My Okasan

There I was butt-naked in all my glory. All of my fullness on display to behold. Though I dug deep to exude some composure, I moved as graceful as a mother seal sliding past a flock of watching seagulls. I pushed myself forward, head high. Being fully exposed with nothing to hide behind, I sensed that this was going to be a moment to remember.

I was in Japan, spending the day at a local “onsen,” – a natural hot-springs bath house — in the “female-only” section. Surrounded by women of all ages, a naked communion was taking place, creating a sacred time to be with others, with nature, and with oneself. I should have tried to lose ten pounds before this trip.

*  *

I was here with my Japanese girlfriend, Takemi. I was giddy. This was another country that I had dreamt of visiting. As a child, every Saturday morning I would run to the television to see my favorite cartoon, The Adventures of Johnny Quest. Johnny explored foreign lands, along with his dad, Dr. Benton Quest, Race Bannon (his bodyguard), Hadji (his adopted Indian brother), and Bandit, their fearless little bulldog. They often ran for their lives from native warriors, walking mummies, or large one-eyed spiders. They always looked forward to their next adventure, just like me. I wanted to be Johnny.

Takemi was enjoying her time in her homeland. She no desire to live there, mostly because of the many earthquakes. Takemi had lived in New York City for 20 years, and only periodically returned to visit her mother Yoshika. Also, at 5 feet 9 inches, Takemi felt like a giant in Japan. Fortunately, her height and natural beauty allowed her to travel the world as a model before becoming a fashion photographer. She is also left-handed. Growing up, her teachers frowned when she used her left hand. Takemi was told to use right-hand for everything, especially when writing and using utensils to eat. Japan appears to be gentle and peaceful society, but also inflicts an “invisible rule” upon its people— the subtle expectation of conformity. Wear the poker face, hide your feelings, don’t speak directly about your intentions, and if you’re a woman, don’t expect your opinions to be acknowledged.

Now we were on a seven-city tour, courtesy of Yoshika, and I was grateful she was excited to share her homeland with me. It was in the mountain city of Kusatsu, a famous Japanese resort, where I visited my first onsen.

After a dinner of soba noodles, sushi and sake at our hotel, moma-Yoshika, Takemi and I walked into the night, down a narrow path to another building. Inside a small steamy pool awaited us. “What better way to get to know the mother-in-law,” I thought. And then she called me “fat.” The commentary was a loving gesture of course.

*  *

I was in the land of volcanoes, thus steam. This steam created the heat that warmed the underground springs on which onsen were built. I entered the changing room, which was outfitted with red wood lockers, carpeted floors, terry cloth bathrobes. I noticed that none of the women chose to wear robes, so I didn’t either.

I stand at 5 feet 8 inches, and let’s just say I am “full-figured.” When I enter naked, well I command attention. My feet are big, my breast are bigger, and my butt is biggest. The Japanese are polite, quiet and are often shy with their eyes. However, what is one to do when you’ve never shared an intimate space with a black woman, especially a naked black woman? You look. You peep. Maybe stare. Maybe smile, but mostly you look away quickly not wanting to appear rude.

Just before going to Japan, I shaved all of my hair off. Though I loved my hair, I am most comfortable with its natural texture as opposed to permed straight. I wore either a short afro, big afro, or dreadlocks. Now I was bald. The naked Buddha.

As I walked around the grounds to enter the pool area, totally exposed and watching women attempt to hide their glances, all I could hear inside my head was the theme music to fit this occasion. It rose to a thunderous “Bada-Boom, Bada-Boom!” I actually laughed out loud. There wasn’t a damn thing I could do but “jiggle-it,” and get into the water a quickly as possible.

As the three of us immersed ourselves into the earth’s champagne, personal inhibitions slowly dissolved. Since I wanted to capture every moment of the trip in photos, moma-Yoshika actually took pictures as naked as we were, and we all giggled.

I sank into the healing, warm, welcoming bliss and steamy bubbles. I felt my joints and muscles relax into an almost soft-noodle state. There was a faint scent of sulfur and lavender in the air. Soothing sounds of string instruments added to the bath’ house’s ambience.

*  *

I had watched the love of my life and hoped she wasn’t uncomfortable in my presence. I also wondered what she was feeling as she watched her mother watch me. From our first meeting when she visited us in New York, mom always received me with gracious open-arms. Though Takemi and I were not introduced to her as a couple, I saw in her eyes that she knew our truth. I sat in the nakedness of the moment.

I moved from the hot bath to the cooler pool, dipped my bucket and poured what felt like ice water over my head. As I exited this exclusive bath, I stepped as gingerly as I could knowing I was bringing thunder. “Bada-Boom” was playing at full volume as one woman giggled out loud. She later shared that she loved the curvature of my hips and big butt in a well-intentioned way.

*  *

Mom did not speak much English, nor I much Japanese, so Takemi was our translator (which she did not particularly like doing).

I found that the Japanese do not seem to engage in much light conversation (at least not with non-Japanese). At the dinner unless I started a discussion, no one would converse. Once started though, we would talk about history, women, men, food, astrology, and of course my favorite subject, Takemi. Mom enjoyed that we could chat for hours on end; banter became an easy flow with us, much to Takemi’s dismay because of the time it took to translate.

Mom came from a lineage of large land owners dating back to the Shogun era and she had inherited some of the family holdings; she fought to get more. She was the oldest of her siblings and believed she was entitled to more. This was unusual because custom dictates the elder male child to be first heir to any family succession, and it is recognized in the Japanese courts of law.

Japanese women hadn’t been allowed to work outside the home. Mom, however, was successful businesswoman. Although separated for many years from her husband, Takemi’s father, she also had a boyfriend (another taboo which she dared)- with whom she operated a successful construction company that built schools and condominiums. Finally, she also moonlighted as a psychic. She gave astrological fortune-telling readings to paying clients, using shengchein bazi, the Chinese zodiac. She also wrote a monthly magazine column that featured her predictions.

Takemi’s father, whom I never met, was an international businessman who traveled a lot. He came from humble beginnings, and after he and Yoshika married they moved into his mother’s home. According to Yoshika, she was treated like an unwanted stepchild because her mother-in-law resented her family’s wealth. She was forced to do meager chores while her mother-in-law ridiculed her. However, once her husband became successful Yoshika traveled with him to New York where Takemi was born. From there, they spent several years in Hong Kong before going back home to Japan.

Takemi was young when her mother and father separated. Although Yoshika never gave her husband the divorce for which he asked, she insisted on his continued financial support. This was when Yoshika’s boyfriends, lies and manipulation began.

While Yoshika kept one Tokyo apartment for Takemi and her brother, she had another apartment across town where she lived with her boyfriend. The young siblings raised themselves well into their late teenage years. They were left to feed themselves, get themselves to school, and protect each other. Yoshika would show up several times during the week to make sure they had food. As Takemi grew older she came to resent her mother. It was only a few years before I met her that, she and her mother began to mend their relationship. I suspect the damaged relationship played a role in Takemi’s move to New York.

Mom would buy Takemi excessive, expensive gifts that were sometimes rejected. Yoshika supported more with money than with affection. I witnessed the strain between them. Mom would often comment that she thought I was more Japanese than Takemi because I would want to assist her and walk with her. She still hoped Takemi might marry a wealthy man and live happily ever after, but in reality knew otherwise.

Yoshika spent money lavishly. She would go on wild shopping sprees that bordered the ridiculous. In New York she would shop non-stop for hours. Several people were needed to carry all of the large shopping bags up our fourth floor walk-up.

She would invite Takemi to join her for shopping in Hong Kong, Guam, and Hawaii. Often took she took the attitude that everyone could be bought, including me. Once, when she visited us in New York I slaved over the perfect dinner, but Yoshika took a sleeping pill just before it was time to serve. She slept through dinner. Takemi was furious, I was disappointed. The next day Yoshika bought me a beautiful cashmere sweater. I accepted the gift, but was still upset.

We traveled on to the city of Kobe, where we attended a show of the all-female theatre group Takarazuka. Similarly to the world-renowned all-male, Kubuki theatre group, its members performed all gender roles. It all felt very Las Vegas; there were big dance routines, dramatic songs, flashy lights, and over-the-top wardrobe changes with huge feathers, and rhinestones. The actors and dancers paraded down wide staircases, and performed in a Rockette-style kick line. Yoshika once auditioned to join this troupe. I guess it didn’t work out.

Mom loved ballroom dancing though. She was graceful as she glided across and twirled around the dance floor in her costume gowns, diamonds, and high heels while in the arms of her younger, male dance partner. In many dance-off concerts, she danced the waltz to the delight of hundreds in attendance. She had a flare for drama which always surfaced in the music she chose – long, moody orchestrations. Her expression was her pride, as her collection of trophies and other awards attested to.

Yoshika was not a complicated woman, though with secrets, she simply dared to live going against the winds of cultural tradition. She was a business owner, she lived and loved outside of her marriage, and she left her children to grow up on their own (her one regret). She traveled, paying her own way.

*  *

At the airport before our departure home, moma-Yoshika turned to me.

“Now I have two daughters.”

We all cried good-bye. It was the last time I would see her alive in Japan. Yoshika died in 2007.

In our home in Los Angeles, there is a small altar to Yoshika, with a photo of her, a miniature tombstone marker, and some incense. Feeling her presence, I still say hello to my Japanese okasan.

Fire

The average house fire burns at 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit.

So I am in San Francisco having dinner; gorgonzola penne with shrimp, clam chowder, and sourdough toast at Cioppino’s on the wharf. My cell phone rings. It is my younger sister.

“You have to come home! There’s been a fire. The house burned. Please hurry.”

“Is everyone OK? Mom?”

“Yes, she made it out. But …the house, our things, all burned. We can’t stay there anymore.”

Is this really happening? I thought.

No one hurt! Still, my mind went to the insurance. Was it current?

I have been in San Francisco the previous few weeks, a choice assignment for a young government physicist from East L.A. My job is to protect people from harmful radiation. I am there to intern at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), a leader in health sciences, and to investigate possible radiation hazards in the area.

Mornings, I walk from my apartment in the Haight-Ashbury district to the campus of UCSF at the foot of Mount Sutro. The campus is massive. Some 16, 000 very smart people — studying and practicing medicine, dentistry, nursing, and pharmacy — convene here daily.

Ionizing radiation, its harmful form, is widely present on the campus, used for healthcare, teaching, or research. That’s the type of radiation that concerns me. And that’s why I’ve come to this school — to learn more about it.

