Sunday, September 28, 2008

Mi abuelita

My abuelita, the mujer de armas tomar around whose life many of our lives revolved, to one degree or another, died in the wee hours of the morning on Saturday. A la hora de las brujas, as we say, around 2:30 a.m. or so, she died in her sleep, with the most peaceful of expressions on her face.

She had been largely unconscious on her death bed for some time, and had stopped being coherent or lucid, and seemed only to recognize the dead and to have mumbled conversations with those who'd long ago passed: her beloved sister, parents, cousin.

My abuela was a force of nature. The strength and solidity of her personality is salient in all of us who carry her mostly criollo and Corsican blood in our veins. She was a woman to be reckoned with, even in her last years when she at first started joking that St. Peter had lost his list because he didn't remember to call her to him, and then, more recently and heartbreakingly, when she raged at God and at her revered San Martín de Porres for forgetting her and allowing her to live way beyond the point when she could possibly appreciate living.

I raged, too, praying to San Martín and summoning her sister to come and claim her. But they didn't seem to listen. She lived on, and on, and on, against the very essence of her will.

My abuela was always -- for the almost 47 years I've been around -- a source of devoted love and support to me. When I called her house on Saturday, after my mother told me everyone was gathered there, my favorite uncle told me that the last coherent thing he heard her say was a question on whether I'd graduated with my Ph.D.

My abuela was a fantastic cook who never measured the ingredients in the wonderful dishes she concocted, and who was always reciting recipes to me over the phone or in person, in the hopes that I would never run out of savory things to cook for my husband, whom she adored. She never seemed to remember that my husband likes to cook so that I don't have, like her, to be solely responsible for his or my sustenance.

She would often tell him the story of how when she was a teacher, she'd have to walk to work shortly after dawn and then walk home for lunch to cook arroz, habichuelas, carne y frituras and how she'd have to repeat the routine again in the afternoon, when her three sons and husband got home.

A natural teacher who loved imparting knowledge of any kind (that's why I think she tried to have me learn to sew), she long ago gave me her meticulously typed lesson plans for Spanish verb conjugations, which I still have but have rarely used. They are in ancient, brown and brittle paper and I cherish them because they represent to me her desire to spread knowledge and to share what she knew with us.

Back in the days when she was younger and could cook, she would treat us to the best arroz y habichuelas on the island, the best Puerto Rican-style Spanish pepperoni pizzas, and the most delicious fresh limeade and mango-lime juice that I ever had or will have. Her jugo de guanábana was legendary, and up until she was simply too elderly and frail to do so, she was not below getting out her machete and going to her back yard to cut off a huge racimo de plátanos from her plantain tree so she could fry up the best tostones in the land.

But once she lost feeling in both hands she had to stop cooking because she started scalding and singeing herself but not noticing that she had done so because she couldn't feel the burn. Thus, she was prohibited from cooking and so her slow and painful decline began, especially when the burnings were followed by several bad falls. The last one put her, finally, on her death bed.

My abuela also had a quirky sense of humor and would even laugh at herself. I used to love to hear her little peals of laughter. She also appreciated ceremony and attention, and I remember the time, many years ago, when she waited for me to visit her on the day of her birthday, and when I arrived, she grabbed my hand and led me slowly toward the kitchen, where she had a small piece of cake there with a candle that she had me light for her. Then, together, we sang Feliz cumpleaños a ti for her. That memory still breaks my heart so many, many years later.

My abuela was a complex and often difficult human being, in whom the good things mixed with the bad, like in all of us. But I choose to remember her for all the good she did, for all the love she gave, for all the strength she mustered and for all the resilience she showed.

Yesterday, I lit a memorial candle in front of a picture I took several years ago, one that no longer represents what she looks like today, but one that is exactly as I wish to remember her. Last night, around the same time she died, the shadow of a figure appeared in my room and startled me out of sleep.

