It took a while for the ice between Jere and I and the fam with whom we shared our living space to thaw, but once it had, we began receiving visits from various family members, not just grandma.
One of the first afternoons that this occurred I was alone in the patio, stringing up laundry. Mariela (Mama duck) emerged from her end of the house, with a reluctant Fiama (her oldest 16 year old daughter) in tow. Physically dragging her by the hand towards my front door, poor Fiama, at the ripe age of puberty and family related embarrassment, blushed beet red.
“We have a question for you, Juana” the rotund Mariela barked across the patio.
Still a little unsure about our relationship, I was nervous. Had we offended them in some way, did they need more money, were we using something we shouldn’t be?
“Yes?” I responded cautiously.
“Doesn’t this jacket make Fiama look thin?”
I had not been expecting this kind of question and was silent for a moment. I had always considered the young girl before strikingly beautiful and had never noticed her weight. She was not a stick, but she was healthy, with dark billowy locks, almond eyes and a soft and round face so magnetic I had hardly noticed anything else about her. But now, that Mariela mentioned it she did have a little bit of a tummy.
I insisted that she always looked thin and that the jacket didn’t really change anything.
The answer I provided, however, was unsatisfactory.
“You see,” Mariela continued, now stroking her daughter’s torso, “Fiama is very panzona (bellied), but I think that this jacket is slimming. So what do you think Juana, come on!”
The article of clothing in question was a corduroy blazer, perhaps a size or two too small for her, but according to my American sensibilities of sugarcoating and political correctness etc, I repeated a different version of the answer I had given at first. Coming from a mother the size of a small refrigerator, her daughter’s tummy hardly seemed relevant.
Eventually giving up on my illusive opinion, the conversation diverged to eating habits, and that I looked like a vegetarian, and then eventually the pair wondered back across the patio.
From this day on, relations warmed between us, and like two bordering countries after a recent blockade, we began trading goods and services with fervor. Negotiations were never direct. Instead the three youngest members of the family became peacekeepers, sent from one side of the patio to the other to return favors and solicit sundry household items. Martina (6), Camila (3) and Candelaria (1) were Mariela’s minions, sent to our door to retrieve milk, sugar, eggs, bread, matches, a bicycle pump, the keys for the front gate, spare change, anything imaginable. Two or three times a day, without fail, I would hear the scuffle of light footsteps, then the beating of three sets of tiny fists on my metal door accompanied by a chorus of “Juana, Juana, Juana.”
The one child actually suited for this kind of activity was Martina. At the age of six, she was the only one who had the mental capacity to remember what she had been sent to retrieve. Candelaria, the youngest of the trio, remained mostly silent except for a few squeaks and half-formed words. Then there was Camila, who was often sent to head the group when Martina was out with her friends or at school, but whose age and linguistic skill inevitably made her visits difficult to interpret.
On one occasion, Camila arrived while Jere and I were eating lunch. She padded in through the open door and clung to its frame. “Juana” she muttered, her thick and unruly brown curls bobbing.
“Yes Camila” I responded waiting for the request.
“Uhh…. Uhh….” Her gaze darted about the bright room.
“Yes Camila. What do you need?”
Giving up, we resumed our meal and the conversation we were having. Camila remained sucking on her lips, and clinging to the door, a voyeuristic ghost in our midst.
About ten minutes had past and I had just about forgotten she was there at all, when a whisper of a voice reminded me.
“Cebolla (onion)” she uttered in a tone so soft and unimposing that without looking at her, one might think that this little girl was asleep, and her words described the world she encountered in some nebulous dream of kitchens, mothers, vegetables and disproportionately large onions.
On another occasion Camila and her younger sister were dispatched with nothing more than the word “bottle” in their heads. They arrived once again in a chorus of “Juanas” and a light thumping of fists on the door. “Botella” the pair repeated over and over, Camila initiating the chant, followed by Candelaria who could only accomplish the second part of the word “tella” “tella” “tella.” Unlike the vague and tenuous character of many of their visits, this time the team was unwaveringly resolute in their demands. The one problem was that I had no idea what kind of bottle they were looking for. I showed them a variety of bottles I had lying around, empty tomato sauce bottles, wine bottles, used water bottles, dish detergent bottles, all to no avail. They continued their battle cry for a ‘botella’ ‘tella’ ‘botella’ ‘tella.’ After exhausting all visible possibilities I told them to come back when they had a better idea of what they were looking for. Camila scurried off but Candelaria remained watching me with a furrowed brow, chomping on her cheeks, still muttering ‘tella’ ‘tella’ ‘tella.’ The one-year-old seemed angry and dissatisfied but was unable to communicate these complex feelings to me. She had a job to do, a role to fill within this family, and here I was, an outsider, impeding her ability to do so. Realizing she was alone, she eventually waddled off, a heavy dipper slowing her pace.
In addition to the messengers, Grandma continued to drop in on us, thankfully, on these more recent instances, fully clothed. She always arrived looking for someone or something: her aunt Analisa, her husband’s toolbox, the keys to the front gate. She would mistake us for her nieces or nephews, brother and sister, or long lost friends.
“No, this is not my house,” she would explain to me, “I don’t live here, I’m just visiting relatives.” And then she would enter my kitchen and gaze searchingly around and on into the next room, “Is Anna around? You see tomorrow, I am leaving and I’d like to say goodbye.”
“No, I’m sorry,” I offer apologetically, “But I’ll tell her you stopped by.” I nod and smile, placating the ill-fated hallucinations of a woman lost in time.
We discovered one day that a series of garden pots we had left outside was missing. One by one, they were recuperated from distinct hiding spots within the family’s house with the exception of one. Later that day, Jeremias found the last pot out in the front of the house next to a few other abandoned plants. Inside it, Grandma had feebly stuffed the roots of a handful of weeds into the dirt, dutifully attending to the garden that was no longer hers.
I hope that these anecdotes help to illustrate that space is not the only thing that I share with this family. The moments that I describe brighten my days, as I grow to know each member’s personalities and idiosyncrasies. However strange and dysfunctional the whole equation might appear at times, each one of them make living in this space feel like a home.