The green three-cornered package arrived on a Saturday morning. An emerald triangular cardboard case with a spreading tree graphic printed on its cover. The tree trunk was a double helix that spiraled upward until it blossomed into a verdant bunch of leaves. Brilliant marketing, overnight shipping, certified mail that required a signature upon arrival as your nosiest neighbors peek from behind their blinds. This company made it evident—only the best for its 700,000 customers and growing. Cathy scribbled her name for the deliveryman and wrapped the package in her arms.
Seemingly overnight, Genealogy Tree Inc. had become a trending status symbol that everyone with a pulse was trying to be a part of. While most ancestry and gene sequencing companies offered their dwindling number of customers the common service that divided your ethnic makeup by percentages before climaxing into a whimsy pie-chart display, this company felt more like an exclusive country club, complete with a pedigree chart and V.I.P. membership.
After you send your swab of saliva, their team of geneticists use a patented process to analyze your gene pool, before charting your family tree back to its places of origin. Then their private investigators, archivists, and researchers dig up any and everything to give you a complete view of your history. But the best part is that each customer earns a discounted rate on a five-day four-night premium vacation package to their homeland through Genealogy Tree’s deluxe travel agency. Barcelona, Venice, Nice, Lisbon… Cathy's ancestors could be from anywhere or any place.
Gwyn, the woman who manicured Cathy’s nails every other Friday afternoon, found out that she was one-eight Aboriginal and spent the spring in Australia reconnecting with her roots. Bethany, her Wednesday evening spin class instructor, discovered that she was six percent Egyptian and visited the pyramids of Giza on camelback. Cathy’s eyes gleamed with the possibilities.
Perhaps her package would reveal that she was mixed with something daring or mysterious that she could post about online to make her girlfriends pout with envy. Maybe with this discovery of her ethnic makeup she would learn something more than what her dull and boring life had to offer. It could give her a legacy, something bigger than being a mom, a wife, and a human resources supervisor whose most impressive accomplishments were awarding the office Casual Fridays and a new coffee machine that dispensed cappuccinos.
Package in hand, Cathy scurried back to the house where Blake and the kids gathered in the living room for the big reveal. She had decided beforehand to make a little celebration of it, with him recording the entire event. She skipped up the porch and from the weight of the triangular carton she imagined its contents: stacks of late ancestors’ photos, piles of original birth and death certificates, forgotten family members’ names, family stories, lost traditions that had been unearthed and ready to be honored. She whirled through the front door three sets of wide and curious eyes immediately surrounded her.Seconds away from a moment that could alter her very life, Cathy couldn’t keep her hands from trembling.
“I can’t do it,” she grinned while her cheeks turned a rosy pink. “Here, Blake, you do it.”
Blake smiled and took the package while his wife buried her face in her hands. She was uncharacteristically nervous when it came to opening surprises and he loved every second of it. It had been his idea for Cathy to send her DNA to Genealogy Tree. Not that she necessarily needed clarity into her history or to be transformed into a “new” version of herself—she was amazing the way she was—but the way she gaped at the company’s commercials hadn’t escaped his notice. Genealogy Tree’s latest 30-second advertisement took place in a small apartment where a family of five sat on plain grayish furniture while flipping through dog-eared books and twiddling their thumbs. The only bit of color between them was their green Genealogy Tree that illuminated when the wife took in her hands. When she opened the triangle’s lid, the screen sparkled and the family’s living room transformed into a tropical beach with swaying palm trees, coconut-spiked beverages, and ukulele-playing islanders with floral garlands wrapped around their necks. Afterward, their kids snorkeled through a school of neon-colored fish while the parents sprawled on twin massage tables. In the concluding image, the family sailed off into the sunset on a catamaran that careened over crystal blue waters. The tagline A new you awaits faded into the screen before the picture clicked to the next commercial.
Blake hardly believed that any knowledge acquired today could meaningfully change their comfortable suburban Iowa lives. But he had to admit, it would be nice for them and the kids to go on an adventure, and a good opportunity to spotlight Cathy, who works so hard.
He held the package close to Cathy and pried at the cardboard lid. “Okay everybody,” he announced while surveying the children’s glowing faces. “Ready?”
Her husband removed the lid; the kids leaped and crowded the package. “What’s in there Daddy?” Their heads and tiny shoulders, blocking and shielding what lay inside.
