Well, that could have been an invitation to my middle boy to stop his needling, but it finally took my ultimatum to make him quit.
"Jeffy, you are bordering on abuse. Please stop or we'll have to strap you to the roof of the truck where you'd likely snack on bugs all day."
You could see the taste fill his senses. Even so, he smiled one last time and was quiet, about that tease anyway, for the rest of the trip.
Checking the directions, I finally handed them to Elliot, who was sitting shotgun. Within what seemed like a few seconds he had his smartphone out and we all heard some female's voice telling me to turn right in one thousand feet.
"Wo-ow!" remarked my youngest son. "How does she know all that stuff, Dad?"
"It's just a computer program, AJ. They program in every street and address, I guess, then figure out how to get us there."
"She must be up all night, reading maps, huh?"
Well, Jeffy laughed and Elliot just rolled his eyes. For the next few minutes Elliot made an attempt to explain how the 'voice' worked, but to little avail.
Without flaw and within a few minutes we pulled up in front of a modest salt box home that had a fairly big yard all around it and a substantial porch that swept around the front. There were two older cars in the double driveway, a soccer ball and football in the yard, and everything looked very well cared for.
"Oh, look!" shouted AJ, pointing to the big bay window in front of the house.
We all turned and saw the curtain swing back into place. Then the front door opened, and Cesar walked out onto the porch, a big grin on his cute, coffee-with-cream-colored face.
Surprisingly, little Cristian came out behind him, his smile even bigger and brighter than his friend's.
Next came two other boys who each stood behind one of our boys as though they were being protective brothers to their wards. I found out later that was exactly what they were doing. I also noticed that Cristian wore a cast on one arm that covered his wrist up to his elbow.
The ever shy one, AJ, ran up to the bottom of the porch steps and pranced around until the rest of us approached. By then, a middle-aged couple had come out onto the porch.
"Senor Teem," said Cesar, pointing at me and turning to the couple as if clarifying to them who they were meeting for the first time.
"And I'm AJ. Remember, Cesar?" said my boy. Before Cesar could respond, AJ turned and introduced his two brothers. "This is Jeffy and this is Elliot. Oh, you guys didn't get ta meet Lewis. He didn't come with us camping that time. But he's here now, huh, Lewis?"
"We have heard so many good stories about the boy's saviors. It's wonderful to finally meet you all," said the woman, holding out her hand to invite us up onto the porch.
We walked up and the two little boys hugged my three boys then came to me to do the same, though with some trepidation. I knelt and held out my arm, one was holding Lewis, and was immediately engulfed in boys' arms. That felt wonderful. Mostly because it told me they were far more comfortable and relaxed in this situation than they were at the camp.
As the two pulled back I noticed that Cristian had what looked like old bruises along with his cast. That was a concern, of course, but I believed there was an explanation waiting that would include his presence at Cesar's foster home.
Cesar was very formal with us and tried not to smile while he introduced us in English. It was very broken and heavily accented but English. Cristian smiled the whole time.
Their foster parents were warm and inviting and couldn't show their love for their two new boys enough. Their own two older boys, Isadore, about Cesar's age, and Jacob, two years older, were as friendly and warm as their parents. The boys' English was perfect. I say this because their parents came from Guatemala and Jamaica, wife and husband, respectively. Their English was very proper but beautifully accented by their country's culture. Cesar's foster mom was actually his mother's cousin, we found out later.
Their home was modest but spotlessly clean. Since we were expected that day the boys' foster father had evidently taken off the day from work to be there when we arrived. He, as well as his wife were the proud foster parents of our two little wanderers, and it showed in their smiles and stories.
After the boys all went out to play, I was told of the account leading to Cristian's presence in their home.
"Cesar knew that something wasn't right with his good friend, Cristian," described Mrs. Thompson. "He seemed very worried, especially when his little friend didn't return his calls. See, the agency that brought our boys gave them each other's address and phone number. We didn't know until later that the information was immediately taken from Cristian upon arriving at their house. It was several days of adjusting to our new mijo, um, our son, before we really began to worry about his little friend. Finally, Cesar and our two sons came up to us and pleaded that we look into the reason that he had not heard from Cristian."
