Tea. Tea is on the menu for this lovely English lady. I make a bit of a mess in the kitchen, scrambling for a serving dish prettier than our usual sugar jar, searching for our dainty milk pitcher, and gathering tea cups and saucers in place of our usual coffee mugs. She is small and smiley, even in her eyes. We sit down at my kitchen table and begin.
Emily: What is your name?
Karen: Karen Teresa Espinoza.
E: Tell us about you.
She smiles thoughtfully.
K: I'm 56, and I'm an English girl at heart. I'm shy. I love kind people, beautiful violin music, smiling babies, chocolate, long walks. I love to read. I love to knit. I'm an elementary school librarian. I love children and books.
We pause for a moment as if we've already come to the end of the interview.
E: All of this is great! You can just keep going. Wonderful!
She laughs at herself and smiles wide, as if it's funny that anyone would want to know these things about her.
K: I grew up in London. I moved to the United States when I was about six. My dad was in the military, he was a Marine, and that's how he met my mom. I think the happiest part of my life was in England, in London. It was a magical childhood. We lived right around the corner from Abbey Road, where the Beatles recording studio is. I used to get up and have porridge in the mornings then run upstairs to have tea with my grandfather, Simon. When I was about six we moved here to the States and soon found a house in the county. I had a little British accent, so the kids would ask me to say things and laugh at my little accent...and I was terribly shy! So, it was a little unnerving. I don't think I ever felt like I really belonged. I don't feel completely English, but I also don't feel completely American. I'm just who I am now! I never really felt like I fit in. I always felt a little different.
E: Tell us about your job.
K: Well, I'm on break right now, but I go back to the grind soon. I'm an elementary school librarian in Loudon County, so I commute. I travel an hour in the mornings each day. I get up at 4 AM and have to be on the road by 5:30. It's a beautiful drive. I love horses, so I'm looking over at the horses on the way. But, it is awfully early.
She smiles softly. I start to wonder what the world looks like through her eyes. They seem to smile, but with insight. I wonder what she knows that others don't, and how it might make things look different.
E: What is a day in the life of Karen?
K: A day in the life of Karen!
She seems amused and exclaims as if she's telling a Dr. Seuss story. Is she really as shy as she says? Reserved, maybe. I think she has more spunk in her than she lets on!
K: Okay! I get up at 4. One of the first things I do is eat breakfast. I'm one of those people who has to eat breakfast every morning. I get some tea and usually some toast, but I am mainly rushing around to get ready. I get to school and I'm usually one of the first people there. I like to get things done ahead of time and never do anything last minute. I turn on all the computers and set out my lessons for the day. I usually have about 34 classes a week that I have to teach.
I let out a deep sigh, mimicking how she must feel mid-day in a job like that.
K: Yeah, it's a lot. It's kind of like a revolving door. But, each class comes in for about 30 minutes. They have a 10 minute check-out, then the lesson for the day. I try to make it fun, so, anything from learning how to use the dictionary to website evaluation. I'm a hands-on person and like it to be fun! We play games–learning through games is a good hands-on activity.
Her eyes light up when she talks about the kids. It is as if she knows each one and is seeing their faces as she describes the day.
K: By about 2:50 I'm done and on the commute home. As soon as I get home I have to hit the kitchen right away to start dinner, not a whole lot of time. Then I hang out with my husband (my best friend), usually watch TV–or he watches TV, and I'm usually sitting in bed with a book, or some knitting! Then I have to be asleep by 8 o'clock in order to do it all again.
A smile spreads across her face, as if she's very content with her day.
K: So, not much of a social life during the week.
E: What are the highlights of your day?
K: Definitely connecting with the kids. I love their little smiles and they say the darndest things sometimes.
She shakes her head and smiles sweetly.
K: They crack me up! I think it helps to keep me young.
She laughs and the laugh lines around her eyes make so much sense. I hope I have that many. How wonderful to laugh as often as she does!
K: They're so funny. One little kindergartener comes in with her class and of course they're excited, because the kids are so excited to come and get their own books. They come in then they give you hugs, or some of them will stroke your foot when you're reading. They're just so sweet! So, this one little girl comes in with her class, and she was just adorable, with her big blue eyes and curly blond hair. She gives me a hug and says, "Mrs. Espinoza, you smell good! You smell like po-po-reeh!"
