This little story of life along Lake Chapala probably belongs in a movie or a museum dedicated to strange and unusual happenings. You can believe it or not.
Our kind and gentle friend, Grace Contrades, in her 70s, managed to involve herself, her aging Cadillac and a muscular young man named Miguel in a January accident on the Chapala by-pass, mid-afternoon, no margarita or wine with lunch, no weather disturbances or highway maintenance workers as distractions.
In layman’s language, Miguel ran into the road, missed a car coming in the opposite direction and was struck a whopping blow by Grace’s big car. She described it as a horrible thud. The body flew onto the hood. The windshield collapsed inward. Grace was showered with glass.
Miguel crash-landed off to the side, between a tree and a concrete wall. He looked more dead than alive. He got multiple fractures, concussion, bruises and abrasions instead of killed because Grace drives slowly and carefully. She is sometimes so slow and careful that she delays the delivery of Pepsis, pineapples and propane gas.
This event drew a terrific crowd. That’s how it is when you don’t charge admission.
Many drivers stopped, some to offer aid, some to see what the heck was causing all the congestion. One stopper, the motorist coming the other way, proved to be a very vital witness. One used a cell phone to call the police, the magic number of Grace’s insurance company and one of her two hundred closest friends.
A complete calmness came over Grace. She knew she wasn’t at fault. She prayed that Miguel would live.
In this same month of January, on the same day as this traumatic mishap, in a surprisingly short time, two flights of Chapala police arrived at the accident scene. The Red Cross ambulance removed Miguel. Grace’s car was towed away and impounded.
The tow truck bill for two long blocks turned out to be more than 1000 pesos (about 90 valuable U.S. dollars). Under certain circumstances, towing is a very good business.
The police launched a comprehensive investigation of the accident scene — how many steps this way and that, how far can you see if you are looking. It was obvious the research and analysis committee was going to take awhile. That left Grace in an awkward position, standing on one foot and then the other, her arthritis getting angry, her joint replacements wondering how much of this foolishness they could take.
A compassionate observer got involved and found a discarded plastic chair. Upon close inspection, one leg was discovered to be fractured. If Grace, a large woman, had sat down without looking, there would have been another serious accident.
God is good. Someone else located a five-gallon bucket. Look, if you turn it over, it becomes a stool and you can sit down. She sat after several promised to eventually help hoist her up.
An hour and a half later, it was time to take Grace away — in a police truck. Alas, it was much too high for her to get up and in.
In Mexico, there are solutions to all dilemmas. No ladder? No problem. A search team came back with a large, flat rock Grace could use as a stepping stone. The police were smart enough to take the rock along so Grace would have a step down.
Please read carefully what follows. We are coming to the “amazing” part.
Friends gathered at the police station. First to arrive were the daughter and granddaughter of Grace’s maid. Next came Greta Parker, owner of the insurance company which takes a share of Grace’s money. Greta stopped answering e-mails and selling policies and rushed to provide legal and emotional support.
Soon, another friend, bilingual Belva, showed up to serve as language coordinator. She and Grace attend the same church each Sunday. Belva plays the piano and directs the choir.
Not far behind came other friends. All seemed surprised that Grace, as usual, was calm and poised. She explained quietly that she had done nothing wrong, that she knew she wasn’t at fault, that, from her perspective, the accident was unavoidable.
Grace’s religious faith is so strong, she simply handed off the problem. Here you go God, you take it.
Grace had never been to jail before. She studied the layout, the furniture, the pictures and posters. She was surprised when the police, more than once, tried to persuade her to admit blame. They told her she could go home if she’d just sign on the dotted line. Grace politely declined.
That cost her the remainder of the afternoon, twilight time, the dinner hour, all of the evening and much of the night.
There was talk of moving Grace from the reception area to a cell. She could see the cells. They did not appear particularly hospitable or inviting.
The threat did not come to fruition nor did it noticeably trouble Amazing Grace. She just said another prayer.
Rumor has it that right there in the police station, Grace and her friends sang hymns. A cappella. There is no evidence or suggestion that officers sang along but you better believe they gave their undivided attention. You know what usually follows a hymn? Somebody takes up a collection!
Throughout the evening, lawyer types went back and forth from the police station to the justice department, cross-checking Grace’s immigration documents and financial statements and Miguel’s medical reports and details of the accident — in triplicate.
Keep in mind that this is Mexico. Nobody got in any particular hurry. It was explained that the driver in an accident can be held 48 hours while officials sort things out and stamp all the paperwork.
As is the custom when pedestrians are struck by moving vehicles, the Mexican insurance company was more than willing to pay for Miguel’s repairs but complications popped up. The victim’s parents thought a larger settlement would be appropriate.
The insurance company was prepared to post bond for Grace but offices were closing at 8. There was talk of working it out tomorrow. Grace squirmed.
There were minor delays in communications. The fax machine didn’t work. The computer printer decided to run out of ink. Someone went to buy another floppy disk to expedite computer talk but returned empty-handed. The insurance attorney’s credentials were questioned. He had copies in his briefcase but somebody at the justice department wanted to see originals.
A new person came up with a new idea. If Grace would just admit guilt, sign right here, please, they could all go home. An encouraging lawyer said she wouldn’t even lose her home.
