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A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood
At three or four o’clock in the afternoon, the hour of café con leche,1 the women of my family gathered in Mamá’s living room to speak of important things and retell familiar stories meant to be overheard by us young girls, their daughters. In Mamá’s house (everyone called my grandmother Mamá) was a large parlor built by my grand-father to his wife’s exact specifications so that it was always cool, facing away from the sun. The doorway was on the side of the house so no one could walk directly into her living room. First they had to take a little stroll through and around her beautiful garden where prize-winning orchids grew in the trunk of an ancient tree she had hol-lowed out for that purpose. This room was furnished with several mahogany rocking chairs, acquired at the births of her children, and one intricately carved rocker that had passed down to Mamá at the death of her own mother. It was on these rockers that my mother, her sisters, and my grandmother sat
on these afternoons of my childhood to tell their stories, teaching each other, and my cousin and me, what it was like to be a woman, more specifically, a Puerto Rican woman. They talked about life on the island, and life in Los Nueva Yores, their way of referring to the United States from New York City to California: the other place, not home, all the same. They told real-life stories though, as I later learned, always embellishing them with a little or a lot of dramatic detail. And they told cuentos, the morality and cautionary tales told by the women in our family for generations: stories that became a part of my subconscious as I grew up in two worlds, the tropical is-land and the cold city, and that would later surface in my dreams and in my poetry. One of these tales was about the woman who was left at the altar. Mamá liked
to tell that one with histrionic intensity. I remember the rise and fall of her voice, the sighs, and her constantly gesturing hands, like two birds swooping through her words. This particular story usually would come up in a conversation as a result of someone mentioning a forthcoming engagement or wedding. The first time I remem-ber hearing it, I was sitting on the floor at Mamá’s feet, pretending to read a comic book. I may have been eleven or twelve years old, at that difficult age when a girl was no longer a child who could be ordered to leave the room if the women wanted free-dom to take their talk into forbidden zones, nor really old enough to be considered a part of their conclave. I could only sit quietly, pretending to be in another world, while absorbing it all in a sort of unspoken agreement of my status as silent audi-tor. On this day, Mamá had taken my long, tangled mane of hair into her ever-busy hands. Without looking down at me and with no interruption of her flow of words, she began braiding my hair, working at it with the quickness and determination that char-acterized all her actions. My mother was watching us impassively from her rocker across the room. On her lips played a little ironic smile. I would never sit still for her ministrations, but even then, I instinctively knew that she did not possess Mamá’s matriarchal power to command and keep everyone’s attention. This was never more evident than in the spell she cast when telling a story. “It is not like it used to be when I was a girl,” Mamá announced. “Then, a man could leave a girl standing at the church altar with a bouquet of fresh flowers in her hands and disappear off the face of the earth. No way to track him down if he was from another town. He could be a married man, with maybe even two or three fami-lies all over the island. There was no way to know. And there were men who did this. Hombres2 with the devil in their flesh who would come to a pueblo,3 like this one, take a job at one of the haciendas,4 never meaning to stay, only to have a good time and to seduce the women.”
The whole time she was speaking, Mamá would be weaving my hair into a flat
plait that required pulling apart the two sections of hair with little jerks that made my eyes water; but knowing how grandmother detested whining and boba (sissy) tears, as she called them, I just sat up as straight and stiff as I did at La Escuela San Jose, where the nuns enforced good posture with a flexible plastic ruler they bounced off of slumped shoulders and heads. As Mamá’s story progressed, I noticed how my young Aunt Laura lowered her eyes, refusing to meet Mamá’s meaningful gaze. Laura was seventeen, in her last year of high school, and already engaged to a boy from another town who had staked his claim with a tiny diamond ring, then left for Los Nueva Yores to make his fortune. They were planning to get married in a year. Mamá had expressed serious doubts that the wedding would ever take place. In Mamá’s eyes, a man set free without a legal contract was a man lost. She believed that marriage was not something men desired, but simply the price they had to pay for the privilege of children and, of course, for what no decent (synonymous with “smart”) woman would give away for free. “María La Loca was only seventeen when it happened to her.” I listened closely at the mention of this name. María was a town character, a fat middle-aged woman who lived with her old mother on the outskirts of town. She was to be seen around the pueblo delivering the meat pies the two women made for a living. The most peculiar thing about María, in my eyes, was that she walked and moved like a little girl though she had the thick body and wrinkled face of an old woman. She would swing her hips in an exaggerated, clownish way, and sometimes even hop and skip up to someone’s house. She spoke to no one. Even if you asked her a question, she would just look at you and smile, showing her yellow teeth. But I had heard that if you got close enough, you could hear her humming a tune without words. The kids yelled out nasty things at her, calling her La Loca,5 and the men who hung out at the bodega6 playing dominoes sometimes whistled mockingly as she passed by with her funny, outlandish walk. But María seemed impervious to it all, carrying her basket of pasteles7 like a grotesque Little Red Riding Hood through the forest.
María La Loca interested me, as did all the eccentrics and crazies of our pueblo.
