My mother and I are in the kitchen. It’s in this high ceiling room, separate from the rest of the house, that we spend our afternoons. She’s at the kitchen table sewing while I play on the cool tile floor making castles out of shoe boxes.
On the brick stove, the kerosene calentador hisses and sputters, struggling to push little blue flames speckled with yellow against the bottom of the teakettle. The faint smell of the leftover puchero stew we had for lunch lingers.
My mother is a criolla, a mongrel, born from the unblessed union of my Basque grandmother and some mysterious gaucho who didn’t bother to leave her his family name. Her skin has a subtle tone of olive oil and her hair is black, soft, shiny and always cut above her shoulders in a style that gives her an air of sophistication. Her brothers call her “Ñata”, a name that implies a tiny rounded nose, but the name is clearly a play on the beauty of her nose which is thin and perfectly shaped.
She drives the needle through the cloth with a silver thimble, the only gift she ever got from the aunt who raised her. Whenever she stops sewing to replenish the thread on the needle, she takes a sip from the mate. When I hear the sound of the bombilla sucking air, I stop my play, take the mate, put it on top of the stove, turn the calentador off, carefully pick up the teakettle with both hands and tilt it to let the water trickle out of the spout and into the gourd. My mother keeps her eyes on her work. Once the mate is ready, I set it on the table, on the spot where she expects to find it without looking.
Making good mate requires the application of science and voodoo. For weeks, my mother has been teaching me the details. How much water should be poured at one time and when I should move the bombilla around to freshen the tea. "When the pajitas begin to float," she reminds me, "It's time to change the yerba." At four years old, changing the yerba is beyond my capabilities, but I watch as she spoons the green herb into the gourd, covers the mouth of the mate with the palm of her hand, and shakes it upside down to make the finer powder of the herb come to the top. She fills the mate with lukewarm water and then sucks the liquid through the bombilla and spits the first bitter taste into the sink.
After every third or fourth mate she lets me put a tiny bit of sugar in the bowl and pour one for myself. Sometimes she has to remind me to wipe my lips before sipping to keep the mouthpiece of the bombilla dry for the next person. She’s preparing me for the time when I share the mate with the grownups.
She reaches for her purse, pulls out her change bag and selects two coins. She takes a handkerchief from the pile of clean clothes that waits for the iron, puts the coins in the center of the handkerchief, and ties the ends together, securing the coins in the little bag made by the knot. Then she hands me the handkerchief and says, “Go to the cookie factory, and get us fifty cents of broken cookies.”
This is the first time she sends me to the cookie factory alone. I am filled by a mixture of excitement and dread, but I am careful to hide my feelings, afraid that if she notices my trepidation she’ll change her mind.
I open the tall green door that leads from the courtyard to the outside. I’m assaulted by the sounds, sights, and smells of the street. I stand on the threshold and hold on to the doorknob gathering courage. Across the street, in the park, children play and laugh, and old men and women sit on wooden benches and gossip. Cattycorner to the park, the high walls and towers of the penitentiary shine in the afternoon’s light. The golden color and crenellated tops of the prison walls remind me of a castle in the desert I once saw in a book.
I step out from the quiet coolness of the courtyard into chaos. Streetcars rattle by, bells clanging, sparks bursting from the tiny wheel at the top of their mast as it hits the joints in the wire. People rush about. Vendors’ carts clatter by close to the sidewalk, the draft horses’ hoofs clippity-clopping on the cobblestones.
I have to walk down the street and turn the corner past the mysterious high-fenced vacant lot with its story of a well where a child fell and died. It helps my confidence that I’ll be walking as if in a parade past the friendly neighbors who sit on their stoops watching life go by. As I pass, I hear them talk about me, “Who does that one belong to?”...“You know, the mechanic’s wife.”...“Next to the shoe store?”...“Yes.”
The cookie factory is in an old converted casona that was once home to a rich family. As I enter through the wide double doors into the foyer, the sweet smell of baking hits my nose. I hold the wooden banister tightly as I climb the worn marble stairs always leading with the same leg, too short to alternate steps, to the second floor, an open space with long tables where women in white smocks sort cookies and where, in its middle, rises a mountain of broken or slightly burned discards.
I stand quietly until the forewoman notices me and comes over to see what I want. I hand her the handkerchief and say, “Broken cookies, please.” She opens the knot, takes the two coins and hands the handkerchief back. I bask in the friendly, almost loving glances of the sorters, while the forewoman sorts through the broken cookie pile to find the better ones. Fifty cents buys a paper sack full of broken cookies.
When I return, I sit next to my mother, fish in the bag for the coconut cookies I know she loves best, and feed them to her so she can keep working. I put the crumbs in her mouth and she takes advantage by kissing the tips of my fingers.
Later, she plays a game that scares me. She acts as if she's choking on the threads that she cut with her teeth. My young mind can almost tell that she's playing but not entirely. Again and again, she drives me into this panic that makes me jump and stick my fingers into her wet mouth to remove the threads from the tip of her tongue.
And then she laughs, and her laughter drives mine. In the courtyard, the canaries in their cages hear us and burst into an orgy of song.
There is a little time yet before my father comes home. In the middle of this giant city, in the kitchen of this house that three families share, we are together alone, my mother and I.
Mother and I circa 1963 when we first arrived in the U.S.
My mother died October 18, 2008.