The Butterfly Effect

The Butterfly Effect

By Elizabeth Maria Naranjo
NaranjoI like to imagine I can trace my son’s birth through the lineage of his father’s past—mapping out every choice, every move, every step my husband thought was a mistake, that made my son’s life possible. It’s like visualizing the butterfly effect, resonating and sounding within one man’s heart. Of course, creating life takes two hearts. But I already know my story.

This is his story:

A black-haired boy stares at the doors of a restaurant, then pushes his way inside. He’s holding hands with a beautiful blonde, his dark brown wrist crossing boldly over her white one. The migrant workers behind the counter eye him warily, envious. It is summer in Tucson, Arizona. The year is 1970.

This boy, who is not really a boy but not quite a man, stills the tremor in his voice as he asks to see the owner. He sweeps his gaze over the adobe walls, the bare, wooden rafters, and the unique cement sculptures twisted with wire that adorn the archway. He has heard of these sculptures, inspired by the ancient Mayan artwork of Mexico. He has come to meet the artist. He grips the woman’s hand, and she squeezes back. They’ve planned the wedding for August.

The owner appears, a sturdy-looking man with a gray-swept beard and serious eyes. He sees the couple, stops and raises a hand to his chest. The hand falls away, and he closes the distance, embracing the son he has not seen in thirteen years.

Father and son waste no time filling the chasm; they simply jump it and move forward. The boy is the youngest of five; he has the shortest memory, and sees nothing to forgive. It was only out of loyalty to his mother that he adopted his brothers’ vows to refrain from seeking out the man who deserted them. Barely six at the time, his sharpest memory remains the one where he watched the tail lights fade, and ran after them, crying out, “Hey, Dad! Hey, Dad!” But no corners of this boy’s heart are dark enough to house bitterness. He’s always known the moment the calendar marked him free, at eighteen, he would find his father, and know him.

The father, Jesus, gives his son a job at Tia Elena, washing dishes. The son, Alex, is a fast learner; he is spirited and ambitious. Within a year, he is managing the kitchen. Within two, he speaks fluent Spanish, a language silenced and purged from him long ago by his school teachers. Like a chameleon he absorbs his father’s world, but reflects it with his own shape and colors. Though he won’t judge, he knows when his own son arrives, he will never leave him.

Alex and his bride work hard for this son. They make love with all the hope and abandon of newlyweds dreaming of babies. Maybe a girl will come first; it doesn’t matter. They choose the names. The faces they see in endless combinations: her eyes, his hair, his eyes, her hair, skin a shade of caramel that falls between them. They have time. When Jesus retires, they take over the restaurant. Alex continues to learn from his father: masonry, adobe-making; he becomes an artist in his own right, fashioning jewelry from silver and turquoise, and creating beautiful stained-glass windows.

But years pass, and there are no children. Alex and his wife see doctors, and learn there will probably never be children. He loses himself in the restaurant; he drinks too much. His wife begins making frequent trips to her hometown. The dull ache of infertility settles between them, and the marriage fails.

Alex shoves aside his losses and holds on to the restaurant. He builds a lounge, where soon he’ll dance nights away with a new wife, and new hopes. She is stunning, big-breasted and doe-eyed, tall and blonde, with passions that match his. Together, their passions fuel a sense of fearlessness and indestructibility. They will have a child, of course they will, and until then they will drink and dance and pour money into the restaurant, because they cannot fail.

Ten years later, there are still no children, and now there is no money. The restaurant folds. The divorce papers are drawn up. Alex loses his father. He loses everything.

Just north of the slow quiet skies of Tucson, a valley cradled among mountains blazes with sprawling growth. It is here, in Phoenix, that a man can lose himself in the bright noise and blurred speed of the city. His brothers have built a business in commercial painting, and Alex joins them, spending his days taping and brushing, trimming and spraying, and listening to the smooth familiar drone of his older brothers’ teasing. They contract with a preschool, and paint the walls in glossy reds and greens and yellows and blues. Alex, now in his forties, accepts that this brightly colored world is probably beyond his reach. He meets a woman with children of her own, teenagers, and they cautiously begin to know each other. She is done having children, and he is fine with that. Not every man is meant to be a father.

Another decade passes, and he begins to think not every man is meant to be a husband. He jokes about his marriages and his bad luck with blondes, but he never disparages the women, or himself. Well into his fifties now, the silver threads through his black hair, and his weathered skin bears the marks of the desert, though his heart remains unchanged. The narrow focus of his optimism and the strength of his vitality push him forward, always forward. He puts his skills to use at a hospital, repairing walls, broken beds, faulty electrical wires, damaged pipes. At home, he tears down walls and builds new ones. Sometimes he thinks about his father, and the cries of “Hey, Dad! Hey, Dad!” and watching the tail lights fade. Sometimes, he thinks he hears the voice calling to him, as if he were the one leaving. But when he imagines this, he is always walking toward the sound, not away from it.