Grace needed to go to the bathroom. That was an adventure. Low toilet, no seat, no paper.
Soon thereafter, two lab technicians wanted to draw blood for testing. They couldn’t find a vein. Grace said they could just punch a hole inside her elbow. The techs said oh no, that they had only a large needle and it would do terrible damage, how about a urine sample. Grace said she couldn’t give another drop.
Even in Mexico, January jail is a cold place. A guard went to her locker, came back with a big, bulky, red blanket and lovingly wrapped it around Grace. That was good. Not so good was word from a lawyer that Grace couldn’t possibly be released until authorities had her lab report. So, maybe a little bit would be enough.
There were many pages of paper to be signed. Belva read each one carefully before Grace autographed it and added her thumbprint. Car-people accidents are serious.
Sometime after midnight came a breakthrough. Copies of the insurance lawyer’s credentials were suddenly acceptable. Somebody working late could, in fact, accept bail money. Maybe God intervened or perhaps Grace and her friends wore out their welcome. They were told to go away.
Grace was disappointed that the police decided to hold her Cadillac in custody, even after all insurance documents had been copied three times.
In the days that followed, that witness from the Chapala by-pass convinced all concerned that Miguel ran in front of Grace’s car without looking. That caused the benevolent insurance offer to shrink.
In those same days that followed, Grace’s support group performed at a high level. Ray and Bev Morrison loaned her their second car. Dozens offered encouragement and asked what else she needed.
Myrt Tenney, a dear friend in Hawaii, from whence Grace came, wrote a special prayer of thanksgiving that Miguel wasn’t killed and of celebration that so many had rallied around Amazing Grace.
“Lord, we pray that you will heal Miguel in body and spirit.”
“Thank you Lord for the blessings of many friends of Grace who came to her aid. . . .”
Amazing Grace stayed in touch with the justice department. She couldn’t avoid it. She had to sign in every other week to demonstrate she was still present. That’s part of being out on bail, 180,000 insurance pesos deposited against the possibility that she might flee from her innocent plea.
When the multitude of friends and neighbors asked for updated information about the accident, trials and tribulations, Grace’s answers came across as continuing testimonies of her Christian faith. She said it would all work out alright. She was a little less positive about the fate of her 20-year-old Cadillac. It remained in jail. Even worse, she was being charged a stack of pesos for storage.
The car was terribly tangled in red tape. The case could not be closed until medical bills were paid. The insurance company was ready to write a check and the parents were ready to accept. Alas, Miguel needed continuing treatment and the money meter was still running at the doctor’s office. The police were firm in their conviction that they could not release the car until all loose ends were neatly tied.
Eventually, in March, a higher power decided Grace might reclaim her car if there were no other charges against it. The police supposedly asked the U.S. Consulate in Guadalajara if the car had ever been, anywhere in the world, reported as stolen. The police told Grace it might take a few days to get that answer.
In April, Grace joined the investigation. She found a Consulate person who looked everywhere but couldn’t find a request for stolen-car information which might explain why the Consulate was so slow saying no problem.
In early May, insurance lawyers were still trying to free the Cadillac. The wheels of justice in Chapala county, in the great state of Jalisco, in the colourful country called Mexico, turned ever so slowly.
Nobody jumped to the conclusion but it was finally determined that all obligations had, indeed, been met, that every t had been properly crossed and every i had been dotted. Only thing missing was Consulate assurance, in triplicate, that the car had not been stolen — by somebody, sometime, somewhere.
Through it all, Grace amazingly kept her cool. She stopped regularly at Salvador’s for lunch. Everybody knows Grace. Eighty-seven times a day, seven days a week, she answered in calm, conversational tones the same old question: Did you ever get your car?
That she never threw up her hands and screamed in frustration is a precious snapshot of this remarkable woman. She smiles and says patience has its rewards.
Four months to the day after the accident, Grace caught a break. An insurance attorney called to say there were a few more papers to sign. One was her agreement not to press charges against Miguel for running into her car and breaking her front window.
Grace signed only 12 times that afternoon, fewer than usual. She was told to come back the next day for authorization to reclaim her Cadillac. She put up a polite fuss and worked out a compromise. She could meet the claim adjuster a little later and get the car.
When she intersected with the adjuster, she learned that it would be necessary to stop by the traffic violations office to verify that there were no outstanding tickets. There she discovered the need for the original title and import papers. Incidentally, the officials were just about to close the office for that day. Maybe mañana?
After a private discussion, the adjuster discovered an alternative solution. Amazing Grace could pay a little something for overtime, 4,800 pesos for care and feeding of the impounded car and 350 pesos for the tow truck to take it from the police lot to the body shop. Grace said something that sounded like “Hallelujah!”
In time (plus time and a half), the car came home to community applause. Repairs were neat. Only a few things were missing — leather gloves, a new umbrella and some Hawaiian candy, a belated Christmas gift still wrapped in red and green paper the last time she saw it. Grace chalked up the loss to evaporation. Midwestern Mexico gets hot this time of year.
She was oh so happy to have and hold her dear old comfortable Caddy. She was so thankful the official curtain had finally come down on this unusual drama. She left bouquets of flowers at two churches in appreciation of members who had prayed regularly for her and Miguel.
Looking back from this safe distance, Grace still believes the experience might have been worse. She’s trying to think of how.