Ionizing radiation is too elusive for our senses. It can damage human cells covertly. So, handling it safely requires specialized knowledge, skills, and instrumentation. Because most don’t understand it, accidents can come easily.

None of that matters tonight as I scoop a final spoonful of clam chowder and take a bite of my toast, pay the bill, and dash out, while dialing the airline’s number to find a flight the next day.

Back in my room, I can’t sleep, as I wait for morning to take the first flight to Los Angeles. My mind toggles between worrying about what I would be leaving behind and about what I was going to.

I have unfinished work at the medical center. Patients with thyroid cancer are given radioactive iodine ablation therapy. The radioactive iodine is administered orally to kill the spreading cancer of the thyroid gland. Beta particles emitted by this radioactive concoction bombard the cancerous thyroid cells, destroying them without ever leaving the patient’s body. That’s a good thing.

But radioactive iodine also sizzles with another type of radiation, gamma rays. Too much exposure to gamma rays is harmful. These are ghostly, can travel several yards, and easily penetrate matter. They can exit the patient’s body, and potentially injure unsuspecting persons nearby.

This is the same radioactive iodine produced by nuclear reactors and atomic bombs.

So the gamma rays must be monitored. After a few days of radioactive iodine treatment in isolation rooms, patients are surveyed to make sure they can safely leave the hospital. That is my role.

Any extra radioactive iodine administered that is not absorbed by the thyroid gets excreted from the body, mostly in the urine, but also in saliva, sweat, and tears. So I survey the patient’s hospital room to make sure that any bed sheets, towels, gowns, clothing or other items the patient come in contact with aren’t released if contaminated.

But by my leaving UCSF in such a hurry, the patients’ release to home can be delayed if I don’t show up to measure their radiation levels. I like to help people, almost as much as I like to chase gamma rays.

I got into gamma rays because they were mysterious packets of energy akin to light. Ever since, as a little boy, I pointed a flashlight into the dark of space. I imagined riding on the beam traveling out at the speed of light, slowing time and only bending for gravity and Einstein.

Fire, however, terrified me. It was the destroyer.

As a kid, my grandfather would tell me of the volcano Paricutín, which rose from a cornfield near his ranch in the Mexican state of Michoacán, ejecting stone, ash and lava in the early 1940s. Flames of fire climbed thousands of feet into the night sky. It rained fire. His fields were peppered with burning rocks lobbed from the volcano.

Waiting to fly to Los Angeles, I worry about fire the destroyer because it had found our home.

How did it start?

What did it burn?

I feel guilty. Why did I leave home and come to San Francisco? I could have done my internship nearer to home, probably at UCLA. If I had stayed, this tragedy might have been avoided. I always check the batteries on the smoke detectors and look for frayed power cords.

But I know why I came. The opportunity excited me. To live, work, and study in San Francisco seemed so thrilling. I love seafood, Chinese food, the waterfront, rolling hills, fog, the wharf, history, storied penitentiaries, and panoramas. Add gamma rays to the mix, and the dish was irresistible.

It is exciting the moment I arrive in San Francisco. I walk to the sidewalk outside the San Francisco airport terminal to wait for a taxi. Within minutes, a tall man in a black leather jacket and boots stands next to me. It is Nicolas Cage, the actor, one of my favorites. I say hello. We share a cab ride. He tells me about a place he liked to eat. Next chance I get I go there – Yuet Lee Chinese restaurant in Chinatown for the fish in black bean sauce.

In the business of radiation, work, too, is exciting. Radiation is a beast of burden when tamed but a dangerous wild animal when loose and uncontrolled. Every once in a while, it gets away and I pursue.

One day, a radiation alarm goes off at the local waste transfer station, where trash trucks drop off their garbage for temporary storage or sorting pending further processing. The station has radiation monitors to screen incoming trucks for radioactive materials hidden in the garbage truck waste loads.

When a radiation alarm goes off, transfer station staff detain the truck until it’s cleared by the government radiation control authority. Me. That day, I grab my emergency response gear and head over to the transfer station. The truck is parked in a corner of the lot away from others, isolated behind yellow and magenta barricade tape.

I am in a Tyvek ® protective coverall suit, shoe covers, two pairs of gloves, and face mask. I approach the truck and survey radiation levels with my radiation meters. I tell them to dump the truck’s load onto the pavement and spread out the waste with shovels. I keep one eye on my watch and another on my radiation meter. The more time in this radiation field, the more exposure to gamma rays.

I work quickly, swinging a radiation meter in one hand and a shovel in the other, sifting through 12 tons of garbage. I wish I had my father’s strong arms. The sweat trickles down my forehead into my eyes and burns. An hour passes.

With a sensitive scintillation detector connected to my radiation meter, I walk through the pile methodically trying to ignore the foul smell. As I get closer to the source, my meter’s audio alarm chirps faster.

I come upon a plastic bag, which I separate out from the rest of the garbage for closer inspection. I turn on my radiation isotope “identifier” meter, an instrument that can read the type of radiation and identify the radioactive material producing it. Radioactive iodine. I look inside. Diapers.

It’s a story I know too well. A hospital patient undergoing radioactive iodine treatments for thyroid cancer urinates out much of the unabsorbed radioactive dose onto disposable diapers. These diapers are supposed to be segregated, isolated, and secured to decay in storage for three months until the radiation dissipates. Sometimes, this isn’t done and the contaminated diapers leave the hospital too soon.

My alarm clock goes off. It is 3 a.m. and I have a plane to catch.

I arrive in front of my childhood home about 8 a.m. The windows are boarded up; walls blackened, and burned furniture sits in our front yard. At the entrance, the metal security door is damaged, a large cut made vertically at the door locks, no doubt from the fire fighter’s rescue saw. I peek inside. Everything I see is black, either burned, charred, or covered in soot.

The vertical vinyl blinds in the living room window hang twisted, melted by the intense heat from the dining room where the fire started. A line on the walls of the living room demarcates how far the smoke descended after it spread up from the point of ignition. Everything above that line is sullied. Everything below it is clean. I suddenly remember a grade school lesson: to escape during a fire, fall and crawl.

In the dining room, our wooden dinner table is charred. The plastic table cover was simply fuel to accelerate the burning that ignited when a lit candle fell over. From there the flames reached up to the chandelier and ceiling, spreading horizontally to the walls and kitchen.

My mother brought her love of devotional candles from Mexico. So she had lighted a candle for the Virgin Mary, placed it on the dinner table, and left it unattended, forgetting about it when she opened a window on a windy day.

I look to one corner of the dining room where we kept many of our most treasured family valuables. Dozens of old family pictures are burned. Me as a kid in a purple suit, my father playing with us at the park, me sitting atop that garage where I imagined traveling on a beam of light—all are gone. Some look burned around the edges. Some look burned from the inside out, as if they self-ignited. Some I can’t find.

I search the remains for one picture in particular. For my first birthday my parents took me to Mexico for the first time. My mother sat me all dressed up in front of my birthday cake, a single lit candle adorning its center. Nothing.

By 9 a.m. the first of many suited men begin to arrive at our front gate. Some in business suits, some in protective coveralls, one after another they come all morning, to urge us to immediately hire them to restore, remediate, rebuild or adjust our fire loss. They are there to help, they say.

I take their business cards and stuff them in my pocket, oblivious to their rattling voices. I figure I paid the premium because our insurance adjuster would come by later, too, and hand me a check for $10,000 dollars so we could start to replace the things that burned.

Can he really do that?

They say people fear what they can’t see. That’s not me.

I’m terrified of fire, the destroyer.

The average photograph burns at 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Susana

The men from Rancho Chacuiloca knocked on Susana’s door bearing the news of her husband, Santiago.

In an attempt to defend his friend from a grave accusation made by the Federales, he received a blow to the head with a .30-30 rifle.

It was the 13th of November, 1913, three years into the Mexican Revolution; Zacatecas had become the battlefield between the agraristas – land reformers who believed that the land belonged to those who labored it – and the 34-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. A bloody civil war would last seven more years.

At 26, Susana buried her husband and was left alone with her five children.

Weeks passed. One morning, Susana left her adobe one-room house to fetch water from a nearby well; she instructed her children to remain, under lock and key. Susana never returned. Doña Petra, Susana’s mother, received word that the soldiers had left the region, but had snatched her, taking her by the waist as she walked home and forcing her onto a horse.

Susana’s children were cared for by their grandmother, Doña Petra, until each of them was sent to live with different relatives.

Six years passed, Susana found her way back home with an infant in her arms but had left her soul behind.

Although Susana knew the whereabouts of her children, they remained with relatives as she attempted to start anew with the son that reminded her every day of her reluctant relationship with his father.

As she made her way through the streets of town making her daily food purchases from the vendors, voices rumored of her illegitimate son and how her charming beauty captured the men’s attention and menaced the women of the town. No one was willing to offer her work.

She found solace in memories. She summoned the nights when the neighboring ranchos and towns were never without fairs and fiestas. The wind and string ensembles lured the town folk to dance. Susana and Santiago were drawn by the music that called to them deep into their valley between el Teúl and Tepechitlán. As Susana wrapped her rebozos around her younger children much like the cornhusk around the tamales, she thought about the chotis she would dance with her husband up until the wee hours of the night. They left their children asleep – locked the door – and embraced each other as they walked toward the music.

About town, she offered her laundering services to families; many slammed the heavy wood door after cursing her to the devil. She was not deterred. A few households welcomed her services in exchange for tortillas and frijoles for the day and a few pesos.

Work became steady and made her days ordinary. As she carried her child on her back wrapped in a black and white cotton rebozo, she balanced a basket of laundry on her head and walked toward the river. She laid her son on a bed of broad, smooth leaves as she kneeled along the shore. Her curved back rocked back and forth as she pounded the smooth stone against the clothing extended atop a flat rock.

One day, a tall dark man followed her path to the river and admired her from afar, standing with his back to a tall tree. The sun was directly above when Susana finished folding the clothes that were spread on the bushes to dry. She wrapped her child on her back and balanced the basket of freshly laundered clothes on her head and headed into town.

He followed her until their steps paralleled each other and introduced himself as Santos. She hurried on, looking forward without a word, and gripped the basket rim more tightly. Susana had spied him once before along the river. Once they reached town, he bid her good-bye and disappeared into a dusty road. She was relieved that she had not responded to him.

As days went on, Santos continued, each time approaching one step closer to where she washed clothes. Each time he’d compliment her beauty or give her a wild flower. Months passed before she looked him in the eye and smiled and accepted his assistance with the basket. At the edge of town, they would part ways. She walked into town with a feeling of hope.

