On Shelter, Home and Beauty
The first night we sleep in the new apartment, I cry quietly in the bathroom. I always pee after sex to avoid urinary tract infections. This time, after I pee I just sit there for several minutes feeling the weight of the beauty of the new apartment. The roaches in the Harlem apartment. My skin crawls and I bury my face in my hands. Instant, artificially flavored ramen noodles in the cabinet, Mami’s hand pouring a box of just-add-water dandruff-looking flakes that turn into mashed potatoes, a bag of frozen Asian Vegetable Mix in the freezer -- all at the Queens apartment. Don’t you realize what an effort I make to prepare a daily variety of filling, nutritious, politically conscious meals that minimize the ingestion of harmful chemicals? Why is it such a burden for you to just add salt to taste? Daddy’s messy, untrimmed hair sticking out under his baseball cap. His tattered khakis and worn-out shoes. His low-self-esteem hunch-over, not looking at me when he talks, just glancing now and then. Mami’s black stockings and mini skirts, shaped eyebrows, nose in the air. Her prideful back-straightening, managing to look down at me even though she’s 4’11” and I'm 5’3”. Closing her eyes so she can be looked at without having to reciprocate.
I’m dedicating time to my child, teaching her to eat healthy, and doing all the housework together and running errands together so she knows what things are and where they come from and how they get done and bonding time and free-play time, and visits with her friends, and capoeira class, walking and taking the bus everywhere. Why must I look pretty while I do it? I open my mouth and heave three times. Then I sniff all my snot up my nose, rub my eyes and get off the toilet. I notice that there are small rust-stains on the perilla of the glass door to the shower. I wipe, wash my hands and notice the same rust-stains on the faucet in the sink. “Briggs,” reads the sticker on the sink. I clench my teeth and have one last cry; then I wipe my eyes and breathe deep and head back to bed. Once under the sheets, I say: “The bathroom stuff is cheap. The old apartment had Franz Viegner fixtures,” before turning towards the wall.
As we arrange things in my daughter’s new room, I look out her window and point out the building in San Vicente off to the right in the distance: “That’s where we used to live when you were a baby.” It’s on the last row of small buildings invading Pichincha before the expanse of woods. Pichincha is a group of massive mountains and volcanoes. The paved roads end a few blocks before the Terrana II building complex and the last stretch is dirt in some parts and adoquín in others. I never went into the woods when we lived there because they were dense with tall trees that reminded me of the sort of place where a ghost or a wild hog, or just a pack of stray dogs might kill me without anyone within earshot. When I was six, I went with Buela to deliver a flower arrangement at the hospital in Riobamba. My brother and I ran up the hill next to the hospital and two huge dogs appeared from behind the bushes and chased us until we rolled to the bottom and hit the pavement of the hospital parking lot. I can still see the dog’s pointy white fangs gnashing within centimeters of my face. Buela, standing next to her blue pick-up truck too far away to help, asked Diosito to protect us. The dogs went away. But I still won’t take my chances in the woods outside my front gate.
The most beautiful place for a mid-morning stroll or an afternoon snack with the baby is the ancient pre-Incan cemetery down the hill and then one block over from where we rented an apartment from my tío’s wife.
As I stare out at San Vicente from our new home, I can see Museo de la Florida in my mind. It has a black gate guarded by a uniformed female guard; there is no entrance fee and the guided tour is also free. I like hearing the different deliveries, tones and versions of history provided by the different guides each time I come. The opening in the gate leads to a small wooden house with a dark brown finish, which is surrounded by a wooden platform with long slender boards of the same color and finish. All around the perimeter of the wooden structure is healthy green grass decorated with small, well-tended areas growing bright yellow and white flowers. The burial ground is behind the house, accessible by walking along the wooden platform and into a cave-like, clean, white covering over a metallic frame to shield the excavation site from the elements. About ten feet below the platform are concentric circles, each layer going deeper into the ground, kind of like underground dirt shelves holding clay vessels next to dead bodies in the fetal position with only their heads sticking out of a burial sack.
