Umbrella Built for Three

MY family spent a month of Costa Rica's rainy season in the small town of Golfito on the southern coast. The weather didn't affect our play there as it does in our home in the northwest United States, where rains are cold and force even the hardiest residents indoors by the fire.

In Golfito, the leaves could be so dry one moment that they clicked instead of rustled. Seconds later, the town would be filled with such a torrential downpour that there was no time to run for cover before we looked as though we had just been immersed in a local waterfall.

It wasn't unusual to see people with umbrellas hooked to their belts or stuffed inside shopping bags. A storm would come, and umbrellas would go up all over town, whether people were on foot or on bicycles.

My children and I lost our first umbrella in a cab and bought our second, a huge pink and white number, in the local market. It was fairly complex whenever we made a purchase, not only because we didn't know the language beyond the bare necessities, but also because every umbrella, or bag, or even piece of food had to be examined and explained by the person selling the merchandise.

A variety of umbrellas hung from the ceiling of the stall at the pulperia. I was drawn to the plaid designs, while my daughter, Hallie, wanted basic black. My son, Dylan, was happy to go along with anything.

The woman at the counter opened each umbrella to display its features. A few opened automatically, but I'd learned to be cautious of things that appeared too easy. There were multicolored bumbershoots that had woven bands one could loop over a wrist, a handy feature as I was always losing umbrellas that weren't somehow connected to me.

After holding up at least five different umbrellas, the woman raised her finger as if to indicate that special customers should wait - she had more.

In the corner of the shop that was no more than five by seven feet, a red drape covered a closetlike storeroom.

We shifted ourselves in the narrow aisle to accommodate the opened umbrellas at our feet.

The woman returned with a sombrilla almost as tall as she was. She ritually closed all the smaller umbrellas and put them away, as though she wanted this spectacular item to share the spotlight with nothing else.

On opening the large umbrella, she dispersed everybody within a 3-foot radius. People had to back away as the umbrella simply took up all available space in front of the stall.

If nothing else, it was massive enough to cover all three of us when we walked, and perhaps an invited guest or two.

Pink and white gussets made it look festive, not unlike, when opened, the roof of a gingerbread cottage.

I knew we couldn't hook the umbrella into a pocket or put it into a satchel. It was more like another member of the family.

For weeks, we carried around what appeared to be the largest umbrella in town. We'd learned that Golfito, in ways big and small, was a place where it was easy to be oneself. Every eccentricity was accepted, from talking with the thousands of bugs and flowers that are seen on each walk to the market, to our forays in the rain, waving our roof above our heads.

My son, though he had no preference in its purchase, took a liking to the umbrella and happily carried it on our walks through the town. On hot sunny afternoons, he'd put it up to shade the top of his head - his entire body, for that matter - from the intense heat.

When we left Golfito, we left the umbrella, too. It was not an intentional act. Although it is hard to believe something that big could be left behind, it went the way of all our umbrellas. It surprised no one that we were barely able to keep it for one month.

It is, however, the only umbrella I didn't feel bad about losing. I think we left it in a place that truly can appreciate its value. It belonged in the town.

Perhaps at this very moment, it's sheltering someone who marvels at the way the sun looks coming through the bands of pink and white; or more likely, a group of people are tucked under the big frame, making the streets look as though a carnival has come to town.

Some things and people are made to stay in certain places. I like to think that the woman who sold us our sombrilla knew that, as long as we were in Golfito, the umbrella belonged to us.

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