Torrential rains announced the end of the summer in 1920, making it difficult for Susana to do her work. She had back pain and nausea. Without work, she only had enough frijoles to feed her 15 month old son for the next couple of days and she desperately wanted to speak to Santos.

The next morning, at sunrise, Susana picked up the laundry from her patron’s house and made her way to the river with her toddler in tow and the basket on her head. Frequently, she paused to sniff a mint leaf to curb her nausea and give her back a rest, then went back to work looking out for Santos. As she set the clothes to dry on the shrubs, he appeared before her. Their eyes met.

In a whisper, she announced that she was with child. Santos embraced her. Then he rejected her.

“I cannot accept the responsibility of your carelessness. I am an honorable family man; a married man; the father of two.”

In the spring of 1921, another son, Pablo, was born.

*  *

Tlaltenango, Zacatecas

Pablo was the last of her children to marry – three months after his 22nd birthday. He walked out of his sister Lola’s house where he and Susana had lived the last 10 years. Lola was Susana’s 2nd child. She was married, pregnant and rearing six children. She had buried two toddlers in recent years and was caring for her mother Susana who wanted nothing to do with an ordinary day.

Daily at dusk, an owl, perched on the avocado tree branch, guarded the entrance to her room accessible through the courtyard. Susana would shriek, “Here comes the old hag.” Its loud, sharp whistle made her uneasy; she pleaded with it to stop its laughter. With trepidation, her grandchildren entered her room to deliver her meals. Susana faced the wall with her arms extended; her long greying hair fell over her white cotton nightgown as she howled in a rage.

“Get out of here.”

Someone had put an evil spell on her, the family voices murmured.

Night fell. Susana paced the small room, stopping to fling the wooden chair. In a moment of calm, she’d stare out the window, gripping chunks of her hair and yanking it out as the owl remained perched on the avocado branch. Emilia, her 10-year-old granddaughter, was the only child that Susana would allow in; she stood by the door keeping Susana from being lured by the river spirits. The sleep spirit lulled Emilia to a slumber. Then the rooster crowed. Emilia startled, rose from the floor. Sunlight came through the doorway; the owl was gone and so was Susana.

The news of Susana’s disappearance spread quickly. Neighbors joined the family to search the Xaloco River nearby, up and down stream, until the owl was spotted on a mesquite. Huddled, rocking back and forth, Susana stood in a small, dark cave nearby glaring at the screeching owl.

Doña Lola- Emilia’s mom– gathered lanolin from lambs’ wool to cure the severed patches of scalp and the stomach sores her mother, Susana, developed. But she couldn’t rid her of the black lice that infested her body.

“The evil spell won’t go away.”

Susana’s body deteriorated. The priest was summoned to rid her of the evil within.

“There is no cure,” he told them.

She withered away in the spring of 1944. Doña Lola prayed the rosary over Susana’s body, supplicating the Virgencita.

*  *

1966, Tlaltenango, Zacatecas

Twilight enveloped the valley. Doña Lola’s youngest daughter, now a teenager, walked past the locked and abandoned room toward the kitchen. While Carmen Alicia made tea, she wondered, as always, about the woman her siblings whispered about – the one who climbed walls like a spider; who was hexed with mal de ojo; the one under the owl’s watch.

Carmen Alicia made her way through the courtyard, carefully sipping her tea. The window to the room was now open and the light of a candle illuminated a shadow of an old woman sitting. She murmured undecipherable chants. Perhaps it was her mother praying. Then she heard coughing coming from another room. There, Carmen Alicia found her mother and asked if she had been praying in the bewitched room.

“No. It wasn’t me.”

An owl screeched in the distance.

“My mother’s spirit has returned.”

¡Ay Te Wacho!

When I was little, my Gramma would chase me around saying “I’m gonna eat you up!” and when she would catch me, she would pinch me and bite me. I would squeal – not because I was in pain, but because I found delight in her love and attention.

As an adult, I turned the tables. I would grab her and hug her tight, kiss her all over and sometimes nibble on her.

“¡No me ‘hogas (don’t suffocate me)!” she would yell as she pushed me away.

“It’s all your fault, Gram,” I told her. “I learned it from you!”

I adored my Gramma. She was one of my best friends.

Then I was told my cariños, my gestures of affection, could be reported as elder abuse.

By that time, Gram was no longer in control of her own life. She was a money-making business.

*  *

My Gramma was born in Mexico in July 1918, in a pueblito called Padilla in the state of Tamaulipas, which is located south of the tip of Texas. She was the 16th of 18 children. Gram was three when her mother died giving birth to the last child, who also did not live.

She met my Grampa in Brownsville, Texas. They married in 1942, just before he left to fight in the Aleutian Islands. After World War II, they settled in California. They had three children; my Mom was the second born. Eventually they saved enough money for a down payment and in 1957 they bought their small house in East Los Angeles.

Gram worked in the bakery at the historic Woolworth’s store in downtown Los Angeles until she retired in the late ‘70s. I loved going on the bus with my Mom down Whittier Boulevard to visit her; she would always slip us a donut. But smelling so much sugar baking all day killed her sweet tooth. Years later when I made homemade cookies, she would want me to burn a batch on purpose. She would ask me, “Did you make me any tostaditos (little crunchy burnt ones)?”

Gram wore a minimum of make-up – though she was religious about applying her Oil of Olay at night. She wasn’t into the latest fashions; clothes had to be comfortable. She chose to keep her naturally curly brown hair in a short pixie-cut; it remained quite thick and only turned gray around her temples – which she remedied with “Revlon ColorSilk #25.” Later when she came under the care of others, her hair was dyed an auburn color. When she saw herself in a mirror for the first time after cataract surgery, she yelled out “Hell, my hair is red!”

After my Grampa passed away in the summer of 1984, I spent many weekends with her. She picked me up on Friday nights. We made popcorn and curled up on the couch together to watch her favorite television shows. On Saturdays we visited my Grampa’s grave with fresh flowers and attended 5:30 p.m. Mass. Sunday mornings, we walked down to the local bakery where we picked out fresh pan dulce (Mexican sweet bread) and maybe some tamales. When she dropped me back at home, we’d pinch each other before I got out of her car. She would shout out to me “¡Ay te wacho!” (a Spanglish-slang version of “See you later”) as she sped off in her white four-door Chrysler Horizon.

Gram had been so proud when she bought that little car, brand new and all on her own. She was fearless about how far she drove and how long it took to get there. Her license plate “1NUT772” said it all. Once we were on the freeway taking two of my cousins back to their home in Simi Valley and a car cut her off, causing her to swerve. She was so mad, she shook her fist at the driver and shouted out “You… you… you hole-ass!”

To this day, we all say “hole-ass”.

I lived with my Gram for a few years after I graduated college. Trying to break into the entertainment industry, I took on nighttime internships and jobs that freed up my days and allowed me to spend a lot of time with her. I went with her everywhere; we visited relatives, her friends, my friends, and explored Los Angeles.

One of the only places I did not accompany her was to 6:30 a.m. Mass. Every weekday morning, she would sit with a group of her friends; sometimes they would also say a rosary. Afterwards their ritual continued at the local McDonald’s where they gossiped and feasted on “biskétez” (biscuits) and “the good coffee.”

Gram got a kick out of the stories I told her about celebrities I encountered. She loved the television show Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and was enthralled when I told her that the male lead, Joe Lando, had filmed a special effect sequence at the post production facility where I worked.

“He’s the only man I like with the long hair,” she told me.

Another time I managed to get tickets to her favorite TV game show, The Price Is Right. As we stood in line to enter the television studio, the show runners interviewed the crowd in order to pick out contestants. When they got to us, my usually sarcastically funny Gramma blushed a shade of pink and for once had nothing to say.

In the mid ‘90s, we saw noticeable changes in Gram’s personality and habits. She was in good spirits one minute, irritable the next. She did not take her medications or bathe regularly. She wore stained clothing in public. She did not recognize when food went bad in her refrigerator. She got into a couple of minor fender-benders and her driver’s license was taken away.

Gram was subsequently diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s Disease and put on medication that made her sick to her stomach. The cleaning woman was asked to work a few more hours to make sure she had eaten and taken her meds. My Mom and two other family members took turns spending the weekends. I filled in when needed.

In July 1999, Gram tripped on a sidewalk crack, fell and broke her right hip. She was in the hospital for over a month. Worried because several coworkers told me that their grandparents had died after breaking their hips, I visited her before and after work, and at most lunch breaks. Every spare moment I had, I spent with her. At times I slept overnight in her hospital room and showered in the gym at work. For her birthday, I baked her a cake and several of my friends and I sang to her. She pulled through, but needed 24-hour care after that.

Since my Gramma’s funds were low, I moved back in with her so that I could take on the nighttime caretaking shift. I commuted to West Los Angeles for my jobs and returned by 7 p.m. to relieve the daytime caretaker. I often called Gram during the day; sometimes I put her on speakerphone and let her crack-up my coworkers, from the moment she answered with her now infamous “‘Lo, ‘lo!” greeting, followed by “So what the hell’s going on?”

She always ended with “¡Ay te wacho!”

My Mom continued to alternate and provide weekend care along with the two other family members who filed a lawsuit in my Gramma’s name against the condominium association located across from where she had fallen. When her share of the settlement was received, I asked that a nighttime caretaker be hired, but I returned on weekends to visit and help out.

In November 2001, one of the family members took stress leave from work and moved into my Gramma’s house. When her disability compensation was exhausted, she announced that she was not returning to her job – that she was going to fire the nighttime caretaker, perform the care herself, and expected to be paid. My Mom had a problem with this, but the other family member agreed.

We soon learned their plan all along had been to create a Conservatorship over my Gramma, with one family member as the Conservator and the other as a Caretaker, using Gram’s settlement funds to pay themselves. My Mom contested it at first, but dropped her counter-petition when she discovered that the Conservator intended to pay all of their legal costs out of my Gramma’s funds.

For the next six years, it was a battle to see my Gramma. Just to set-up a visit, two-week advance notice had to be emailed to the Conservatorship’s lawyer so approvals could be obtained. We received letters from the lawyer alleging that we had mistreated my Gramma, had lost, broken or taken her personal and/or household items. It was uncomfortable to stay at Gram’s house. And then a video camera monitoring system was installed.

At that point my Mom decided to just bring my Gramma to her home in Whittier for the weekend visits. My mom acquired a bedside commode, shower chair, and safety railings. We took Gram to Mass on Saturday evenings. We scheduled family get-togethers around our time with her. We played a lot of games, especially her favorite – dominoes – and she thoroughly enjoyed beating us. But as much as we tried to keep her entertained and busy, Gram would ask, “When are we going back to my house?”

