The hearty tunes of Flaco Jimenez's accordion pounded out of the jukebox in the little Mexican restaurant where we sat waiting. My husband and I had already gone through half of the chips and salsa picante. "Do you think they forgot?" he wondered aloud.
"No, no, they wouldn't have forgotten. Juan talked with me about this several times and was very certain they'd be here," I replied.
Juan was a colleague of mine. He knew I was a history buff, that I loved to visit with the extreme elderly, and that I could remember a story forever. He told me about his grandmother, who was already 98.
"She's got some wonderful stories to tell, Shelly. If she's willing to talk to you, I don't think you'll regret it," he informed me.
Of course, I was intrigued, so we set up a time to meet at a local restaurant that was near a creek on the north side of town.
"It's one of Wuela's (Grandma's) favorite places," he explained.
He later reported that he'd spoken with her and she was willing, if I was willing to listen.
As we sat and waited I silently hoped that she hadn't decided against it. Soon enough, the door opened. We strained to look, and finally Juan came through the door, a tiny, regal woman on his arm. Her hair, though white, was sleek and wound in a tight braid that formed a bun on the back of her head. Although less than 5 feet tall, she stood straight as a ramrod. She surveyed the diners with mild curiosity as she and Juan made their way to our table.
We rose to greet her and all were seated. After preliminary introductions, Wuela said, "My name is Carolina and I am 98 years old. My grandson tells me you are interested in my stories." (She communicated only in Spanish, but I am transcribing it here in English.)
We assured her we were and she settled back into her chair with a contented sigh.
"The story I am going to tell you now is one that has been dear to my heart since I first heard it when I was a little girl. Back in the early days of this town, close to the turn of the century, the Church (the Catholic church) saw fit to send a priest here to start a mission to minister to all the ranch workers." (A very large ranch is based in my town and in those days, most of the workers lived on the ranch with their families and rarely left it for any reason.)
"Father Diego was a handsome man, so charismatic and full of energy. In no time, the church here was thriving and the people did all they could to become involved. Father Diego was well loved, but he also had a little of the devil in his eye."
We hardly moved as she continued.
"One of the families was especially devoted to the church and to Father Diego. They did all they could to make his life easier and promote the work of the church. Their children were taught to revere the church and to obey what the priest told them. They had a lovely 18 year old daughter, Raquel. They saw that Father Diego had trouble attending to the needs of the parishioners and tending to his own needs. They offered Raquel to him as a housekeeper who could keep him supplied with good meals and a clean home."
I could already sense the direction this was going.
"Raquel was innocent of the ways of men, but the devil in Father Diego's eye sparked to life when he saw how beautiful Raquel was. He whispered things to her she believed, but all were lies. In time, Raquel knew she was pregnant with Father Diego's child."
Carolina paused to take a sip of water.
"Raquel was scared to tell the Father, but she finally did. He was so angry that it frightened her. He quickly came up with a plan to send Raquel away to a convent in Mexico and once the baby was born, to send it to an orphanage far away.
'Raquel was devastated. She knew now she'd been betrayed, and all the things Father Diego whispered in her ear when they were together were lies. She finally had no choice but to tell her parents. They were even more upset. Her father wanted to disown her, to send her away forever, but her mother prevailed and they decided to take the matter to the Lord in prayer. They refused to allow Raquel to go into a convent. People would just have to form their own opinions about the baby's paternity because they would not discuss it with anyone.
"It came time for the baby to be born and Raquel's mother and an old midwife were the only two present with Raquel. Raquel's father was out on the range with the other cow hands and wouldn't be back at home for weeks.
"Raquel was immediately enchanted by her baby's beauty and knew she could never allow her, with the tiny rosebud mouth and shiny black hair, to ever go into an orphanage.
"It wasn't long after the baby's birth that word got to Father Diego that his baby had been born. He saddled up his horse and set off at a gallop for Raquel's house, determined to take the baby away from her and save his reputation."
Carolina took a deep breath as if the next part was difficult. She hesitated a bit and continued.
"One of Raquel's little brothers came running in to tell his sister and his mother that Father Diego was on the way on a fast horse.
"Hurry, son, hitch the two horses up to the wagon!" his mother called to him. "We've got to get Raquel and the baby away from here before he comes!"
"She bundled up Raquel and baby and got them to the wagon. She slapped the horses sharply and they were off, driving that wagon much faster than was safe, but it was necessary.
"It was when they neared the creek that Raquel's mother saw how great an obstacle it would be. Raquel sat in the back, huddled with her baby, when her mother breathed a prayer and made a momentous decision. They would jump the creek in the wagon. By now, they could see the dust Father Diego's horse stirred as he drew closer.
"Raquel clutched the baby tightly to her chest as her mother slapped the horses harder than she ever had. The horses ran at breakneck speed toward the creek and the wagon tilted so wildly the three were in danger of being tipped out.
"He was so close now they could see even the angry expression on Father Diego's face. Raquel held her breath as the horses leapt over the small creek, pulling the wagon with them. Her mother's whispered prayer became loud with thanks as they landed miraculously in one piece on the far side, still in the wagon. The horses were stunned and slowed. Father Diego had reached the other side of the bank.
Carolina looked over at her grandson, as if to get reassurance. "Go ahead, Wuela, it's OK to tell it."
"That creek is the very one you see outside this window, just around that bend," she explained. We craned our heads around to see it through the window.
"Father Diego laughed aloud with how easy his task was going to be with his powerful horse. He backed his horse up and then spurred him forward.
"Raquel knew in her heart of hearts they had no chance. She knew she was in the last few moments of ever cradling her precious one. Tears squeezed from her eyes at the sorrow of it.
"Father Diego jumped his horse over that little creek like it was nothing, but instead of landing securely on the other side, his horse's back foot slipped and they both toppled. The last sight Raquel had of the man who been her lover was his shocked expression as he arced through the air and landed squarely on his head.
"Raquel's mother later told that she believed the disgraced priest was dead the moment he hit the ground. He was certainly dead by the time they climbed out of the wagon and walked tentatively back to him.
My own mind reeled. "So they were safe? Both of them?" I had to know.
Carolina nodded her head, a small smile on her face.
"What ended up happening to the baby?" my husband asked.
Carolina looked at us both square in the eye.
"They named her Carolina. She grew to live a long and fruitful life. She has told her story to very few people outside of her family, but now she has just told the two of you the story of her beginnings."