Mr. Thompson reached for and took his wife's hands and continued, "We contacted the boy's foster worker and she was nice enough to inquire for us."
They looked at each other with sad expressions before he went on, "To make a short story, Cristian was not in a good place. The police had to be called and he was immediately taken from the abusive home. Both parents were taken into custody and two other foster pickney, um, children were moved as well.
"Luckily, his arm is not broken, but sprained very badly. But he was so happy and playful that they decided to protect it with his cast. It is due to come off any day now."
Mrs. Thompson looked toward the yard where all the boys were playing. "Our social worker asked if we would like another son."
She and her husband looked at each other with glowing eyes, full of joy.
"It was not a hard decision. Both of our own boys would have been so disappointed if we did not accept this little waif into our home as well. As you can see, ours is not a huge house, but somehow the rooms expand in size when there is love pushing the walls out to accept even more happiness. So, he has been with us for almost a week."
"Mother, father," asked the oldest boy, Jacob, who came bounding into the living room where we sat, his newest brother riding piggyback and giggling like a little hyena. "May we get some drinks for us and our new friends? It is blazing hot out and we're dripping with sweat."
"Oh, what a pretty picture, Jacob. Thank you for sharing that," said his mother, shaking her head. "Yes, you know there are plenty of juice boxes in the fridge. Help yourselves but please replace what you take so there are more cold drinks for later."
She dismissed them with a wave of her hand and a shake of her head.
Just then AJ ran up and grabbed Jacob's hand and looked at him with inquiring eyes.
"Twas a good idea, AJ, but not the 'sweat' part. Still, the result was the same."
"Oops," said my own, before they ran into the kitchen to fetch their drinks.
"Now, you will be staying for a meal with us and I've borrowed my boss' RV so you don't have to stay in an inn. It will be here later."
Glenmore and Maria Thompson were my age and as vibrant and animated as their children. I could have listened to Glenmore's accent for hours as it rolled off of his Jamaican tongue so eloquently. I also noticed that their oldest, Jacob, would break into the accent after only a minute or two of talking with his father.
We enjoyed a traditional Jamaican dinner of jerk chicken, with rice, plantains, carrots and green beans. It was somewhat spicy, but everyone enjoyed it. She also made bammy bread from cassava flour that was sent to her by her husband's sister still in Jamaica. You should have heard the boys when she mentioned that the bitter kind of cassava was poisonous if not prepared right. Then she admitted that she only used the sweet kind. She also served the national dish of Jamaica, Ackee and saltfish. She apologized for having to use canned Ackee but we didn't know the difference, of course.
Cesar and Cristian were leery of most of the food set on their plates until their mom encouraged them to just taste it. Then, as was common with my boys, they made quick work of their meal. My boys and I enjoyed all of it. It was spicy and very different from what we were used to.
Our dessert, served much later, was a coconut cake that was very rich and moist.
The boys played outside until the RV showed up and then got in our way as we tried to help Glenmore's boss set it up. His boss was quite the character and seemed to love the boys. Then we found out that it was his wife and he that had encouraged the Thompsons to foster the boys. They fostered at least two at a time, themselves, over the years.
By the time the RV was in place and ready to be inhabited, the boys were pooped and ready for bed. It was then a brawl until we figured out how to sleep all seven kids in the vehicle.
"Dad, we gotta get one o' these thingies," shouted AJ. "We could go 'bout anywhere in it, huh?"
Soon, all the boys were tucked away and Maria was changing one of the twin beds in the boys' rooms for me to use. We made a crib-like bed for Lewis in that room and all the boys were soon sawing logs within minutes of hitting their pillows.
The Thompsons and I talked for a while on their porch. I wanted to know how they found Cesar and the coincidence of him being her cousin once removed.
"Well, you see, after Glenmore's boss encouraged us to be foster parents, and after our training classes, we applied, of course. Then we got a very anxious sounding letter from my cousin back in Guatemala. It described the danger their little one, Cesar, was in if he stayed, and even that the gangs were looking for him and several of his friends. She asked us if there was a way to seek the boy since he'd already left with his friend."
