Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Plant Whisperer

"Hello, ma'am," he greeted me as he shyly peeked his head through my classroom door. He continued in heavily accented English. "I clean your room, yes? I come back later if you busy." I assured him it was fine and he pulled his long-handled push broom and a custodial cart up to the first row of desks.

His shy smile revealed a few missing teeth and crinkled his sun-weathered face as he removed his gimme cap. He ducked his head as he introduced himself as Mr. Silva. He lightly took my offered hand as I told him my name before he heartily tackled my trash cans and floors.

He was over 60 and I was a 22 year old first year teacher, but he always treated me with deferential respect. It took a while, but my talkativeness finally broke through his reserve and he shared a little more each afternoon when he came to clean.

He'd been employed by a local, massive ranch that was known for cradle to grave employment. Most employees were born on the ranch and lived in ranch provided housing in a worker's colony there. They were informally apprenticed in a branch of ranching arts when they were still very young, and worked their entire lives on that ranch, eventually retiring and living out their days in the same ranch provided homes, eating at a ranch cafeteria if they desired, and buying discounted groceries and other supplies at a ranch commissary. Many of them saw no need to finish school or to even become fluent in English, as Spanish was the de facto language of the workers.

The oil bust of the 1980's evaporated any familial ties the ranch felt towards the workers and when the budgetary belt needed tightening, many long time workers took the brunt. The were turned out of not only their jobs, but their homes, as well.

Mr. Silva and his disabled wife had no children and no experience outside the ranch, but he found them a small apartment in town and landed a job as a custodian at my school.

Fastidious in his appearance, he wore immaculate workshirts tucked into sharply pressed khaki pants, complete with vintage ranch workboots on his feet.

Our conversations continued into the next school year and I looked forward to his visits and stories, even when he gently chided me for not taking good care of the plants in my room. Every now and then he'd take one of the bedraggled, brown things home, nurse it back to health, and return it to me, robust and green. He explained the plants could hear, they had feelings, and I needed to not only water them regularly, but I needed to speak to them softly and lovingly, like I would to a baby.

He confided one day his regret was not finishing even elementary school. It embarrassed him to share neither he nor his wife could read. He wanted to learn, almost more than anything, but didn't know where to start.

It was easy fix on my part. I shared a few simple lessons with him after school and he took it from there. He practiced for hours at home until he could not only read, but devoured books. His tastes ranged from John Donne to Louis L'Amour. He was always reticent in discussing anything with me but books, and to that end we carried on spirited, lively conversations about author styles, literary devices, and what an author REALLY meant when he wrote that.

When I had my first child and returned from maternity leave, a brilliantly colored lantana plant awaited me in my classroom, a gift from Mr. and Mrs. Silva; one he'd grown from a cutting.

It wasn't long afterwards a stroke took him, and not long after that, his wife was gone, too.

The lantana has grown into a healthy, four foot tall shrub with sturdy branches, bedecked in vibrant flowers of yellow, orange, and pink in our back yard.

And every now and then, I go out to that lantana and speak softly and lovingly to it of English poets, western authors, and book lovers.



116 comments:

  1. What a beautiful memory, and what a good thing you did in teaching Mr. Silva how to read. La gracia de una verdaders dama.

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    1. Lorna: I think he taught me more than I did him, truly. Muchas gracias!

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  2. Oh Shelly you made me cry I wanted to be there with you sharing Mr. Silva's stories. I knew you were a good person and I am so happy you helped him and his wife. I am also happy you still have that beautiful plant to talk to. Hugs B

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    1. Buttons: Really, he took charge of his own learning and became a voracious reader on his own. It's only as the years have gone by that I've realized how rare a couple they were~

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  3. Giving him the gift of reading and opening up his world and the friendship you had. How very special and moving was this tale. I love it that the plant is thriving under your loving care. God bless.

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    1. Nonnie: I'm glad it's thriving, too. He gave it a good start.

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  4. Beautiful, Shelly! You achieved a tremendous breakthrough with Mr. Silva, opening up new worlds to him in the last years of his life. He made great contributions to your life as well. He helped cultivate the gift you have today, that of being able to communicate with plants and animals, children and adult blog friends - speaking their language, establishing harmony and rapport, promoting growth, bringing out their best and helping them realize their potential.