We were then accused of making my Gramma “sleep on the floor,” and told that we were no longer allowed to take her to my Mom’s for overnight stays. Most heartbreaking was that my Gramma, who used to phone my Mom and I at least once a day, was not returning our calls. I missed hearing, “¡Ay te wacho!”         

More letters arrived from the Conservatorship’s lawyer with additional accusations and restrictions. Only my Mom was allowed to pick-up Gram. They threatened to have visitation rights completely stripped from us.

“Gram, you know they are making it difficult for us to see you,” I said to her one day. “Do you want me to keep fighting them? What do you want me to do?”

“Ahh! They are crazy. Pay no attention to them.”

By November 2008, with the help of the court-appointed mediator, my siblings and I were granted the ability to pick-up Gram and visit with her without the mandatory presence of my Mom. We were also allowed to take her for overnight stays again.

As Gram sat on my Mom’s couch, I would curl up next to her, lay my head in her lap and she would stroke my hair. We watched a lot of old movies and DVDs of her favorite past television shows. I cooked for her. Sometimes I read to her. But she was on so much medication, she often fell asleep during the day.

All my Gramma had ever wanted was to grow old in her home, surrounded by all of her family.

She fell again and broke the same right hip along with her wrist. She was placed in a convalescent facility for rehabilitation, but developed pneumonia and ended up back in the hospital.

Gram passed away in her home a few weeks later. She was 91. I was not called until after she had taken her last breath.

I buried my head in her still warm body for one last time, hugged her and cried.

We were not included in the planning of Gram’s final arrangements. When we arrived at St. Alphonsus the morning of the funeral, the Conservator was in a panic because she did not have enough pallbearers. I grabbed a pair of the white gloves, put them on, and took ahold of the casket handle behind my two brothers.

Later, a post-mortem study on my Gramma’s brain revealed that she never had Alzheimer’s Disease. She had been suffering from mini-strokes.

It is true that Gram had trouble with her short-term memory, but she could recall childhood experiences. She never stopped recognizing me, or my Mom or my siblings. She never lost her strange sense of humor. When we watched the horror film, The Ring, she laughed through it. She chuckled when the character of the dead little girl crawls out of the videoscreen to make her kill. Afterwards, Gram cracked herself up as she told us, “The little girl is going to get you!”

Gram comes to me now in my dreams. And every once in a while, I feel like I have been pinched. I know she is laughing – because I can’t pinch back.

Ay te wacho, Gram.

Finding Jerry

I was raised at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains, at the crossroads of the Coosa River and the spring fed Choccolocco Creek, in rural Alabama.

In 1943, when I was five years old, Daddy finished his studies at Trinity College, in Henderson, Tennessee. He graduated as an ordained minister and obtained a church congregation in the township of Pell City, 15 miles from our home at the time. The position came with furnished housing for the minister and his family. He proved to be an exuberant and popular minister.

Daddy was hired by two other churches in nearby communities as their Sunday preacher. Jerry, Sue and I had to go to church three times every Sunday as he wanted some of the family with him. He needed us to help keep the congregation in tune and on track with the singing. Afterward, Daddy put his hand on our shoulders.

“Good job, Little Man,” he’d say.

“Good singing, my Little Bird.”

Daddy was hired for a 15-minute radio program and his sermons became so popular, especially with the shut-in audience, that his time was extended to a half-hour. Unable to immediately fill the time with sermon, he created The Adams Quartet with his children. Daddy selected a song related to his sermon of the day. He taught us harmony and soon we too were a big hit.

Daddy functioned as song leader as well as preacher for all three churches. Yet even this was not enough to support a growing family. So he took a job as manager of a 400-acre cotton, grain and livestock farm located in the township of Eureka, ten miles from the church; five laborer-households had been living and working on this property for many years. With Daddy’s leadership, this farm became a family community they called Dogwood Hollow. When he began each workday with a prayer, the workers started calling him Preacher. Dogwood Hollow provided many hidden creeks, rivers, waterfalls, caves and ravines for us to explore. The fathers built a community-farm-swimming pool on the calm edge of the Coosa River. They took advantage of large boulders blown out of the earth by an old quartz processing plant. These boulders created a perfect, curved, quartz wall on the river-sides of the pool. There were at least ten children in each household and with kinfolk and visitors, a lot of people played in this gigantic river swimming pool.

Beyond the pool, at the center of the wide Coosa, was a turbulent current that local farmers used to float logs to the processing plant 15 miles downriver. We were warned it was dangerous, but we wanted adventure and always played a game of ‘getting loose from the dragon.’ The river was full of snapping turtles, tadpoles, cat fish; crappie, bass, and of course water snakes. People said that if you left this river wildlife alone no harm would come to you; so we did.

The first of July, in 1948, my Daddy’s sister, Alma, brought her three daughters to visit. They lived in the township of McCleary Station and were anxious to experience country life. The oldest daughter, Vida Mae, was 18, and planning a wedding at our house with Daddy performing the services. Her soldier-boyfriend was arriving soon from Germany. We country kids were usually lulled to sleep by the night sounds of crickets chirping, wolves howling, bull frogs croaking, a low cow-moo nearby, and then, shortly before midnight, a distant long-lonely whistle of the train as it roared across the Coosa on its last trip of the day. All this scared my city cousins. They slept lightly, jerking upright in their beds at each sound.

On Saturday, 4th of July, at the crack of dawn, after a restless night of sleep, my cousins were scared out of bed with the noise of the roosters crowing. I rolled over, yawned myself awake to the smell of baking biscuits, sizzling bacon and chicory-laced coffee. After we finished breakfast and washed the dishes, we asked mother if we could go to the river. Mother was always nervous and afraid her kids would get hurt if she or Daddy were not with them.

“No, something bad might happen.”

I could usually get Daddy to let us do what Mother forbade. My brother Jerry urged me to ask him if we could go. Daddy was busy with his Sunday sermon and closed his thick, weathered Bible.

“Yes, but not for long.”

We hurried to our bedroom to put on our homemade bloomer swim suits. We always swam in our flour-sack underwear or the clothes we wore to the field that day. Vida Mae gave JoAnn a store-bought swimsuit she no longer wanted. It was the first one we had ever seen and thought it cute with its very short skirt and tight-fitting body. JoAnn was the envy of the neighborhood.

We hurried down the trail, passing all the other families out in their yards. At the house nearest to the trail, in the shade of a Mimosa tree, Maw-Maw was turning meat in a large, smoking drum with the smell of barbecue in the air; J.C., their oldest son, was moaning on his harmonica. His father, Jim Bo, was beating on his lard bucket drums and Ma Truss was setting on the front porch, fiddle to her ear, stomping her feet as the fiddle cried out. We told them that we was gonna show our city cousins what fun it was to swim in the river pool. As we entered the cool, pine-needle carpet floor of the thicket, we met a crowd of golden daffodils dancing in the breeze. Butterflies and bees smothered vines of honeysuckle. We skipped and danced our way to the swimming pool, whistling as we went.

At the pool, we opened the gate and climbed the rock steps onto the warm, smooth boulders. In the forbidden center of the river, the water roared and rolled, like a storm blowing in.

“Jerry, the water is very rough. Please don’t go into the current,” JoAnn shouted.

Jerry, grinned at his bossy sister, spread his arms and executed a perfect swan dive. He surfaced very near the strong current. We watched. He stayed in the current. He wasn’t moving out of it. Instead he started moving in circles, as if he was caught in a whirlpool.

“Stop that Jerry,” I yelled. “You gonna make yourself dizzy.”

JoAnn realized Jerry could not break free of the swift current. She jumped in. We heard a crack, like a tree limb breaking, and a cry of pain from her. She was up to her shoulders in water. One foot had lodged into a crevice of the smaller boulders with her foot turned backwards. Vida Mae and I tried to pull her foot loose, but the foot was turned the wrong way and lodged tightly. JoAnn was hovering over a boulder and trying to keep her face out of the water. But soon she tired and started to cry, which really scared me ‘cause I had never seen my sister cry. As JoAnn struggled, Vida Mae went into the water pushing and holding her up. She yelled at us to get Daddy. As I turned to leave, I looked back and saw Jerry riding down the center of the river like a log on its way to the pulp wood factory.

My sisters, Nita and Sue, and I went running through the woods yelling. As we passed Jim Bo’s house, I told him what had happened; he rang the “in danger” bell on his porch.

Daddy had heard us yelling and was outside at the edge of the yard when we got home. He grabbed his rock-moving pole with a sharp end and took off running. Mother would not allow us to return to the river. Daddy had stopped long enough to ask me where Jerry was. I told him he was caught in the river current. His shoulders slumped.

Hours passed as we waited for Daddy’s return. The clock ticked loud in the unnatural silence. Not a dog barked, nor a bird chirped. As the sun set and the moon rose, Daddy returned from the river. He looked scared and lost. We asked where JoAnn, Vida Mae and Jerry were. He told us they would all be home when they found Jerry. I begged to go in search of him ‘cause I knew all our hiding places and thought that Jerry probably had got free and was in the woods, maybe playing a trick on everybody.

Seven days later, JoAnn and Jerry’s bodies were brought to the house in a metal box lined in silk and velvet and placed into our living room to lay-in-wake. We didn’t know what that meant. Sue and Nita were scared, confused and crying and went to our bedroom. JoAnn and Jerry were just laying there not saying anything. I asked the man who opened the lid what was wrong with them.

“You should just think of them as sleeping.”

“But, Jerry don’t sleep like that…you need to take his arms down. He likes to roll into a ball to sleep.”

Nobody had told us what happened. JoAnn’s hair was in place with lifeless perfection. How I wished I could ruffle it up and blow on it to see it dance again. Jerry’s collar was up on his chin, when I reached in to flatten the collar I saw two prong-like indentations under his chin. The man told me that Jerry had been bitten by a water moccasin and that he probably only felt a sting before he died.

I struggled to understand what ‘died’ meant.

“Are they gone live in these boxes now?” He nodded.

“Are they gonna have to live in our living room?”