"It was actually my boss that found the way to locate our Cesar," explained Glenmore, holding his wife's hands in his. "We were very worried for him and knew nothing of what he was going through down there. After my boss made some inquiries, we received a call from an agency that locates foster families for the children that come up from the southern Americas. They knew of Cesar and made all the arrangements for us to be his foster parents."
Maria continued, "Now, we don't plan on adopting Cesar because we are now trying to arrange for safe passage for his whole family to come up here. It's a difficult thing to do now, but we have much help from several such groups that do that sort of kindness. We do, however, plan to look into little Cristian's home life and see if there is something to be done. If not, we will surely adopt him. Our own boys would not let us do anything less," she said with a laugh.
I turned over as the sun's light-filled my small bedroom. I should say 'our' small bedroom, as I looked for Lewis in his make-shift bed. I was about to panic when I didn't see him, but my eyes went to the floor beneath me and found my little guy wrapped up in his blanket on the floor. He wasn't big enough to make it into my bed, I guess, but wanted to be close. It was his first sleep without the bars of a crib holding him safely and I could only be grateful that we hadn't made his bed any higher than it was.
I lifted his sleeping body into my bed and pulled him onto my chest. Just as he was waking, replete with a jubilant smile from ear to ear, our room was invaded by a rowdy gang of noisy boys.
The first thing I noticed, after hugging Lewis to assure him that we were not being attacked, was the amount of flesh in front of us. Everyone but my Jeffy and Elliot were in just their underpants. My two oldest boys had on long t-shirts and, I was pretty sure, had underwear beneath.
"They said to wake you sleepy heads, that breakfast was 'bout ready, Dad."
"You certainly woke us up, son. Now, who wants to help Lewis get comfy by changing his diaper?"
I quickly learned that this was exactly the phrase to use to clear the room. Not 'Fire!' or even 'Get out!'
"I'll do it, Pop," said Elliot.
I did notice that Jeffy had lingered as well. Together they grabbed up a laughing baby and made great fun of changing the stinky boy while I got up and changed into clothes for the day, after walking down the hall to fulfill important needs of my own in the boys' bathroom.
By the time the four of us entered the dining room, all of the other boys were seated and looking anxiously at Maria, who was dishing up our plates. She'd hand two to each of her sons and they'd serve us until we all had plates mounded with pieces of fried steak, beans, two eggs and a couple of rolled up tortillas.
"Mr. Thompson is at work this morning but will make a short day of it so we can see some sights later."
With that, and after helping clean the table, the boys went out to play. Of course, Lewis was anxious to join them, so we both went out to stand to the side as his older boys kicked a soccer ball around. After about fifteen minutes of kids laughing and running, I'd had about enough of a squirming grandson so I inadvertently set him on the ground, on his feet, without the slightest idea what he might accomplish since he'd never really walked without something or someone to hold onto.
Okay, I wouldn't say he, by any means, mastered the art of walking but he trotted about ten steps into their play area before he wobbled and sat back on his butt. While he looked a bit frustrated, all three of my boys started to whoop and holler and run to Lewis, who had no idea what all the commotion was about.
"Teem, did we just see his first steps?" asked Maria from the back porch.
"By himself, yes. Pretty exciting." But I flashed on how much our lives would change now that we were gaining a runaway.
"Dad, he walked a really long way that time!"
Elliot picked up the baby and they all walked the few steps to where I was standing. Lewis just wanted down so he could do it again, to which Elliot obliged.
Lewis took about four steps and sat down, even more frustrated.
So, for about twenty minutes the boys lifted the baby to his feet so he could try to walk, which he never really did again, on the grass.
"Niños, come inside and have a drink. I think this is making little Lewis thirsty and hot," exclaimed Maria.
All the boys got juice boxes again and even Lewis tried one. He kind of grasped the concept of sucking the juice but then he'd pull away from the straw and open his mouth before he swallowed, most of the time.
