Chapter One: A Safe Haven
Naomi knew she was in trouble the moment the immigration official told her, he was taking her to Ellis Island. No immigrants had disembarked there since the end of World War I. Someone told her the authorities could remove a passenger from a ship because of a problem with their paperwork. Yet even when she sat where the man pointed and closed her eyes, she refused to believe her situation was as dire as it appeared.
Her mind brought her back to the moment her life had changed forever. She could still hear herself scream, “Abuela Sosa, please do not be dead,” sobbing while she tried to shake the old woman awake. The next thing she remembered was the old woman’s daughter-in-law packing her meager belongings into her suitcase. Unable to stop herself, she demanded, “You have no need of me anymore? I gave you a year of my life! Your esposo— I mean, your husband—promised he would help me enter America and search for my uncle if I took care of his madre! ” As she uttered the words, her sorrow increased because the kindhearted old woman had treated her as if she were her
very own kin. However, that was certainly not true of the daughter-in-law, who seemed unfazed by the old woman’s death as she dispassionately closed the lid to the girl’s suitcase and stared at her. Why, is she in a hurry to rid herself of me before the doctor examines Abuela Sosa and declares her dead? She remembered the woman’s secretive responses to an odd phone call she had answered shortly after she followed Naomi to the estate room, believed the family had discovered the last name she gave was not hers, felt a knot in her stomach, and knew her worst fears were going to come true.
A swell hit the boat broadside and her thoughts returned to the present. Yet she refused to open her eyes to gauge the rough sea or look at the Statue of Liberty because she believed that immigration would never let her stay in America now. Only when the boat docked and the man grabbed her arm to hurry her onto the wharf did she open them.
They entered a building and turned down a dark corridor. The man pointed to a chair in a stark office. She entered, sat down on the hard, wooden chair, and clutched her worn, brown, leather suitcase to her chest. An official took a man into a room. Before the door shut, she heard his interview begin. Believing hers would be next, she closed her eyes, and tried to think about her answers. All she could think of was that her bright plans of coming to America to find her uncle were for naught. She remembered leaving her family in the middle of the night without an explanation or a good-bye and teared up. I was a fool to agree to work for no wage because Mr.
Sosa promised to help me achieve my dream when we arrived. She thought of all
she left, Mr.Sosa’s promise, and admitted, He lied to me!
Her thoughts returned to Abuela Sosa’s death. She could almost hear the old
woman say, as she did when they first met, “Many get to America, but getting into
America can be difficult.”
I should not be here, she told herself while she tried to still her fidgeting. My entry into America should have been easy. Everything was attended to at the American Consulate before we left Spain—my documents, my medical history… I filled each paper out with the utmost care!
A quick scan of the waiting room confirmed that she was the only one there. Aware of the stories of the chosen few who were allowed to enter the country, she tried to think of anything but the future she feared. She remembered reading about the fire that reduced the original buildings to cinders and the nonflammable materials that were used when the facility was rebuilt. It must have been an awful fire. Still …
She heard the door to the office open, looked at the wall clock, and realized an hour had passed since she sat down. An official took the man they had interviewed away. He left the door open at another man’s request. Hoping she might hear the men she assumed would decide her fate, she leaned forward in her chair, saw them pace back and forth, and listened to their conversation.
“Too bad the grandmother died,” she heard the large man say, his voice filled
with what she prayed was sympathy for her plight.
“And just before the boat was to enter the harbor,” the small man agreed.
“Still it’s not our fault. She has no sponsor. We must send her back to Spain.”
“But she says she has no people,” a man she could not see said.
“Sad yes, very sad.”
“I tried to call the lady but was told she was out,” the small man said.
Naomi saw the large man wait while the man she had not seen left the office.
Then he turned to his associate. “I told you not to speak about that!”
“It doesn’t make any difference. I left a message, but there’s no one to help
the girl.” He looked at his watch. “We can’t wait any longer. It’s already five
thirty. The office should have closed half an hour ago.
The large man sighed. “You’re right. We can’t wait any longer. Ask her to
The teenager was certain they were going to send her back and muttered, “Oh,
Adonai, I cannot go back there!” When she heard her own words, she thought,
Perhaps in America I should speak with Adonai in English, so she pled , “Oh,
God, please help me … I cannot go back there!”
An old woman sat down next to her. “Would you like to stay in America?”