I learned much later that they had removed JoAnn and Vida Mae’s bodies from the river immediately; both had drowned. The boulders submerged in water were slick with slime and it was difficult to move onto the top. Each girl grew tired and began to struggle for life. JoAnn could not move her lodged foot and was unable to remain high enough over the boulder to keep her face out of the water. Vida Mae made her way over to another boulder closer to the bank, but with her strength gone and a slippery boulder, she was unable to pull herself free of the river. Both girls drowned while trying to grasp boulders, heads barely beneath the water. Vida Mae’s body was taken to her home and lay in wake until her boyfriend arrived from Germany. JoAnne’s body was taken to the funeral home. Jerry’s body was found 12 miles downriver three days later resting on a deserted beaver dam. We were not allowed to go to the funeral or gravesite. Weeks later, I kept thinking maybe they were all wrong and I would find Jerry lounging in one of our hideouts, laughing.

My mother folded into herself. Her grief was so that she stayed in their bedroom, forbidding Daddy to enter, curtains drawn as she exited our lives. I kept searching for signs of the mother I once knew—the woman easy to laugh and the last person in the room to be quiet. I was missing our time lying on a quilt in the shade of a sycamore tree painting cloud pictures or mother tickling me and slobbering a kiss into my dimple telling me,

“I’m filling your sugar bowl.”

Only recently, we had been sitting on a log stool, back to back, laughing and trying to push each other off the stump.

During mother’s withdrawal from our lives, Estelle, a family friend and neighbor, kept rotating all the casseroles brought to our house by the congregation and community, so that we had plenty to eat. But, we were so traumatized that nobody was ever hungry and much of the food spoiled.

Mother’s fading from the family was a terrible time. Weeks later she finally re-emerged. She did her chores and would sometimes sit on the porch. One sunny day not long after that, she and I sat there. Mother rocked in her old oak chair, with the faded, flowered cushion and me in Daddy’s oak rocker, which smelled faintly of tobacco he used in his old corn-cob pipe. We were not talking or playing the radio we were just being – me and her, silent. After the deaths, it was like that; Mother never talking. All of a sudden she said:

“Peggy, you know none of this would have happened if you’d just done as you were told.” Then she made the creaky rocking chair move. We just kept rocking. Quietly, I cried till I could hardly breathe, tasting my salty tears as they flowed down my face.

Daddy found me later in the barn, crying my eyes out, heart-broken. He told me I was his “little bird with a broken wing…”

“Mother hates me!”

“Well, right now she hates me, too!” He placed his arm around my shoulders.

“What happened was not your fault. You know that, right?”

After a few more anguished tears, slowly sniffling, I nodded. He then said he was taking me to visit his mother for a while. A fragment of a smile tried to find its way up from the past weeks of sorrow.

Since I was a very young child, I spent six weeks every summer at my grandmother’s house. We called her Granny Love and she told the greatest stories; sometimes ghostly, sometimes funny. She and I always took turns making up songs and stories.

When I arrived, Granny put her worn hand in mine, and then she brought me into an enveloping hug and sobbed. The guilt and the grief over JoAnn and Jerry and the wishing it all away became fresh and raw again. I snuggled into Granny’s frail arms and we cried into each other’s shoulders so deeply that I could feel the sorrow from her soul blending completely with my own. When Daddy entered her room, Granny cradled her child and his child and we all cried and wrapped our arms around each other tightly and squeezed. We swayed together.

“Lord’s gonna take care of everythang,” she said.

I had never seen my Daddy cry and I was shocked to see the tears rolling, freely down his face and he snorted just as I did, trying to stop the tears; we all three, laughed over this.

In the time I stayed with Granny, she gave me attention and love and told me over and over how proud she was of me. Then, Daddy took me home.

“Thangs gon’ be alright—someday it won’t hurt so much,” Granny Love told me.

She died seven days later, in her bed, all alone. I always wished I could have held her hand until the end, but then maybe not. In her wisdom, Granny knew how fragile she and I were and sent me home.

I returned home to find Mother with dark smudges under her eyes and still withdrawn, angry at me, at Daddy, at the world. Gradually, she began to return to her role as wife and mother. She went on to have three more children: two girls and one boy, as if to replace those she had lost. But life was not the same. Mother became bitter and unforgiving. Daddy, previously loving and jovial, withdrew, too.

They loved their first-born children so much that, after their deaths, they could not find it within their hearts to love their others as much.

The Lesson

That morning was my first day of school. It was the most exciting day of my life. I woke up bright and early. I bathed. I brushed my teeth. I was a five-year-old overzealous boy. My shirt was perfectly pressed and buttoned down – white as the driven snow. My corduroy blue pants had razor-sharp pleats. I sported brand new “Buster Brown” shoes and would probably be the only kid in the first grade lucky enough to own a pair. I was excited and ready to learn some great lessons.

Thirty boys and girls sat impatiently inside the class. Some were nervous. Others were crying from leaving Mommy and Daddy. I could barely sit still.

I was full of life, happy and energetic. I turned to the kid next to me. “Hi.” I twisted and turned as I sat. Anxiously looking front and back and side to side. Smiling at all of the other kids, I gazed at the classroom decorations.

The green “blackboards” were immaculate. Having never been scribbled on, the white lines were straight as arrows. They would be our writing guides. The long Alphabet table just above was crisp and clean. The poster boards were covered with white construction paper and this was filled with images of fruit, animals, letters and numbers.

The small desks were as if in military formation. The petite drawers underneath were filled with books, pens and paper. Brand new, they crackled when opened and were crisp to the smell. Oversized pencils, pink erasers and Elmer’s glue beckoned me. The arts and crafts area had the works – colored paper and crayons and water paints and scissors and clay and markers and tape.

It was going to be a great year.

Then it got even better!

“Good morning, class.” The most beautiful and gentle voice greeted us. A Belgian accent both calming and fascinating. As if sent by God himself, there stood the most angelic Nun. Her bleached white habit was perfectly pressed and pleated. The color matched her meticulously curled hair. The oversized black beads and cross of her rosary dangled at her side and matched her glistening shoes.

I was in a fairy tale. Dashing in the Bavarian Alps, hand in hand with my very own godsend singing “Doe a deer, a female deer, ray a drop of golden sun…”

Before me stood my real life Julie Andrews. My guide. My mentor. My teacher. How perfect.

We went around the class making introductions like Romper Room. “… Angelica, Saxico, Jose, Alex, Paulina, Stephanie … .” I was anxious, desperate to take my turn.

“David, Arlene, Francine… .” Some of the kids were nervous and shy. Not me. I was confident. I was ready. I knew it too. Months prior, I had starred in the leading role as Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer in the kindergarten play. It had prepared me.

My imagination wandered. I mentally rehearsed. Time stood still while the vignette played in my mind. It was a magical vision. I would stand erect. Shoulders back. Feet firmly pressed together. Perfectly manicured in Catholic School garb. I would proudly announced myself.

The scene felt real. It filled me with pride. I was ready to take on my role. I would be the best student. The role model. The leader. The prestigious “Teacher’s Helper.”

I came out of my vision more excited. Now I was jumpy. It would soon be my turn. I couldn’t sit still. It was killing me. I wanted to raise my hand and beg to be next. But I knew it wasn’t my turn.

The third of five endless rows began. “… Moses, Lisa, Rudy… .”

I was in the fourth seat in the fifth row. It felt like an eternity. I was about to burst.

“Isabel, Joaquin, Jovanna… .” I couldn’t take it.

My mouth was close to cracking. Words of excitement were about to spew like vomit. I tried to muster up the strength. I couldn’t.

I turned to the kid in the row next to me. “Are you excited?” I softly asked so as not to attract attention. “What’s your name? Do you want to be friends?”

I could see the boy was distracted. Focused on the ongoing introductions two rows away he didn’t even hear me. It didn’t matter. I was relieved. I had let out enough steam. The pressure was off and manageable. I felt a sense of relief. I felt good. I could wait my turn.

I turned my attention back to the introductions when, moving fast across the room, the nun swept in toward me like a hawk diving for prey. Lips pressed, brow tense, her eyes cut through me.

My mouth dried.

As if in slow motion and in one move, Sister smacked her hand down on my desk.

“BANG!” She struck with brunt force.

“BANG!” Her hand slammed again this time louder than the angriest judge slamming a gavel to block. The sound rang throughout the cosmos.

My ears rang. I was terrified. I teared up. An apple-sized ball crawled up the back of my throat. I forced it back.

“SHUT YOUR MOUTH!” she yelled.

I shrank.

Furiously, she continued to shout at the top of her lungs, her eyes fixed on me.

“How dare you speak out of turn in MY classroom! You do not speak unless spoken to!”

My excitement shrank.

“Because of your selfishness and lack of control you have disrupted the entire class.”

My energy shrank.

“You have ruined the fun for everyone. I’ll teach you to talk out of turn.”

My morale shrank.

“Go to the back of the room and sit in the corner. Face the wall so we don’t have to see your stupid little face.”

My confidence shrank.

Paralyzed by fear, I failed to follow her orders. She grabbed me by the arm and pulled me. As she walked all I could hear was her stomping and heavy breathing.

Now shaking and in shock, I waited desperately for someone to save me. But no one came.

I tried to wake myself from the nightmare. It was real.

She dragged me to the back of the class. I moved like a medieval criminal making his way through a sea of unforgiving onlookers towards the rack. I lowered my head, tucked tail and whimpered.

“Not only are you not going to introduce yourself. But you are going to sit there all day. And I don’t want to hear a peep out of you for the rest of the day.”

My ego shrank.

“And let that be a lesson to you to keep your mouth shut and to remember to be seen and never be heard!”

My spirit shrank.

“That ought to teach you a lesson!”

Blue Serpent

I was born and raised in the state of Michoacán, Mexico, in a region known as La Cienega de Chapala. The house I grew up in sits on land given to my paternal grandparents many years ago, when President Lazaro Cardenas redistributed the large haciendas, taking the properties from their rich owners and dividing it among peasant farmers.

Much of the country’s agricultural land was in the hands of a few hundred hacendados, or “bosses,” with farm workers living in near slavery conditions.

My grandparents got word of land being distributed in Michoacán. At the time they resided in a little town in the state of Jalisco, called El Pedregal. They began their journey following the edge of Lake Chapala, the largest lake in Mexico. Grandma Natalia and her three young children were on a wagon pulled by oxen. Grandpa Chon was on foot herding their pigs and goats. They camped at night under the wagon, their animals nearby.

After several days on the move, they finally made it to the place that was to become our hometown, Cumuatillo. There, they were told to choose a piece of land as big as they needed to build a house and corrals. They also received title to some very fertile soil; parcels gained from Chapala at the beginning of last century, after rivers were diverted and 20 kilometers of levees created, exposing 50 thousand acres of arable land.

Their first house they built out of reed and tree branches. In time they replaced it with a house of adobe. They had no running water or electricity; nevertheless, this became home. My dad was the sixth of nine children; his name is Antonio Fernandez. He and his siblings had big responsibilities at a very young age.