“Señor de Sipán in Perú was one of the richest most important kings and he was buried with only one piece of jewelry made of concha spondylus. Several people buried in these graves here have been uncovered with entire shawls made of pure concha spondylus,” the grey-haired man-guide informs me proudly. Concha spondylus is a beautiful, small, pinkish, reddish marine shell only found in one area off the coast of Ecuador and nowhere else in the world. After exiting the burial excavation, the wooden platform leads to the entrance of the little house where some of the recovered jewelry and clayware recovered is on display. Inside a large glass display case, the leathery facial reconstruction of a woman’s wrinkled face from her cranial remains sticks out through the opening of a wide poncho of concha spondylus. Rows upon rows upon rows of tiny, neatly woven concha spondylus. I can’t imagine her wearing that and doing anything except being on display without chipping or damaging the shells; and yet her weathered face reveals the hardships of life in third to seventh century C.E. Quito, where the female skeletons recovered are estimated to have died in their early forties.
My own Buela’s hands are aged beyond their years from making beautiful flower arrangements -- often for the dead. As a child, I see her twisting chicken-wire over green sponges to hold the flowers; touching fresh, wet flowers all day, handling the dry hay formed into round wreaths or crosses for funerals. It’s hard for me to admire beautiful things without thinking about the other side of the coin.
When I’m fifteen, D gifts Mami a huge clay vase decorated with large colorful clay flowers for Christmas. It’s rustic looking, not glazed and shiny; the only things painted are the clay flowers, but those aren’t glazed either. The rest is the color of baked clay-- kind of sandy, kind of earthy. “It was very expensive,” Mami tells everyone gathered in the living room of the Queens apartment. My dad’s sister and her boyfriend drove in from Long Island for Christmas Eve dinner. My brother lived with my dad in a small studio in mid-town but is temporarily living with us because Daddy lost his job and now inhabits a tiny room at his older brother’s in Chelsea that barely fits a bed and a desk. Since I was eleven, my sister and I had lived with Mami in a rented three-bedroom apartment on the second floor of one of those typically Queens, two-family houses on the border of Woodside and Sunnyside. D moved in when I was thirteen after Mami lost her job. Mami mouths the amount because she always whispers or mouths as if she can’t even afford to talk about money, then she looks at the vase and stares off with a look of should we really have such a beautiful, expensive vase? She blinks fast a couple times and nods her head, then smiles with her closed lips and watery eyes. There’s a silence that feels heavy in the room. D looks uncomfortable. He owned a house in Tarrytown before his divorce and he has a car to take Mami on weekend day-trips to little towns with Main Streets to admire a pricey, handcrafted vase.
“Well, it was expensive, but, she really liked it when she saw it at this place a couple months ago, so I bought it. I’m just glad you can have it and I hope you enjoy it,” D says.
“Yes, thank you, baby,” Mami says to him with a smug smile, then closes her eyes, straightens her back, lifts her nose in the air and turns her head in the direction of each of us, one at a time, with her eyes still closed. Her cheeks get a little rosy -- a prideful blush.
“You’re welcome. OK, we can talk about something else now,” D chuckles. What a waste of money, I think as I glare at the both of them. I mean, who’s gonna take care of a plant in this place? There isn’t even anywhere to put it so it stays on top of a tall bookcase/cabinet that has a large space in the center for the TV. The vase just sits up there for years, empty, dust collecting on its grainy surfaces -- the only item in the Queens apartment that exists solely for its beauty.
I saw a program on TV about an excavation site of one of the oldest known human villages, located somewhere in the Middle East. “These were homes, no longer shelters,” the narrator explained. How did he know? Because they decorated the insides of the dwellings. As far as I know, even cave-dwellers decorated the insides of their caves, but still, the distinction between a shelter and a home and the role of beautification in that distinction strikes me. I have a complicated relationship to all three. I wonder if my cave-dwelling ancestors started marking up the walls as soon as they got there so as not to waste a moment of their short, unpredictable existence without beauty; or only after a certain number of days passed without anyone dying from the local berries, so as not to waste time turning a shelter into a home just to leave it all behind.