“Si! ” Naomi wondered where the old woman was from and why she asked such a question. Fearing the woman might not understand her, she switched to English. “I mean, yes…yes, I would. I would love to stay.”
The old woman smiled. “I will arrange it for you.”
Naomi gasped. Maybe God is watching out for me after all!
The small man stuck his head out of the door to the office, caught Naomi’s
eye, and motioned for her to enter as he left.
When she stood, the old woman rose as well. “Say nothing,” the old woman
“Let me talk.”
In seconds, Naomi and the old woman stood before the large man. He frowned. The lines on his face were deeply etched that she feared he had never heard of the word
smile. This man has the power to send me back to a life I wish never to see again, she told herself as she forced a smile.
The man pointed toward the chairs, which faced his desk. “Sit down please. We have very little time.”
He fixed his dark eyes on the old woman. “Since you did not answer your
phone, I thought you might be done with this business.”
“You know how it is with me, Victor.” She reached into her oversized purse
and handed him a sheaf of papers.
“Sí, claro.” Victor replaced the girl’s official papers with the documents the woman had handed him. He seemed to smile with relief. “Still looking for that special one, eh, Tía?”
“But of course.”
He reviewed the documents. “I see you are still using the same lawyer.”
“Yes. He is able to help me in my work.”
Victor turned his attention to Naomi. “This lady will vouch for you so you can stay here. Would you like to stay in America?”
“Sí, I would like to stay very much.” She peeked at the old woman. She looks just like mi tía Rosa, the same stark white hair, the same small frame, the same dignity of bearing, the same edge to her voice, and, I am certain, the same caring heart.
She looked back at Victor. Relief welled up in her chest. “Thank you,” she said. Though she wanted to say more, Naomi did not trust herself to utter another word for she feared a slip might cause him to send her away.
Victor nodded, pulled out the necessary forms, and picked up his pen. “March
twentieth, nineteen fifty-two,” he said as he entered the date.
He turned toward the girl. “What is your name, child?”
“Naomi Baruh.” He nodded and wrote her name on the form. She was amazed the
official did not question her about her last name since she assumed that was why she
He turned to the old woman and asked some questions. When the forms were
completed, he opened his desk drawer, took out his official stamp, and legalized her
documents. He buzzed for his secretary. When she arrived he said, “Make copies
for La Señora.”
He turned toward Naomi. “I would like to introduce you to your sponsor — your
Tía, or as we Americans say, your auntie. You are a very fortunate girl. Do what
she tells you and all of us will be happy that you are staying with her.”
“Sí… yes, I will.” She knew she had never owned a promise as bright as the
one this new land offered.
Victor’s secretary returned with the copies. Naomi watched as the man checked
them over, placed them in a legal binder, and handed it to the old woman. “Here
you are. Do not to lose them on your way home.” He nodded toward Naomi.
When Tía nodded, Naomi wondered if the two of them were speaking in some sort of secret language. Before she could ask her sponsor or Victor what he meant, Tía placed the binder in her bag, stood, and motioned for her to do the same.
“There will be no problem. I will take the same precautions I always do.” Tía shook Victor’s hand and smiled at her.
Naomi felt they had ulterior motives and believed her concerns validated when Victor let out a sigh, which sounded like a sigh of relief. Before she could find out what was going on, Tía led her out of the office.
Once outside, the old tía patted her purse and glanced at her watch. “We must hurry or we will miss our boat!” She grabbed Naomi’s hand and ran in the direction of the ferry.
They arrived at the ferry as its whistle blew and the captain hollered, “Hurry up and get aboard!”
The old woman paid their fare, gave their tickets to the attendant, and rushed Naomi up the gangplank. She pointed to the top deck. “Let’s go up there. You will be able to see where you are coming from and where you are going to.”
Naomi scurried up two flights of stairs and waited for her sponsor. When Tía joined her, she pointed to draw Naomi’s attention toward Ellis Island.
“This used to be the port of entry for all who sought freedom. Now it is the last hope for those the system will not let in. Always remember, today that system did not win — at least not as far as you are concerned.”
Naomi stood at the rail and watched the island diminish. She turned, saw the city of New York with its skyscrapers, and smiled. Though the wind whipped her hair into her face, nothing could mar her joy for Naomi knew she was about to realize her dream. She clutched the rail, and looked upon America, the land of freedom and opportunity, for the first time.