“What is it? What’s inside?” Cathy asked. “Let me see.”
She parted through them and squeezed past. Cathy’s eyes fell towards the green carton as her husband’s hands sorted through it—flipping, folding, and sifting through beige and water stained papers. Blake’s face scrunched as though he smelled something rotten. “What is this junk?”
“Give it to me.” Cathy took the package, and with her husband and kids trailing close behind, she strode toward their coffee table. She pushed several magazines to the side and dumped the carton’s contents on the wooden surface. Newspaper clippings, faded Polaroids, and crinkled journal paper toppled onto the table and the carpet beneath. Cathy rummaged through them, her eyes scanning and searching through each document and printed text. Her high school transcripts, her and Blake’s marriage certification, a DMV photo of her when she was eighteen, leaflets of her mom’s journal entries, mortgage receipts, her grade school reports cards, her mother’s report cards, old résumés. Crap, refuse, trash… It was all useless! Copies of things that no one wanted, junk that was easily accessible and already piled in dusty boxes in their attic.
Several of the beige documents were in Spanish and stamped with what appeared to be a government insignia —a towering volcano with a streaking sun and the word Contras printed above it. Each of the documents were addressed to some woman named Cassandra. There was no one in her family that she knew of by that name. Within the documents, she spotted a white sheet of printed percentages with a photo clipped to it. Cathy held the weathered picture in her hand. Tattered, warped by dried moisture, and littered with fingerprint smudges, the photo had passed through many hands and traveled far to reach hers. On it, a golden-brown Latina woman with thick and wavy long hair posed with a machete in her hand. Slim, with bare arms, she flexed one bicep while a lush rainforest enveloped the area behind her. On the woman’s shoulder was a charcoal-colored tattoo—the identical volcano and sun image from the foreign documents.
“Who’s that?” Blake asked from over Cathy’s shoulder.
“I don’t know,” she said, turning to the sheet of paper. It was her pedigree chart and the genealogist’s side notes.
Her eyes tightened as she studied her genealogy: Sixteen percent Dutch, twenty-three percent Polish. That was a mild surprise; neither family on her mother’s side or her father’s had come from the Netherlands or Poland. She read further. Just then, her eyes widened. Sixty percent Nicaraguan?
“This doesn’t make any sense,” she gasped while skipping to the genealogist’s jotted notes. In her hand, the paper crinkled under the pressure of her trembling thumb. Her sharp eyes traced over it again before they locked on the old photograph. There, on that paper image of captured time, the machete-wielding woman smiled at her as though she knew this moment would come. This can’t be. Just moments ago, Cathy had opened the package in search of something new, something that hadn’t discovered about herself. But this was not what she had hoped for.
Blake reached for her hand while studying his wife’s stoic and pallid face. “What is it? What does it say?” he asked.
The kids gathered around. “What is it Mom?”
“It says,” her voice quivered as she turned toward them. “that this woman is my mother… and that my parents aren’t who they say they are.”
1983 Honduras, 18 miles southwest of the Mosquito Coast
Civil unrest had ravaged the land for nearly a decade. Brother fighting brother. Homes destroyed and houses collapsed. Entire towns smoldered in the aftermath of flames while the sounds of gunfire and exploding grenades were more rampant than the comfort of voices. So many families had fought against each other and died in battle, many of them lost sight of who they were fighting for or which side they were on. The future of the Nicaraguan government was bleak. On one side, the loyalists who called themselves Sandinistas. Their opposition, a smaller group of rebels named Contras who set up bases in Honduras to fight from across the border. Within one of their camps, a lone soldier held her child as she peered towards the horizon.
Ramona clutched her infant daughter against her chest. The evening breeze came from the south. It tickled her skin and carried the scent of gunpowder and carnage. She hadn’t come to loathe the scent of death, but had become accustomed to it. She wondered if women on the other side of the world were subjected to the same hardships. She doubted it. The Madonnas of Venice had their lovely canals where the summer wind swept the aroma of jasmine and lavender over the flowing water. The belles of Paris had their fields of blooming wildflowers—speckled with purple and pink as if Manet had painted them. The daughters of Nicaragua were not afforded such pleasantries.
