A paradoxical land of brilliant greens and dusty browns

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We are in Florida where I sleep soundly and sense a kinship with my surroundings. We make a day trip to St. Augustine, the oldest port in the U.S. and the oldest occupied established European city, a step back into time. It feels natural to me, being on a peninsula and a colonial city where aspects of culture live on in captivating stately buildings founded by Spaniards. Late at night, we arrive back at my brother’s and sister-in law’s home where I dream of my paternal grandmother.

We have come to the annual fundraiser for Temple Beth Shalom, the synagogue of my brother-in-law and where both brothers will perform in a concert held in a fine art museum.

My husband’s humor goes beyond telling jokes. On stage, he does quite a bit of mugging, an actor’s way of playing up the fun and comedy of a show. He takes the liberty of improvising and embellishing Yiddish songs. As a consummate reactor, his large expressive blue eyes roll as he flips from one character to another. Sometimes, with a nervous mannerism, he reminds me of actor Gene Wilder, delivering a mad spark that explodes into manic hilarity. But it’s his Yiddish that hurls me onto the floor, although I don’t understand a word, it sounds like he’s either coughing or spitting in your face, and the audience cackles from his animation.

When he performs Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, he is praised for his versatility, and with his wide range—from tenor to baritone—his voice projects a strong resonance and a clear, ringing tone. It is clear to me why he is admired for his stage presence, musicality, and the impressive numbers that he masters.  His voice deep, triumphant from his standing ovation,when the formal concert comes to an end, the audience crowds around the stage, demanding more.

He pleases them with an encore from Porgy and Bess.
“…Your daddy’s rich
and your mamma’s good lookin,
so hush little baby don’t you cry…”

His liquid voice captures the hearts of everyone present. He is the highlight of the concert—and his voice has no equal.

He travels with me because he understands geographical variety stimulates and nourishes my soul. Before we go home, I yearn for a sun-kissed shoreline. We will be celebrating our wedding anniversary in a few days, and, wanting old and cosmopolitan, we fly to Puerto Rico. There is a slower pace of life, where nature lovers like us can soak up centuries of cultural legacies.

Besides the magnificent Spanish Colonial architecture and picturesque plazas, it’s blessed with a tropical rainforest, El Yunque. The sounds of El Yunque comes from an occasional wild parrot. It is quiet, serene, cool, with a variety of plants and trees that have managed to grow along a pristine hiking trail. A mist of fog surrounds its highest point with a waterfall cascading at the bottom. Its beauty is overwhelming.

The next day we head to El Morro, a fortress with a the dramatic Castle of San Cristobal perched at its summit. I am looking out at the Caribbean, taking photos, and reading historical facts in my city guide, all of which triggers a snippet of my memory.

Back in the city, one of my favorite pastimes is photographing the tropical fruit-colored facades, wrought iron balconies, European archways, and cobblestone streets.

We sit in a neighborhood restaurant after ordering tapas. Through the window, I can see the lights hitting the palm trees and the pale orange facade of Old San Juan. This is the ideal restaurant, surrounded by clusters of high-rise buildings and the people going about their lives. It prompts me to reflect on my ancestors, their history, their accomplishments, and how imperative it is I continue the propagation of who they were to understand who I am.

I recall the dream of my grandmamma. My father was her change-of-life baby. Once when I was drawing her portrait I asked her, “Cuantos anos tienes, Grandmamma?” How old are you, Grandmamma? She replied, “Eso es un secreto de mujer, que no se pregunta,” that’s a woman’s secret and a question not to be asked. “Pero como eres nina te dire que soy major que tu.” But since you’re a child, I’ll tell you—I’m older than you. When I showed her my artwork, I captivate her age by drawing deep laugh wrinkles. She found it humorous.

In her day, she had been a fiery redhead who, no doubt, had been the center of attention with her green eyes. She had  high cheekbones, thick eyebrows and a generous nose. A very slender woman, there was nothing frail about her—she had an air of aristocracy, and her finest attribute was her perfect posture. Whether sitting, walking, or dozing, she stood straight at all times—offset by a thin, elongated neck. Her long slender hands that once had been lovely were crooked from acute arthritis, but she never complained.

As a nine year-old my parents purchased new bedroom furniture for me—French Provincial. The set included two twin beds because my grandmamma and I would be sharing a bedroom. Seeing the room for the first time, she stood at the door and looked around. “Tu tienes un spirito ordenado. Mientras el sitio de tu hermano es un monton de libros abiertos, ropas reveladas y una cama sin hacer, la tuya es una capilla a orden.” You have an orderly spirit. Where your brother’s room is a mass of open books, unfolded clothes and an unmade bed, yours is a shrine to order, she remarks. My straight-backed dolls are neatly corralled and my dressing table with miniatures suggest an even space where one could assume they are awaiting orders. Feeling offended that I hadn’t anything to offer other than organization, “Tengo algunas cosas que sean mías, solamente mias.” I have some things that are mine, only mine, I pointed out, referring to the secrets in my lockable diary that I had stashed in a tin box under my bed.

A few days later, my father came home with a large gift basket given to him by a client. In it were cheeses, olives, salami, and a large jar of pickles. I love the sour pickle juice. It seems that every time my hand is in the jar, my grandmamma was watching me. The late afternoon snack spoiled my appetite for dinner.

My father had given me a lesson in addressing her with the formal pronoun ‘usted’ versus the familiar ‘tu.’ “Grandmamma, porqué usted tiene nariz tan largo?” Grandmamma, why do you have such a long nose?

“Yo también comi muchas salmueras cuando era una muchacha.” I ate too many pickles when I was a girl, she says with a straight face. Gullible, I stopped eating pickles, altogether.


38 thoughts on “A paradoxical land of brilliant greens and dusty browns

  1. Lisa

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