New York Times Best Selling Author

Piecework Newsletter
Volume XII, Issue Two | June 2017

In Nicaragua

For the past 10 years, my daughter Dana has volunteered to work in an eyeglasses clinic in Central America, run by New Orleans Medical Mission Services.  NOMMS sends doctors, nurses, physical therapists, and other volunteers to Nicaragua for one week twice a year to perform surgeries and to hand out eyeglasses.  Dana now heads the eyeglass clinic in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. Her sister, Povy, accompanied her a couple of years ago. This year, I went with her. “La Jefa” is embroidered on Dana’s scrubs.  Mine read “La Madre de La Jefa.”  It lent a certain cache if not competence to my work.

Some 40 of us flew to Nicaragua in March, then made the two-hour bus ride to Matagalpa, past tropical flowers, horse-drawn carts, goats and donkeys, and metal shacks painted bright colors, that serve as houses.  Next to Haiti, Nicaragua is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, but you wouldn’t know that from the kindness and generosity of the people.

NOMMS had spent months preparing for the trip—acquiring and packing surgical equipment and supplies, for instance.  Dana spent the year collecting eyeglasses from individuals and organizations such as Lions Clubs.  The glasses are marked and organized by prescription, then boxed and shipped to Nicaragua with us.  We had some 10,000 pairs of glasses.  Dana and another volunteer hand-carried the auto refactors. We arrived on Saturday, and Sunday we set up.

When we got to the clinic Monday morning to begin work, we were greeted by hundreds of patients, some of whom had been in line since 5 a.m., waiting to be fitted with glasses.  They were friendly and greeted us with, “Buenas dias.”  I was nervous.  Although Dana had explained the procedure, I wasn’t sure I was up to the task.  First a volunteer uses an auto refractor to determine the patient’s prescription.  The patient gives a piece of paper with the prescription on it to a volunteer such as me, who finds the appropriate box of glasses.  The glasses are organized by right eye prescription.  If the right eye reads +3.5 (don’t ask me what that means), you take down that box, then rummage through it until you find a pair of glasses with a prescription for the left eye.

It’s not that simple, however.  Because of the heat and high usage, the auto refractor isn’t always accurate.  Then a patient who has never worn glasses may recoil and say the lenses are too strong.  (In five days in the clinic, I had only one patient who said the lenses were too weak.)  So you go through half-a-dozen boxes to find the right fit.  And of course there are some patients who say the glasses are too strong because they don’t like the frames.  All you have to do is look at an 18-year-old woman in tight jeans and make-up to know she’s going to recoil if you try to fit her with a pair of oversized glasses from the 1970s.  My pickiest patient, however, was a 17-year-old man, who after trying on seven or eight pairs of glasses, decided the first pair fit fine. (It had the coolest frames.)

Some of the volunteers, including Dana, spoke Spanish.  I’d taken two years of it in high school, but all I could remember was how to ask for the bathroom. I memorized a few key phrases, such as “too strong” and “too weak,” but they didn’t get me anywhere. Fortunately, for nonSpanish speakers, there were interpreters. That was absolutely necessary, because some people wanted to tell the history of their eyes.  And in certain cases, we had to explain we didn’t have glasses that worked for them—a fellow with a +14.5 prescription, for instance.  (I think that’s close to blind.) Instead of sending them away empty-handed, however, we offered readers or sunglasses. I asked one woman if she wanted readers, and she shook her head, saying, “I can’t read.”  So I quickly asked if she wanted glasses for sewing.

The experience was extraordinary. Patients asked God to bless us for our work. Two of my patients were a mother and her five-year-old son.  I found glasses for the woman, but the boy’s eyes were good, and after testing him, I had to tell him he saw better without glasses than with the weakest prescription in the box. He was on the verge of tears, because he wanted glasses so much.  We gave him a pair of sunglasses.  They covered most of his face, but we could still see the huge grin when he put them on. After Dana fitted an elderly woman with glasses, the patient took out a tiny Bible from her purse and opened it, a look of rapture on her face, because she had not been able to read the Bible for 10 years.

It’s a cliché to say I got as much out of the experience as the patients, but I did—and more.  I got out of bed in the middle of the night to turn down the air conditioning, tripped over a suitcase, and slammed the side of my face on the tile floor.  Who knew your head bled so much?  Fortunately, a NOMMS plastic surgeon sewed me up in the morning, and I was able to milk the black eye for a month.

I already sent in my application for next year.  Somebody else will have to be in charge of the air conditioning, however.   —SD


Finally!

Finally!  Finally! After more than two years of angst and self-pity, I finally have sold an adult novel! St. Martin’s Press will publish The Patchwork Bride a year from now.  It’s the story of a turn-of-the-century woman who runs away from marriage not once but three times. That means I’ll have two books coming out in spring, 2018, because Hardscrabble, my third young adult novel, will be published then, too. Thanks to all of you who hung in there and supported me during those years of self-doubt.


Sandra’s Picks
Death on Nantucket.  By Francine Mathews.  Soho Crime.

I’ve always admired Francine Mathews because she can write thrillers and mainstream novels, then switch voices and write the charming Jane Austen mysteries.  I never knew that she started out writing a New England mystery series.  Death on Nantucket is the fourth in the series.  The third book actually came out 19 years ago, when the featured sleuth, Merry Folger, was about to get married. So by rights, her character ought to be middle-aged.  But Mathews has rewritten those earlier books, updating them to contemporary times, so that Merry doesn’t have to endure a 19-year engagement.

Merry is a detective with the Nantucket police department.  She’s called in when the body of a young woman is found on the widow’s walk of a famous old house.  Is the death murder, suicide or an accident?  It’s hard to tell because the body has been moldering away for a month. The dead woman is the adopted daughter of a famous war correspondent who got rich from a book he wrote about being captured in Laos.  The daughter, an adopted Laotian, is a writer, too, and it turns out she was writing an expose of her father.

The father has dementia.  Still, he as well as his two sons (the victim’s much older brothers) are suspects in the girl’s death. That is if the young woman was murdered.  Then the father is found with his head bashed in, and there is no question that his death is a homicide.

As with her other books, Mathews brings a sense of time and place as well as a good story to her mystery.


To Be a Slave.  Edited by Juius Lester.  Scholastic Inc.

Bob had to have cataract surgery, so I picked up this 1968 paperback to reread while I was in the waiting room.  The procedure took 15 minutes, but I was so engrossed in the book that I read it all the way through.  In the 1930s, the government established the Federal Writer’s Project for unemployed writers.  In the South, the writers interviewed former slaves about their experiences.  The result was a dozen or more books of slave recollections. I’ve read most of them and have used the books in my research—for New Mercies, for instance.  Some stories are terrifying, others nostalgic.  Many of the first-person memories were rewritten so that the slaves spoke close-to-perfect English, but the most compelling accounts quote the former slaves in their own words, a combination of slave talk and 1930s slang. The incidents in To Be a Slave are culled from various state collections.  They recount the horrors of slavery—the cruelty, the degradation, and the utterly powerlessness of men and women and even children in bondage as they watched family members hauled off to be sold on the auction block.—SD


Contact Sandra at sandradallas@msn.com

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