When the boat docked, all sorts of sights and sounds assailed her, but she closed her eyes and took a deep breath of free air. “Thank you, Adonai, ” she whispered. The wind blew her prayer of gratitude past her sponsor’s ear and out to sea.
With a wide grin on her face, she opened her eyes. Before she could see much of the goings-on at dockside, the old woman grabbed her hand and pulled her along. “We must make our bus.”
Naomi saw the bus’ doors close while they ran towards it. She thought the old woman would slow her pace. Instead she doubled it and upon reaching the bus Tía pounded on the doors with her umbrella and demanded, “Stop — open the door and let us in.”
“Sorry,” the bus driver drawled as he opened the door. “I was about to leave. With the motor going, I couldn’t hear you.” He nodded toward an elderly woman who sat on the bench seat behind him. “If it hadn’t been for this lady here, I would’ve driven off without you and the girl.”
“It is lucky for me that you have a passenger who pays attention!” Tía unleashed a withering gaze upon him, and Naomi was grateful her sponsor was not angry with her. The old woman took her hand, walked past the woman, and nodded. “Thank you, Theresa, mi amiga. ”
She took Naomi to the back of the bus and motioned for her to sit down. The girl took the seat and asked, “Where are we going?”
“Home to mi casa.” She fiddled with something under the dolman sleeve of her coat.
“Just sit back and relax. I will let you know when we need to get off.” Naomi watched the bus weave in and out of dense traffic. The old tía noticed her curiosity. “I am taking you to Spanish Harlem. Most of the people who live in New York shorten the name. They call it Harlem, but we Spanish settled and named the place, so we call it by its full name that honors us and our presence there. Although other groups settled there and many Spanish people have moved, it is still, in my opinion, the center of Spanish life.”
Since she did not understand how each ethnic group in the city differentiated themselves, nor did she care, Naomi said nothing. Her only concern was to see where they were going should she need to flee, so she watched the road. As the miles ticked by, she thought about the procedure at immigration and realized the man had given her no card of any sort. She remembered her uncle had written that everyone needed one and she began to worry.
The old woman pointed to a building. “See, there is Zabar’s, my favorite place for sweets.”
Naomi looked where her sponsor pointed and told herself, She seems nice. I have no reason to worry. She turned to look at the road and tried to get her bearings as the city rushed by.
At each stop, she looked at the old woman questioningly.
“Do not worry. We are almost there.”
“Good.” Naomi smiled eager to forget the events that forced her to accept the old woman’s help. “I want to begin my life here as soon as possible.”
“You all say that.”
“What do you mean? And what was that man at immigration referring to when he asked you if you were not done with this business yet?” When Tía stared at her, Naomi’s concerns about her lack of a card and the mysterious discussion between Victor and the old tía escalated.
“We can talk of this once we get to mi casa. ” When Naomi did not respond, her sponsor turned to pat her hand. Glimpsing a manacle around Tía’s wrist, Naomi knew she must flee. She began to stand. The old woman felt her move, grabbed her hand in a vice-like grip, pulled her into her seat, and handcuffed their wrists together.
Naomi froze. Her heart beat so fast she feared she would pass out. She opened her mouth to scream, then told herself, No one would do this to someone who is here legally. If you scream, you will end up back at immigration and you will be deported. Knowing she was trapped, she forced herself to act calm, closed her mouth and said nothing. When the lady sitting behind her asked her a question, she bit her lip, shook her head, and tried to look relaxed. As she resigned herself to the situation, Naomi upbraided herself for having mistaken the old woman for kindness itself. Staring at her sponsor, she spotted a Catholic church through the window behind the woman and was horrified. Spanish Harlem, she thought, I left Spain for religious freedom but have to hide here just as I did there. Fear of the religious community’s reprisals if they discovered her faith, coupled with the situation she now faced, caused her to flush scarlet. Before she could think how to hide the obvious, she realized the old tía could see her thoughts and feelings.
Tía smiled, nodded at her, and cooed, “Now we will have lots of time to talk.”
Naomi glanced at her handcuffed wrist. “All right,” she said in an attempted show of
bravery, which she feared fooled neither of them. “We will talk.” She grasped at her last shred of courage, lifted her chin, and squared her shoulders. “Then we will see about this!”