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    1. Shady: I only did a little bit, and he was so excited and motivated about reading that broke his own barriers. They were good people, and I miss them both today. Thank you, my friend, for stopping by!

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  5. Oh how I love that sweet story - and the love (in a nice way) that you had for each other - the respect and the reciprocation you had. Nice. sandie

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    1. Sandie: They were the kind of people we don't hear too much of these days- humble, gracious, and kind. I am so happy I knew them~

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  6. What a beautiful story. You are the kind of person who is born to teach.

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. Janie: He was the kind of learner who could have gotten it from almost anyone because he was so motivated. For most of his life, he thought he was just stupid, which was far from the truth. I'm glad he knew differently before he left us.

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  7. I love this beautiful story. (I erased whatever I wrote after the period, and put in a period!)

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  8. Lovely...just lovely. You have a remarkable gift for telling a heartfelt story. Yours is one of the few blogs I savor.

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    1. Stephen: I am honored! Thank you, and welcome back from India~

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    1. Annmarie: Thank you! They were a wonderful couple~

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  10. When you wrote that Mr. Silva never learned to read, I was SO HOPING you would teach him, and you did.

    And then, Missy, you made me cry at the ending.

    What a lovely way to end my day.

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    1. And thank you. Forgot to say thanks!

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    2. jenny_o: Oh, I wish you'd known them! I really didn't have to do much teaching at all; he was so motivated. And what a lovely way to end my day with your visit!

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    3. jenny_o: :) My thanks to you, friend~

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  11. Sweet story and a kindly man.

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    1. Terra: They were such a humble gracious couple~

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  12. Shelly, last night I went to YouTube and found the 1985 telenovela "De Pura Sangre," starring Christian Bach and Humberto Zurita. This is the original of the novela I am now watching -- "Amor Bravío." Anyhow, I began watching "De Pura Sangre" just to be able to compare the two treatments of the same story. I love my novelas!

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    1. Lorna: What fun! My grandma LOOOOOVEEED novelas. I still think of her everytime I see one on tv. You should do a post on them- different yet alike in many ways from soap operas.

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  13. A beautiful yet somewhat sad story. Some people are so content with the little things in life that we others take so for granted.

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    1. Crystal Mary: I never heard them complain, not once.

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  14. How do you take us right into the moment, making a beautiful memory come alive and vibrant in the present? It's magic! I love this story. You became a literacy whisperer....

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    1. Jenny: Oh, I love that, the literacy whisperer, but truly, I think he could have even done it totally on his own, had he had the right materials, because he was so motivated. Thank you, Jenny, for your always sweet and inspiring words to me!

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    2. We all need interpreters in life, even with the right materials. Literacy is a great need, a painful need, for those who struggle without it. I think it's a journey that doesn't end. I'm still learning to be literate, in words, in skills, in social interaction. You are self deprecating, but the value that you brought into that man's life by creating a safe circle of learning, which involves mistakes, is immeasurable.

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    3. Jenny: You are such a beautiful soul, my friend! Thank you for being you!

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  15. Tears are welling, and I swallowed a big lump of emotion as I read the last few lines of this. Whoa. What a heart felt, loving post. Mr. Silva was of the King's Ranch's kineños?!! The history of the ranch and the workers have always fascinated me. Now, I have a question for you...is that where you taught school? Of course, Bud and I think you musta been 11 when you started teaching!!! You most definitely look WAY TOO YOUNG to be retiring!! :o)

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    1. HOOTIN ANNI: Yes, he was a kineño and had lived on the ranch his entire life until that point. No, I didn't teach on the ranch, although my grandma did back in the day. This was when I taught in Kingsville. And thank you for being so kind! I started teaching when I was 22 and I've taught 29 years, so it's all added up!

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    2. ...well, you still look younger than your age...you must be living the good life!!

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    3. HOOTIN ANNI: Ha! Thank you!

