El Piojito: Betsy and Bella
By Armando Ortiz
“Betsy, it’s time to say your prayers and go to sleep,” said Bella. She’d been in the kitchen washing a stack of dirty dishes that had piled up the last few days. Betsy was in the living room reading, directly under a light that emanated from the ceiling. She was engrossed with a Curious George book. Bella walked towards her, wiping her hands with a towel. Her smooth tanned arms shone under the light, as she lightly elbowed Betsy on her arm. A small tiny sanctuary was on the opposite corner. Their niche was directly across the light. Betsy was always under the watchful eye of her mom and Le Virgencita.
The sacred space had the Virgin of Guadalupe as the central figure. They knelt before her and prayed. St Christopher was on the foreground of the Virgin Mary, to the right. Another little statuette was on the left side, that of St Jude. In between these was a candle, a little flower vase and a plaster cast image of Jesus Christ. The Virgin’s eyes always caught Betsy’s attention, since they seemed to be looking down at her, like ancient Buddha eyes. The replica had an aura of love and serenity.
They always followed the routine right before going to sleep. Her mom mostly did the talking. She begged the Virgencita, the beloved virgin, for patience and strength, thanking her for life and having something to eat that day. Following this brief ceremony Bella would tuck Betsy in her own small Hello Kitty bed and kiss her goodnight.
Mom was always in prayer, a relentless woman of prayer, and earnestly felt that the Virgin was taking care of them. The same part of the couch where her daughter had been studying was now being used by her. Now it was Bella that was directly across from the image of the Lady of Mercy. It was her turn to be under those watchful eyes and commence the two hour study session. She was an autodidact, but simply gave thanks to the heavens above and always brought flowers she’d cut on the way back home from work; yellow daisies, red roses and occasionally magenta baby bottle scrubbers. Bella would stay up a few hours past bed time, studying and reviewing for the Dental Assistant course that she was taking at the local vocational school.
At the time though, she worked as a housekeeper at one of the old hotels in downtown Los Angeles. She’d been given the job after a neighbor who’d worked there for 15 years had finally found a man and married. The newlywed couple decided to head north and start a new life somewhere in Salem, Oregon. Bella gave thanks to the Virgin for the job, and used some of the money from that first pay check to buy a bouquet of roses, and went to the church she attended and placed them on the altar.
Life was certainly not easy, especially housekeeping work. She had to clean thirteen rooms in eight hours. She had some help, but it was always frowned upon to call for assistance. Towards the end of the day her back ached from all the bending, leaning and pulling. As soon as she clocked out, the bus would take her back home, where she would pick up her daughter from the next door neighbor, who watched over Betsy for two hours after school. The pain and tiredness was relentless, but she always thanked people and thanked the image that watched over them.
Betsy would have her homework done by the time she was picked up, but she knew that her mom expected nothing but reading and writing at the house. Though it was routine, she found it easy to write in her diary and write on what she’d done that day or write down her dreams and the things that she wanted. She knew that her mom also had a diary, because sometimes her mom would sit on the kitchenette table and write down her own thoughts, her own hopes in a leather bound diary that she’d picked up from a sidewalk peddler.
Her family wasn’t particularly religious, occasionally going to Sunday mass to pray and every so often go to confession. Nevertheless, for Bella, her trip through Mexico a few years back made her a believer. Her hazel eyes had seen people walking on their knees, and crawling towards sanctuaries where the Virgin was housed. Every house that gave shelter and a plate of food had a little sanctuary that honored the Mother of Jesus. The people she crossed paths with gave her a deep impression, helping her along and showing extreme generosity in opening their homes. A sense of spiritual debt to them and to the image of the Eternal Grandmother would weigh on her for a very long time.
When Betsy thought about her mom, she imagined her writing notes to people, a habit that had been acquired by her as well. She’d sneak notes for her teacher to read after lunch, give friends notes of friendship or make drawings, like two kids playing handball. The person who got the onslaught of notes wasn’t her mom though; instead it was the neighbor Margarita, whose refrigerator was riddled with notes that Bella had given her making it look like a multi-colored bird that’d lived ages ago.
When they weren’t studying they’d be praying, constantly petitioning the Virgin for grace. If it was not thanking something and looking up to heaven, Betsy found that her mom, practically thanked all kinds of people, all the time. She was grateful to Margarita, the neighbor that watched over her, the vato that stood outside the building all day with his hands in his pocket, shaking hands with strangers, and the lady that sold tamales in the morning. As if the powers that be had set everything up so that she would be grateful for her lot in life.
In the weekends they went to a vocational school for three hours. Betsy would take her journal or a coloring book and get lost in her imagination. Her mom on the other hand, sat, took notes, turned in assignments, and asked the instructor a multitude of questions. Mr. Okpara knew she was a single mother working to get bye, so he’d given her permission to have her daughter in the class. Betsy just sat there working on binders that contained her drawings. At times she’d just sit there and listen to Mr. Okpara’s lecture. He, along with the other instructors saw that Bella was different. She had gumption. She had the heart and commitment of a marathon athlete. She wouldn’t stop, instead just kept going. At bed time Bella would think of her parents back home. She wondered how they were doing. She’d left her home at sixteen and had taken the trip north a few years back. They would receive money from her at least once every two months.