“Good.” Tía stood to get off the bus and dragged the girl along as she hid the handcuffs with her scarf. “It is a short walk from here to mi casa. Trust me. This will work out well for both of us.”
They turned right at the first corner, walked a block, turned right again, and continued past three houses. Naomi’s eyes darted in all directions, frantic to find anyone who would help her. There was no one on the street.
“Here we are.” The old woman opened the latch on the weathered gate, which led to her casa, pulled Naomi in. Hearing the latch close, Naomi knew she had given up much more than she had gained. She wished to be anywhere but where she was and shivered with apprehension while the woman dragged her up the path. Because of the deep twilight, she slowed her steps and strained to see where she was going. Frustrated by the girl’s dawdling, the old woman urged her on. Naomi quickened her pace on the path of irregular and oddly shaped bricks that tottered as she stepped on them. While struggling to keep her footing, and see the place, Naomi noticed a large kettle large like the one her mamá used to wash their clothes. Why would anyone keep that in the front yard? she wondered. Though weeds grew around it, the sight of this familiar object calmed her.
Tía pulled her up the porch stairs, opened her mailbox, and retrieved her mail. All Naomi feared seemed to be coming true for the shutters and front door was as weathered as the gate. She stared at the foreboding door aware that behind it lay the unknown. She looked at the handcuff that encircled her wrist, grimaced, and found she could hardly breathe.
“Come.” Tía pulled Naomi to the door’s threshold. They stood under the porch
light while she dug in her purse for her keys and muttered, “I know they are in
here.” She found them, selected a key, and worked it into the lock. “What is
your name?” She opened the door and motioned for the girl to enter.
“Naomi, I … I thought you heard … that.”
“No, I did not. I had only one thing on my mind — I had to get you out of
there before someone came in and questioned you.”
Hoping with all her heart that her fear was not warranted, Naomi said, “Oh!
You … you … were afraid for me.”
“Now let us understand each other. I have an obligation to help young women
The old woman pulled the girl across the threshold and locked the door behind
her. “I have done so before and will most likely do this again. Those I help work for me or for someone else in the community until their debt is paid. Then I help them find a job or a husband.”
While Tía spoke about saving young girls—her niñas, she called them—from deportation, Naomi understood a little about what she had agreed to and her
Her thoughts drifted to the letter from her uncle and her plans to find him once she arrived safely in America. Placing her free hand in her skirt pocket, she felt the letter’s edge, worn rough from her family’s continual folding and unfolding of this breath of freedom from across the ocean. She could not remember a time before the letter from her tío for his description of the bright promise of America had given her family hope. Whenever life became bitter and difficult, her parents read it to the family. Then they would commit to each other, “Next year in America!” instead of the customary “Next year in Jerusalem!” as every Jew says at the end of the Passover meal. For, to them,
America was the promised land. Naomi fingered the letter’s edge and silently promised, I will find you, mi tío. I will find you as soon I am able.
Tía continued to talk while she dragged Naomi through the vestibule. The girl stumbled, righted herself, and noticed the parlor on her left. When Tía stopped to put her mail on the sideboard, Naomi looked around. No one would ever suspect that a house so unkempt on the outside had such comfortable furnishings within. She wondered at the absurdity of her looking at the place and thinking as she did instead of trying to find a way to flee, then she reminded herself that although she was in America nothing had changed. Resigned to the situation, she tried to find something positive. Seeing a baby grand piano held the place of prominence in the sparsely furnished room, she smiled in spite of her fears and added the word grand to her assessment of the place. Before she could stop herself, she remembered playing the piano for the Sosas’ blind grandmother. Then she scolded herself, That was another time, another place. Abuela Sosa is no more! Images that brought her comfort as she traveled the world with them flashed before her eyes. In an attempt to stop them, she reminded herself that the promises they had made they broke. Now those bright hopes will only bring you pain. It is best you think about this situation since it seems worse than the one you just left.
“Come.” The old tía pulled her through the living and dining rooms while she searched her ring. They crossed the kitchen’s threshold, she found key, and unlocked the handcuffs. She eyed Naomi, and threw the handcuffs down on the battered kitchen table.
“This was just a precaution!”
Naomi looked at the cold steel.
“Sit down!” Naomi obeyed. She felt her will disappear, and wondered if the old tía
viewed her as a tool to mold to her demands.
