By: Mary A. Perez
Visiting Daddy in the early seventies, on weekends and during summertime, I remember how he loved to watch “Lucha Libre”. His favorite wrestler then was Rocky Johnson (father of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). Daddy was also a die-hard Yankee fan, and he loved his baseball team.
“¿Vite? You see dat?” Daddy shouted and pointed to the TV, asking no one in particular. “Man, dat Mickey Mantle can hit dat ball sooo hard . . . !”
Daddy and my stepmother, Gloria, were raising my brother Ruben. Yes, I was a bit jealous. Although Daddy spoke both languages to me, I never became as fluent as my brother had become in Spanish. I understood the language more than I could speak it.
Daddy enjoyed many hobbies. He knew his fruits and vegetables having worked on his father’s land in his prime. He loved gardening and showing off his avocado and gandules (pigeon pea) plants that he himself planted as much as he loved chewing and sucking the juice from raw sugar canes.
Gloria hardly spoke English, but we communicated well enough. She treated me like her own child, showering me with loud smooches and tight squeezes. When she spoke to me in Spanish, I would answer her in English and in my broken Spanish. In the mornings, she would asked if I wanted “Con Fley” because she knew I liked cereal, and then ask if I wanted her to fix me a huevo frito, too.
She was such a great cook; we all loved her comida. To see her working in the kitchen preparing mouth-watering delicacies was a common sight. Meals were her priority. She often cooked wearing rollers under a hair net, sometimes in a floral house-dress and always chanclas on her feet.
Back then, feathered friends scurried about in the backyard, a number in cages were nestling on eggs. I liked feeding the ducks and watching them swim in the pond. Not so much with the chickens though, I knew they were for consumption. But I couldn’t keep from watching in agony whenever Gloria ran after one, caught it, and then wrung the poor creature’s neck. It gave me the creeps. Then I’d stay clear from the messy job of plucking feathers.
Gloria also chose whatever Daddy planted in the yard to complement any one of her flavorful traditional entrées, whether her arroz con pollo (rice and chicken), arroz con gandules (rice and pigeon peas), or pernil (roasted pork).
Each dish was first sautéed in sofrito (a mixture of bell peppers, garlic, onions and capers blended into a paste) in a deep caldero. The aroma alone made your mouth water. Gloria served side dishes of fried sweet plantains, large Florida avocados, simmering red beans with new potatoes, and always with a big pot of yellow rice.
One Sunday after a tasty meal of chicken stew, we drank café con leche, a strong espresso made with hot milk and sugar.
“Mary, did you like Mami’s pollo guisado?” Daddy asked, sipping from his cup.
“¡Sí!” I answered, practicing my Spanish. “Muy bueno.”
“Oh, yeah? You wanna know somteen’?” Daddy’s eyes twinkled.
“¿Que?” I asked, blowing on my cafecito, too hot to drink.
“Dat’s no chicken you ate . . . dat was un pato.”
A duck? I stared at Daddy, and then at Gloria, then at the leftovers in the pot. I didn’t feel so good. My stomach felt queasy. I raced to the bathroom without a moment to spare when my entire lunch came up.
Gloria helped wipe my face in the bathroom and pleaded, “Ay, Marí. Perdóname.” I knew she felt terrible about what happened. But when I looked out the window, I couldn’t quit thinking about how I fed those cute, adorable ducks. And I had eaten one!
With no hard feelings with anyone over the duck incident, I enjoyed being at Daddy’s house and forgetting my troubles back home with Mama. I noticed the way Gloria fussed and cleaned house; the same way she enjoyed cooking: fast, thoroughly, and con mucho gusto. She didn’t like dirt. She had every chair in the house, even the couch, covered with plastic! When time to clean the bathroom, she threw a bucket filled with soapy water on the floor, walls and tub, scrubbing, mopping and drying until everything was squeaky-clean. She never relaxed until evening when one of her novelas came on TV.
Daddy and Gloria were affectionate and called each other pet names. Because Daddy’s skin was brown, Gloria called him, “Negro.” While many knew my stepmother as “Pita,” Daddy called her his “Mamita.” Seeing their love in action made me smile.
Although Gloria didn’t speak English, her hugs and warmth said more than the words from my own mother.
And she could cook.
Gloria making her famous pasteles.
Mary A. Perez – Born in New York, raised in Miami, and now residing in Houston, Texas, Mary A. Perez is of Puerto Rican descent, the mother of four grown children, “Mimi” to a couple of gorgeous grandchildren, and happily married the second time to a phenomenal man—her helpmate—nineteen years. Perez is a blogger, a member of the Houston Writers Guild and attends weekly critique groups.