Maybe it was the moment his first wife left him. Maybe it was the moment he walked away from Tucson. Maybe it was the moment he chose a job closer to home. Probably it was all of these moments that fell in a slow cascade that leads him through the path of a nurse on the second floor. Inexplicably, she tells him she’s been waiting for him, that she believes they belong together. But she’s too young, he thinks. She has brown hair. She carries a thermos plastered with pictures of her little girl. He tells her he can’t have children; she tells him she’s fine with the one she has. He tells her it would be unfair, that he may only have twenty years; she tells him she’ll take what she can get.

He thinks about the time he first walked into Tia Elena, every muscle in his body taut with a thrilling anxiety of the unknown, every nerve charged with dazzling, confident hope. He knows his future will never feel like that again. But he remembers something else; he remembers tracing the arc of his father’s sculptures: crushed rock and water, aggregate and wire, formed and bound into works of art. He remembers thinking how sometimes the unlikeliest ideas can produce something strangely beautiful.

Four months later she hands him a plastic stick with two pink lines. In another two months they learn it’s a boy. And when Alex holds his son for the first time, when the first cries echo through his heart like a distant flutter of wings, I imagine he feels like his life is just beginning.

Elizabeth lives in Tempe, Arizona with her husband Alex, son Gabriel (6) and daughter Abigail (11). Links to Elizabeth’s fictions and creative nonfiction can be found on her website

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Raising Bilingual Children: Habla Español?

Raising Bilingual Children: Habla Español?

By Elizabeth Maria Naranjo

0-4My son is the color of cream. His skin, like mine, tans golden brown but could easily burn in the desert sun. His cheeks flush winter pink.

Gabriel may look like a dark-haired Caucasian, but his lineage tells another story. On my side, he is one quarter my Panamanian mother, one quarter my White father, and on my husband’s side, one half Mexican, as both Alex’s parents emigrated from northern Mexico to Scottsdale, Arizona when it was little more than a farming town.

I’m proud of my husband’s history. I love hearing the fluty rhythms of his speech on the rare occasion he speaks Spanish. From the time Gabriel was an infant, I encouraged Alex to pass this knowledge on to his son. It’s important to be bilingual. Everyone knows that. And Spanish, even if it weren’t the language of Gabriel’s grandparents, is the natural choice. There’s no reason he shouldn’t speak it.

And then I remember why I don’t speak it.

It is an immigrant’s story: A young woman—beautiful, Hispanic, skin the color of wet earth—marries an airman and bears him a son. This son is born American, on a military base in his mother’s homeland, and he’s learning two languages at four years old when he travels to America. His parents settle in the Deep South; it is the 1970s, and the young woman—now pregnant with a daughter—is full of hope for her new life, in her new country, with her new family.

My mother is the color of wet earth. Roasted espresso beans. Chocolate. She is beautiful, Hispanic. It is the 1970s, the Deep South, and her English is thick and halting. She is crushed like a bug under the weight of her skin.

By the time I’m old enough to form words, the only ones I hear are in English. My mother will abandon her native tongue in the hopes that her children assimilate smoothly. If she teaches us to talk like her, she fears, we’ll adopt her accent. We’ll be followed in stores and ridiculed, assumed ignorant. She will tell us to declare ourselves White. She never talks about her homeland, and we never ask. By the time he starts school, my brother has forgotten all of his Spanish.

My skin is the color of caramel. I’m often mistaken for Caucasian. It is partly for this that I see the depth of hatred. I see it in my job at a nursing home that employs a diverse population. Many times, patients make derogatory comments about their Mexican aides, their Indian doctors, their Black nurses. As if we have a secret understanding: I’m part of their club.

From a patient: “I don’t want that nasty aide touching me. You know, the one that can’t talk English.” She speaks with a lovely Latina accent, like my mother. She speaks two languages, and you speak one.

From a co-worker: “How come nobody in the kitchen knows what the hell I’m saying? Don’t they understand English?” They are trying. Every time their phone rings, a heart freezes in dread of your judgment.

So much hasn’t changed.

I owe my mother an apology. In high school, when it was time to choose electives, she wanted me to choose Spanish. She had changed her mind. She had, by then, put herself through college. An educated woman, working to remind herself every day that she was nothing to be ashamed of. I was a rebellious teenager. I knew what it meant to her, and I chose German.

This essay claims that I’m encouraging my husband to teach our son Spanish. But maybe I’m not encouraging him as much as I could.

Why? What if my husband spoke Italian? French? Some other Romance language, but one associated with an exotic European country, revered, respected by Americans?

Gabriel is six years old, and he doesn’t even know the basic phrases. “Hola, cómo te llamas?” “Mucho gusto.” “Gracias.” Am I afraid it would hinder him? Mark him? Will I tell him to check Caucasian on his school forms? Because my son is half-Mexican, and what does it often mean in this country to be Mexican? Dirty. Ignorant.

Dear Mother: I understand you now.