Sweat and blood were their perfume, anguish, their company. Her daughter deserved a better future than this—such a sweet and happy baby. And this was no palace for a child. Still, the cause needed her. She couldn’t abandon them at a time like this, with their backs pressed against the wall, yet victory within reach. She took in her daughter’s soft face one more time, hoping this wouldn’t be the last.
Just then, a faint hum sounded from the distant clouds. A small three-engine transport plane banked over the hills and lowered towards the airstrip. A glimmer of sun graced its metallic wings. Fresh water was a rare commodity and anything other than green bananas had become a luxury. The camp welcomed the plane with a hearty cheer as its wheels screeched over the hardened dirt and it taxied them. As the door slid open behind the whirling propeller blades, Ramona greeted the American pilot and his wife.
“Fred. Paula. It’s been too long.”
The pilot hugged her first. His smile was warm and kind. “Ramona, even in the middle of war you’re still as stunning as ever.” He pointed toward the infant. “And plus one, I see.”
“This is my daughter. Her name is Cassandra.”
“Such an adorable girl,” his wife chimed in.
Fred’s smile shortened and his eyes grew sharp. “Ramona, where’s your husband? We brought news from Santiago. He says the troops are advancing. You don’t have much time.”
“The sergeant’s dead,” her voice cracked. “I’m in charge for now.”
His eyes softened and he rested a hand on her shoulder. Several seconds passed before he lowered his voice and said, “Ramona, it doesn’t look too good. You can’t hold them off for much—”
“Don’t,” she interrupted. Her face, stern and unwavering. “I need a favor from you, Fred. A big one.” She extended her child into his arms. “Please. Take her away from here. I can’t protect her.”
Fred and Paula looked upon the child. She was beautiful and so innocent. How could they take care of such precious cargo?
Ramona pressed further, “Take her away from this.”
“Come with us.”
Just then, distant gunfire sounded from the forest.
“Go, now! Hurry!”
Within seconds, a crowd of men scrambled to unload the cargo, and Fred rushed to the plane with Paula, the infant in his grasp. Though she needed to move, Ramona stood for a moment in silence as the plane rattled to life, propellers whirling. It leaped from the ground then rose into the fading sky– steady and swift, humming and climbing– until it disappeared beyond the clouds. It was the last time Fred and Paula stepped foot in the war-torn rainforests of Honduras.
In the cockpit, Paula cradled the weeping child in her arms—a bestowed bundle of grace and purpose.
“What are we going to do?” Fred said while guiding the plane.
Paula sighed. “We’re going to bring her back home and take care of her. We’ll raise her as our own,” she said before announcing the baby’s new name, a name she believed would suit her new American identity.
Abandoned. Adopted. Lied to! Cathy huffed after ending the call with her father, Fred, or whoever that man was to her now. She wasn’t certain of anything anymore. How could she be? This morning she woke up as Cathy Brumfield from Iowa, born an only child to Fred and Paula. She had taken ballet as a child, graduated from Cedar Rapids High School, then Grinnell College. A daughter to third-generation corn farmers. She sat next to her husband.
“I don’t think this changes things,” Blake said flatly while wrapping an arm around her.
Blake, so sweet and kind, but Cathy was amazed how stupid her husband could be at times. “Are you crazy? How can this not change things?”
“Well, I mean you shouldn’t let it change things. Your relationship with Fred and Paula doesn’t have to be different if you don't want it to be. Sure, it’s shocking, but still… they’re your parents.”
“They lied to me for my entire life.”
“Or, they protected you.”
“I deserved to know the truth. I deserved to know who I am.”
Now, she was Central American, the daughter of Nicaraguan rebels, named “Cassandra” at birth, without a clue about her biological family or who she was anymore. She shut her eyes, and massaged her temples. She had expected Genealogy Tree Inc. to unveil a distant relation from a strange land, a source of excitement and a place to take a vacation, not a family secret of this scope—a betrayal.
“Look.” Blake sifted through the jumbled pile and reached for a short stack of journal paper. “While you were on the phone with Fred I read a few of these journal entries. They’re Paula’s. Genealogy Tree wouldn’t have sent these to you if they couldn’t bring some sort of clarity to your life—adoptive mother or not. You should take a look.”
“What could these tell me about the truth?”
“Want me to read a few to you?”