I was calmed by the thought that it must be my grandmother, who'd come to bid me goodbye. And now I know I can pray to her because, as one of her caretakers told me on Saturday, she is, finally, un ser de luz.

Abuelita, for as long as I live, I will love and honor and remember you. Your full heart and your legacy will not die with you. Abuelita, te quiero mucho. Descansa, por fin, en paz.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Cleaning up, catching up

This was the sight from our front door yesterday as crews picked up the pieces of the trees they had to take down and cut from our apartment courtyard because of the recent windstorm. Several trees were damaged and some were downright felled by the hurricane-force winds.

The good news is that because the courtyard is so full of trees, the ones that were cut down didn't leave evident holes and there is a little bit more sunshine coming through, which is not a bad thing.

Like the cleaning up of our courtyard yesterday, this has been a week of cleaning up and catching up for me after we recovered power Saturday evening, shortly before darkness fell. I'm sure my shout of joy could be heard miles away. I consider myself a pretty resilient person, and a person who tries to always look on the positive things of things, but being without power for a week doesn't bring out the best in me. That's for sure.

But now that's water under the bridge, so to speak, and I'm moving on by cleaning up the debris that the crazy electricity-less week left in my life. During the blackout, I caught a bug that bedded me for two days, forcing me to cancel class. You can imagine how poorly I felt that even the thought of dressing up and teaching class didn't excite me. So I had to make up those classes on Monday and Tuesday nights and have been scrambling since to catch up to all that needs to get done this busy week.

I was glad that I felt well enough to do quilting last night because I'm really getting into it and have now finished one of the squares and am in the process of finishing the second square, which I'm making in the Ohio Star style. The quilt is getting made in Ohio, after all. But I feel good that my brain and hands don't seem to have forgotten what I learned as a child about a sewing machine. I actually really like those the 2 hours of quilting class because I don't have to think of anything else but my sewing and my piecing together of the fabrics that I've cut in the patterns I've chosen. It's like yoga for the hands.

This morning I have a few hours of respite before I go back into the office and then to a meeting, but at least the rushing is over for now. At the apartment, we've also caught up with our laundry and our upkeep and the place finally doesn't look like it's inhabited only by animals that walk on four legs.

Because the sink has a food processor that didn't work without electricity, we could only do a few dishes at a time so the kitchen sink for that week was a sight that sored my eyes. My industrious husband has now not only caught up with all the dirty dishes, but he's keeping ahead of himself by washing everything that gets into the sink almost immediately. It's gotten to the point that I feel a little guilty dirtying a dish or a glass!

So these crazy weeks are finally winding down, tG, and the morning temperatures are feeling more and more like fall, although we're still in the high 70s or 80s during the day. My husband is in the process of trying to rent our large house in the tiny city, and with any luck will be able to get that done soon so that the lovely house isn't lonely any more.

Now it's time for me to get my butt in gear and do some reading and class prep for tomorrow. Then, a good amount of grading awaits me, along with a short paper that I have to get ready for Sunday, as part of a conference at my small college on the hill.

Outside, the sun shines, the breeze rustles the tops of the remaining trees, and the courtyard invites me to come outside and read. By now, there are few reminders that all was chaos and detritus only a few days ago. When you're lucky, ain't that the way things go?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Still in the dark

Well, so I wrote last time about not having fallen off the edge of the world, and then the world went dark on us. Last Sunday, at about 4:30 p.m., the remnants of Hurricane Ike buffeted us with 75 mph winds and left in their wake a path of destruction that virtually shut down my small college on the hill and its surrounding areas.

While the college was mostly all back up and running by week's end, the section where we live, which was the worst hit of our immediate surroundings, remained just as Ike left it on Sunday. As of right now, as we speak, things around me look pretty much as they did in these pictures that I took Sunday, except for the fact that yesterday a crew finally came and cleaned up the downed trees that blocked the road for almost a week.