I leave Riobamba, Ecuador at six years old, but I don’t go back to the same coastal town in Japan that had been home before. There’s a different house in a different small town in Japan, which has lots of rice paddies with little frogs instead of the ocean. Before long, we are living in a large building complex in a suburb of Tokyo.
When I’m eight years old, I’m back in Ecuador but in Quito, not Mami’s childhood home in Riobamba. Buela divorced my Buelo and moved to the capital while we were in Japan with my dad. Instead of the red brick house surrounded by gardens on all sides, we’re living in the first-floor apartment of a three-story house, which has one small, shared garden and two small concrete yards.
We’re in Ecuador because Mami wants to go to college. She married my dad weeks after graduating high school and now she wants to study psychology. I get sick a lot. As soon as I have a fever and my tonsils swell, Mami calls her cousin Marcelo, an ophthalmologist, and he injects a shot of something in my buttcheek. Mami has no patience for the jarabes prescribed by pediatricians because they have to be taken at certain hours and over several days. With Marcelo it’s a one shot deal.
I lie in bed groaning from the discomfort of my swollen tonsils and the loneliness of being quarantined in my tío’s small room all day with the door closed. Normally I share a bed with Buela, but my tío is away so I’m spending my sick day in his room. Mami opens the door violently and stands in the doorway looking angry. “Are you in pain!?”
“OK, then why are you making those noises? You already got the shot, so you are going to be OK soon. In the meantime, stop making a show of yourself, please.” Then she slams the door and leaves. I cry quietly so Mami doesn’t get mad again and imagine that I was stolen at birth and my sweet, beautiful and wealthy birth mother rescues me, just like in the telenovelas: a woman with dyed blond hair in a neat up-do, wearing pearl earrings and a single strand of pearls, shedding modest tears that don’t smear her make-up, opens the door and runs toward me making noise against the wood floor boards with her heels. She hugs me passionately, but in such a way as to not crease her pressed suit jacket and then my long lost twin runs into the room with a smile that glows from a camera effect and eyes that blink extra long.
For my ninth birthday, Mami makes a beautiful cake in the shape of a cat sitting up and covered in dulce de leche spread in such a way as to resemble messy fur. As I come down the couple of steps from the bedroom section down to the dining and living room section of Buela’s apartment, I see Mami spreading the dulce de leche in small motions so that it sticks-up like fur instead of laying flat and even. Her cat cake is sitting on the dining room table and the light comes in through the floor-to-ceiling window on the right side of the table, illuminating Mami lovingly bent over as she puts on the finishing touches -- light, delicate touches. Mami must have seen me with the proverbial eyes at the back of her head, because I’m not even all the way down the steps when she suddenly stops and commands: “Don’t come near! Ni se le ocurra!” Then she glares at me for good measure. When she’s done, she straightens herself extra tall and steps back to admire the beautiful cat. She smiles and her ponytail bounces as she turns her head from side to side to get a better look. “Qué tal?” She asks with a huge grin on her face even though she knows the answer: it’s perfect and original and lovely.
“Está lindo,” I say as my timid smile broadens and I slowly move closer to them (Mami and the cat) holding my hands together on my chest.
“Ni se acerque! Don’t even think about it!” She snaps as her arm shoots out to protect the cat. I freeze. She smiles again, glancing at the cat sideways:
“You have never seen a cake like this, right?”
I just barely move my head from side to side to indicate “no”.
“Nobody has ever thought of making a cake that’s sitting-up, ah?” I just stay there frozen, my gaze turning into a stare and my excitement waning. “No, nadie,” she answers herself, proudly turning her nose up over one raised shoulder. “And it even looks like it has fur, hhmm?” She raises her eyebrows at me, anticipating. A barely audible, unenthusiastic “mmhhmm” is my response. “Está lindo!” she pronounces, closing her eyes and breathing deep.