The old woman put the kettle on to boil. “I will make some tea and we will talk.” When the teapot whistled, she set the leaves to steep. While they waited, she made a phone call. “Hola, Flora. Please tell everyone at the market I am sorry I was unable to hand out paychecks. I had to go to immigration. Tell them I will be in tomorrow.” She placed her hand over the receiver and looked at Naomi. “What would you like to eat?” Naomi shrugged. The old woman turned away and continued her conversation.
The girl looked around and discovered that the cheerful gingham wallpaper and spotless kitchen helped her feel at home in spite of her fears. She noticed the kitchen tiles were reminiscent of an advertisement in a recent magazine, and believing only the needy trafficked in others’ misery, she sighed with relief. Yet knowing she was a prisoner, her
fear returned almost as quickly as it left.
“What would you like to eat?”
“Whatever you have will be fine.” It seemed odd to Naomi that the woman was treating her as a guest instead of the prisoner she knew herself to be. Not knowing what was true, Naomi remembered how foolish she had been to trust Mr. Sosa and admitted to herself that she was naive to accept this woman’s help without knowing what she agreed to. Aware that she had placed herself in peril, she hardened her heart as she sat on the edge of the chair. The meal ordered the two of them, captor and captive, waited for it to arrive. Alone in this strange new land, Naomi tried to fight off her fear of this unknown woman and the situation by reminding herself, There was no other choice.
“Naomi,” the old tía said at last as her gaze swept over the girl. “Tell me how you came to be at immigration.”
“Well …” Naomi stalled. How much do I tell this woman? Do I tell her the truth, and if not, what should I leave out or make up?
“Naomi!” her sponsor snapped demanding an immediate answer. “Do not think about what to say. Just tell me, in the simplest way possible, how you came to be there.”
Naomi swallowed. It seemed best to tell the truth, so she began, “I came with the Sosa family. I was the companion to their blind grandmother.”
“That is an unusual job for one so young to have. By the looks of you, I would not think you more than twelve.”
Naomi strained to sit taller in the chair. “I am fifteen.”
Tía rose to fill their cups. “How does a girl as young as you find a job with a family coming to America? You had not been a companion before, had you?”
Naomi watched the old tía bring the cups to the table, took her first sip, and gulped down courage . “I was in need of employment.” Aware that the warm feelings she usually associated with tea did not exist here, she continued, “There was this family with a blind grandmother. They required someone to tend to her every need as well as read, play the piano, and help her enjoy the tour. They thought I might do.”
“Why did they pick you?”
“I do not know. Perhaps it was because I agreed to work for no wage.”
“I see.” Tía’s gaze swept over the girl.
Aware that what she said might lead the woman to think her easy to manipulate, Naomi added, “They pledged to help me find my uncle once they settled here. Then they changed their minds.”
The old woman waved her comments away. Feeling them dismissed, she went against her upbringing and added, a note of pride in her voice, “But it was Abuela Sophia who chose me for herself!”
“I see you found favor with her?”
Mortified by her outburst, Naomi cast her eyes down and quietly admitted, “Yes.”
“Then I am certain you will find favor with me also.”
Since she did not know how to answer, she thought of her needs. “Excuse me. May I ask some questions?”
“If you must.”
“What is your name and how long will it be until I can leave?”
“Those are the same questions every one of you asks.” Tía poured another cup of tea for herself. “Those I have business dealings with call me La Señora. You are to call me Tía as all my girls do . Vida is my given name, but few have permission to use it. It breeds familiarity. Do you understand?”
“I suppose so.”
“Correct, a business arrangement, but nonnegotiable since you must stay here or be picked up by immigration and deported.”
“Good. Now so that no one will suspect what we are doing, it is best for you to call me Tía, as Victor said. This will make it easy for others to believe that I really am your aunt. Our little ruse will make sense to immigration and the community, should they choose to investigate our situation.” She eyed the girl. “I have given you something you could not get without my help. Now you will give me payment.”
“All right.” Naomi’s heart raced at what she might have agreed to. “How do I pay you?”
“Since you are fifteen and a minor, you will work for me until you are twenty. That is a good age for a woman to be on her own. Before then, I believe someone might take advantage of you. During this time, you will be able to pay me back for what I have done for you. When you have fulfilled your obligation, you will have your freedom, the skills you need to make your way in this country, and five hundred dollars—one hundred dollars for each year you are with me, a good amount for a young woman to begin a new life with.”