Around the time father turned 12 years old, he was put in charge of the goats. The herd was taken to the hills, far away from my grandparents’ home. There they spent days grazing. Dad was left alone on the hills with the herd sometimes. At night he cried with fear hearing coyotes howling in the distance, having to endure rain and cold under a poncho, a dog and the goats his only companions. He didn’t like school much and dropped out of third grade; that meant he had to go back to work in the fields and care for the animals. As a teenager he took tailoring classes but found it was not his calling.

After he married my mom, he inherited part of my grandparents’ back yard to build his own house, as well as a few acres for farming. In 1973, around the time I was born, he started taking courses by mail to become an electrician. He hung the diploma on the wall in our house. He was, by then, the town’s only electrician. He also learned the plumber trade to have more work and he farmed year round.

Our house was the first house in town to have a doorbell. It came handy as many people stopped by looking for dad. They needed electric and water services for the houses they were building, or transistor radios, pressing irons and Christmas lights repaired. After having dinner every night, he went in his workshop and stayed there for several hours. In town, he was well known and respected for the quality of his work and for being a dedicated farmer.

The last time I saw my father standing on his own, tall and handsome, was a Sunday at the end of January 1980. He combed his hair neatly, put on cologne and his gold ring. He left on his shiny black motorcycle that he used to get around. He didn’t tell mom where he was going, nor did she ask.

Around 9:00 pm that Sunday, a taxi pulled in front of our house. The driver was looking for Antonio Fernandez’s relatives. He had been in a collision with a car and was in the hospital. A donor for his blood type was urgently needed. Mom left that night in the taxi. My cousin Mina and I ran out to find her father. As I kept running down the dark streets, I don’t think I understood what was really going on.

One month later, dad was back home, his left leg amputated. Many scars now covered his face and his front teeth were missing. He was a totally different man from the one I saw going away that Sunday. I remember him falling as he entered his workshop for the first time in weeks. He stayed on the floor for a while, crying his heart out.

The family had no insurance to cover medical bills. Dad was very depressed, sometimes he would throw dishes around, mad over little things. He scared me and made me wish he went away. He was only 30 years old, mom was 26, my older sister had just turned eight, I had two younger sisters and a new baby was on the way.

Our doorbell went quiet. Only kids returning from school rang it and ran away laughing. Mom never complained about father’s outbursts. I don’t remember seeing her cry. She told me once she didn’t want her baby to be born sad. She continued washing clothes by hand, cooking, cleaning and even tending to our few cows and pigs.

Dad spent time in the fields. He sometimes walked around the patio on his crutches, sad and desperate, like he was looking for something. My fear turned to compassion during these days. I missed the strong tall man that built the large green kite for my sister and me. He ran with it, offering the reed and plastic kite to the wind. It was too big and heavy and it never elevated.

One day someone offered dad some work.

“I think you can do it,” said the man. “You can take your time; it’s not urgent.” Dad was doubtful but accepted, as we needed money. The doctor that operated on him the night of the accident was not a surgeon. He saved my father’s life but he amputated his leg at the wrong length. A prosthetic caused him tremendous pain and made it difficult for him to get around. At job sites, he sometimes opted for jumping on his only leg to move faster. If working at ground level he used the strength of his arms to drag his body from place to place. He had to do this a lot when working in the fields because his crutches got stuck in the mud.

Little by little he gained confidence, finding his way with his changed body. People started trusting him with work. He once again became the town’s main plumber and electrician. It took him longer to finish jobs and money was not enough for the family’s expenses. Mom managed as best she could.

A short kid with a face full of freckles, nicked-named “the Roll” loved bullying me since I refused to become his girlfriend. The Roll wouldn’t forgive the rejection and always found reasons to make fun of me or my family. Together with “Churro Guy,” he picked on the way Dad used a piece of cord as a manual accelerator for his 1965 Volkswagen.

They called my father “Thousand Uses,” referring to the fact that he would take almost any honest job he was offered. Yet the town was good to us. Debt was being paid and the family was recuperating.

Before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors, my hometown had been the land of Nahua people, Aztecs.

During rainy season, the water overflow from Chapala and rivers nearby inundated the area. Several small islands emerged from the water every year. Cumuatillo used to be part of Cumuato Island; an important place because of its higher ground, with roads and canals that remained full of water even during the dry period, making it easy to use canoes for the transportation of people and goods.

As little girls my sisters and I used to play with small clay figurines we found on the ground. Lots of dark glass like, edge sharpened rocks, shimmered under the morning sun. Broken pottery served us as fake currency to purchase the large green leaves we used as tortillas for our games. Dad told stories of bones and human skulls uncovered during the digging of trenches for the footings of new walls. As kids, he and his brothers used to place the skulls on fence posts and throw rocks at them.

One day my dad and uncle unearthed a full human skeleton from our back yard. Jade, gold and shell ornaments were still on its wrist and neck. Beautiful pottery and sharp obsidian spears had been carefully placed to his sides.

Dad placed all the artifacts in a box and stored it away. In spite of being so proud of his find, one day we helped him put this box in his car and off he went to find a man named Jose, a dealer in jewelry among other things. He sold all the artifacts to him. Jose didn’t pay him much, but the money helped us get by for some days.

Much later, Jose and Dad had a conversation about that transaction. “If you find more, don’t touch them,” Jose told him. He described an inexplicable illness and hallucinations he experienced, which were, according to him, all related to the pre-Hispanic pottery and jewelry he had been dealing with. It was likely our backyard relics were not the only ones he had purchased and sold. He claimed he was cured after he stopped his dealings in these objects.

Over time, the family adjusted to the many changes after the accident. One summer, with the proceeds of a good harvest, my parents purchased a popsicle shop. It was another source of income and more work for mom. All sisters and brother also helped the family by selling popsicles and working in the fields. As a teenager the oldest daughter, Leticia took a job as an operator for the town’s public telephone.

In 1992, Leticia, married and immigrated to the town of El Monte, California. I followed one month later, arriving in nearby South Gate, California. My sister, Teresa, took over Leticia’s job. Eventually the youngest sister Cecilia would also alternate between this job and college. Antonio Junior, also known as little Toño, had been helping dad work since he was four years old.

Little Toño was a fixture next to dad when he wasn’t in school. He had become an extension of Dad’s capabilities and a relief for some of his limitations.

After finishing high school, Toño was awarded a small grant from the government to continue his studies. He moved to the state’s capital to start in the engineering program at Morelia’s Technological Institute. My parents supported him to complement the grant. After graduating he moved to Queretaro.

My father continued farming, ignoring my mother’s pleas for him to slow down.

One night, mom and dad noticed a surreal blue shape climbing one of the walls inside the house. This shape resembled a small serpent. They looked around the room trying to find a source for what they were seeing. Nothing. When it appeared to them a second time they panicked a little more.

“It wants to show us where the other treasures are,” said my mom. But my dad was not about to start digging for treasure after what Jose told him. So the third and last time they saw it moving up the wall, they just ignored it.

If the blue serpent wanted my dad to unearth something she was many years late. My parents have enough to support themselves. They are alone in this house with the magical backyard, where four sisters and one brother used to play and thresh corn. No need to look for treasures now. Maybe the blue serpent understood this and that’s why she stopped showing itself to my mom and dad.

Father thinks, and I agree, that there is more to be uncovered. Yet we now embrace the idea of ancestors sleeping under the empty beds of the house we grew up in.

By now they know my dad is sorry for disturbing them.

The Tracks Home

Don Luis shivered in line at the snowy desert camp near Utah’s Great Salt Lake that winter of 1945. The icy wind pierced his thin shirt and pants, chilling his skin. Trains carrying war supplies rumbled throughout the railroad yard. Traqueros, track workers, hauled picks, poles, and shovels. He had never labored on the railroad, but he’d learn, earn money and return home at war’s end.

At the front of the line, officials distributed thick coats. Don Luis presented his contract to an official. Purchases would be deducted from his paycheck, the official informed him. Don Luis grabbed a long sheep skin coat. He stroked the warm lining, draped it over his shoulders, and headed towards the railroad tracks.

Two foremen and an interpreter gathered a crew of thirty men. Don Luis huddled with his paisanos, buddies from his village in Mexico. They donned work gloves the foreman furnished them. They were to remove old tracks and install new ones. The transport of soldiers and food depended on the maintenance of the rails, the interpreter explained. They were a vital part of the war effort.

It was the rallying cry Don Luis had heard back home: braceros – strong arms – needed in the United States.

At the start of the war, his brother had labored as a bracero via the Mexican Emergency Farm Labor program. There’s much work here picking beets and tomatoes, his brother wrote in letters from California. So Don Luis enlisted too and traveled to a recruitment center near his village, leaving behind his wife and two young children.

At the contracting center in Querétaro, railroad representatives waited while U.S health officials probed his eyes, ears, hands and arms. He’d signed and received an identification card – Railroad Track Labor Only inscribed at the top. He clutched the documents in his hands and followed the hundreds of braceros boarding the Mexican Railways for the trip north.

Now, weeks later, he lugged rail equipment to repair the tracks that crisscrossed the Utah desert by Lakeside, near Salt Lake City. He and the crew cleared the tracks of debris and shoveled gravel. They ripped up the worn tracks, lifted the corroded railroad ties with tongs and dug out ballasts. He was careful to not puncture his hands, but by mid-day, the gloves were riddled with holes. He slipped on new ones, and ripped them again.

At sundown, Don Luis and the men hauled shovels over their shoulders and trekked back to camp for a meal at the mess hall. Tomorrow, they’d put in another 12-hour day.

In time, Don Luis’ crew grew to include a tall, white fellow – though not American – who assisted in laying the tracks, and an American electrician who spoke no Spanish. They resorted to hand signals, pointing to the tongs, wrenches, and jacks as Don Luis and his buddies set new railroad ties, driving down spikes with a sledgehammer. The electrician drilled holes through rails. Don Luis inserted and fastened bolts. He and the crew replaced ballasts.

At sunset, Don Luis removed his perforated gloves and headed back to camp. Oil dripped onto his shirt and pants. It ran through his fingers, thick like the honey forming inside a honeycomb back in his village. He relished licking the sweet, sticky food off his fingers. Now, in this war-time bracero camp, there were few sweets, for sugar was rationed.

He removed his pants and headed to the washer. He opened the spigot, splashed hot water onto the greased pants and poured soap. Then picked up a wooden stick and stirred. But the stubborn grease and grime remained, so he wore them a second, third, and fourth time.