After his drink and a change of Lewis' t-shirt, Elliot set him on the living room floor and Lewis held onto their coffee table and walked halfway around it before he let go and walked all the way over to me which had to be at least twenty of his little steps. By the time he got to me, arms waving in the air, initially for balance, but ending up showing his excitement, he became too consumed by his achievement and sat right in front of me.
I swooped him up and tossed him into the air while telling him what a great feat he'd just accomplished. The boys were all applauding him, and he had to twist around to see what they were doing. Then he bunched up and exploded into one of his signature excited laughs that had all the boys in stitches.
We all finally calmed down and the urge to conquer the ground standing up finally left Lewis for the time being.
The boys went back outside, and Lewis hunkered down into my lap as Marie and I talked families.
Several times various boys came in and plunked down, usually on the floor at my feet, sweaty, somewhat dirty, exhausted and happy. They'd play with Lewis a minute or two then listen to Marie and I talk for a while then get up and run back outside, having caught their second or third wind.
"Senor Teem, we must move us into the kitchen so I can start our lunch. After we finish and the boys cleanup, we would like to take you to see some of our city. I think the boys would very much enjoy our Science Museum."
"That sounds wonderful, Marie. I know my boys would find that fascinating. Our small city isn't large enough to have one."
"Then it's settled. Our boys have been, but we haven't taken our newest sons yet. When our lunch has filled their tummies Glenmore will be home and we can leave."
"Well, we may need to delay that for just an hour or so, Marie. My little armful will need a nap if we can keep him awake until after we eat."
Her smile was precious and so was Lewis. It was like he understood what I'd proposed. He wiggled down in my arms and lay his head on my chest, as though anticipating his next rest.
I helped Marie lay out sandwich makings along with some of the leftovers from the night before. A big bowl of tortilla chips and another of her own, fresh pico de gallo rounded out a full lunch for us all.
As the boys were eating, and after drinks were poured, I heard some comments from my boys.
"What is it, Isadore? Is it any good?" I heard AJ ask his host.
"It is called horchata. Mamma makes it with water and leche, um, milk and sugar and cinnamon and stuff. I think you'll like it. We only have it on special times and sometimes if we go out."
"Mm-m-m-m, it's really good. Dad, ya gotta try this new drink."
I did and it was okay. Simple water sufficed for me though.
When I came into the kitchen from laying Lewis down for his nap, Glenmore was there. Marie had quickly dished him some leftovers and I sat with them as he ate. It was so relaxed and inviting and then they made the mistake of asking about our life and how I'd come to adopt my three sons and then gained Lewis. It seemed like I talked for hours. They heard all the stories, kidnappings and attempts at, well, several different ways that things could have gone very badly for any and all of my kids. Of course, they heard about the boys' great grampa and his ward, Joshua.
I was just wrapping up my stories when we heard a squeal from the bedroom. Our littlest was ready to start his afternoon.
It was almost bedtime and our hosts' boys were getting ready to call it a night, though reluctantly, when I asked my three to join me in the living room. The Thompsons had gone to bed already, Lewis had been laid to rest some time before, so it was just the four of us.
"Are you boys having a good time here with your friends?"
"Pop," started Elliot, "It's nice not to have an agenda and just be ourselves. I'm having a great time."
He almost sounded professional.
"Dad, I'm having a blast. It's fun trying to keep up with all of our new friends."
"So, what's this about, Pop," asked Jeffy.
"I just wanted to tell you how proud I am of you. Unlike most boys your age, that is, teenagers, you boys have consistently shown a maturity far beyond your years. You know, most teenagers have a reputation of turning into disrespectful know-it-alls as soon as they hit thirteen. And that doesn't usually change until they're in their twenties. But you guys are still the loving, helpful boys that I have always known and love very much."
AJ was beaming at the compliment, as I knew he would. Elliot, my shy guy, was blushing like I knew he would.
"Ya know, Pop," said Jeffy, "Most kids our age haven't been through the stuff we've seen and felt and stuff. I don't think most guys have come as close to death, even, like we have. I guess I act the way I do because I don't want anybody to have to go through the sh . . ., um, stuff we been through, or even a little bit because of me. Plus, it's a lot easier to have everyone having fun than just a few who are being brats to the rest."