“Don’t leave the refrigerator open like that! Roaches get inside! Geez!” my dad yells, stomping his foot and hitting his thigh with one hand. I had taken the orange juice out to put on the table; it was heavy and I carried it with both hands. I was going to close the fridge as soon as I put the juice down. Not that it mattered. The tiny roaches crawl into the refrigerator even when the door is closed. Or as soon as I open it, they scurry from the edge and get inside. I don’t remember ever having seen a roach until I moved from Quito to New York City to live with my dad when I was ten years old. We live in Harlem in graduate school housing for Teacher’s College students with families. Daddy is studying for a doctorate in educational administration. He buys a small black device that plugs into the wall and has a little red light. “This sends waves into the walls where the roaches are hiding. It’s gonna bother the heck out of ‘em and they’re gonna wanna leave,” he says with a confident smile on his face. “Oh, yeah, we’re gonna get ‘em.” His confidence turns to excitement. The next day I sit on the sofa and a big roach crawls on me. I stand up and jump up and down to shake it off.
“Eeeew!! A roach! A roach! A big one! It was ON meeeee! Nnnnnnnnngg,” I shriek.
“Well, I think that thing is making them uncomfortable and they’re crawling out of the walls. Now we just gotta get ‘em when they come out until we kill them all,” my dad explains, still optimistic. But there are too many places for the roaches to hide: piles of paper, messy, sticky drawers, dusty cabinets, dishes dirty with crusty food. If one scurries across the kitchen counter as I go to put my plate in the sink, my first instinct is to shake and whine and drop the plate quickly without breaking it and by that time it’s too late to consider squashing the roach. Not that I want to squash it. With what? Gross. Sometimes I drown one in the bathtub. I watch it frantically move its little legs in the water thinking it can still crawl out but then the water fills too much. Once the roach is still, I let the water go and watch the lifeless bastard with its antennae enveloping it - instead of sticking out in front - swirl around and disappear down the drain.
“I guess that thing doe’n’ really do much,” my dad sighs a couple weeks later as he gets up from looking under the sofa to see if the red light is still on.
When I’m sixteen I’m back at my dad’s, but in a Brooklyn apartment with no food. Not no food like when there’s nothing you feel like eating so you say there’s nothing to eat. No food like a shiny white emptiness staring back at me when I open the fridge and nothing in the cabinets. Daddy calls to check in on me when he has a break. He’s teaching adult ESL in the Bronx, so I usually don’t see him because he leaves early and comes home late. We live near the southern tip of Brooklyn and the Bronx is all the way north. He never completed his doctoral program at Teacher’s College. When he started the program, the kids were living in Ecuador and the money he sent from his part-time jobs multiplied itself in the currency exchange: 500 sucres for every dollar. He quit school to work full-time two years after my brother and sister and I arrived. Daddy’s from a small town in Kansas and never got used to the way New Yorkers talk so fast: “They just don’t seem to have the time to wait for me to finish my sentences. You know, I like to pause when I’m talking… but with New Yorkers, they just jump right in there and it’s like woah! Slow down!” It takes me close to two hours to get to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, to the elite prep school that’s given me a hefty financial aid package since seventh grade. If I leave home at 5am, I can make it to school for free breakfast. But sometimes I don’t even care about that, I just sleep in and show up around 10 or 11am.
“Daddy, there’s no food,” I tell him when he calls.
“OK, I know. Do you think you can stay up a little longer and I’ll bring you dinner?” he asks.
“Yeah. OK. Like around what time?”
“I don’t know, I just gotta take care o’ a coupla things and I’m gonna head outta here and pick up dinner and come home.”
He gets home at 11pm and pulls a small can of tuna fish out of a plastic bag, opens it and sets it on the kitchen counter. “There you go,” he says, encouraging me towards the canned tuna with both hands. I glare at the tuna and back at him. He looks down.
