© 2009 Sandra Jean-Pierre
There is a place in Miami where you can get American Processed Cheese Food for pennies per pre-wrapped slice. Imagine my surprise and gratitude the day I discovered this. Surprise as Abuelo casually shuffled the tepidly chilled slices in the cold food case with deft fingers, dropping slice on slice till he reached my desired 1/4 pound request. Gratitude that thankfully, I was not the first to make such a demand on his time. Time I can only imagine could be filled playing dominos while reminiscing about days that would have never left their history in my blood or dared to course through my veins. So that in the silence that hobbled together English or broken dreams bring, Abuelo handed over my parcel, taking time to stare at me through hollow semi-glazed Cuban cafecito eyes. Never seeing me nor marking my existence in this life, however brief; though his quick retreat back behind the cold case, ready to serve no other patrons at that moment but me, signaled his notion that, It is hard times for us all Mija.
Papery cast-off onion skins, dried salt fish, thawing chicken leg quarters, mottled sour orange, bagged star anise, boniato and ripe-too-long bananas lend each other their scents, shake hands fiercely, hurl common insults to one another and greet you at the door. The very same that had it belonged to a chain of stores say, would have been fully automatic and in functioning order. Instead, this door, hangs dejectedly on its hinges, while remaining propped open with a wad of old store flyers or maybe even a rock.
The first time I entered into this Saturday morning market day place, I fully expected to see free range chickens, if not a baby goat running loose. Though it is inside of doors and I am sure the air conditioner would work, if they would have just turned it on. But they didn’t. Not that day or for many of the other days I made my way through their aisles. Aisles that seemed to have no particular rhyme nor reason, order or concern that there was soap next to cereal next to canned items though the over-head aisle marker said that pet food and bug spray were supposed to be there, even though there wasn’t any that I could find.
I simultaneously loved and hated that place in the way that my last four dollars were able to buy a loaf of bread, 1/4 pound cold case sliced turkey, 1/4 pound pre-wrapped cheese slices, 2 25¢ bags of chips and a two-liter Sprite-like soda. Hated that this, was the only place left where I was able to spend those last four dollars. And I knew there would be more money to come, I knew there would be a check in the mail, on its way to me, with about a years worth of salary typed on it. My prize, my retirement come to usher me into a new Life. But that would come later. Right now?, my hope began to wane under the taunting of hunger and silence, those Devil’s Advocates and the embarrassment that I had four dollars left and that this, was how and where I would spend it.
This was also the place I remembered my Mother the most. I saw her face in the faces of those other Haitian women. The ones who wrapped their heads in dire cotton scarves and pulled a hat over it all, like no one would notice or see. Though my own Mother, never left the house without her hair at least in a ponytail. Those women who carried their purses in the crook of their arms and expertly maneuvered the shopping cart with their free hand, while eyeing the produce with suspicion. Though my own Mother, seemed to approach the produce with a vengeance, determined to make the pile of fruit or vegetables give up only their best to her. I saw my mother in the bags of finely ground cornmeal used to make la bouye, in the speckly red-brown boniato she would boil during winter and serve with warm milk and sugar. I smelled her in the busted plastic bottle of Florida water that she would use for spring cleaning; in the hurricane candles, brightly sitting in their tall glass containers, waiting on the shelf to be bought for lighting during a storm or maybe in prayer to a saint. That place haunted me with pieces of my Mother.
Upon returning home, I would always feel at a loss, like I left something behind, like I needed to go back and pick up one something more. Once more to that place and I would peer in the watercress maybe, in the carrots, in the celery, the malanga, red skinned potatoes, onions, stew beef, the Maggi seasoning, hoping maybe the sweet boniato would bring it together for me. Once home again, stirring and slicing, peeling and browning – all would bob up and down, nodding recognition like long lost neighbors in the big pot, half filled with water, a bit of salt, some tears, a pinch of regret and maybe, if I could find it, love. As the smells mingled and hurtled shouts to one another in the bubbling boiling pot, I found the history of my Haitian people in my veins, the roiling unsettled nature of a people in revolt. A revolt I managed to stage every time I left my house or opened my mouth in opposition. I saw the stories of my Mother and her growings up take shape in the fierce steam rising above the pot. Heard those unspoken words of my Mother whispering to me from the tear-salt broth.
And for the first time since leaving behind the security that my life had amassed in the past ten years, I felt okay… I was okay.