"Hey, yeah! Dad, I'm a teenager too, now, huh? And you know I don't wanna hurt anyone or see them hurtin'."
I looked over at Elliot and he seemed to be taking in what both of his brothers had shared. A faint grin, maybe of pride, came to reshape his lips before he answered me.
"Pop, we are so rich. Oh, not with just money, really, but with all that we've been given by you and Great Grampa and all our friends. We're constantly surrounded by love and strength and wisdom. So, some of that has to rub off. It's like Jeffy said, we have a choice to either assume that is what we are owed and be selfish, or to choose to be thankful for our lives and hope we can share those same great traits with those with whom we come into contact. We can't exactly try to protect others from bullies and other harassment if we act like that, can we?"
Did I ever mention how proud I was of my kids?
Our time with the Thompson family was very fulfilling. We went on a variety of outings over the next two days that used up almost all the energy the boys could muster up. Twice I was able to convince Glenmore and Marie that I should buy the clan meals. Everything else was their treat.
We did Italian one night and I heard AJ ask his uninformed friends if they'd like any Farmer John's cheese on their spaghetti. Elliot must have heard it too, because he turned to me with a worried look on his face. Both the Thompson adults looked at me, inquisitively.
As with most Italian restaurants, they served each table with a large jar with large holes in the top so that the dried cheese inside could be sprinkled quite liberally onto their meal. AJ grabbed it up and proceeded to shake it onto Cristian's noodles and red sauce. AJ seemed quite proud that he was sharing his culinary expertise with his friends. Both boys liked their new discovery of . . .
"Oh my gosh!" said Elliot, a bit too loud.
As we all turned to him his hand covered his mouth and he started to shake as he began to laugh.
"Elliot?" I asked.
"AJ, it's not Farmer John's cheese that you're sprinkling on the boys' meals. It's called parmesan cheese. It just sounds like you heard it as Farmer John's cheese. It's Italian and you don't speak Italian."
"O-o-oh. Yup. I sure don't speak Italian, alright. I was wondering why Farmer John was the only one making this cheese that everybody seemed to know about. He'da been really rich, huh?"
Our time with the Thompson's and our Guatemalan friends was quickly coming to an end. As they say, we had places to go and people still to see. But knowing that Cesar and Cristian were in such good hands was so important for the four of us.
Our last evening, little Cristian came up to me as we all gathered for some quiet time in the Thompson's living room. Lewis was down for the night and it was time for the boys to call it a night as well. I was sitting in an upholstered chair and the little guy squeezed in between my knees, his hands clasped in front of him. The shyness that had been a part of him was quickly fading with each passing day. I attributed that to his being so comfortable and confident in his security around all of us, especially his new family.
"Senor Teem, you don't hava go if you done wanna. You can stay here and so can su hijos."
Cesar was right there to whisper into Cristian's ear. Cristian began to blush, but it was through a very sweet smile, something that we had grown used to over the time of our visit.
"Oh, you sons," he continued. "But you can all stay longer, even you baby. We all like you."
That was more than I'd ever heard Cristian say to anyone, especially in English, though heavily accented, of course.
I reached out and took the smiling boy's hands in mine, making his smile all the more radiant.
"Thank you, Cristian. We've had a wonderful time here, but we have other boys to see too. One who is very sick. So, we will come back some day, but you must visit us too."
Cristian looked totally lost as I spoke, looking over his shoulder with a confused look, seeking any help to his situation.
Cesar tried to translate for him, but he looked a little lost, too, until Jacob crawled over and finished up.
"Oh. Sí Sí. ¡Visitarte!" Cristian exclaimed excitedly.
Then he jumped into my arms and we had a nice hug.
The next morning, we were on our way, after hugs and some tears, and with promises of doing this again. I was so glad to see the boys with a family as loving and wholesome as the Thompson's were. I had no doubt that they were in good hands and could begin to enjoy life once more.
Thanks again to RCN for his editing wizardry. It makes for a smoother read.
I would like to hear/read your criticisms, good and bad. I'd love to talk about where this gets to you. Matthew Templar