Guest post by Meredith Cummings
Community defines who we are, how we live and with whom we share our lives. But there was a time in my life, when I couldn’t wait to escape my community … the community of my childhood. I grew up in what I, at the time, viewed as a dusty, forgotten cowboy town hidden in the remote San Luis Valley of Southern Colorado. (Pictured here) Over the years, I’d grown a lot and come to appreciate my hometown of Monte Vista … to a point. However, it took an elderly shut-in couple living in my current hometown of Noblesville, Indiana, to help me fully realize the blessings of my youth.
This slow transformation began fifteen years ago when I returned to Monte Vista to visit my parents. I’d been away for several years, but people still knew me; my old boss at the Savings & Loan, my fourth-grade teacher and sisters Helen and Arlene, who worked as cashiers at the Safeway grocery store. One day, while I stood in the checkout line at the store, Helen (or maybe it was Arlene; I always got them confused), asked me where I lived. (My new hometown of NoblesvilIe is pictured here) I answered, expecting a blank stare in return.
“I know where that is!” She exclaimed. “My aunt and uncle, Marian and Louis Ortiz, moved there from Monte Vista in 1960.They go to the Catholic church there.”
Unbelievable. I escaped from one dinky little town to another dinky little town 1,220 miles away only to learn that a family from the original dinky little town lives in my new dinky little town, AND they attend the same parish.
I should have contacted the Ortizes, but I didn’t. I wasn’t ready. I had my own family, my own life. I wasn’t sure I wanted a Monte Vista connection here. I figured I’d eventually meet them, although I’m not sure how I thought I’d know them. Perhaps they’d have a big MV tattooed on their foreheads, or they’d be wearing dusty cowboy hats and boots. Eventually, I forgot about them. But then, last fall, our pastor asked if someone could bring weekly communion to two elderly parishioners … a Mr. and Mrs. Ortiz … I remembered who they were, and I knew that Father’s e-mail was clearly a message to get off my tail and meet them.
Mr. Ortiz is 95. His wife is in her late 80s. Their daughter, Beverly, who moved to Indiana when she was ten, cares for them. The three welcomed me into their home. The Colorado connection helped. “So you’re from the valley,” Mr. Ortiz said with what I’ve learned is his trademark chuckle. “Well, let me tell you some stories.” That was eight months ago.
Mr. Ortiz was born at Seven Mile Plaza, west of town. Did I know it? Of course. My friend, Lisa, lived there. I attended birthday parties at her house. Mr. Ortiz was an altar boy at St. Joseph’s, the Catholic church in town. Today, he can still recite The Lord’s Prayer and most of the Mass in Latin. He joined the Army in the 40s, fought in Europe during World War II and later married Marian. Mr. Ortiz told me their wedding dance was in the armory. I thought he meant the armory east of Monte Vista.
“No, the one that looks like the castle in the center of town,” Mr. Ortiz explained.
“You mean the bar on Washington Street?” I asked.
“Well, it may be a bar now, but back then, it was an armory. German POWs stayed there during the war and worked in the potato fields outside town.” That was news to me.
Over the months, the Ortizes have opened my eyes to many things I didn’t know about Monte Vista. For instance, Mr. Ortiz hauled the bricks for Central Auditorium, where my classmates and I performed in countless plays and band concerts. He helped build the post office, which I always thought smelled funny. He worked at the mountain reservoir, where I used to go snowmobiling with my friend Amy. And there was more. I learned that my brother and I went to school with a few of the Ortiz’s nieces and nephews … the Mansanares kids. My brother even dated one of the Mansanares girls.
During one visit, Mr. Ortiz admitted he quit school after eighth grade so that he could earn money for his family. He hated to leave school and his favorite teacher, Mr. S. (Name changed) “Mr. S. was the nicest man,” Mr. Ortiz said, a faraway look in his eyes.
“Are we talking about the same Mr. S?” I asked. If we were, Mr. S. was my neighbor. In my memory, he was old and cranky. We didn’t dare step on his sidewalk. Ever.
“Mr. S. and I got along real well,” Mr. Ortiz said, grinning. “He was something special.”
Mr. Ortiz’s words made me pause. When I knew Mr. S., he was widowed, lonely and appeared mad at the world. I never realized there was another side to him. There’s a lot I never understood about my town.
Long before I’d met the Ortiz family, I had finally come to appreciate Monte Vista. But now, through this new friendship, I appreciate it even more. I am blessed that the Ortizes have opened their lives to me and taught me about the community we share in Colorado. I also am blessed to share the Catholic community with them.
During each week’s visit, Mr. Ortiz closes his eyes, talks and remembers. After a while, I take out a pyx and spend a few minutes praying and sharing Communion. I wait quietly after the family receives the Host and says their silent prayers. While they share their thanks for Jesus’ sacrifice, I offer a prayer of thanks, as well.
Thank you, Lord, for bringing the Ortiz family into my life. I realize you tried to do this years ago when Helen (or Arlene) first made me aware of the family. I am sorry I didn’t meet this family earlier because in the last few months, they have made a big difference in my life. Originally, I set out upon my pastor’s request to bring the Catholic community to the Ortizes. They, in turn, have opened up my childhood community to me in a way I never expected. I am so very grateful for the blessing of communities and for the Ortiz family. Amen.