LETTER TO A STRANGER
TO THE WOMAN WHO SPARED ME AN ORANGE
BY SARAH MENKEDICK
I was scared of everything then. The chipping clay pitchers that held atole. The grayish-blue smoke from the fireworks. The bugs. Still, even as early motherhood plunged me into full-body, full-time fear, I wanted my baby to know the wild openness of travel: bus rides deep into the mountains, a tiny village down a dirt road, turkey calls, coffee and beer at shared tables with strangers. This part of me kept poking her head above the water line of the fear, trying to swim.
Like most mornings tucked in the folds of these Oaxacan mountains, the morning that you and I began our trek was acute with sunshine and cold. I strapped my baby to my chest and, with my husband, took a hike up the mountainside towards a neighboring village. There was a shrine on the mountain’s crest: a little box, painted white, with a virgin on top. Inside were pennies, candles, flowers. I prayed. I felt so vulnerable to any energy, any ritual. A whimsical deity seemed to threaten to lift or destroy me at any moment. Desperate for ballast, I could have joined a cult. This desperation had its dark side, but its light side was a keening sense of connection, one I miss now that my life has settled back into more ordinary emotion. Now, I wedge shoes onto tiny feet and sweep out the door, and when I startle a jay, or catch a snippet from a poem on the radio, I hardly notice.
You came shuffling downhill trailed by an old man I presumed to be your partner, both of you carrying mesh bags of goods on your backs. You must have been sixty, seventy, eighty years old, your face brown and crumpled, your gray hair in long, sweeping braids. You said “Buenos días” lightly, carrying this load kilometers up and down mountains, just traveling from one village to another, and we said it back, we who’d hiked up here as vigorous recreation because our daughter woke up before 6:00 a.m. I watched you step down the vertiginous trail in your jellies, those thin plastic shoes I used to plead for when I was six. Descending, your burden on your back, the ravine tumbling deep below you into stark shade, you lifted me out of myself in awe.
We carefully picked our way down. The village grew hot. The loudspeaker blared announcements of ceremonies and games. We wandered, joined friends, ate. The baby became tired and fussed in her carrier. My husband and I, the only ones with a baby, the ones proving we could still do this, proving, proving, everything has not changed so much, were forced to head back to the adobe house for a nap. Along the way, we ran into you.
You clasped the baby’s hand and grinned. You didn’t speak Spanish or English, but Chinanteco, and we couldn’t understand you. You reached into your bag and gave us an orange.
I felt the swelling, the sadness and the fear and the gratitude and the love, surging into me like a newfound spring. As a new mother, the boundaries between me and the world had dissolved. The sturdy me, who’d so confidently navigated and made sense of the world, had vanished, and I lurched between terror and a reverent sense of oneness.
I took the orange. You had very little—you walked miles to sell what you could—but it was no big deal for you to give it to me, nor was it a big deal for me to be in that bright village on that day with my baby and take it, and yet I felt right then that it was everything. A reminder of the simplest, most basic goodness. Behind all the fear I felt for my life and my child, this: an orange. Passed from woman to woman.
The intensity of this period diminished, returned to what we consider normal. But like a receding tide, it left gifts on the beach, moments marking my unbearable vulnerability. I think of them from time to time. I think of you, reaching into your bag, reminding me: here, it’s just this. An orange. I think of how, amidst all that longing and dread, the essential would suddenly emerge, unexpected, soft and corrugated and citrusy, carried all the way over the mountain just to be given away.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sarah Menkedick's debut essay collection, Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm (Pantheon, 2017), was longlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. Her second book, forthcoming from Pantheon, explores the scientific, psychological, cultural, historical, and spiritual dimensions of a silent epidemic of anxiety among mothers in the United States.
Sarah's writing has been featured in Harper's, Pacific Standard, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Oxford American, The Guardian, The Paris Review Daily, Aeon, Guernica, The Kenyon Review, Buzzfeed, Amazon's Kindle Singles, and elsewhere. Her essay "Homing Instincts" was selected as notable in The Best American Essays 2014, her essay "Living on the Hyphen" was selected as notable in The Best American Essays 2015, and her essay “The Making of a Mexican American Dream” was selected as notable in The Best American Essays 2017. She was a 2015-2016 Fulbright fellow in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Sarah holds a B.A. in History of Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an M.F.A. in nonfiction from the University of Pittsburgh, where she taught nonfiction writing. She speaks fluent French and Spanish.
Header photograph by thetravelwiseholidayclub.com