Their weirdness was a measuring stick I used in my serious quest for a definition of normal. As a Navy brat shuttling between New Jersey and the pueblo, I was con-stantly made to feel like an oddball by my peers, who made fun of my two-way accent: a Spanish accent when I spoke English, and when I spoke Spanish I was told that I sounded like a Gringa.8 Being the outsider had already turned my brother and me into cultural chameleons. We developed early on the ability to blend into a crowd, to sit and read quietly in a fifth story apartment building for days and days when it was too bitterly cold to play outside, or, set free, to run wild in Mamá’s realm, where she took charge of our lives, releasing Mother for a while from the intense fear for our safety that our father’s absences instilled in her. In order to keep us from harm when Father was away, Mother kept us under strict surveillance. She even walked us to and from Public School No. 11, which we attended during the months we lived in Paterson, New Jersey, our home base in the States. Mamá freed all three of us like pigeons from a cage. I saw her as my liberator and my model. Her stories were parables from which to glean the Truth. “María La Loca was once a beautiful girl. Everyone thought she would marry
the Méndez boy.” As everyone knew, Rogelio Méndez was the richest man in town. “But,” Mamá continued, knitting my hair with the same intensity she was putting into her story, “this macho made a fool out of her and ruined her life.” She paused for the effect of her use of the word “macho,” which at that time had not yet become a popular epithet for an unliberated man. This word had for us the crude and comical connotation of “male of the species,” stud; a macho was what you put in a pen to increase your stock. I peeked over my comic book at my mother. She too was under Mamá’s spell, smiling conspiratorially at this little swipe at men. She was safe from Mamá’s contempt in this area. Married at an early age, an unspotted lamb, she had been accepted by a good family of strict Spaniards whose name was old and respected, though their fortune had been lost long before my birth. In a rocker Papá had painted sky blue sat Mamá’s oldest child, Aunt Nena. Mother of three children, stepmother of two more, she was a quiet woman who liked books but had married an ignorant and abusive widower whose main interest in life was accumulating wealth. He too was in the mainland working on his dream of returning home rich and triumphant to buy the finca9 of his dreams. She was waiting for him to send for her. She would leave her children with Mamá for several years while the two of them slaved away in factories. He would one day be a rich man, and she a sadder woman. Even now her life-light was dimming. She spoke little, an aberration in Mamá’s house, and she read avidly, as if storing up spiritual food for the long winters that awaited her in Los Nueva Yores without her family. But even Aunt Nena came alive to Mamá’s words, rocking gently, her hands over a thick book in her lap. Her daughter, my cousin Sara, played jacks by herself on the tile porch out-side the room where we sat. She was a year older than I. We shared a bed
and all our family’s secrets. Collaborators in search of answers, Sara and I dis-cussed everything we heard the women say, trying to fit
it all together like a
puzzle that, once assembled, would reveal life’s mysteries to us. Though she and I still enjoyed taking part in boys’ games—chase, volleyball, and even vaqueros, the island version of cowboys and Indians involving cap-gun battles and violent shoot-outs under the mango tree in Mamá’s backyard—we loved best the quiet hours in the afternoon when the men were still at work, and the boys had gone to play serious baseball at the park. Then Mamá’s house belonged only to us women. The aroma of coffee perking in the kitchen, the mesmerizing creaks and groans of the rockers, and the women telling their lives in cuentos are forever woven into the fabric of my imagination, braided like my hair that day I felt my grandmother’s hands teaching me about strength, her voice convincing me of the power of storytelling. That day Mamá told how the beautiful María had fallen prey to a man whose name was never the same in subsequent versions of the story; it was Juan one time, José, Rafael, Diego, another. We understood that neither the name nor any of the facts were important, only that a woman had allowed love to defeat her. Mamá put each of us in María’s place by describing her wedding dress in loving detail: how she looked like a princess in her lace as she waited at the altar. Then, as Mamá ap-proached the tragic denouement of her story, I was distracted by the sound of my Aunt Laura’s violent rocking. She seemed on the verge of tears. She knew the fable was intended for her. That week she was going to have her wedding gown fitted, though no firm date had been set for the marriage. Mamá ignored Laura’s obvious discomfort, digging out a ribbon from the sewing basket she kept by her rocker while describing María’s long illness, “a fever that would not break for days.” She spoke of a mother’s despair: “that woman climbed the church steps on her knees every morning, wore only black as a promesa to the Holy Virgin in exchange for her daughter’s health.” By the time María returned from her honeymoon with death, she was ravished, no longer young or sane. “As you can see, she is almost as old as her mother already,” Mamá lamented while tying the ribbon to the ends of my hair, pull-ing it back with such force that I just knew I would never be able to close my eyes completely again. “That María’s getting crazier every day.” Mamá’s voice would take a lighter
tone now, expressing satisfaction, either for the perfection of my braid, or for a story well told—it was hard to tell. “You know that tune María is always humming?” Carried away by her enthusiasm, I tried to nod, but Mamá still had me pinned be-tween her knees. “Well, that’s the wedding march.” Surprising us all, Mamá sang out, “Da, da,
dara . . . da, da, dara.” Then lifting me off the floor by my skinny shoulders, she would lead me around the room in an impromptu waltz—another session ending with the laughter of women, all of us caught up in the infectious joke of our lives.
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