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  16. Dearest Shelly,
    This story of the bond Mr. Silva and you; how heartwarming and his sweetness toward plants REALLY moved me♡♡♡ Oh, they have hearts, don't they♬♬♬ He was a person who had positive attitude with warm heart and rich learning ability from you. Oh My!!! he and his wife's bond also must have been SO strong.
    Your last two lines were really beautiful and couldn't be written better, my friend.

    I've been with my father today and made me feel the ties of the couple again(^^;)

    Sending you lots of love and hugs from Japan, xoxo Miyako*

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    1. Miyako: I'm so glad you got to be with your dad, my dear friend! I know that is still so special to him, as it is to you. Yes, he and his wife were quite the team. He truly had a way with plants, and I'm glad I got to learn a little about at least not to kill them from him.

      Have a wonderful week, my friend!
      xo-

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  17. Happy and sad all at the same time. I'm sure he's given you masses of lovely memories as you recall how you taught him to read, and the conversations you had afterwards about authors, books etc... and he left you such a gift that is alive and thriving each day within that plant. Hope you get some cuttings and build on it. Lovely post Shelly.

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    1. Rum-Punch Drunk: Yes, although it's been almost 30 years now, I still have fond recollections of how excited he was about books and how gracious he and his wife always were. Every time I see the plant, I think of them in some way.

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  18. This story is so moving and beautiful. I love that you still have the plant he and his wife gifted to you and that it's grown so large, healthy and strong. I believe he was right about the plants. They really do hear and feel what's going on around them. Now that I've read this story I will also think of Mr. Silva whenever I look at any plant, or flower, or tree, and I'll remember that they have feelings just like us. Gosh, I just love your storytelling, Shelly! Thank you for sharing this.

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    1. Jenn: I'm so glad that he will in part live on in you remembering him, too. I know they would both be pleased their story is being told and remembered!

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  19. What a beautiful story! Mr. Silvia sounded like such a nice person. I'm glad you have that plant from him!

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    1. Sherry: They were such a gracious, humble couple. I was blessed in knowing them, even for a little while.

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  20. Dear Shelly, your story moved me to tears. So much mystery in how our lives and the lives of others touch. Surely Mr. Silva and you are bound in graciousness for all eternity. This is for me, a perfect example of Oneness. The loveliness of all this is that you touched one another's lives so gently and only with goodness. Alleluia. Peace.

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    1. Dee: I love the way you said we are bound by graciousness. I truly learned graciousness from them. To me, they embodied it. I am thankful that I got to know them, even for a short time. Thank you, my friend~

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  21. Wow! This is an interesting and touching post Shelly. It is good that you were able to communicate with Mr. Silva and help him to learn how to read. That plant is to be treasured. Take care and have a great day.

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    1. Judy: I do treasure it, and it has grown and prospered thanks to the wonderful start he gave it. Thank you, and may your week be terrific~

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  22. Wow! Shelly. How wonderful that you reached out to this man and gave him the gift of reading - thus opening up a whole new world for both him and his wife! And it seems all of you were blessed in knowing each other. One just never knows where the path will lead when we meet someone new.

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    1. Linda: I was truly the blessed one. He was so motivated he did just about all of it himself. You're right- we never know where a path might lead~

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  23. That is one of the sweetest stories I've ever read!

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  24. OK...I am leaving this stupid freezing MN weather and strutting right down to
    TX to give you a hug. Well...that's what I feel like doing.
    Hugs to you! Thanks for lov'en that couple.

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    1. Christine: Well get on down here! That would be wonderful, and you could bring our friend Jamie with you! We've got lots and lots of sunshine...enough to go around~

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  25. What a lovely story. You changed his life and I can see how much he impacted your own. You are amazing. xo

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    1. Theresa: They were the amazing ones, particularly with the drive and motivation he showed. I wish he'd had a little more time to enjoy all he gained. Thank you!

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    2. I wish he had more time too. I learned to read at such an early age, and it was such a big part of my childhood. What a shame he had to wait to experience it.

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    3. Theresa: It makes me even more thankful to have had the gift of literacy for the bulk of my life.

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  26. Awww...such a sweet and inspiring story. What a lovely thing you did, giving him the gift of reading.