Even as Naomi nodded, she wondered what the old woman would ask of her and found
herself wishing that the woman who looked like her tía Rosa was actually her sweet aunt.
However, she knew the resemblance was only an illusion. “I have nowhere to go and no one who cares. I will give you what you ask.”
“Good. Then welcome to mi casa.” She picked up Naomi’s suitcase. “Now come.”
She walked across the hall from the kitchen, opened the door to a small bedroom,
and gestured for Naomi to enter. “Many have been happy here. You will be too.”
Naomi looked around the sparsely furnished room that was to be her home. Tía pointed to the wardrobe. “In there you will find everything you need.” She crossed to the wall of yellow drapes, pulled them aside, and flipped on a light switch. Looking through a lovely pair of French doors, Naomi saw a large patio, and fountain, much like those in Spain, with chairs around it, as well as a loveseat and a few scattered side tables, were directly in front of her. Off to the right was a wrought iron dining set, which could accommodate eight. She drank in the beauty and serenity of the place and her breath caught for a moment. The old woman’s unspoken words were clear; she would be able to sit by the fountain and gaze at the garden below.
“As you can see, I have chosen not to treat you as a servant but as a guest in mi casa. I ask that you do what I require, respect my privacy as I will yours, and insist you remember your place while you live here. Now I will leave you to change into one of the dresses I provided,” she nodded towards the wardrobe. “When you come back to the kitchen, we will eat and discuss your duties.”
Naomi sat on the old iron bed, and wondered, What have I gotten myself into?
Aware this question might lead to fearful thoughts, she roused herself and looked around the room. I am grateful to have a place of my own, she admitted. Surprised that the simple act of admitting how she felt caused her to shudder; unwanted memories of the bitterness she experienced in Spain assailed her. Aware that her situation could
be much worse, she tried to find something positive to think about, and told herself, I should have some privacy here... but, she cautioned herself, I must remember to do nothing that breeds familiarity.
Since she needed to return to the kitchen as soon as possible, she stood and walked to the large oak wardrobe. Why is something this fine in a servant’s quarters? She wondered as she ran her hands over its beautifully carved panels. When she opened the large, double doors, Naomi realized there were no uniforms just modest dresses that would not reveal her station, yet not allow her to think more of herself than she should. Keenly aware her sponsor had selected colors and styles that would not cause her to appear a servant and yet not allow her to think more highly of herself than she should, she smiled. This Tía is more like mi tía Rosa than I thought. She assumed she understood the old woman’s hidden message, appreciated her thoughtfulness, and decided to call Tía Vida, her tía. Pleased to realize that she would not be humiliated in front of others, she took off her clothes, folded and placed them in the bottom of the wardrobe. Then needing to make certain her uncles letter was safe, she took out her skirt, felt for it, and placed her skirt on top.
When she returned to the kitchen, she wore the mustard-colored dress with the white
collar. Because of the formality of their agreement, she waited in the hallway for an invitation to enter. Her tía at the sink with her back to the hall, holding a phone to her ear, and Naomi heard her say, “Yes, Victor, we arrived home without incident. Do not worry. Naomi understands everything. Yes … yes, I see. No, she will not run away. I scared her just as I do every girl I bring home. Yes … I did … I used the handcuffs, just as you told me to. Do not worry. She is safe.”
When her tía hung up the phone, Naomi cleared her throat. Tía turned in her direction and waved her in. “Let me see you.” She stepped into the kitchen and waited.
“Good, very good,” her tía muttered. She walked around the girl and nodded toward a chair. “Sit down, Naomi.”
Naomi acquiesced and was surprised when her tía sat down across from her. “Naomi, I know our arrangement forces you to delay your plans. However, if you are as clever as I think, all you learn here will serve you well when you leave. Understand?”
“Yes. I understand.”
“Now, this is our first night together. I always try to help my new niñas feel at home on their first night, so we will eat together and we can talk. You can ask me questions about this situation. After tonight, you will find your position in my home will not allow you to treat me with familiarity, nor will we dine together.” Someone knocked on the front door. She stood, walked to the pantry, and brought out some dishes. “Naomi, I believe our meal has arrived.
Answer the door.”
Naomi rushed to the vestibule, flipped on the light and opened the door. She saw a
teenager who wore a bright orange dress and matching sweater holding a sack, which Naomi assumed was their food.
