Past Follows You Wherever You Go

Jake Warga's mother died more than 10 years ago, but he found her on the streets of Guatemala and in a homeless German woman.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

I'm Michele Norris.

Now a story about the people we lose but can't forget. Independent producer Jake Warga's mother passed away over 10 years ago. Recently he's been doing a lot of international traveling and he's encountered memories of his mother in unexpected places.

JAKE WARGA: I was napping in a hotel room in Flores, Guatemala, slumped against the air-conditioning, salvation from the impossible heat and humidity outside. I had been in Central America for over a month, though I'm not sure why. On the surface, carrying a huge camera, I tell people I'm a photographer, which is partly true. I sell images to a small stock agency. They in turn sell them to travel brochure makers who in turn try to lure tourists to the location.

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

WARGA: I was going to visit the ancient ruins of Tikal the next day because tourists like to travel in time, not just space. They want places that have been frozen or forgotten in history.

I slumped deeper into my nap and started to dream. Images came to me, triggered by the sounds of people splashing around in the hotel's small pool. Somehow I remembered the small field mouse my mom had saved from drowning in our pool. It had fallen in looking for water the summer before I left for college.

Dad had already moved out, so it was just her and I. Come fall it would be just her. Mom was getting skinnier from her illness. Each visit back from college she was thinner. Hugging her was like hugging skin and bones. She would reach under my shoulders and reply as much as her weak arms could. It never felt like much.

I joined the rowing team my freshmen year, afraid my embrace would crush her with my growing shoulders. I would never hug her as tight as I wanted to. She dried the baby mouse off with a towel, fed it milk with an eyedropper, but so young, separated from its mother and alone for the first time in the shock of the human world, it died. I shake myself awake, splashing out of the past, and go in search of some food.

The residue of my dreams cling to me like the humidity I was pushing through. I didn't want to think about my mom. She died over 10 years ago. I'm here to get photos, record, do whatever it is I have to, so as not to think about the past. But when you're thinking hard enough about someone, especially when you want to see them so bad, you find them.

I spot someone as out of place as I am. An older woman, white, disheveled. If she were wandering the streets back home I would immediately think homeless.

I was right.

OLGA: I'm from Germany and my name is Olga.

WARGA: How old are you?

OLGA: Fifty-five years. My husband? He's from over here, from Flores, you know? But he is (unintelligible)

WARGA: What happened?

OLGA: He's dead. He's gone with the car. He walked and hit there.

(Soundbite of car)

WARGA: She asked me first for food, so I took her into a cafe for lunch. The owner was about to shoo her away, but then saw she was with me. I had on a clean shirt, save from the sweat stains, and evidently money.

OLGA: Right now I don't have nothing. I don't have nothing.

WARGA: Maybe he thought I was a relative coming to get her at last. We order two small pizzas. And she asked me what it is I do. I make up something because I still don't really know the answer to that.

OLGA: Tell me a little bit out of your life.

WARGA: Okay. Yeah, I just travel around and try to talk to other people and find out what their life is like.

She is skinny. It hurts my memory to see her, to see my mother. I ask her about her family.

OLGA: I lost my mother, my father, my brother. Everybody's dead. And I tell you something. I see too many dead people, too many. Believe me.

WARGA: Looking at Olga, I think alcoholic. I did an intervention on my mother my sophomore year of college. We all gathered at her door one day - my father, her best friend, and we sat her down saying she had to go to a rehab clinic right now. The car was waiting. Or else we would be out of her life completely. She looked at me and knew I was serious. I was her only child, the only family she had left. She went, she had no choice. She did it for me.

OLGA: I don't smoke.

WARGA: She says, I don't smoke.

OLGA: (Speaking foreign language)

WARGA: I don't drink.

OLGA: Nada.

WARGA: Nothing.

You don't drink?

OLGA: No. (Speaking foreign language)

WARGA: A little.

OLGA: (Speaking foreign language)

WARGA: But not much.

OLGA: (Speaking foreign language)

WARGA: But no more.

I grew up among alcoholics and I know a liar. She asked me if I drink. I tell her, no, I don't.

I don't drink.

OLGA: Nada.

WARGA: Nothing?

OLGA: (Speaking foreign language)

WARGA: Thank God.

OLGA: I don't have the money for the hotel, for nothing. I only have nothing.

WARGA: She sleeps on the streets, and I know she's not lying.

(Soundbite of thunder)

WARGA: The sky starts thundering. Rain, (foreign language spoken) with a nightmare-like ferocity here each afternoon. I've never seen anything like it. In a bit she lights up a cigarette. Fuma.

I thought you said you didn't smoke.

OLGA: Okay. (Speaking foreign language)

WARGA: Okay, I smoke a lot.

OLGA: (Speaking in foreign language) rain and thunder, lightning, everything, but I wanted to. I want to stay here. I don't want to go back to Germany. I don't have no family. I don't have nobody.

WARGA: What do you have here?

OLGA: Nobody, same kind of life. My husband is gone and I'm by myself. I don't know what I'm going to do. I don't know.

WARGA: We were both surprised when I gave her a big, strong hug. I didn't think anyone's done that to her for a long time. No one's done it for me either.

After a pause, she reaches under my huge shoulders and squeezes me as much as her weak arms can. I know I won't see her again - ever. It's exhausting, traveling through memories in a place I've never been before.

I go back to my hotel room, lean against the air conditioning and fall into a dreamless sleep.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: Jake Warga wanders the world with camera and microphone. His work comes to us by way of hearingvoices.com.

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