Now that Rosa, the underpaid Honduran maid, had taken charge of mopping the floor, scrubbing the bathroom, washing dishes and ironing the clothes, my mother was devoting the majority of her time to trying to figure out who was CIA among all her new embassy pals.
Based on a string of dubious clues and rampant rumors, my mother had pieced together a list of those she was positive were agents. And whenever one of the embassy people invited her to dinner or a luncheon social, she was sure to attend, trying to gather as much information as possible on what she was convinced was the United States’ secret plan for Central America.
As it turned out, she hadn’t been all wrong. My sisters and I couldn’t help but giggle when Mom explained that in spite of all her digging and prying, a real CIA agent had been sitting right under her nose. In an attempt to sort out the rumors about James McPherson being a spook, one day she had set her best friend Maggie down for chocolate chip cookies and a heart-to-heart interrogation.
"All this CIA stuff that everyone is talking about. Maggie, I just know it has to be true."
"Cathie, you really can’t tell anyone. This is serious."
"Oh, I won’t. I promise."
"Besides, my job — it’s nothing that important. I just take down messages."
"Oh my gosh!" my mother screamed. "You are an agent?"
"You said you knew," poor Maggie said aghast, realizing she had just entrusted one of the nation’s secrets to a woman who would from then on refer to her as "my best friend, the CIA agent."
Of course the magic word was "ambassador" and any time the word got brought up, my mother was quick to remind us that she had been invited to the American ambassador’s house on not one, but two occasions. And although she had never met the man personally, she had had tea with his wife. My mother had turned into a Third World socialite.
While she was off eating finger sandwiches and teacakes, my brother had painstakingly downloaded the Anarchist’s Cookbook on an disturbingly slow Central American Internet connection and had set about to turning himself into an anarchist chef — which actually did have its bright side. Because my mother refused to buy the ingredients he needed for his experiments, he had been forced to learn Spanish on his own and when it came to chemicals and fireworks, he had become quite fluent. Now he was able to complain about his life in two languages: "Honduras is a pit. When are we going to move to a country where I can actually get a DSL line?" he would gripe, in between blowing up small portions of the country.
Meanwhile, my father had been busy with a project of his own.
"Jalapeño chili peppers," my mother explained. "Your father has become a jalapeño chili pepper farmer in Honduras."
Most people, upon hearing such news would have reacted with some surprise. I, however, did not come from a typical family. "Again?" I asked.
My mother rolled her eyes. "Again," she said.
My father had tried farming once before. For years as a mining engineer, he had felt something was missing from his life: poverty, we assumed, because he rashly quit his well-paying job in Peru and moved his wife and three daughters to the back woods of Tennessee. We were all to take part in his dream of self-subsistence — though when we first got there, there hadn’t been much to subsist on. I was only seven years old, but it didn’t take me long to notice that we didn’t have a house to live in.
"Quit complaining," my Dad scolded me. "Look at the bright side. We have a car."
And the bright side was, it was a big car — one of those 1970s station wagons whose seats fold back — which was very convenient when a family of five (Richard hadn’t been born yet) was going to sleep in one of them.
My mother had her doubts about the whole project, but my father remained upbeat.
"Dick, you’ve never been a farmer before. How will you know where to begin?"
"Don’t worry, pookie," my father answered in the same tone of voice that had gotten my mother to agree to the whole scheme in the first place. "I have a lot of books on the subject."
The sight of my father sprawled out on the grass in front of our station wagon reading about agriculture caused a great deal of laughter among our neighbors. After all, they were real farmers. Their farms had animals, unlike ours, which just consisted of two hundred acres of vacant land, half of which was a forest infested with wild boars. But within two months, my father had planted an orchard, bought us a trailer, built us a greenhouse and had become a major source of information for the farmers who now timidly trekked over to our land to ask my Dad’s opinion on pesticides, planting times and harvesting seasons.
My Dad’s dream only lasted as long as my mother could stand the project. Concerned that her daughters were developing a taste for wild squirrel and that we would think lice shampoo was what everyone used to wash their hair, she convinced my father that open-pit mining wasn’t such a bad way to spend his days, and within a year we were back in the real world, in a real house, with real beds to sleep in. But those eleven months of my childhood left their mark, and from time to time, I remembered that it was my father who taught me that it didn’t matter what the neighbors thought, that it was okay to sleep in a station wagon as long as you had a dream.