    Nas

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    1. Nas: He really gave it to himself- I just gave him a little push start.

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  27. This is so heartwarming and inspiring...you have a huge heart my friend.

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    1. Optimistic Existentialist: They really helped me to see things in a different light and not to be so quick to judge others~

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    2. yes and that's something we could all learn in life. I loved this post.

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    3. Optimistic Existentialist: Thank you!

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    4. Optimistic Existentialist: And I'm headed for a return visit to your place now-

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  28. I'm not forgetting about you Shelly--I'm saving this for when the kiddos are in bed and I can think and read this!!!!!

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    1. Jamie: Take your time, and how sweet to stop by and let me know that!

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  29. A huggable post Shelly..... thank you for sharing.

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  30. OMG! What heart-lifting memories...that will live forever because they blossom each time you whisper to the lantana. Lovely!! :)

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    1. Rita: I like to think that they live on in all who know their story, and that lantana is a living embodiment of it~

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  31. I'm bawling like a baby!! (OK, I didn't make it back last night, here I am this morning!)

    I must go look up a lantana--what a gift you were to each other. He in his knowledge in real life and you in teaching him to read, both forever gifts. I loved this story. I am so happy you got to see the fruits of your labors and the joy you have given so many through Mr Silva!

    God bless you Shelly!

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    1. Jamie: I'm so thankful I have that plant as a reminder of them; their goodness, and their humbleness.

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  32. What a lovely story. I'm so glad he learnt to read.

    Maria's Book Blog

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    1. Maria: My only regret is that he didn't get to enjoy the gift of reading for longer than he did.

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  33. My five year old is a new reader, and we were recently discussing how some people never have the opportunity to read, and that sometimes, that chance comes much later in life. I told him how brave it is of adults who take on that challenge, and how lucky he is to learn as a child. He's going to love this story when I share it with him after school. I'll need to read it a few more times before then, though, so I can share it without sobbing.

    Do you think he read to his wife?

    As always, your words touch my heart. Beautiful!

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    1. Amy: Yes, he did read to his wife, and I know she enjoyed it. To my knowledge, though, she never learned to read herself, but she was so excited he had learned.

      I love new readers, and it must be so exciting to listen to your son. Their enthusiasm for reading is contagious. Tell him I'm so proud of him that he's reading!

      Thank you for stopping by and the shout-out on FB! I can't get into FB here, but I will when I get home.

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  34. Saw Amy's share on Facebook. So glad to have read this, what a difference we can all make when we help each other. I'm sure he would be proud to know about your thriving Lantana.

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    1. Big City Mom: You're right- it doesn't take much at all to really make a difference in someone's life. And I know he would be happy I haven't killed that lantana!

      Thank you for stopping by~

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  35. This is so beautiful!!! I got goosebumps reading it. Thank you for sharing such a special story.

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  36. Hi dear Shelly. So sorry I'm late ! How I loved that final paragraph when you told us of how you sometimes talk softly to that Lantana. Wonderful ! I just love reading your stories about characters. He certainly sounds like quite a special man, and how special that he learnt to read at that late stage of his life. Lovely post .

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    1. thisisme: It's hard to fathom in this day and age that there are still adults who can't read, but it's more prevalent than what we think. I love lantana, and especially that one. Thank you for your always wonderful visits here, my friend!

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  37. Loved this story! You made a positive impact on each others' lives. If only more people cared like that!

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    1. Alica: We each truly have the power to make such a difference with only a little effort. Thank you for stopping by!

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  38. Another beautiful post and what a lovely thing you did for that lovely man. Both of you have left a lovely mark on this world. I really enjoy your life stories.

    xx Jazzy

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    1. jazzygal: Ah, thank you, my friend!

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  39. Beautiful Shelly, just beautiful. I have a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye from the sheer poetry of your words. Bravo!!

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    1. HumorSmith: Thank you- he's still an inspiration to me!

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  40. Geez, Shelly, why is it that when I come and read your stories I inevitably get tears in my eyes? Mr Silva sounds like a kind soul and you are a kind, nurturing soul yourself.

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    1. Lydia: Thanks so much- he and his wife were truly the epitome of kindness, humility, and grace.

