by Abe Asher
The dining hall team’s offices are located in hallway behind the kitchen. You go past the vending machines – if you can – past the bathrooms and the bakery, and you’re there.
It’s not a plush or expansive workspace, with its three desks and a trapped door that leads to the room where they keep all the really good food that you don’t see at lunch.
I visited on Wednesday November 12th – it was a day off from soccer after we
all came down with hypothermia won the semifinal against Creswell.
Carmen Garcia died on November 3rd. She had been sick for a long time with stomach cancer, and chances are you didn’t know her name or her story, but you did know her smile.
It was a great smile, and that’s all it took for me to want to learn more.
And in a short time, I learned a lot. I learned about her devotion to her two sons and her bravery and stoicism when facing the end of her life. I learned about her sturdiness and her steadiness as a single mother and as a diligent worker.
I learned about her pride, and her authenticity. I heard a lot about her kindness and warmth, but then again, after one look at that smile I didn’t need to be sold on her kindness and warmth.
I learned that Carmen desperately wanted to live to see her first born boy graduate high school, and that she worried and fretted about what would happen to her family after she was gone.
That’s what a memorial fund is set up for, to take care of her boys. Donate today, if you can. There’s a link in your email.
I learned that Carmen worked at OES for almost fifteen years – through two different food services – and that before Carmen worked here, her mom Flo did. In the dining hall, and then on the janitorial staff.
I got passersby the office stopping and lighting up when informed about what the discussion going on inside was about, offering their own memories.
I got the impression immediately that the two people I was talking to – Dining Hall chief Kelly Cowing and snack maven Shirley Feuz – and everyone who stopped by, desperately wanted to paint the best picture of Carmen possible.
They weren’t struggling to convey their love – in fact, that little office was nowhere near big enough to contain the love and admiration that was being conveyed – but they wanted to say more, to say it better, to say it perfectly.
I got recommendations on other people to talk to who knew Carmen, around the school and community. They wanted me to talk to everyone. They wanted me to write the best article possible. The least I could do was give it my best shot.
“She was very quiet, but we asked her a question, and that infectious smile, that beautiful smile with her white teeth – she always glowed when she smiled.”
“Regardless of what she was doing, she always had that smile,” Cowing said.
Yeah, that smile again.
Our conversation was a Carmen Garcia, with both women chiming in. There were almost no pauses.
Before too long, of course, Carmen’s family came up.
“You could tell that they were a very strong, tight-knit family. That was all that mattered to her.”
“Even before her own health, she put her boys first.”
By all accounts, Carmen was a great worker – “she came from North Portland and never missed a day,” Cowing said.
Her domain was the salad bar, and when Fuez came in 2003, she helped Carmen prepare it.
“That salad bar meant everything in the world to her. She took tremendous pride in the way that salad bar looked every day,” Fuez said.
“When other people started taking care of it, she’d smile and shake her head,” she said with a chuckle.
And then she leaned in towards me and said without a hint of irony, “She felt a huge responsibility to take care of you guys.”
When Carmen got sick, she was moved out of the dining hall and into less physically straining responsibilities with lower schoolers and other posts. Still, she never missed a day, “unless her doctor expressly ordered her to stay home.”
Her goal was to make it to that graduation. And she did make it.
“It was a very proud day for her. She was so thrilled that she was able to make it to the graduation. It meant the world to both of them.”
Suzy, another Bon Appetit employee who worked with and knew Carmen, said, “She’s probably the most wonderful person I’ve met in my life, really. A good soul.”
She went on to say, “Everything that she did was authentic. She was just one doggone sweet – but I heard her once talking to her son on the phone and raising her voice, and I was like “you go girl!”
She brought up her sons right – “Carmen, for years, taught those boys to be good housekeepers. They know how to cook. They knew they had to help her. They were glad to help her.”
As the end of her life neared, Carmen shied away from the support offered by her colleagues. It was hard for her to appear weak and receive attention when she was so, “very shy, very quiet, somewhat reserved. A silent but sturdy presence.”
Carmen died on a Sunday night, in peace.
“The memorial service was very simple and quiet like Carmen. It was perfect.”
“At the service, her cousin talked about when he came over to visit at one time, and they were watching some home videos, and one was of Carmen sky-diving. She was the baby of the family – always quiet, always in control.”
“I’d have said no way, no, that isn’t her.”
But it was. Teddy Roosevelt would have said she walked quietly and carried a big stick. Now she’s gone, but I’ll always remember how her coworkers talked about her in that office, and those who knew her will always remember the person herself.
“Carmen was always worried that her boys would not be taken care of when she was no longer here. The fund is there to help support the boys financially. Their dad isn’t in the picture, so they’re being taken care of by their aunt and uncle.”
Keep them in your thoughts. And know that it took me five minutes to realize that that smile deserved the person who wore it.