Thursday, October 1, 2015

Just Two Women in the Kitchen

I stretch my legs out from on top of the red vinyl stool. I'm careful to stay on the right because the seat is split and the foam is coming out from the other side, leaving the plastic to jut up and out, like my Abuelita's black knife. I think of how the edge could slice through a tomato like a blade. My father wants to take this chair and keep it in the garage for his tools but I won't let him. The red sparkles shine through the cover and fill the spaces like tiny galaxies.

It is early afternoon and the sun is streaking in through the kitchen windows. I love to be here in the kitchen more than anything. I am so close to where my Abuela is happiest, I stand inches from her in the small room and I don't know how she stops the urge from stepping away so she has space.

When people's skin gets too close to mine, I feel like I lose the air around me. I have to change how I am and pay attention to how I breathe when someone comes close to me. I don't want them thinking how I am too loud or too fast or that they'll hear my voice shake or say something to me and then I'll have to answer them when they are this close.

Soon, my brothers and sisters will be home from school. My grandmother is getting the rice and chicken started and my baby brother and sister are sleeping. I am waiting to start the most important job, the meal can't begin without my work - that's what my Abuela tells me. I gather the slices of tomatoes and strings of onion that my grandmother has set aside and I toss them into the hot oil in the pan. I jump when the wet from the tomato and onion sizzle and spark as they hit the pan, but I can never say no to the thrill. I go back to my grandmother and her cutting board, I know she will have the garlic smashed and ready for me to carry over in a measured tablespoon. I walk to the stove, my right hand cups under the garlic so nothing tips out. I clank on the inside of the pan to release the garlic in one plop.

Wiping her hands on her apron, my grandmother comes to stand next to me.

“You can go now, mija, the hard part is done.”

“Can I stir?”

“Claro. Si. Of course!" She lifts me up while I hold her weathered wooden spoon, the rim of the edges now burnt brown, and I hear the rasp of my back and forth scraping against the bottom of the pan.

“It's all brown now, Abuelita. The rice can go in.”

"You know just when it is time, little one." I smile and nod, I'm never wrong about the timing of the oil. Setting me down, my grandmother scoops out the rice from the pot next to us where it has been soaking in water overnight. We wait to hear the gurgle of a hard boil and then she stirs everything together, covering rice with water fold after fold. Leaning down, she checks the stove's flame, being sure to lower it to the precise flicker she needs for a simmer.

I set the table with our purple plates, but I wish they were larger. The ones we have aren't big enough to hold the amount of rice I want. Everything is finished and we have time before the rice is ready and we have to leave to get my brother from school.

My Abuela reaches across the stove and pours a cup of espresso, mixing it with warmed milk from the small pot. She divides it into two separate cups and hands one to me. There is an equal amount in both. I blow across the steam the way she has taught me, until it is cool enough to sip. Then I take the first cautious lick. The warmth spreads down my throat and across my shoulders, I feel it slide down filling the entire of my stomach.

We are two women in the kitchen. One is five, the other seventy-five, but we feel no difference. We have earned this time, to blow and sip, while we are across from each other. There is quiet between us, but it is anything but silence.

“Ponque?” she asks, wanting to know if I want cake.

She laughs when she sees my eyes pop open. I love cake and my grandmother knows this, she has hidden a piece for me, away from my five brothers and sisters. “Si, Abuela, Si!” From behind the sliced rolls in the bread cabinet, she has a torte that is wrapped in re-used wax paper. Placing it in my lap, like she's trusting me with a hummingbird, she hands me the square. I open it and see dense baked apple, the white frosting cracks as my teeth break into it.

My grandmother is small, with thick waves of still dark hair. She is awake when I first come down in the morning and she is awake when I go upstairs for the night. She never tires, she never sits. But in these afternoons, while the others are deep in sleep or away at school, she takes time.

Tomorrow's dinner may be pork sausages with quartered cabbage. The day after that a thick oxtail soup. I know the meals will be different, but they will always begin with me doing the most important work. Laying the foundation for everything that is to come when I toss in the tomatoes, the onions, the garlic.

It's the hardest part, my Abuela tells me, and I do it well.
* * *


  1. This is gorgeous in every way.
    The love, emotion, ritual; all five senses rendered through the purity of a child's recollection.

    My grandparents are 92 and 96. I am going to see them this Sunday.
    And I try always to remember how lucky I am to have them still.

    This piece is the best reminder.
    Thank you so much.

    1. You are always so encouraging, and kind, Julie. That's the gift you have. Thank you.



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