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Grace in Our Hands

By @Sumac

Kitchen Table Stories

Food had always been a bonding place in our family. The tradition traveled through my father’s hands into the kitchen and made a place in our plates as we sat together at dinner time. 

My father emigrated from Bolivia in his early 20’s and after marrying my New England mother, they settled in Southern California. One by one my father brought over each of his four sisters and his one brother – Family is the most important part of life – he would say. As with most new immigrants, we all lived together, my aunts, uncles, cousins, and when one of them bought a home, we still got together every night to eat together. Usually my Tias would cook traditional Bolivian dishes, sometimes they would experiment and make enchiladas from a recipe they learned – de las mexicanas en el Mercado – they would say, but usually they did not. Bolivian dishes traditionally had three courses and after playing all afternoon basketball, jump-rope or dolls with my cousins we were ready for all three courses. When it was time to eat one of my tias would yell – vengan a comer, ya esta listo – we would run in and wash our hands. The kids sat at the table in the kitchen, I guess in case the younger ones spilled anything. The adults would sit in the dining room right next to the kitchen. There was a window cut out through the wall that separated us from the adults so they could watch us and we could also watch them. 

I always wanted to sit facing the window, it was like a movie theater and my father was always the main character. My aunts would fly in and out of the kitchen carrying dishes and serving the first course – I never understood how they didn’t crash – but they didn’t, no matter that all four of them moved like swift water in a river, the plates rocks that collided by each other never tumbling over. 

First course – Sopa de verduras – and always llajua on the table to spice up your soup. Sometimes, they would forget and leave the llajua on the adult table only – Papi – Que hijita – there’s no llajua – ahorita hijita, good for you it makes you smart – and he would pass it through the window, right over my cousin’s head. This would start my tia yelling about how it could have fallen on her only daughter’s head and caused her to get it in her eyes and become blind. Of course, than my tia’s would divide into groups, two defending my father and the other one in agreeance with my tia. I loved to watch them fight, you were never scared that something bad would happen, you knew they would end up laughing about some childhood story, but for the moment it was an exciting action scene you got to watch as you sipped your soup, tongue burning from the llajua. 

If my father was the main character, good or bad you loved him, my uncle was the quiet hero. My uncle was the first of my father’s siblings he brought to the United States – to study – my father would say and study he did, he finished the university in the United States and became a civil engineer. I guess because he’d been here so long, was the youngest and never married, we always called him uncle, very rarely tio. He never wanted to see the family quarrel and would never take sides. He would always laugh, his eyes had their own personal fireworks that made magic when he laughed with you – you knew you were special. Somehow my sister and eldest cousin always had more fireworks than the rest of us. I tried to learn the magic they had, but somehow it always fell just through my open fingers. After awhile I learned to catch the falling sparks after they had burst brightest – I put them under my eyes hoping I could catch some of their magic and others might notice how special I was too – in a house full of cousins and uncles and aunts, nobody really noticed. 

Second course – fideo con chuno and carne empanisado – by now the adult table was in full swing. There was always something to make a brindis about and my father knew just how to do it – este vino es de los vineyards de Sonoma County, we got right after our marriage – he would look over at my mother who rolled her eyes and smiled broadly. She knew in Spanish their marriage never ended, they were the perpetual couple – al toro se le castra solo una vez – my father would tell her as she walked out the door years before, each of us girls in hand. On summer nights he would confide in me and tell me – hijita, your mother divorced me, I never divorced her! – I loved his passion and loyalty, quick caught them in between my thumb and forefinger – hold them there for later use. Everyone’s cup was filled twice by the middle of the second course and my mother would take another cup of grape juice to join in the fun – este brindis – my father would stand to say – es para mi hermana menor – his eyes turned red with tears long awaiting the arrival of his youngest sister – the last of my sister’s to come to this great country, to your success hermana – tears cascaded down and my aunt would rise and they would hug and I would pause between another mouthful of macaroni toasted before cooking with breaded meat and watch as everyone’s glasses were in the air like water fountains celebrating the reunion of brother and sister. 

Third course – tea and sweet Mexican bread or cheap sandwich cookies wrapped in a package of thirty cookies in three rows – you could get them in lemon, vanilla, and chocolate – I always liked lemon the best. By now the cousins table was a mess with food piled in little hills that had fallen over the edge of plates or mushrooms scattered across the table that had fallen off the edge of forks making their way stealthily across the table to an unsuspecting cousin to busy explaining a joke to the younger cousin who was on the verge of tears because everyone always left them out. I was glad I had my older sister, I didn’t have to explain anything to anybody, that was her job and I just got to play in her shadow unnoticed. It only became a problem when I wanted to be noticed, like when they were picking teams between the cousins to play volleyball and they always picked her first – your too little and skinny y pues lloras mucho – I cross my arms and frown, like a **** holding back the tears pulling at my eyelids to let them go. My sister always came to my rescue – if she doesn’t play than neither do I – esta bien – they would say, then they would give me a side glance – llorona – and walk over to the net. Feeling left out – I covered the bruise in the place where all painful memories reside, under my heart on the left side – then I took off next to my sister, I knew she would cover me. At the cousins table I always sat next to her, just in case, though I rarely needed too since I ended up watching the adult table through the window and whatever happened at the cousins table became the background to the scene that played out at the adult table.

Somehow the third course carried into the late hours and the cousins table slowly dispersed into the living room and into bed. I would lay next to my sister and listen to the cups slide into each other and my tias interrupt each other and my father say – otro mas, para que se vayan a dormir – and everyone would laugh and refill cups and Spanish would mix with Quechua creating the background to my dreams.   

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