“It’s eleven o’clock and you said to wait for you so I could have dinner,” I complain, pursing my lips and breathing into my chest.
“I gotcha that so you wouldn’t go to bed hungry.” He looks up at me briefly and then looks back down. I can tell his nose is kind of twitching. It’s not even a regular-sized can of tuna; it’s a super tiny 49-cent can of tuna. Had I known that was dinner, I would have gone to bed early and saved my energy. It’s actually easier to just go to bed when I’m hungry than stay up until 11pm for two spoonfuls of tuna.
The Brooklyn apartment was the first floor of a two family house and we never opened the white plastic shades. And even though we never opened the windows either, the strong stench of shit from the water treatment plant across the street invaded everything during the hot, humid summer months. Now I live in a sixth floor apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows along one entire side -- no wall, just glass and remote-controlled, cloth shades. It has a view of the city below and several mountains all around including Cotopaxi, a famous volcano whose icy snowcap reflects hues of pink in the sunset. All the walls are white, giving the apartment an even more spacious feel. Our bedroom has a small balcony, accessed through a large glass door; sometimes we leave the shades a little open so we can fall asleep looking at the city lights below. There are only one or two-story houses for several streets along the Southern face of our building and both the living room windows and the bedroom window face South. The high-rises of Quito’s La Carolina neighborhood ascend behind the houses and above those, on the horizon, is the Avenue of the Volcanoes, as we call this stretch of the Andes mountain range. The window in the study faces East, where the tall building we just moved out of is visible one block North and two blocks East of us. The view straight East is of the soccer fields below at the Ministry of Sports, which anyone can reserve in advance to use for free. Above the men playing soccer in the glow of the Ministry’s light posts, a hill spreads out with houses on it until the houses stop and all there is is the vast eucalyptus forest of Parque Metropolitano and the starry sky. My daughter’s bedroom has a large window facing West, where the moon is visible over Pichincha. Even the tall building of the Public Defensory, smack in the middle of her bedroom view, doesn’t take away from the majesty of Pichincha sprawling North-South along most of the western edge of Quito.
All that glass makes me feel like I should be display-ready like the reconstructed woman in Museo de La Florida. My husband, daughter and I lived in San Vicente for two years before we bought the forty-square-meter suite down in the ritzier and flatter part of Quito -- the part that used to be a lake when the first human inhabitants settled the area and buried their dead along the skirts of Pichincha in the fetal position, as though returning to the womb of the earth. We lived in that one-bedroom suite (which we bought with a five-year, low-interest loan from the Ecuadorian Social Security Institute) for a little over three years before moving again to a three-bedroom apartment a couple blocks away.
On the fourth day of moving, I show Don Viche, my father-in-law, how our new induction stove works. It reminds me of a beautiful slab of obsidian rock -- shiny enough to see our reflections clearly. I put one of our new titanium-ceramic, no-toxic-chemical-leaching, made-in-Denmark pans on the induction stove to show him how quickly it heats up. “Mira eso! It’s so hot. Very fast!” Don Viche exclaims, amazed. Then he adds, “We wouldn’t get used to it.” Years ago, my husband and a few of his siblings pooled their money to buy his parents a nice three-story house in a valley outside Quito called Los Chillos. It was in a quiet gated community, had a small front garden, a small concrete backyard and a gorgeous view of the mountains. But Don Viche would not get used to the valley. He prefers living in South Quito, with the noise, the filth, the old, cramped, dark and damp apartment. He likes to watch the neighborhood guys play volleyball down the block -- in a park with rusted playground equipment, overgrown grass and broken beer bottles everywhere.
