Language was not the problem; Carmen could translate. The problem was culture. Should he sit down? Should he expect a cup of coffee? If they offered him one, would they expect him to take it or to refuse? Would they be insulted if he refused? Should he treat Carmen as an equal, or take charge of the conversation? Should he come right to the heart of the business and give the gift, or would it be more proper to talk a while first? If he were in the home of any of his Anglo kids, no matter how rich or poor, he would not have been so much at a loss.
Carmen sensed his discomfiture and took charge. She spoke to Mrs. Alvarez in Spanish. Although Rosa’s mother spoke fair English, she was more comfortable in Spanish, and it let Jose share in the conversation. Then Carmen said, “Give her the package.”
Neil held out the package to Rosa and said, “Merry Christmas.” For the first time, Rosa and her parents allowed themselves to become aware of its existence. Before that moment, only the younger children had stared at it.
Rosa held it in her hands for a long time, admiring the paper. “Its really pretty,” she said. Neil wondered if she would open it now or at Christmas, but he had no way of asking without appearing pushy.
Then Carmen said, “Go on, Rosa. Open it.” Rosa tore off the paper, pulled open the box, and extracted the jacket. Her face was full of hesitation. She loved it, but she wasn’t quite sure it was really hers until Neil said, “Go ahead, see if it fits.”
Rosa spoke to her mother — asking permission? — before she slipped it on. Her face lit up as she smoothed the fabric around her. Then she had to ask; she had to be sure. She said, “Is it for me?”
“It’s yours,” Neil assured her. He started to add that Carmen had picked it out, but his good sense stopped him. It would detract from the moment, so he remained silent while she showed it to her parents. Rosa’s father crossed to Neil and shook his hand again, mumbling something in Spanish of which Neil only caught, “Gracias.”
Rosa’s mother said, “It is really nice, but you shouldn’t have.”
Neil looked at Rosa’s beaming face and said, “I wanted to.”
Things had gone well so far; it was time to retreat before he said something clumsy to ruin everything. Neil made a tiny motion toward the door and Carmen spoke to the Alvarez’s in Spanish one more time, then took Neil’s elbow and eased him toward the door as the conversation bounced back and forth between her and Rosa’s mother.
Rosa and her mother followed them out onto the stoop, then Rosa made a quick, shy motion forward and threw her arms around Neil’s waist for a moment. She said, “Thank you, Mr. McCrae.”
Her heart was in every word and her voice made it a song.
Neil and Carmen drove away in silence. Neil was not a man to accept gratitude easily; it made him uncomfortable, and out of his discomfort he said, “Giving her a jacket won’t change her life.”
Carmen was beginning to understand him. She recognized the source of his uneasiness. She replied, “Giving her a jacket won’t change her life, but knowing that you cared for her might.” more tomorrow