E: Do you have any other rituals? Is tea a highlight?
K: It's a ritual. I got it from my mom. We did that in my house growing up. It was always a big deal, and we do have little cookies with our tea. It's just–I'm English! I can't change who I am. Actually, it's an addiction, too. Because if I don't get my tea I get a terrible headache. So, I have some in the morning, some with lunch, and some at the end of the day.
E: Who are the closest people to you in your life?
K: Well, my husband, Grover. He's from Bolivia. I actually met him at a Gabriel Brothers store.
She giggles at herself as she says "Gabriel Brothers."
K: I actually met him while I was going through my divorce. I had moved out of my home into a tiny little townhouse and I didn't have much money. It was just me and my little Yorky, Emma, and I didn't have much of a life. I was just commuting. So, one day I just decided I was going to go to Gabes and look around! I was looking about when all of a sudden he walked up to me. At the time I was pretty standoffish, especially with men. I really just wanted to be left alone and get my life together. Then he comes up and says, "Excuse me, can you help me?" I said, "Okay..." He was also going through a divorce. His kids and his ex-wife who were living in Bolivia, so he was here all alone in this country. He was planning a trip back to Bolivia to see his daughters and he wanted to buy them some clothes. He needed help with sizes! So, he saw me and just walked up and asked,"Does this look like it would fit a 10-year-old?" I just thought he was charming, and he was so cute! So, once I got done helping him we both went on shopping, and then he sort of drifted back, then we would go on shopping, then he would drift back over again. And he just kept doing that! We ended up talking for a long time.
E: In Gabriel Brothers?
K: Yes! He ended up telling me he was just in town for the day and was there with some family. I hadn't really talked to a guy since I was 19, because I got married! But something was just so charming about him, so I gave him my phone number. And I knew he was something special: he whipped out his cellphone and he was trying to put my number in his phone and his hands are shaking. He was so nervous! There was something just so endearing. So, we paid for our things and he asked me if there was any place good to eat. I said, "There's the food court at Apple Blossom Mall, would you like me to take you there? If you want you can follow me." So, he followed me to the parking lot, then he got out and I just stuck my head out the window and waved goodbye, thinking that was the end of it. Little did I know, he thought I was going to accompany him for lunch, and here I had driven off! Then I'm about halfway home and my cellphone is going off. It was him. And he said, "What happened?! Where we're you? I expected you to come to lunch with us!" Then I turned around and joined him for lunch. It was just a pizza, but then we took a walk around the mall, and even then it was like magic between us. We had just met, but I felt like I wanted to hold his hand, and later he said he felt the same. Then he started calling me every weekend, and then he started coming to see me every weekend. He would drive down from Tyson's Corner. We dated for three years before he proposed. He actually proposed to me in Bolivia. He told me he was going to introduce me to his family. So, we were sightseeing and I had no idea. He took me into this very, very old church. The legend was there was a statue of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary that cried. I wanted to see it! He took me inside and it was just amazing. You could see what looked like lines where they had been crying on the statue. I was just amazed. I was taking pictures and people started drifting out. There weren't too many people there to begin with, bit at one point it was just me and him and he took me up to the altar to look at the statue again. There he got down on his knees at the altar and proposed to me.
E: Oh my goodness.
K: I know!
She looks like a princess who's just found out about her royalty. So bright and lovely. She's simply beaming.
E: I guess you said yes.
K: Of course I said yes! He is the most amazing man. So, my husband. But you asked who the most important people in my life are and I rambled on a bit. The other most important person would be my mom. You know how some people say, "I don't want to be like my mom?" Well, I definitely want to be like my mom. It would be an honor to be like my mom.
She tears up and holds her breath for a moment.
E: It's okay.
K: I...it would be an honor to be like my mom. We are a lot alike. I got married young just like she did. I'm very shy. I always thought my mom was very quiet, but she's strong. It was a shock for my mom to move from London to little, tiny Winchester, Virginia. And we moved down to the boondocks! There weren't many houses or stores, not like they have now! So, my mom came to this country, but my dad ended up leaving her when I was twelve. There were four of us children. My mom had never worked in this country and she didn't know how to drive. I remember the neighbors taking her up and down our subdivision teaching her how to drive.
E: Oh my goodness!