Barely two years after moving into the house in the valley, my husband’s mother and his two youngest siblings moved back to their old neighborhood to be with Don Viche, who never gave up the old apartment. Doña Lucha, my mother-in-law, used the money from the sale of the house in the valley to buy an apartment in North Quito for my husband, my daughter and me to live in. It’s only three blocks away from our old place. At first, I didn’t want to move because as small and cluttered as our suite was, it had my name on it, which was a measure of security I had never had. But then I wondered if I clung to it because I was afraid I wouldn’t get used to living comfortably and having nice things.
The day I moved the kitchen stuff I was overcome with guilt over letting my daughter live in such a restrictive environment as I uncovered forgotten, unused recipes and spices -- the beautifiers of food. People’s Grocery Cook Book, The Foods of Morocco, a red file folder of internet recipes for Raas Malai and Pad Thai, all untouched for three and a half years. A small glass jar with a seed-looking spice I can no longer identify but which I used for a vegetarian shepherd’s pie recipe five years ago when I had an oven. A small jar of sesame seeds I meant to toast and make into Tahini three and a half years ago. An almost untouched plastic container of dried basil flakes -- what are those even for? They have no taste. A glass jar with about ten rotten raisins, ew. Damn, I thought. It had been that long since I paid attention to the contents of the spice cabinet/storage of random glass jars, which isn’t really a spice cabinet, it’s the mini-fridge that came with the apartment, which I never plugged in because of the lack of cabinet space since the kitchen is the size of a small closet. The full-sized refrigerator that functioned as a refrigerator was in the living room.
As I walked from the kitchen to the living room to put the jar of organic nutmeg with other glass and ceramic things that needed to be packaged with care, my chest trembled and my eyes burned like I was about to cry. I stopped, breathed and went back to the mini-fridge. A plastic bottle of children’s Tempera, an over-the-counter fever reducer that expired in 2013. But it’s almost full, I thought, and remembered the first and last time I used it was May of 2012. I reassured myself that it had been over three years since my daughter had a fever that couldn’t be handled with wet towels and sleeping next to me all night as I dumped the Tempera in the garbage. Don’t cry! Next, I emptied the refrigerator that functioned as a refrigerator and found soon-to-expire mushrooms and some-leaves-going-bad spinach, neglected from a week of eating out due to moving. A bag of mortiños. Dammit, my daughter dragged me to the mortiño lady at the mercado two weeks ago because she wanted to make empanadas and they’re still in the fridge, I chastised myself. They look intact, though. They are totally good. OK, on Tuesday we have to make empanadas together.
At the new apartment, I end up throwing out the mushrooms on the 28th. They look alright, but they expired on the 27th so I don’t want to risk it. I use what I can salvage of an aging bag of spinach in a modified lasagna with quinua noodles placed close together, one layer vertical and the other horizontal on top of each other instead of that wide pasta that’s for lasagna, and artisanal goat cheese instead of ricotta. I carefully pick out a few mortiños that went bad, wash the rest well and make a mortiño dessert with my daughter. She sprinkles raw oats thinly and neatly along the bottom of the baking pan, then I put them in the oven to toast for a couple minutes. I take them out and set them on the counter again. She sprinkles all the mortiños on top of the toasted oats, then just a pisquita of brown sugar on top of those. I barely drop a couple drops of olive oil over everything and then put the pan back in the oven to bake. It’s a new electric oven, the outside doesn’t get hot and we can clearly see into it when it’s on; my daughter and I crouch down and watch the mortiños. “Ya está?” she asks impatiently.
“Not yet. Watch, once you see the mortiños bubbling or popping and liquid coming out that means they’re cooking. Mira bien, so you can tell me when you see one,” I almost whisper.
“I saw one! I saw one!” She shouts and jumps up and down. “There!”
“And look over there!” We point and shout and laugh until all the mortiños look cooked. She takes the first helping with two teaspoons of full fat, unsweetened, unflavored yogurt. “It’s good!” she shouts as the dessert disappears into her belly. Then she asks for more.
“With or without yogurt?”
“No yogurt, only mortiños and oats!” Then she asks for a third helping.
“What about Daddy?”
