During their evening walk last week, Maria Jensen saw it first. Something lovely and resilient.
Amid all the greenery on the side of the narrow road, not far from Lauritzen Gardens, was a cluster of purple wildflowers.
Look! she said to her husband. Can we plant those at our place?
Dave Jensen turned. He looked. And he saw them first. Two bare feet.
He hollered at someone he presumed was drunk, sleeping it off.
Wake up! Dave yelled. Wake up!
But the feet did not stir, and a closer look revealed why. They belonged to a woman lying face-down on a short, weedy slope that led to a raised manhole. The woman wore black yoga pants and a white shirt. One of her arms stretched forward; the other arm rested underneath her body. The Jensens could not see the woman’s face, but Maria noticed that her black hair was pulled back into a very tidy ponytail.
Maria started to cry. Dave told her to get back, to run home and call 911.
The dead woman, they would later learn, was the mother of the baby found hours earlier in a La Vista dumpster.
Maria turned, and though their home stood less than a block away, it seemed as if miles stretched before her. The 34-year-old ran, but it seemed like she was going backward.
It took forever to get to the cabinlike home that Dave had built by hand, and when Maria burst into this sanctuary, her two kids, 11 and 14, jumped.
What’s wrong? they said.
Where is my phone! she shouted.
Stay inside! she warned.
The police came. TV cameras came.
Over the next few days, the Jensens did a couple of things.
First, they learned about the woman. They learned that her name was Ismenia Marinero. That she was 45. That she was a mother. One son, her baby, was the one miraculously found alive in a dumpster. Another son, her 4-year-old, had been tossed into the Elkhorn River, his body found days later. And a third son appeared to have done the unspeakable. This son, 25, has told police he killed his mother and dumped his half-brothers.
The Jensens did a second thing. They decided to honor Ismenia’s memory.
Dave went to his basement wood shop and grabbed a 4-by-4 cedar beam. He cut the beam into 4-foot and 2-foot pieces. He carved a notch out of the longer piece and placed the shorter piece inside. He attached two screws to hold the wood together.
Meanwhile, Maria reached out. She called the baby sitter of Ismenia’s two younger sons, Josue and Angel. The Mexican-born Maria was put in touch with siblings of Ismenia who had flown from El Salvador to Omaha and were heartbroken and desperate for details. She spoke to them with tenderness and in Spanish.
Maria told Ismenia’s sister not to worry, that she and Dave would watch over the spot where they found Ismenia.
Dave carried the cross to the road behind his house. He dug a hole and placed the cross in the hole. He centered the cross between the bright orange letters A and B that police had chalked onto the metal guardrail. He lugged down some big cobblestones to keep the cross in place. It’s cedar, the 53-year-old thought, so it should last.
Maria brought candles — one with the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the other bearing a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Maria is Catholic, as Ismenia was. She felt linked to this stranger. A horrific death, Maria thought, is not supposed to happen here in America.
Maria placed a rosary around the cross. Maria brought buckets for the flowers that had started to accumulate.
She talked with their neighbor, 73-year-old Fumi Kaneko. Fumi has a beautiful garden, with orange poppies and pink peonies in full bloom. Maria and Fumi agreed to keep Ismenia’s memorial filled with flowers.
Two days after the Jensens found Ismenia, they went to a prayer vigil for her. Dave Jensen’s cross gave the mourners a place to gather, a place to put a teddy bear and balloons. Others have come since.
A week has now passed. Ismenia’s family has returned to El Salvador. Her oldest son is behind bars. Her middle son’s body was found. Her baby is being cared for by his father.
And the site where her body was found remains a memorial.
It is a short walk from the Jensen house. Dave and Maria walk down their wooden stairs, across the gravel alley and down the paved road toward the cross. Maria points to two streetlights and notes that the site is well lit at night. Dave notices the fragrance from all the rain and fresh blooms.
This is not some dump, they say. This is practically their backyard.
It is a place of some beauty. Of peace. Even now.
They will never look at this spot the same way. But the Jensens also see what Maria first saw in those flowers.
It remains a lovely place. A resilient place.