She looked Naomi over and giggled. “So you’re her new girl.” Her lips curled slightly in obvious disdain. “Let me look at you!” Naomi stood still, frozen by the brazen attitude of one she did not know, a teen who acted superior to her for no reason. “Come on. Turn around,” she ordered. “You aren’t much to look at, so scrawny, with that wild, curly, hair and those big, sad eyes.” She patted her shiny, straight pageboy hairdo, which was so popular. While the she stared at her, Naomi remembered her mamá saying, “Only a harlot wears her hair like un hombre! ”
Not through with her insults, the teenager raised her voice, “I heard La Señora brought another beggar home. I also heard you’re Spanish! No wonder you can’t answer! None of you knows enough to learn English before you come here.” Glaring into Naomi’s eyes, she demanded, “Cómo te llamas? ” Naomi saw no reason to offer her name in response. “No wonder you had to leave Spain. You’re too stupid to know your own language!
Probably nobody wanted you around. What’s the matter, cat got your tongue?”
La Señora stepped out of the shadows of the living room, into the light of the vestibule.
She narrowed her eyes and clenched her jaw. Everyone who knew the old woman feared this look. However, the delivery girl did not notice, nor did she hear the tension in Tía’s voice when she exclaimed, “Shame on you for such rude behavior!” She walked to where the teenager stood and snatched the bag out of her hands.
She shrugged. Then she realized she had to say something and mumbled a halfhearted,
“Sorry.” She turned to leave.
“Come back here! I’m not done with you!” La Señora’s icy cold voice stopped her in her tracks. The teenager turned back, her look of arrogance replaced by one of fear. “Apologize to Naomi!” She stood her ground. La Señora looked at her watch, then back at the girl. “Rochelle, I hired you. Now I am firing you! Pick up your things from my store and do not come back, not even to buy something. I do not want to see you again. Do you understand me?”
“But, Señora , look at her!” the teen whined. “She’s just a little mouse!"
The old woman glanced at Naomi. “That may be but this little mouse has more dignity
and courage than you will ever have. I am sorry I wasted my time on you. Now, leave!” Rochelle stuck out her chin is defiance and hurried down the stairs. The old tía watched her leave.
“Sometimes it is impossible to help the neediest among us.”
She turned toward Naomi and patted her shoulder in a comforting gesture.
“This will not happen to you again,” she promised.
While they headed to the kitchen, Naomi considered all she had seen and heard. She believed the old woman could make what she said a reality and smiled. “Gracias, thank you. I have never been safe anywhere.”
“I suspected that was the case,” her tía said as she unpacked their meal.
“Why did you think that?” Naomi asked, surprised that she felt comfortable
enough to ask.
“Am I a fool…No one as young as you will leave home and family to travel with
others unless something painful…” Vida looked at Naomi and smiled. “I do not know
your story, but I think you have run from something. Perhaps here you will find
something worth running toward.” Naomi nodded.
During their dinner, her tía c onfided, “All I will teach you has a purpose and a plan. Even the clothes I selected for you to wear.”
“These?” Naomi tried to sound grateful while she glanced at her apparel.
“Yes, my little mouse. I want you to be safe so you can grow into whatever you are to
become. I choose these garments so no one will pay attention to you.”
Tía waited for Naomi to respond. When the girl said nothing she asked, “Have
you ever watched a flower grow?”
“Well, no … not really.”
“I have,” her tía said, eyes bright with remembering. “A beautiful flower needs to be protected. These clothes are part of your protection. While you are with me, you can develop your unique talents. I will give you as much encouragement as I can. However,
to the rest of the world you are to appear as invisible as I can make you. Then when it is time for you to bloom, you will become visible. Do you understand?”
“I think so.” Naomi wondered if her tía cared for her since it seemed she planned for and worried about her before they meet. “I will do as you ask, and I will try to show you how much I appreciate all you have done for me.”
Tía sighed and stared off into the distance. “You all say that when you first arrive, but confinement in this house will probably make you resent me, as well as this imposed situation. If that happens, be sure I do not see you looking forlorn or hear words of regret. Understand?”
“Sí, yes!” Naomi was certain her tía and Victor had placed themselves in peril to rescue her. “I understand!”
Visibly shaken by the girls affirming response, Tía scrutinized Naomi. “Yes well … Now
let us eat and get to bed. It is already after eight, and our day starts early.”