After two weeks, his paycheck came with deductions for the sheep skin coat and his room and board. But he’d earned enough to buy new clothes. The rest he’d send home.

On Sunday, he and fellow braceros rested on their cots, wondering what lay beyond the desert tracks.

The train will take you into town, the foreman explained, handing Don Luis and his buddies a pass and small railroad company buttons. Don Luis pinned it on his shirt pocket and boarded the train.

It rumbled across a trestle bridge near the Great Salt Lake. El Lago Salado. Don Luis marveled at the briny water with no outlet – so unlike the creeks back home that flowed into a gushing river.

The train pulled into the Ogden depot. Women, men, and children streamed in and out of the station. Troops in town exited train cars. The sounds of English reverberated throughout.

He and his buddies walked into town. At a men’s store, shirts, pants, and overalls hung on racks and storefront windows. Don Luis patted the coins and the check inside his greased pocket and entered. He grabbed a shirt and a smooth pair of pants.

“Cuánto, Señor?” he asked the salesperson. But the man stared in silence. Then finally spoke in the same hurried English sounds that filled the train depot.

Don Luis pointed to the merchandise, placing several coins on the counter. The man took them. Don Luis carried his new purchases back to camp that day, unsure of their cost.

That evening he lay on his cot. Inside the room, a radio played country music. Braceros scanned the dial until the familiar sounds of a ranchera streamed from the speakers. Don Luis reminisced. How was the baby? And when the oldest asked, “Where is my Papá?” he contemplated his wife’s reply:

“Tu Papá está en Estados Unidos. No tarda en regresar.” “Your father is in the United States. He won’t be long in returning home.”

But braceros murmured late at night. Some fellow villagers, ill or injured, hadn’t returned after a stint on other U.S railroads. Wives and mothers had implored officials in both countries, eager to learn the fate that had awaited their husbands and sons in El Norte.

Still, Don Luis and his buddies toiled where Chinese and Irish laborers once had. Nearly a century ago, they had leveled roadbeds and blasted mountainsides in the Sierra Nevada and helped build the U.S transcontinental railroad where the Central and Union Pacific connected east to west.

When the roaring trains had quieted, Don Luis gathered pen and paper. Dear family, he began. I am well, and working on the railroad. How is everyone? Please write me. He remembered to write Section 97, his worksite, on the mailing envelope.

Winter gave way to spring, followed by summer. Don Luis worked, ventured into town on Sundays, and sent money home.

One day, the foreman approached him. He’d been re-assigned to other duties.

In subsequent days, Don Luis positioned himself miles away from the crew, as instructed. In the distance, his section gang crouched near the tracks, their bodies on the line, grease flowing like honey and spilling onto their overalls and pants. He visualized his paisanos, the American foreman and the interpreter, the towering white fellow and electrician who communicated in hand signals – all together now, arms and hands setting down rails and ties.

The earth rumbled beneath his feet. He recalled the foreman’s directive.

He readied the small device filled with detonating powder – a torpedo, the foreman had called it. He bent towards the tracks and strapped it to the top of the rail. Up ahead, the train lurched. Its wheels clattered near the flagging zone, then spun over the torpedo, emitting a loud bang. The driver slowed the train, circumventing the track workers. Don Luis sighed.

He stationed himself at the zone each day, flagging oncoming trains, his distant gaze fixed on his section gang.

One August day, the foreman gathered the men. Don Luis watched his lips move with excitement. An interpreter stood by.

Muchachos,” he began, “the war has ended.”

On his next visit to Ogden, he witnessed trains roar into the depot with returning soldiers, a family awaiting each of them. Some exited on crutches. A child rushed to a man’s embrace; a woman caressed his face.

Outside, U.S flags waved from business rooftops. Men and women tucked newspapers into their forearms – Peace and Victory splashed across headlines. He needed no translation for these and other words he’d acquired: check, depot, torpedo, letter, tracks, home.

The war was over. So was his work contract. Amid the swaying flags and victory chants, he reveled in a quiet joy that soon he’d be home.

But the rolling stock and railroad equipment would come slowly. In Idaho and California, beet workers and other agricultural braceros needed transport too. Repatriation would begin with them.

Autumn turned to winter. Don Luis arose at dawn, labored on the tracks and retired to camp at dusk. On Sundays, he ventured into town. Victory celebrations had come and gone. Fathers now strolled down sidewalks with their children.

But at night, by the dim light inside a bracero camp, he’d still write, “Dear family,” to begin each letter.

Then the chilly air abated. Spring was on its way.

In the distance, a whistle blew. A train rumbled into camp, its wheels clanking against new tracks.

Don Luis looked out on the railroad yard. Gone was the snow that had greeted him more than a year before. The children must be grown, he reckoned. The baby was now walking alongside his brother. He’d look for tracks of their small feet on the dirt road leading to their adobe home.

He unpinned the railroad company button on his shirt, packed his sheep skin coat and pants. Maybe this train would deliver him home.

Hard Not To Say Goodbye

The family was scattered in a half-moon circle on the grounds of the cemetery. Spring and roses filled the air along with weeping. Two hundred people stood looking down at a pink and gold casket. One by one, people dropped to their knees, or had to be held up by someone else, or they just plain fainted as Reverend Lorenzo Alexander spoke the words of goodbye to our departed Zula Mae Alexander McCrary, Cousin Zula, a woman who gave love to so many people through out her life.

She was my aunt, but everyone called her Cousin Zula Mae. She was the oldest matriarch of the family and now she was gone. At 97, old age had taken her. The elders before her lived to be 100 or more, but she had lived a good life of love.

Zula Mae was made in Mississippi. Her ‘sippie roots made her tough for hard times. She taught the family what it meant to love unconditionally and not be afraid to do so. She was born to sharecroppers. Her parents where a mix of Cherokee Indians, whites and African slaves. Her granddaddy had been a slave as a boy, and could never talk about his experience during slavery without crying. At 10, he lied about his age to enlist in the northern Army to fight in the Civil War. Slavery had taken his mother from the children she bore with a white man. The horror traumatized him until his death. Zula Mae said that Granddaddy would say that he would never allow his children to be put in such a life and told her and the rest of the family to love and look after one another, to stay close so they would not be separated. He also told the whites in the neighborhood that he would kill every one of them if they touched any of his kids.

Zula Mae was never a slave but she was forced into marriage. Her Granddaddy told her that a good man was asking about her in the community. His wife had died in childbirth and he was in need of being married again. The men folk in the family made the decisions and they gave her hand to him. There was a lone dissenter among the men – an uncle who thought otherwise. She was told one day that she was to marry him and that she now had to go live with him. It was a quick marriage, without any witnesses except the men folk. The man she was given to was much older than she.

He beat her the night of the marriage to make her do as he commanded. He would come home drunk or upset, wanting food and sex. After two weeks, on a day her sister came by to visit, he hit Zula in the face. A lump swelled under her eye. That day she had enough of him and cards she was dealt by the men folk in the family. She sent her sister home, and pretended to him as if nothing was wrong. He went on with his usual commands and then sat down in a chair with his back to Zula Mae. She picked up a big heavy log and hit him in the head as hard as she could. He fell over as if dead, and she thought he was. She ran to the house of the uncle who fought for her right to make her own decisions. He told the other menfolk in the family that they would not make her go back and that they ought not step on his property.

Soon, Zula Mae rode out of the South to Chicago. She worked as a domestic and then for a museum taking coats. Two more marriages ended when the husbands died.

Then a cousin who had left Chicago and was making good in California called her. Zula Mae rode the Greyhound bus and arrived in California three days later.

Zula Mae never had children of her own but she took on the children of a cousin who had way too many. She became a housekeeper for some of the wealthiest white families in Los Angeles. One family was in the record industry and through them she met some of the great recording artists of the 60’s and 70’s. Her employer would pull her out of the kitchen and introduce her to his guests. One of her employers helped her out of many jams including legal ones because, she told me, she had no clue “bout no law.” She built relationships of mutual respect with her employers and this was the reason she loved them all dearly. Being in service to others, she said, was all she ever knew.

Zula Mae Alexander McCrary was the last bastion of the old world for our family in Los Angeles and was one of the few people left who could tell the stories of family members, history and how two generations back our peoples worked hard and bought land so that the next could have a place to lay their heads. Her accounts gave me a glimpse into a world far from mine of today. More importantly, Zula Mae Alexander McCrary could tell how a generation of relatives lived and loved each other in times of hardship and misery.

One day a terrible earthquake rocked Los Angeles. Our phone went out and Cousin Zula Mae did not drive. Yet she came from way across town, on the bus, to see about us. When my parents didn’t care enough to save money for my school pictures, it was Cousin Zula Mae who paid for them.

Once, her first cousin that she grew up with on the farm was sick in Chicago. Zula Mae rode a Greyhound to go see after her. As she picked out a faded 1970 suitcase from the closet and threw clothes in it, she turned to me. “Me and this child we was raised on the farm together by granddaddy and mamma. I got to get to her,” she said. “We is all we got.”

The love she received while living during the farm life puzzled and amazed me, as I knew that life was hard. Yet it also felt good to me, as I did not receive this type of love in my family before she arrived. In the depth of my soul, I was learning to love watching Cousin Zula Mae managing to show love in ways foreign to me. Zula Mae taught me the importance of showing love when you have the chance to do so. Once, my cousin was leaving for a long journey and everybody gathered to say goodbye. I lingered and watched. Zula Mae kept pushing me to say goodbye. Instead, I waved at him and flashed a smile. Finally, and before I could speak to him, he got in his car and left. Zula Mae asked me to sit next to her. She told me of how important it was for us as a family to love each other and say goodbye. I guess it was the teaching from Granddaddy that was embedded in her.

I faded in and out of her conversation and turned and twisted in my seat. I was uncomfortable with people leaving me. I could not cry because the word “goodbye” sulked my spirit.

That day of her funeral, at the cemetery, surrounded by family and friends, I found myself unable again to say goodbye. I could not utter the words. The warmth of love I received from her was too much to lose. Instead, as I stood at her gravesite, I looked down and said, “I will see you again.”

Not The Way I Once Believed

The airport in Havana is a collection of small, hot buildings, about a quarter mile apart and surrounded by large fields.

Our little group is standing outside the Jose Martí Airport, which is reserved for family visiting from the United States. We’re all trying hard not to cry as we joke about whether it’s possible to pack my sister and her kids into our suitcases for the flight home. She’s joked during this trip that being in Cuba as a tourist is the only way it’s tolerable.

