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Friday, May 8, 2015

The Picture Was Old by Maria Ruiz

by Maria Ruiz

Since this story involves a mother, it seemed perfect for Mother's Day.

The picture was old, the edges bent and broken from the many hands and years it had been subjected to. The photograph showed a group of smiling faces, 12 of them, young and younger, from about two years old to almost 20, the faces of a loving family.

I looked at it and could see the smiles of my beloved aunts and uncles, from youngest to oldest. They were seated at a long wooden table with what looked like tortillas and a bowl of beans to be shared among the gathering.

There was Aunt Annabel, Uncle Everett, one I didn’t know, Uncle Pablo, my mother, Aunt Maria, Uncle Ernesto, Uncle Manuel, Uncle José, Uncle Seth, another one I didn’t know, and Uncle Feliz.

I yelled to Mom again, “How many brothers and sisters do you have?”

“Why do you ask again? I told you, there were three girls and six boys that lived. Now stop asking me.”

I shook my head; Mom could account for nine, but this picture showed 12 faces. Who were the extra boys and girl at the table?

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Someone called me outdoors and I put the photo in my drawer and forgot it.

Several years passed, and I was cleaning out the drawer before we put it into the Salvation Army trunk. I picked up the mysterious picture and slipped it into my pocket instead of the box of photos and mementos that we were collecting.

Grandpa had died, and Mom and Aunt Suzy were cleaning out the furniture. Being the eldest of Mom’s kids, I was drafted to help. Sometimes I became overpowered with grief and would have to stop. Sometimes it was Mom or Aunt Suzy, but slowly we cleaned out all the drawers and under the seat cushions of the sofa and chair.

I stepped back and looked about. It was a little, one bedroom house with one tiny bathroom. Someone had added a couple of side rooms over the years using scrap lumber, and had furnished it with furniture that had been thrown out. Several of the four dressers in the house had one or more drawers missing. The seats on the sofa were collected from three other sofas, probably thrown out. The rocking chair in the living room had duct tape holding the arm together. All in all, I couldn’t imagine that the Salvation Army could use any of it.

The house itself was to be flattened and a new high-rise apartment building was going up on the lot. Life was changing before my young eyes. I reached down and patted the photo. I would guard this piece of life from the past.

Image source: Margaret Mendel

My mother had married a serviceman, and he moved all over the world, dragging his four kids with him. We only got back every few years to the town where Mom’s family lived. They were our only relatives and we were always the outsiders, strangers to the cousins and visitors to the occasional family get-together.

The family gathered at the mission for the brief service for Grandpa. I watched as all the sons and daughters milled around. Each of them came with spouses and children and it wasn’t always easy to count them. One, two, three, four, maybe five. My sister called me to sign the book and when I looked up, the group had melted away to find their seats.

The next chance I got to count the family was when we were gathered around the freshly dug grave. I knew that Uncle Feliz and Aunt Norma were unable to come. Mom stood next to Uncle Ernesto and in front of Uncle Stephen. His face had been one I couldn’t recognize.

After the ceremony, the family moved to one of the back rooms which had been donated for us to use that day. Aunt Annabel was pouring punch and several of the other aunts by marriage were setting food on the table. Mom was in the kitchen making coffee.

Some of the uncles were setting out folding chairs. The place was a beehive of activity. I moved over to Aunt Annabel and asked if I could question her a little about the family. She nodded and grabbed a passing aunt to watch the punch bowl.

Finding chairs out of the rush of milling people, I pulled out the photo and handed it to her. “I know this is a photo of the aunts and uncles, but there are more here and I don’t know who is who.”

Aunt Annabel started laughing. “Why yes. I can tell you. It was during the Depression and there were many out of work, especially here, in Santa Barbara where there is no industry. You could walk down State Street and see men, boys, and girls just sitting on the curbs. They didn’t live here, just passing through on the way to some farm or another where they hoped to find work. The railroad passed through town and some would jump off, hoping a miracle would happen. Well you know, we didn’t have anything. Sometimes we went to bed hungry. We all slept where we could find a place to lie down.

“Grandpa worked sometimes and then went on drinking binges. He tried to start a construction business and it would have gone broke if it wasn’t for your uncles. They were the ones that kept it going and got the work done. In the middle of that, Grandpa would bring home a homeless boy or girl. They would share some tortillas and beans, stay for a day or two, then move on. When Seth and Feliz came, they helped in the business; they stayed. Aunt Louise stayed and helped with the younger ones. I still don’t know why, but they just moved in. Life must have been horrible for them to think that ours was better. No one ever asked them why, we just moved over and passed the bowls.”

Her story opened up a new understanding of life during the Depression. It also explained why my mother was so generous, even when we had so little ourselves. She never let fruit from the trees, or excess vegetables from the garden go spoiled. She filled our little red wagon with avocados, apricots, plums, oranges and lemons and sent us walking up Main Street during World War II with a sign saying “Free Fruit Take What You Need.” It never took long to empty the wagon. Excess squash or tomatoes joined the fruit, and on those rare occasions when she fixed enough food to feed an army, bowls of soup or stew would be added. My sister and I never questioned her actions as we watched people reach for a fresh plum or apricot. The smiles on their faces when they bit into the tree-ripened delight was reward enough.

Even though I had never thought about her generosity, knowing how she had grown up in poverty, yet shared what little she had, made a big impression on me. I would never forget those generous people and I always wonder at those who have so much and would rather fight than share.

Maria Ruiz was born in Santa Barbara, California; her family had been there since the Spaniards first converted the Indians & created small towns. She graduated from the University of San Diego State in 1972 & taught for 8 years before starting her own business. After retiring she began a ten-year odyssey to visit and live in 57 countries around the world. She just recently relocated to California. Her book, I’ll be in the Fourth Grade Forever, can be ordered on Smashwords & Amazon. Her blog can be found at mariaruizauthor.com.


  1. If we could all find it in our hearts to be so generous! Thank you for this beautiful reminiscence. JC

  2. Such a heart-warming story. You mom was indeed special, a model of selflessness. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Brilliant story. Sometimes I feel this type of generosity and kindness is missing in the generation of today.

  4. Oh my, Maria, what a lovely story and your mystery solved. My grandmother was very generous too. She once said she would plow a field before she wasted her time standing in a bread line.