Their meal was over, Tía stifled a yawn while they cleared the table.
“I will finish here. Please go to bed.”
“But I have not given you your instructions.”
“Do you have them written down?”
The old woman eyed Naomi closely. “Can you read English?”
“I can! It is one of the reasons Abuela Sophia choose me.”
“Good.” Tía reached into the pantry and pulled out a yellow binder. “Everything you need to know is in here. Read it all tonight, but be sure to get some sleep.”
Naomi took the binder. “I have done well on little sleep before.”
“I am sure you have.” Her tía yawned as she left the kitchen. “You have probably learned to do well with little of everything. I pray God will allow me to rectify that in some small way while you are here. After all, everyone deserves to feel valued.”
Naomi stood at the kitchen’s threshold and watched her tía walk down the hall. When the old woman reached her bedroom door, she turned back, smiled at her, and said, “Naomi, welcome to mi casa, and welcome to America!”
Q & A with Paula Rose Michelson
How do you find the perfect blend of telling the readers how the character is reacting and showing the readers what's going on so they can react to it on their own?
When writing character reaction, remember tension can be good or bad. To
read a list of stressors that cause tension, visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holmes_and_Rahe_stress_scale
To show what the character is going through, read your draft and ask
1) Is my character reactive, or proactive?
2) Are their actions believable?
3) Are their issues ones my readers would experience?
4) Reread your draft and, wherever possible, change your narrative into dialogue or thought so the reader feels or experiences what your character does.
How did you come up with the idea of Naomi? What inspired you to write this book?
I met with a friend who was a small Messianic publisher. She had collected several of my writings and wanted to publish my work. We discussed a book I wanted to write. She loved the idea and promised to publish my work.
During the ensuing months, I did the research for the book. I got delightfully bogged down while reading primary source material about what the Jews who were baptized into the Catholic faith to survive the Inquisition had gone through so I could write Naomi’s character sketch dailies that the publisher asked for. After reading them, she let me know that I had begun writing a different and a much better book! This is how The Naomi Books began.
Are your characters based on real people? How did you get them to be so fleshed out?
The characters are emotional composites of people I know very well. Naomi is very much like I was as a teenager. Vida is like my mom and becomes even more so as the books progress. A portion of Chaz’s story, including his name, is based on my grandfather Charles (his nickname was Chaz).
The characters became fleshed out over time, so much so that I now have a character
profile for each character, with their traits. They change because I knew I would never be able to remember the subtle nuances that occur over the course of six novels without keeping track of them.
Can dialogue “make or break” a story? How do you know when it’s appropriate to use dialogue?
Dialogue with its twists and turns fuels our imagination. Narration does not.
Character- driven fiction is as timeless as “Kim” by Reynard Kipling or as new and fresh as the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. These character-driven stories transport us in a way a narrative cannot.
What made you start writing?
Reading great books, watching great moves, having my great-cousin Donald Pizner become the head of the Literature Department at Tulane University, marrying a man who loves to write, who studied to teach creative writing in college, being friends with the Dean of The Library at Biola Christina University, and having a mom who encouraged me to read the books she did so we could talk about them helped me understand that the written word will continue to exist long after I am no more.
Having begun my school years with a handicap that made learning impossible, I discovered that my dyslexia meant I could not tell the difference between words like “to, two, and two.” I should have been the person to never write and one that would never be published, but I am here to attest to the fact that if your passion is great enough, you can do whatever you set your heart upon.
What tools do you use to make the reader feel more immersed in the story?
Choosing the perfect words and sculpting the characters response until your gut feels what you’re trying to say so viscerally that you are living in the character’s skin is what makes the reader feel what the character is feeling. Always remember: if you can’t see and feel what your character sees and feels, your reader won’t either.
Do you know how your story will end before writing your book or do you figure it out along the way?
I took the same journey my readers do. The story the characters told me is better than anything I could imagine.
Dialogue appears to require a lot of effort, yet you made it seem effortless. What form of writing do you find problematic?
I am a harder taskmaster of my own work than others are and will often look at every angle before I am certain that the reader will see, feel and understand what the character does.
What was most interesting for me was writing some people who spoke English as their second language, and, therefore, used no contractions, and others in later books who used slang. Harder still was finding an editor who understood the necessity of keeping those dialects intact so the unique cadence was correct.