Cubans aren’t allowed in the airport, so every time the sliding doors open the crowd huddled together in the suffocating humidity screams out their loved ones’ names as they catch a glimpse of them. Sweat trickles down my back as I try to fight the thought that I’m abandoning my family here. I look into my sister’s red eyes and the guilt chokes me, although her face is free of resentment.

Nioly is a product of my father’s first marriage and was only three years old in 1980 when he decided to come to the United States on the Mariel boatlift. As Cuban relationships last about as long as a good salsa song, my father left with his newest girlfriend – my mother. The opportunity to leave on that boat was announced days before it left, and Nioly’s mother was not prepared to leave everything. Luckily for me, my parents were. I was born in California three years later.

Growing up we would speak to her periodically over the phone, my father always promising to “get you out soon.” Her enthusiasm toward him never waned, despite his unfulfilled promises and inconsistent contact. Even as a child I marveled at her love for a man whom she really didn’t know. Her voice, always full of excitement to talk to her three “hermanitas,” confused me. She didn’t know us; why did she always say she loved us? Her attitude contrasted sharply with the suffering my parents insisted all Cubans endured. I couldn’t imagine it was as bad as wearing hand-me-downs on the first day of school or having to buy shoes at Payless when everyone else wore Nikes. I remember my confusion the day we received a large envelope from Nioly filled with photos she had taken modeling clothes my parents had sent her. I reasoned their claim that we were struggling financially was just an excuse not to buy me the things I wanted. I sulked that she got a new wardrobe while we could never afford to go to McDonald’s for dinner. I secretly blamed whatever gifts she might have received as the reason why our Christmas tree had nothing underneath it that year.

Nioly finally got the opportunity to meet us in December of 2012; thirty-three years after my father left the island. He was scheduled to have his third open heart surgery and it was possible he wouldn’t survive it. My older sister petitioned the Cuban government for a special visa to reunite them. To our surprise, they granted her permission to come. The condition was that she leave her children behind. The government is all too familiar with the United States’ Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot Policy, allowing any Cuban who sets foot on American soil to stay; they wanted to ensure her return. A 36-year-old daddy’s girl came running out of the terminal, all smiles, tears, and hugs as she hugged her Papi. She cupped our faces with the tenderness of a mother and smothered us with kisses, the Cuban way to greet family.

The airport alone held her in awe. The magic of a post 1950’s American car made her laugh with pleasure and she struggled to keep her eyes from staring out the window on the drive home. On the second day of her visit we took her to the grocery store. She stood frozen at the entrance, a mountain of red apples to her right as she began to cry.

“I can’t believe this,” she whispered. She placed her hand over her chest as her eyes scanned the aisles. “My kids have never seen an apple.”

She cried often as she took photos of everything to share with her kids; the snow at Big Bear, Mickey at Disneyland, our homes. “Now they’ll never stop pestering me to come live here.”

After feeling so immediately bonded to my sister, I wanted to meet the aunts, uncles, and cousins I was deprived of all my life. I had heard so many stories of my parents’ siblings. Now they all had children of their own and I wanted to connect with them. Having grown up in a predominantly Mexican community, we were “family-poor” by comparison, with only my father’s second cousin to celebrate holidays with. I visited Florida when I was nine and it was comforting to be among people who understand you the way only someone who shares your heritage can. In California, people are always shocked that a “gringa” can speak Spanish. In Florida I was instantly recognized as a Cuban and it was a relief not to have to explain what I was.

We planned our trip in only four months, grateful for the adjustments President Obama made to the travel restrictions. Our little family flew to Miami where we boarded another plane for a short flight to Havana. After the airplane’s air conditioning, the heat was a slap in the face as we exited directly onto the tarmac. Walking out of the airport was like stepping into a time machine; classic cars, centuries old buildings, and cobblestone streets. Everyone was so friendly and helpful, you almost wondered if you shouldn’t already know their names. My family was no exception. On our second night in Havana, we met my father’s brother, Julio. From the outside his apartment building looked like a remnant of the Chernobyl disaster. It was one of three huge structures covered in dead vines and black mold, with broken windows and an empty dirt courtyard. All suggested decades of abandonment. A sign hung from his window advertising that his home doubled as a hair salon. Julio’s wife had left her job as a registered nurse because she made more money cutting hair. A younger, blue-eyed version of my dad came out to greet us. I had lived thirty-two years without knowing this man. It was unfair. He insisted we return the following night for a proper dinner. We arrived to slow cooked pork, yucca with garlic mojo, grilled pork, bread rolls, rice with black beans, vegetables and homemade lemonade. My uncle watched me with satisfaction. To toast my husband’s Mexican heritage my uncle had tried to acquire Coronas to top off the meal, “I looked everywhere but couldn’t find any. That’s Cuba for you; you can only buy what the government says is available.” I still don’t know how he acquired everything we ate that night. Every grocery store I visited had more flies than food.

During a visit to the National Aquarium of Cuba, my sister wanted to stop in a local market, as each one held the possibility of an ingredient you may not have available in your area. She was elated to see that they had ground beef and wanted to buy it and keep it in the trunk while we visited the aquarium. My husband and I exchanged a look and I pointed out that it would go bad in the heat. She stared, confused by my lack of enthusiasm. “It’ll be fine. It’s beef!”

To her disappointment, we left without it.

The aquarium looked as if it had been abandoned for years. If not for the sounds of children it would have been spooky. Peeling paint, dirty water, and crumbling enclosures showed the years of neglect it had endured. Upon walking in, we watched a man lift a shark right out of the cloudy water by a fin. No one, including the shark, seemed to care. There was a curious smell at every exhibit and I never saw an employee tending to the sea life. My niece and nephew were elated to be there and ran around excitedly, pointing out the crabs and fish to my sister. My niece was especially taken with the giant tortoises. They were housed in the back of the park in a large, peeling, concrete bowl. Less than a foot of the aquarium’s back wall remained. I kept a firm grasp on my son’s hand to keep him from falling into the open ocean behind us. Later, as people filed in to see the dolphin show, some children came up to the pool and began to take turns stroking their scarred skin. I watched the attendant walk over and expected to hear the obligatory, “don’t touch the dolphins.” Instead she revealed that the previous week some tourists had gotten violently ill after contact with them.

“Mama, look at how big and beautiful they are!” My sister, her arms folded over her chest, didn’t bother to look.

“This is what Cuba presents as the national aquarium, it’s an embarrassment.”

As my niece protested that she was having a great time, Nioly muttered that it was only because the poor thing hadn’t seen Sea World.

When it came time to meet my mother’s family, I could not contain my excitement. During my childhood I had created a mental image of their neighborhood. While my mother told me stories, I would picture it all playing out in my head like a movie. Now I would walk those streets. I made sure to film the drive over so that my parents could take a stroll through the past when I returned.

The street where mother grew up still held all but one of her siblings. They gathered outside my aunt Haydee’s house, the apartment unable to house us all. A plate of papaya, mamay, and pineapple sprinkled with sugar was passed around. My aunt just stared at me and held me, telling me how much I looked like my mom. My grandmother died tragically when my mom was only 17. Being the oldest, my mother had been a mom to her six siblings years before having children of her own.

One of my cousins who dreams of becoming a fashion designer showed me her sketchbook and offered me one of her prized drawings. There was a rushed feeling to our conversations as we all tried to say what we felt was important. My uncle Pepe took us on a short drive around my parent’s old neighborhood, telling us stories and pointing out landmarks. The buildings, although gorgeous with history, were crumbling. Piles of broken concrete lay on sidewalks all over Havana, the remnants of a collapsed roof or wall. Nioly told us of a birthday party for her son’s classmate to which she had arrived late. It ended up being a blessing in disguise, as the roof of the building had caved in on the birthday boy, killing him, just before she got there. My uncle stopped at a roadside stand and insisted on buying us sodas and some crackers for my son. I tried to give him money but he waved me away explaining that it was too hot for us and we needed a cool beverage. I later expressed to him how much I wanted to be taking them all home with me, and he chuckled softly before saying, “maybe one day,” as if talking to a child who has just said she dreams of going to the moon.

My husband and I began to regret all the souvenirs we had purchased for family back home. They were meaningless trinkets; money that could have been better spent improving the quality of life for my new family. The living conditions were depressing, yet they seemed not to notice. Nioly, who had seen the excess of the United States, was the only one whose smile seemed tired and sad.

Two nights before we were scheduled to leave my mother’s family crammed into my uncle’s newly acquired 1957 Plymouth. They brought along my Tia Orama who had been hospitalized the day I visited. She handed me two letters. One was for my mother, the other for her son who is now in California. Before leaving that night my Tia Haydee gave me her abanico, a little hand-held fan Cubans carry to combat the humidity. It’s torn and the lace is fraying, but I love it. “So that you won’t forget me,” she had said. I snapped a picture of my cousins giving the car a push start when they left. Arms waving out of the windows, and faces beaming, they drove away.

The Plymouth just managed to get them home before one of its tires deflated.

The entire week my sister Nioly had hosted my little family, waking up early every morning and sending my niece to announce that breakfast was ready: eggs, café con leche, and Cuban bread smeared with butter. Her boyfriend had chauffeured us around the city in an old Russian car. Floral curtains from somebody’s grandmother covered the seats where there should have been safety belts. My son had enjoyed riding without a car seat more than I anticipated.

“Look mama I can stick my head out the window!”

I grew to love the smell of diesel exhaust, which emanated from every vehicle that still had life left in it, and while the red welts on my thighs showed that I had not yet built up a resistance to the Cuban sun, my body acclimated well to the heat that enveloped this island.

Now at the airport, I am returning to the life that Nioly craves more for her two children than herself. Her desperation to bring them to the United States has spilled over onto them. They ask multiple times what they have to do to come. It is a hard question to answer. I realize the amount of money we spent to visit was almost enough to bring both my niece and nephew out. After a beautiful but emotional week, I feel conflicted about returning to life in Los Angeles.

I give Nioly one more kiss and she sternly tells me to hurry and get inside so that I don’t miss my flight. Inside, the woman who checks my tickets is unfazed by my tears. Waiting for the plane to take off, I flip through the magazine provided. I pause on an ad for a $300 lamp claiming it can make your house a home. I think of the conversation Nioly and I had where she told me that the wardrobe which prompted a fashion show years ago had provided enough money for her and her mother to eat for over a month. Seeing my confusion, she explained that my mother had sewn money into every hem and pocket as insurance that those who inspect care packages wouldn’t steal it.

I watch Cuba shrink from lush greenery into a tiny speck and I realize that yes, I have always been poor, but not in the way I once believed.