She eyes the baking pan. “There’s for Daddy,” she says, pointing. Then a fourth time: “More, please!” I laugh.
“What about Daddy?” I ask again.
“There’s that one for Daddy,” she replies.
“That little bit?”
“Yes, that little bit's for Daddy,” she laughs. My daughter offers her dad the leftovers when he comes home: “I almost ate it all, but I left you a little bit. Just for you. So you could try it,” she says like she’s so generous.
My husband and I laugh. “Muchas gracias, for leaving me this little bit,” he says as he eats it.
“Alright, I’m really tired. I’m gonna go lie down. You guys have thirty minutes to play before bedtime,” I say and head to my room for a little rest before bedtime duty. I just close my eyes when I hear “Mami! Mami! Ven acá!” coming from the study.
“Quéeeeeeee,” I groan.
“Mami come see the moon!”
“I don’t want to see the moon, I want to close my eyes and rest for a little. I had a long day,” I reply. I’ve been shopping and moving and cleaning and fixing for over a week and today I walked several times back and forth between the two apartments in the blazing sun, carrying my daughter some of the time, and then took her on the bus to Mundo Juvenil to see her friend Gaby.
“It’s really beautiful! You have to see it!” She keeps shouting at me from the study.
“I don’t need to see anything beautiful right now, I need to lie down,” I whine.
“Let’s take a picture of the moon and take the camera to Mami in bed so she can see the moon!” I hear her suggest to her dad.
“OK, you can take the picture,” he says.
“Sí!!” She bursts into my room and hands me the camera: “Mami, Mami. I took pictures of the moon so you could see it, look!” I sigh and open my eyes. It is a gorgeous full moon above the mountain with the city lights below.
“Wow, it is beautiful. Thank you so much for taking a picture so I could see it. Really,” I say to her and give her a big hug and a kiss.
“Es que, I wanted you to see this beautiful moon. I knew you would like it. OK, now I’m gonna go play and you can rest,” she says as she darts around the room and then out the door.
Three weeks since the move started, I go back to our suite to begin transforming it into my workshop/studio: cleaning, rearranging, ordering, decorating, and assessing what needs to be fixed. All that’s left of the life we made here is the word-wall and related items. The entire wall along one side of the living room/dining room/daughter’s room is full of shiny, colorful letters my dad sent. The letters form random words my daughter requested as she and I built her word-wall when she was learning to read. Vómito -- the letter “v” coincided with the week her friend vomited in our car during a day-trip to a farm-style restaurant with a duck pond and horses for riding. After lunch, the other little girl’s parents insisted we make a quick stop at the remnants of an old hacienda complete with torture-chambers remodeled into rooms for overnight tourists. Chulpi -- a favorite snack of toasted dried corn from a specific thin corn-grain for the “ch” sound. Gato, Gente, Guagua -- all the different “g” sounds, the last one sounds like an English “w” in Ecuadorian dialect, not the hard “gü” of caribbean dialects; it comes from Quichua and means baby or child, not bus or van like in Puerto Rican Spanish. Sendero and Cintillo - both start with an “s” sound but Casa starts with a “k” sound. Huno -- the “h” is always silent in Spanish so it sounds the same as the word for one but it means Hun as in the Huns who wanted to invade China in the Disney story of Mulan. I’ll have to take down all our words, and the months of the year and the home-made calendar out of recycled Pacari chocolate boxes covered in patches of white, red and baby-blue felt where we placed and removed and rearranged cardboard numbers with Velcro attached at the back in order to keep track of the days, and dates, and weeks and months. It’s not aesthetic but it’s beautiful in the lived-ness of the space.
When I’m five years old I live in Riobamba, where Buela has gardens and fruit trees -- fig, claudia, capulí. Mami is pregnant with my sister and Daddy works as a teacher at a university in a small coastal town in Japan. Mami is Buela’s eldest who left Ecuador at nineteen and always comes back to the nest -- this time because she wants her baby to be born in a country that wants it. Buela works all day in the flower arranging shop she owns. There are piles and piles of hay crosses unattended under a shed, which my brother and I use as swords to play He-Man and She-Ra. When Buela finishes one it looks like a cross of floating flowers with no stems visible, no leaves, no baby’s breath as filler. The prettiest, most vibrantly colored, completely open flowers are for funeral wreaths and crosses.