K: I know! She was stranded! She didn't have any work, or many skills. I remember her really struggling to make ends meet. She went to a dinky yard sale and picked up an old sewing machine, then taught herself how to sew so she could make us clothes! We always had clean clothes, we were always clean...she sacrificed a lot. Her first official job was in the OR. She cleaned off the instruments they used for surgery. Then eventually she got a job at a bank and worked there for many years. She's a strong, strong woman, so I hope I can be that strong, as well. I've also always had teachers along the way who inspired me. I was always good at school, but I was, as I am now, terribly shy. I had teachers who encouraged me to try new things and step out of my comfort zone, which is kind of why I am doing this!
E: Right! And I'm so glad you are!
We both laugh heartily and my heart fills with joy to hear her story. Who knows how many people have heard her story, especially understanding she's so shy?
E: What are your goals and ambitions? What are some of your greatest accomplishments?
K: Well, I'm 56 years old, so I've packed a lot into those 56 years! I think my greatest accomplishments have been my children. I got married at 19, was married 27 years, and it was a very difficult marriage. I think my sons have turned out okay.
She pauses and looks longingly, lovingly in front of her before she continues.
K: I had plans to go to college. I had gone to the community college Lord Fairfax, then I met my first husband and got married. Then I didn't finish my college until the age of 34 when I went back to finish at Shepherd College. That was a great accomplishment! At that time I had teenage sons in the house and I was trying to write papers and study for exams while their music is blaring, then I'm trying to run kids to soccer practice, but I am a very determined person, so whatever I do I put my whole heart into it. So, I'm very proud that I graduated Shepherd College and had a 4.0 average. I worked very hard to get to that place. I may have taken a different route, it took a little longer, but my determination is what gets me there.
E: Can you tell us how you walked away from that marriage?
K: Yes. It was an abusive marriage. I didn't realize it at first, but I knew I was in trouble when I had my first son. He was only a few weeks old when I brought him home from the hospital and I thought everything was going to be fine. I imagined the fairytale marriage, and we would have our little family. I don't even remember what the argument was about, but we had an argument and he tried to push me down the stairs.
As she pauses her eyes turn dark and angry, but not scared, as I'd thought they might.
K: I remember clawing at the walls, trying to grab onto anything to keep from falling. That's when I finally realized he was truly trying to hurt me, it wasn't one of those accidents, he really wanted me hurt.
She pauses and breathes deep, as though exhaling a life she no longer lives.
K: Things just happened over the years, the police were at my house many times, and things kept happening. It was the typical abuse situation. I would leave and stay with people, but I would always come back. It was scary at times. Sometimes he would rip the phone out of the wall so I couldn't call for help. Looking back I don't know how I got through it, other than I have faith in God and I knew it couldn't be this way forever.
She looks strong and convinced of her words. She starts to look at me with authority, as if she's assumed a teacher's position. Her words may say she's shy, but her countenance is one of quiet conviction.
K: I prayed for better things. Not many people knew, I didn't share it. My mom didn't even know! I don't really know how it happened, but we had an argument one day and I just snapped. I just thought, "I can't do this anymore." I couldn't be afraid anymore. So, I got up and waited for him to go to work, I called in sick at my work, then I started calling moving companies. I called the first two companies and they said they didn't have anything open that day. I called the third and he said, "We have one opening and we can be there at 3 o'clock." And I said, "I'll take it if you can move me our of here by six." Because he got off of work at six and we needed to be out of there and the man said, "Okay, we can do that." I also called my best friend, Mary, and she said she would come over and help me pack. So, I just started frantically packing things. At that time my boys had already moved out and we're building their own lives.
She pauses to think.
K: I don't know what did it, but I just woke up and decided this was the day I was going to change my life. I have a faith in God. My mom always took us to church and always told us God is watching over us. She told us to pray. She told us, "Always believe." And I did. There were times that I was mad at God throughout the years. I screamed many times, "Why me, God?" But, if I hadn't gone through all of this I wouldn't have met my husband I have now, and it's made me who I am inside. There is a reason for all things. I truly believe that the people we meet in life, the experiences we have, the things you learn, it shapes who you are, gives you character.
She is quiet for a moment. Her eyes are kind and her countenance peaceful.
K: It's made me who I am.
E: How is that? How did those experiences shape your heart and your person?