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  41. PS....yes, I am back here in your recent comments again as I wanted you to know that I did go and read about the 1919 hurricane and your family members. What an amazing, heart wrenching, and study of strength and survival!! It's a bittersweet part where Rob never remarried. But understandable with his devotion and memory of Rosa. Then, Maria...her pregnancy...her son...is this your cousin perhaps? So very well written Shelly!!

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    1. HOOTIN ANNI: Thank you for reading all that! My relatives in the story were MC (my grandfather)and all of his siblings and parents. I read of Maria's account, butthe only things I could find were how she survived, pregnant, and how her family did not, what she named the baby, and where they lived.

      So many of those stories have faded into time that I want to preserve what there is. I'm so glad glad you are writing about the storm- can't wait to read it!

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  42. Your stories always touch my heart. I have to go back and read and re- read any writing that has a story. It delays my follow up. My memory is kind of rusty that is why in order to not confuse my brain, I read and read again until my brain understands that it is one complete naration. I am trying my best to keep my brain in good health.

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    1. Munir: Thank you, my friend! It is always a treat when you stop by to visit. You also are doing a fine job of keeping your brain in good health, something I should prehaps pay more attention to!

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  43. I envy you in having the opportunity to have such an impact on Mr. and Mrs. Silva, especially because it involved literacy. I've tutored in Math awhile back, however, the next time I tutor, I'd like for it to be in reading. Thanks for your heart-warming, inspiring story.

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    1. Anita: It was such a rewarding thing- and literacy is always going to be something that is thrilling (at least to you and I)!

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  44. To have such talent with plants requires such patience, and he sounds like a man who had a wealth of it. Thank you for keeping that plant through the years.

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    1. lotta joy: He truly did, and he was one of the happiest people I've known.

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  45. Awe.. touching... so beautiful. Thankyou for sharing. What a lovely man. xx

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    1. Michelle: They were such a wonderful couple- miss them still!
      xo

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  46. My best friend is a gardener, and she swears that talking to your plants helps. Also, how wonderful that you taught him to read.

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    1. Missed Periods: There's got to be something to talking to those plants. I need to practice it more often!

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  47. Wow, this is a popular place. (Thanks for your visit to my very, very quiet place!) Your story reminds me of Cesar, my school caretaker, who is from the Philippines. He can read, but his English is very broken, and he also talks to me a lot about his garden - which is obviously his passion. In fact, just this morning he brought me two large dahlia bulbs from his garden and instructed me on how to plant them. He has taught me a lot of things in the five years I've known him, mostly about gardening but also about surviving out of your element, and the care and feeding of tentative relationships. How lovely that you formed such a special relationship with your school caretaker and were able to give him the gift of literacy, the most valuable gift I can even imagine. And how lovely that he clearly appreciated you just as much as you did him.

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    1. mischief: Ahhh, got a lump in my throat just reading your comment. He sounds so much like Mr. Silva. You are one of those who are lifelong learners, I can tell, because you open your heart and learn valuable lessons from those others wouldn't pay any attention to.

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  48. Shelly, you are amazing and caring. You see the beauty deep inside a persons heart. Sounds like you were both extremely blessed by knowing one another. I am so glad you shared this because we all need to read about people like you who open their hearts in order to allow friendship to happen. Thank you, my friend.

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    1. Simone: He did the bulk of the work of learning to read on his own because he was so motivated. And yes, I do consider it one of the great blessings of my life to have gotten to know them. Thank you!

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  49. This is absolutely beautiful. I know how you treasure that lantana.

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    1. Carol Kilgore: Thank you- I am so happy it flourishes still!

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  50. What a beautiful post -- and memory of a wonderful, hard-working and dignified man! I'm so glad you've continued to nurture that lantana -- and the story of this lovely man.

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    1. Dr. Kathy: I just love people like the Silvas- hard-working, gracious, and uncomplaining. Your post today was such an inspiration to me- I so enjoyed it.

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  51. I hope that every thing is fine with you and your loved ones.

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    1. Munir: Thank you, my friend- we are doing well! Preparing for my retirement in 6 weeks!

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