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American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

February 2007

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The author, whose husband, Bart Moon, was then serving as the State Department's advisor to the Commander in Chief of the U.S. Southern Command, reminisces about living in, and trying to manage, a house first built for one of the French engineers sent by DeLesseps in his failed effort to build a Panama canal.Ed.

Termite Wings in the Lampshades

Lila worked every day as a domestic in Panama City. She hailed from the West Indies, admitted to seventy odd years, and each morning donned some wildly worded tee shirt and skin tight jeans.

Entrance to the Panama Canal, Pacific side.
The first time I saw Lila was the early afternoon we arrived at our assigned Quarry Heights quarters: a shabby, genteel, century-old French Colonial frame house. Surrounded by banana trees and flaming ginger plants, it possessed an air of charming decay.

A neighbor's gardener had arranged my meeting with Lila. They had a complicated kinship: she was a cousin of the gardener's brother-in-law's niece.

“Fortunately for you, madam,” the gardener said, “she be without a job now. She could be helpin' you with such a big house.”

And big house it was, evoking a spirit of bygone canal-building days with its graceful, high ceilings and rugged exposed beams and joists: a grand dame caught in a moment of undress.

It was Panamanian hot and muggy as I climbed a few rickety stairs to the vast porch surrounding the house. A sloth, hanging upside down, lazily watched me from a nearby pecan tree. There on the veranda was Lila, already busily dusting the mildewed lampshades. She was wearing a Crocodile Dundee tee shirt.

“Good evenin', missus. Lila be my name. You must be the new lady. Well, finally you reach. Chuleta! I hopin' to stay here and work some, but I meanin to tell you some things first off. You see, I be a full woman, mum, and I never bend.”

Her manner of speech mystified me at first, but I soon learned some of her lingo was a West Indian-Panamanian grammatical stew. A greeting in the afternoon was “good evenin'” and in the evening was “good night”. Chuleta was not a “pork chop” as I had learned in school, but rather an expression of enthusiasm or exasperation. And “full woman” in this Caribbean argot meant of an age, mature...yes, downright old. And bending? That was to be taken literally for Lila avoided basic household tasks like opening windows—shutting them for that matter. Later she was to remind me: “There will be no bed making or sweeping of floors.”

But on that first sultry afternoon I knew none of this and when Lila had completed her introduction on the porch, she resumed her dusting. Her flannel cloth impatiently whisked away shimmering flecks from the lampshade.

“What are those things, Lila? They seem to be all over the floor.”

“These here? These is the wings of the termites. All for eatin' up your porch. How I know? See the sawdust mounds around the chair legs? That's them all right.”

It certainly was a revelation that a shimmering iridescent turned out to be part of a termite. What a romantic discovery in the tropics!

“I think I'll be needing you, Lila. I really do. You may stay.”

And smiling, we shook hands on our agreement.

Political Adviser's quarters, Quarry Heights.
But it wasn't long before it became clear that our turn of the century Zonian house and Lila were a bad match; not only did she refuse to bend, she refused to climb. The dark oak staircase separating the levels of our house was too ambitious an ascent for Lila.

I learned that there were other no-no's in Lila's job description: no pot scrubbing, no bathroom cleaning, no serving table, and no telephone answering. Most of these she dismissed with the same expression she had used when we first met: “no bending”. When I couldn't connect “bending” with answering the telephone, Lila explained, “Yes, mi corazon, for a full woman rushin' to a ringin' telephone could bring a damagin' thing to the legs.”

The torpid days passed and Lila's activities dwindled. I began to count strongly on her cooking skills. Surely that would be her forte and my husband and I could revel in her Caribbean recipes. When I quizzed her about her specialties, she replied boldly:

“Supposin' we talk it all out. I don't care to be eatin' pork, beef, nothin' fried, no salt, no butter nor fat and in the mornin' hours I tend to enjoy Colby cheese for that's what pleases me best with my coffee which must be without caffein.”

I didn't understand what this speech had to do with her culinary talents, but since I had lived overseas for a number of years I knew what a struggle it was to start again looking for help. I swallowed hard and hustled off to buy the appropriate items: Colby cheese, decaf, and I threw in a jar of raspberry jam.

It became a weekly chore to attend to Lila's wish list. I would arrive home hot and thirsty and find Lila in her room, resting and watching her favorite tele-novela.

The author on the canal.
One week end when Lila had gone to her Panama City home, I surrendered to an impulse to explore her room. I opened the door a crack and was engulfed by a mixture of cloying smells: Jungle Gardenia perfume, baby powder, and something unknown—perhaps rotting Colby cheese. On her bureau rested ribbons from every gift past received, and positioned near her black and white TV was her oversized sagging lounge chair, littered with jig-saw pieces.

But what really captured my attention was a tapestry, thumb tacked to the wall. Represented in mute colors were several overweight dogs and cats puffing on cigars and sitting around a poker table, stacked with chips. As I turned and left, closing the door quietly, I had the eerie feeling their eyes were watching me.

Months passed and we appeared settled; therefore, I was surprised when Lila approached me about quitting. It seems she had had enough. She took my hand and said, “I goin', missus, and I hope nobody get vexed. I'm not dominatin' nobody, but I can't seem to work for a lady so pushy and demandin'.”

I stood on the same screened porch where we had met and waved good-bye. It was late afternoon and bands of chattering marmosets, looking for their evening meal, were swinging from palm to banyan. Lila walked out of the garden past the pecan and pineapple trees at a pretty brisk pace for a full woman.

The house seemed empty without her and the termite wings accumulated on the hardwood floors. There was still a stale wedge of Colby cheese in the refrigerator and the decaf had clotted in its jar. I didn't look right away, but I hoped she hadn't forgotten to take her tapestry.

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February 24, 2007

Calista Moon received her undergraduate degree at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven and her master's degree at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. She served with her husband at eight diplomatic posts in Europe, Africa, and Latin America.

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