I’m going to try harder. Gabriel should have the choice. He should learn the language of his grandparents, and the proud history of his father’s heritage. He should be given the chance to enrich his life by becoming bilingual. And maybe, by the time he’s mastered the robust charm and graceful flow of my mother’s native tongue, Gabriel will be able to speak it without shame. It will be easier for him than it was for her. Because his skin is the color of cream.

And because, I hope, we will change.

Elizabeth lives in Tempe, Arizona with her husband Alex, son Gabriel (6) and daughter Abigail (11). Links to Elizabeth’s fictions and creative nonfiction can be found on her website

Stealing Time, And The Joy Of Reading

Stealing Time, And The Joy Of Reading

By Elizabeth Maria Naranjo

0-12My daughter has a secret. I discovered it this summer, late one night when I returned home from work to a still, quiet house.

I poured a glass of juice, had a snack, then crept to the bedroom where my husband and son were sleeping, Gabriel’s arm slung across his father’s chest. The fan hummed softly; all was peaceful. I brushed my teeth, washed my face, and glanced down the hallway at my daughter’s closed door. She locks it at night to keep her brother out in the mornings; she’s always the first thing on his mind (Is Abbey up? Will Abbey play with me? Can I wake Abbey up now?).

Surely she won’t mind if I sneak in and steal a kiss or two, I thought. Her face is always angelic to me, but even more so when she’s sleeping. It’s not easy trying to balance on the narrow steps of her bunk bed, but it would be worth it to see that face.

I turned the lock with my thumbnail and slipped inside, only to see a quick rustle of bed sheets and hear a loud snap. “Abigail?” I said, alarmed. “Are you awake?”

Abbey’s head popped out from underneath the covers. The triangle of hallway light illuminated her face, and her expression was guilty. Defeated. Crazy wisps of hair wavered in a static arc above her head. “Hi, Mom.”

“What are you doing?” I hauled myself up the ladder to inspect the scene, wobbling painfully on the balls of my feet. “It’s eleven o’clock at night!”

“I know, but I just wanted to read a few more chapters. Don’t tell Alex! He said lights out at ten.” I yanked the covers back to find my battered copy of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. And a flashlight.

I started to giggle, and soon Abbey joined in. “Don’t tell Alex!” she repeated, in a whisper. “Promise!”

“I won’t,” I whispered back.

Now, I don’t believe in keeping secrets from my husband, but this was something I could understand. I’d done it too. I brought her a glass of milk, told her firmly, “Lights out, for real,” and made it all the way to the door before turning and saying, “Just tell me which part you’re on.” She popped back up and we had an enthusiastic discussion about how much we love to hate Dolores Umbridge.

What can I say? Abbey brings out the girl in me. Since uncovering her devious plot to steal more reading time, I’ve had some laugh-out-loud moments recalling my own sly strategies. I’ve always been a voracious reader; at Abigail’s age, eleven, I read a lot of Sweet Valley High (identifying with the level-headed twin, Elizabeth, who was a total bookworm and worked on the high school newspaper), but two years later I could usually be found with a Stephen King or Sidney Sheldon novel. I was fascinated with Stephen King’s dark, gory tales, where nothing was off limits. Children were murdered (IT), evil prevailed (Children of the Corn), and scariest of all, a string of bad luck could lead to horrific conclusions with no dark forces responsible (Cujo).

For years, I thought Sidney Sheldon was the most brilliant man alive. I was Tracy Whitney in If Tomorrow Comes, a cunning thief who steals from the greedy and plots the perfect revenge against those who’ve wronged her. I was Jennifer Parker in Rage of Angels, a beautiful, talented lawyer making a fool of the district attorney and mesmerizing the dark and dangerous mobster Michael Moretti.

In high school I was appalled at being assigned the hefty text of The Grapes of Wrath, until I started reading and lost sleep traveling to California with the Joad family, seething at how unfair life could be, seeing the skin plastered over bones in starving children I’d come to love.

And I was enchanted by a rabbit named Bigwig. I still am. He will always be my favorite, not the cunning Hazel, the genius Blackberry, or the dignified Silver. Bigwig was the heart of Watership Down.

I remember days at school, propping textbooks in my lap at the back of class, reading the paperback unfolded inside. What a good, quiet student I was. Needless to say, I am much better at Scrabble than Trivial Pursuit.

How can you fault a love for reading? Isn’t it what we try to instill in our children from day one? I kept Abigail’s secret, at least for the summer. But now that school’s in session, I make sure the lights are truly out at 9 p.m., that there’s no reading paraphernalia stashed under her pillow, and that Abigail knows her weakness and the trouble it can cause her. Chiefly, that she has a beautiful mind, but one apt to drift during long days in the classroom. This year, I’m advising her to choose seats in the front.

Elizabeth lives in Tempe, Arizona with her husband Alex, son Gabriel (6) and daughter Abigail (11). Links to Elizabeth’s fictions and creative nonfiction can be found on her website