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Friday, August 19, 2022


My father, who served in the Air Force for 20 years, was periodically stationed at Ramey Air Force Base in Puerto Rico. Both my parents are of Puerto Rican descent and had relatives scattered throughout the island.
Oftentimes, my mother would send me to Juncos, on the northeast end of the island, to stay with my Grandmother. I knew her as Abuela. My Abuela was a strong, religious woman with a magnetic aura. I was drawn to her like a bit of malleable metal. I adored her and she adored me. Together we formed our own fan club.
The days living in el campo were long and simple. Mornings would be filled with boasting roosters competing with the pleas of Spanish sermons coming from a beige transistor radio sitting at the end of the kitchen counter. I would sit on an orange Naugahyde stool, feet looped through its metal legs, sipping sweet café con leche and eating stacks of Sultana crackers spread with bright margarine.
Abuela's world revolved around food: the cultivating, the marketing, the preparing and the consuming of it. Abuela worried that I was too flaca, and was determined to send me back home fattened with the love from her kitchen.
Abuela would spend hours tending her plants. She started seeds and cuttings in all the tin cans that came out of her kitchen. They lined the outside walls of the house; shiny containers sprouting newly born specimens, and older cans, with rusty, rooted bottoms and bushy, green foliage blooming forth life.
Ripe guavas would be carried in the hem of Abuela's house dress and into the kitchen where we would stir them into a hot, sticky paste filled with sugar and magic. Abuela also taught me how to make polvorones: round, golden cookies with my thumb print for a center.
Abuela's loving lectures on the virtues of being a good girl rolled in my head and formed as gently as the dough in my greasy little palms.
Everyday we would feed a confetti of chickens and then Abuela, armed with a sharp, black machete, would lead me through an old wooden gate and down a hillside of packed dirt stairs held in place with wood planks and rusty rebar. Our descent into the wild finca was dark with the threat of nasty creatures and the fermenting smells of mango, banana, avocado, and breadfruit.
We would pick sticky produce from the ground and low yielding branches and Abuela would wield her machete to reach high fruit and cut stalks of heavy banana pyramids. The ascent back into daylight would be filled with relief if I had survived another jungle expedition without being scratched, poked or bitten.
My Abuela was very community minded and in her small town she was known as Dona Panchita. A week wouldn't go by that we didn't do our civic duty. We would attend 4-H or Ninas Escuchas meetings where, oftentimes, Abuela was the instructor. Alongside other young ladies, I was taught proper hygiene, cooking techniques and crafts.
The first dress I ever sewed was made during a succession of these meetings. It was an A-line style smock with a fine print of red and white flowers, and a white, half moon collar and hem border. Abuela guided my hand on laying the pattern, cutting, and sewing straight and true.
I wore the dress like a hug until it became a shirt and would no longer go over my growing head. Our social gatherings always culminated around a refreshment-laden table, with the older women exchanging plant clippings, herb bunches and paper sacks filled with humid fruits and vegetables.
In my childishness, the days I spent with my Abuela often seemed boring and punctuated only occasionally with activity and excitement. Now I look back and see that the time I spent with Abuela was full of lessons in good, deep words like love, peace, gratitude, charity, and faith.
The days would always end the same. I'd take my bath and get ready for bed. Then I would slip into Abuela's bedroom to bid her good night and would find her sitting in a halo of light, head bent murmuring and fingering her crystal rosary.
I would kiss her one last time and turn to my room as she called out and assured me "Dios te quere mucho, Sandrita."

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