Cathy exhaled and took the papers, twenty sheets of Paula’s flowing cursive. She could recognize this handwriting anywhere. The looping C’s, curling G’s, a slanting tilt that made the letters appear to be toppling over. It was the same handwriting that had been on countless field trip permission slips and sick notes when she was a child, the same script that appeared in her dorm room mail and comforted her during her toughest semesters in college. Cathy raised the first sheet and took a deep breath. With Blake harking on every word, she read it aloud.
During the summer harvest, Iowa is a generous place that adorns itself in a robe of gold and yellow. As the sun rises above the farmlands and its rays shimmer over infinite valleys of corn, gold finches take to the morning sky and sing of her glory. Beyond Prairie Creek and over the careening riverboats, a small farm rests beside a row of oak trees. On the stoop of their cozy house made into a home, Fred and Paula sat on their porch swing and watched over young Cathy as she played in the field. That is, until the gray sedan arrived.
The car crept down the road at a timid pace, cautious and unsure through the aisle of corn. Fred and Paula weren’t expecting visitors. Though occasionally, a septic tank salesman or a life insurance agent would come by unexpectedly and sit a while to rest up a bit and discuss business. Fred squinted towards the car. Dark shades veiled the driver’s eyes while hands gripped the steering wheel. A brunette woman. No passenger. No license plate. The sedan’s wheels crunched over the gravel and left ribbons of dust behind it. The car veered towards the house and stopped near the porch. It sat there for half a minute, engine purring, before it shut off. Fred stood and descended the porch’s steps as the driver’s door opened. From it, in a dark blouse and with her hair pulled back into a neat bun, Ramona emerged into the sunlight.
“Ramona!” he gasped.
She strode toward him and removed her sunglasses. Her eyes creased in the bright sun and revealed a cluster of wrinkles. It was difficult to tell whether time had hardened them or if the war had. Fred decided that it was most likely a combination of both.
Ramona smiled as they embraced. “Are you more surprised to see me alive or to see me here in Iowa?”
“We knew you’d make it out alive,” Paula said while joining them. “It’s so good to see you. How’d you know where to find us?”
A wry smile sprawled across her lips. “I have my ways.”
Just then, the sound of a child’s laughter came from the cornfield.
“Oh!” Paula exclaimed. “You have to see her. She’s grown so much.”
Fred turned towards the field and called his daughter. “Cathy, baby, come here, please!”
“Cathy?” Pain gripped Ramona’s voice and her eyes sharpened. “You changed her name?”
Fred and Paula’s eyes softened. Though they had hoped that Ramona had still been alive, they hadn’t expected a day like this to come. “Well, ” Paula sighed. “We figured a more anglicized name would make it easier for her to fit in here.”
Ramona’s lips pressed together and she nodded slowly; her fiery eyes never wavering from Paula’s face. Just then, the sound of swift patter came from the field.
“Cathy, come here darling. I want you to meet someone.”
She rushed to her father’s side, smiling and glowing from the morning sun. Ramona gazed toward the child, a miniature replica of herself, and was at a loss for words. She hadn’t seen her since that horrible day back in Honduras, as an infant, five years ago. Cathy eyed the stranger with curiosity.
“Cathy,” Paula said, kneeling towards the child. “Say hello to Ramona.”
Cathy’s soft round eyes met the stranger’s.
“Hello,” Ramona waved before extending her hand toward the girl.
Cathy withdrew behind her father’s legs.
Rejected. Betrayed. Humiliated. Ramona’s eyes met Fred’s.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “She’ll warm up to you. Come,” he said while gesturing towards the porch chairs. “Let’s have a seat.”
Ramona lingered for a moment. She had been through war and battles, had buried her husband, had mourned her brothers and sisters, and had traveled across the world to be here and to be with her daughter, and for what? Only, to find out that they hadn’t even told the girl about her real mother? About the sacrifices that she made to preserve her life? About the revolution that she was born during? About the legacy of the Contras?
Silence subdued her as she followed Fred and Paula to their little porch chairs where the estadounidenses enjoyed their peaceful lives with someone that didn’t belong to them, on a quiet little farm where corn grows as far as they can see, while her people in Nicaragua were starving to death.
“Sweet tea?” Paula interrupted Ramona’s thoughts and extended a glass of brownish liquid to her. A crisp lemon slice garnished the beverage.