K: I've learned that I am a highly sensitive person. There's actually a book about it called, "The Highly Sensitive Person" and only 10% of the population is like this! Beautiful music can just make me cry. I am super sensitive to people going through painful situations. I cry easily.
She laughs, and I see kindness. She is caring, loving, and thoughtful. One could gather this easily from just a laugh illuminating her face. Suddenly all the pain she spoke of has–not vanished, but found its place in a steady light of experience in her eyes.
K: I have empathy for people. I care deeply. I want to help other women who have been in that same situation, but I've never been quite sure how because I'm so shy. I'm truly happy that someone might be able to read this and realize they can be strong and get out of a similar situation.
E: What I see and what I hear is glory through redemption. You are so redeemed!
She sighs and giggles a bit, reminding me of a little girl who just won at tag or hopscotch.
E: You've walked out of abuse and are neither scarred to the point that you are afraid of living, nor hardened to the point that you don't allow yourself to feel. You still cry to a sensitive piece of music, enjoy flowers and horses on your long drive to work. It is beautiful to see you. You are like a bird, beautiful, small, fragile and delicate, but not without strength. It's inspiring to be here and hear your story.
K: I never considered myself strong, never.
K: I used to be afraid to even go out in public, after I left. I would go to stores and be afraid to ask for help, or people would ask me things and I almost developed a speech impediment. I would often stumble over my words and was just so afraid. Plus, I had never lived on my own. That was a whole new challenge!
She laughs heartily.
E: What are your goals and ambitions now?
K: My goals and ambitions are to grow old gracefully. I'm looking forward to retirement and spending time with my husband and my boys. I want to travel, I love to travel! I want peace, tranquility, and calmness after all the chaos I've had in my life. I just want to enjoy.
E: What are some ways you've been doing that?
K: I've been taking horseback riding lessons!
K: I love horses! I never loved them as a little girl, I didn't have that horse craziness that some little girls have, but my best friend Mary was from Louisville, Kentucky and she moved back there. So, I lost my best friend, which was really hard, but she invited me there to visit. We went to Churchill Downs where the Kentucky Derby is run and I just fell in love with horses! Then she took me to a race! I don't know if it was beginners luck, or what, but I placed a $10 bet and one $110!
The whole time she is describing the horses she is laughing and giggling between her words. Radiant joy at my kitchen table.
K: I was just caught up with the whole horse scene! So, I decided to do something brave and started taking lessons! I've been taking lessons for about a year now and I'm in heaven. I play the violin, but can't anymore due to a car accident I was in. So, I bought a cello and that's going to be my next instrument. I keep finding new things to do! I read lots of books. I've taken up knitting again!
Her whole countenance has changed. Imagine a little girl describing in detail her doll collection, this is it.
K: I just keep finding things! I'm feeding my soul. More things that I want to do, less things that I have to do, that's the goal.
E: How did you come to that place of doing more that you want to do than what you have to? And, what advice would you give to those of us who still feel that we "have" to do?
K: Well, I just feel as if I got caught up in the "rat race," as they call it. Just living and living and living. It gets faster and faster! It drained me physically and emotionally. I think my husband was a big inspiration in changing that. He's such a peaceful, centered, calm person. When he met me I was obviously in a very dark place. Through his words, kindness, and long talks we had, he showed me that I was important. You need to nurture your soul. It's not about the quantity, how much you can stuff into your life, it's about the quality. This experience is soul nurturing! It is! Nobody has ever sat me down and asked me these questions, and I'm so shy that I wouldn't just tell someone. Today is very brave for me!
She laughs, illuminating my kitchen once again.
As we close she shares more of the lovely things happening in her life, of the castle she got married in, of her dear, true, unrelenting love of tea. Her story has struck me to the core. I don't know anyone with a story like her's, or if I do I've never heard it. Telling her story has been a daring thing all on its own, but her life is one marked by bravery. I'm reminded of the quote from Douglas MacArthur:
Build me a son, O Lord, who will be strong enough to know when he is weak, and brave enough to face himself when he is afraid, one who will be proud and unbending in honest defeat, and humble and gentle in victory.
I see a humble, gentle victor before me. It's been an elegant encounter, a joy indeed.
Ladies and gentlemen, introducing, Karen Teresa Espinoza.