Thursday, July 12, 2012

Out of the Shadows

I must have been four or five when I walked under the drying tobacco leaves hanging in a cool rustic rancho that I recall had coconut palm fronds nailed vertically on its side panels to provide an area breezy enough to keep cool but with enough sunlight to bring the leaves to perfection. I never bothered to ask myself how many people might be involved nor the wisdom of diversification. All I remembered were the tobacco leaves hanging high across wooden beams, a dirt floor below that was dusty and cracked like my own hands and knees, after having snuck in between the scratchy leaves on the side of the rancho. I probably was with my brothers Hector and Edwin averiguando. Just a being a little nosy before Mom came around and said, "Que hacen alli adentro? Salganse de ahi, ahora mismo!" and we were told to get out of mischief. That is all I remember about life in la casa de mis abuelos.

Recently, I have been spending time with my friends and second cousin, Kelvin, and his wife Linda, who are doing some research on our family tree, since we share some common ancestors. In fact, he has used some of the research my late brother, Hector, left behind. So for a week or so, I have been immersed in diagrams, old pictures, dusty books full of stories of times far gone. Stories, of mi tio abuelo Manolo, my grandmother's brother. Stories of marranos, conversos, and Sephardic Jews, all of which are fascinating. Stories that are intertwined with those of escapes, hidden identities, a voyage across the Atlantic, secret Kosher kitchens, encrypted prayers, and the Inquisition. Yet as fascinating as these stories were none of those stories touched me like the one I least expected: the story of my grandfather's farm.

I was visiting my mother at the nursing home and found Mami quietly sitting in front of a round table looking at her bingo card surrounded by the friendly staff who was watching out for her. I joined the game and played at least four more rounds not quite enjoying myself as much as we had done for many years, en el campo, where all my aunts would gather around a table to play Bingo on the weekends in Naranjito. Titi Sarita would bring out her homemade navy blue cloth bag with the bingo chips. We would take turns juggling the numbers gingerly to keep them from getting stuck in a corner. Titi Sarita would then pull out her worn down paper game cards that had been scribbled on, creased, and caressed with the years. We would shuffle through them to find our card or cards that had our name on it on some corner. We would set the table with a down turned card that said Terna, Estacao, Ambo de Cabeza, y Esquina. You could win an extra nickel if you were the first to have three on the same row (terna), if you had chips on both under B and O columns on the same row (estacao), two on the top row (ambo de cabeza), and be the first to place a chip on a corner (esquina) when your number was called . You were watchful so you could win that extra nickel which could pay for your next round if you were running low. No one was ever left out for lack of money though; this was not a betting competition. A cousin or an aunt or your own mother would put up some nickels so you could play. This was family time.

It was laughter. When each person said a funny phrase to go along with a particular number was called. There is something about Bingo that allows for each person’s personality come out. Were they too fast? Did they do it to keep you on your toes? Or were they funny, mischievous, or naughty? It was all there, in my funny family. So when at the nursing home, I shared some of the family jewels, like beeh doce, como la vitamina B12, el 22, los patitos comiendo arroz, o el 33, la edad de Cristo, or 75 el mas Viejo, the girl calling the numbers was a bit surprised, as her eyes widened.

It was unexpected. Then as we were collecting the bingo cards, plastic chips, and dried red kidney beans, a lady greeted my mother tenderly, and gave her a soft kiss on the forehead as if greeting her favorite sister. I didn’t know the woman but she knew Mami and her knowledge went all the way back to when they were both girls. It was as if someone had stepped out of the past to give me information which simple names and dates on a birth certificate could never give me. So began a fascinating story about mi Abuelo Pepe y su vida. A story I had never heard before.

To be continued...