“Thank you.” Ramona accepted the glass and took in the fresh air. It smelled a bit strange. Too stiff for her liking. Cathy scampered off to play in the tire swing under one of the grand oaks. As she did, the three adults watched, avoiding conversation, before someone braved rescue from the awkward silence.
Fred cleared his throat and said, “How have you spent the last five years? We had expected you to come before now.”
Ramona sipped the tea with her eyes peering over the glass’s rim. “War has a way of ruining plans. You should know that as well as anyone else. I would’ve come sooner but… I was kept away.”
He watched her closely then said, “What about the ceasefire?”
Ramona fumbled with the glass and tea sloshed onto the porch. She had assumed that they wouldn’t have heard about the ceasefire agreement between the Contras and the Sandinistas. Then again, news does spread fast, especially in the business of war. “Clumsy me,” she said.
“Your country seems to be at peace,” Paula said. “Do you think you could be too?”
Ramona’s lips curled into a pained snarl. “There will never be peace as long as a Sandinista is in office.”
“Even at the cost of depriving your daughter of her mother and depriving yourself of her? Can’t you see that you have a choice now? War has destroyed your family enough and it will continue to do so.” He pointed towards Cathy. “But you still have her.”
Ramona’s eyes shifted away from him. She knew they wouldn’t understand.“My country needs me.”
“Your daughter needs you too.”
They sat in silence once again, their minds presenting and rejecting solutions.
Paula wrenched her hands, stood and stepped over the puddle of tea and ice. “I’ll go fetch a rag to clean up this mess.”
She vanished into the house and the sound of her footsteps faded. Ramona turned to Fred. “How could you change her name? I trusted you to take her away from the war. Not to change her, lie to her…But then, apparently, she’s not my daughter anymore, is she? You saw how she reacted when I reached for her.”
“You’re wrong, Ramona. All we’ve done is make a home here for her, a family here that you can also be a part of.”
“And do what?” she cackled. “Farm corn and sip tea? I’m a soldier, not a freeloader. I can’t.”
“You mean you won’t,” Fred said harshly.
“The revolution in Nicaragua has already begun. There’s no stopping it this time. I shouldn’t have come here.” She stood and stepped toward the car before Fred gripped her wrist.
“There will always be someone to fight, some revolution to be part of, some people battling over power that can never be theirs. But you have only one daughter, one chance to raise her. If you walk away from her this time… don’t come back. ”
Ramona snatched her arm away before walking toward the car. As she did, Paula came from the house and stood next to her husband. The sedan’s engine came to life and not a second after, the car curled around in a cloud of dust and sped down the dirt road from where it came. With little Cathy playing not far from there, swinging in the tire and humming nursery rhymes, Fred and Paula watched until the vehicle was out of sight, never to return.
Cathy laid Paula’s journal entries down and turned to her husband. Over the next few weeks, she and Blake delved deeper into the package’s contents, uncovering lost stories, recreating history, resurrecting things from days past. They had begun with the typed letters addressed to Cassandra. Not long after Ramona had left Iowa and returned to Nicaragua, the Sandinistas and Contras erupted in another war. According to the documents, she had died in a government raid—they found her alone. She hadn’t surrendered when the men came for her that night. And long after the array of gunfire sounded, the Sandinistas and the Contras battled further, but Ramona’s war had come to an end.
Cathy felt loss, compassion and also empathy for the mother she never knew, the woman who believed she could not be a part of her life. The Nicaraguan government had seized most of Ramona’s remaining accounts and assets, but, according to her wishes, had left one piece of property to her only living relative—a daughter named Cassandra. An unclaimed two-story house with several terraces that overlooked the Mosquito Coast. “Well, we might be taking a trip after all,” Blake had said.
That evening, she visited Fred and Paula—her parents, not by blood, but by care. The two people that had raised and loved her, rescued her from a situation that might have taken her life and tried to do what was best. Old and gray, Fred and Paula welcomed their daughter as they always had. Sitting on the porch with her and looking over the golden cornfields, they shared treasured stories of Cathy’s youth and even recalled the endearing and happy times spent with Ramona before the war.
And that following summer, Cathy, with her husband and children, traveled to the Mosquito Coast and sailed over the Gulf’s blue water. Beside her the entire time, were Fred and Paula. In her heart was Ramona. It wouldn’t be the first time and wouldn’t be the last.