Just as I was returning to New York City after graduating college, Mami bought a house upstate with D where she has a small patch of dirt in front, just enough for a few small rows of flowers. “Look at my flowers. Did you see my flowers? Aren’t they beautiful?” she asks. I don’t see the flowers; I just stare at her posing all proud in front of the door.
“Mhm,” I emit reluctantly as she stands there obstructing my entry until I acknowledge what she’s said.
“But, look at them. They are so beautiful, look at them, miiiija,” she urges me, running her hand up and down along my arm.
I turn around quickly and say, “Yes, they’re beautiful,” in a monotone while rolling my eyes.
“Oh, whatever, you don’t like my flowers, ok, I don’t care,” she puts up the hand and flicks it.
I knew I shouldn’t have come to her house. “Uh, sorry, I’m not going to your little party. I don’t like sitting around with viejas who have nothing to talk about except whether the curtains match the room,” I told her the day she invited me. She was silent for a little, standing in the living room of my rented two-bedroom apartment in a small four-story building only blocks away from the one she used to rent.
Then she said, “Well, maybe me and my friends did not haff the advantage of an education like you. So maybe we can’t talk about interesting things like you.” Mami only attended Universidad Católica in Quito for one year before all hell broke loose over an affair she was having with her high school sweetheart and she sent us away to our dad. She followed us to New York a few months later and the love of her life stayed in Quito with his three kids.
The flowers weren’t just flowers -- they connected Mami to her long lost home. It’s not that I didn’t know that, I was just angry that she didn’t see me being there all along. Well, mostly all along.
Daddy lives in Kansas and periodically e-mails pictures of his parents’ gravestone. During the two brief periods I lived at his shelters (neither the Harlem nor the Brooklyn apartment could be considered more than that) when I was ten and then again when I was sixteen, I regularly expressed my need for much more support than I was getting, not the least of which were basics like food and hygiene. “You know what happened to me… to… to my folks, right? You know how my folks died, don’t you?” was his standard response. They died in a plane crash when he was a teenager and I’ve known that story for as long as I can remember knowing anything about my dad. I haven’t decided whether he was purposefully manipulative or he really couldn’t see me, either.
I see my daughter. She collects beautiful things: little plastic beads for making jewelry, tiny seashells gathered on Miami beaches in June, small, polished stones and crystals her dad brought from work trips abroad. As we sort through the last large suitcase of her things, I find little pieces of cut-up cardboard, magazines, old receipts, and crumpled notebook paper. “This is garbage,” I show her, holding a bunch of thin cardboard cut-up into the tiniest pieces mixed with colorful cutouts from a flyer.
“No! No! No garbage. Those are coupons,” she protests as she carefully selects the sheets of the flyer with her little fingers.
“You’re gonna use the coupons? Are you sure?” I ask skeptically.
“Sí, sí. I’m gonna use,” she replies.
“OK, but this? Garbage?”
“Yes, that's garbage.” I throw out the cardboard pieces. I watch her as she lays the coupons carefully in three rows of two on her newly custom-built desk, and places one of the round polished stones on each square coupon as if they were little tapetes. The rest of the stones and shells she forms into a neat pile in the shape of a crescent moon.
Stephanie Scott is a mother, dancer, educator, writer and visual artist. Her work has appeared in Rebeldes Anthology: Bolder. She is a VONA 2015 alumna. Stephanie is based in Ecuador, where a 7.8 earthquake devastated the coastal region in April. She coordinates and delivers aid to affected families as a volunteer through Chicha Radical. You can contribute to Chicha Radical at: https://www.gofundme.com/ecuayorkxecuador