I've been shocked, appalled and downright furious at the slowness of the electric company in restoring service to our street, especially since their website says that they give first priority to downed power lines. Although our small area was littered with downed trees, downed power lines, and downed electricity poles that leaked cancer-causing transformer fluid onto the road, we were placed at the bottom of their priority list.

"Next Sunday," the uncaring AEP operator said when I called that Monday after the storm to report the fact that no one had come to check out the serious damage on our street. And they've kept to that schedule. Supposedly, we'll have power again by midnight tomorrow. Supposedly.

And before anyone feels the need to remind me, I'm well aware that (as many of my Anglo colleagues and friends noted), at the height of the storm AEP had more 1.5 million people without power, and many trucks had gone to Texas to help and Ike devastated Ohio to the point that the governor called a state of emergency. I am aware of all that, thanks.

What makes me most ashamed of myself is that when I lived in Puerto Rico I complained about the service provided by PREPA, although in comparison to AEP, they are exemplary. I remember how our Guaynabo house was located in a small pocket of houses that used to lose electricity often for no apparent reason, and was always the last one to get it back when hurricanes barreled through the island.

I also remember that I wrote a letter to PREPA, and had all the neighbors sign it, and sent it off and how they eventually came and fixed the recurring problem. I also remember how the PREPA crews would show up at the wee hours of the morning and start working once we had finally made the top of their priority list. And how they would work incessantly until they had restored power for everyone. They worked as if someone they cared for was among those without power.

I also regret thinking that it was wrong for the government to own and operate a utility company. That was before I'd met AEP. At least when the government owns the company that provides electricity, they're also invested in making sure everyone gets power soon. And PREPA restored power to Puerto Rico in only a week after Hurricane Georges in 1998 wiped out the entire electric grid, which services more than 4 million people in a mountainous island.

So I apologize to PREPA for having been so unfair in my ignorance. I had no measure of comparison since I never had similar blackouts while living in Boston or D.C. But I now know better. Many Puerto Ricans think that everything is better because it's American. Of course that's absolute BS, but it's most clear in situations like these. In Puerto Rico, many Puerto Ricans care for other fellow Puerto Ricans and they work their asses off for each other. I got the message loud and clear here that my electric company didn't give a sovereign shit about us but they did love posting the big numbers on their website of how many people they restored power to by getting to the easier jobs first.
Another thing that was become very apparent to me during this event has been the cultural divide between me and my Anglo friends. Invariably, when I've bitched and moaned and ranted and raved against the electric company's failure to address our area as a priority, my Anglo friends tried to reason with me and pointed to the many and valid reasons AEP had for leaving us without electricity for a week and with a potentially dangerous situation on our street, despite the fact that sick elderly people live there. Not surprisingly, only my one fellow boricua colleague-friend understood my rage and raged with me.

I think it must be my rebellious African, and Corsican and Irish blood. I'm just not able to make excuses for those who have the power and the resources to respond in an hour of need for those who can't do anything for themselves. And while I can acknowledge all the reasons the electric company might have had to ignore us, in my eyes, they failed to meet their own promise: that they would tackle the areas with dangerous downed power lines first. In law school, they teach that as basic negligence.

The best thing about this whole event has been how our small community has pooled together to improve our collective lives, as my wonderful Canadian colleague-friend recently reminded me. Dr. S, whose apartment got power back early last week, pitched in her grill for a camp-fire style dinner that evening, just before her power came back. My husband and I got rid of all our thawed food from the freezer, and I put together some black beans that he cooked on the grill, and with some freezer-burned bread and some fresh veggies we all had a meal to remember in the pitch darkness.

Ever since she got power, the very generous Dr. S gave us her extra key and insisted that we use her refrigerator and freezer and my husband has been able to make his can't-live-without coffee there in the mornings. Yesterday, the college brought us two gas-run generators, one that powers our 4-apartment building, and another one for the other 4 that are still electricity-less, and now we can use our laptops and watch the news on TV and have light in the bathroom, which is crucial for an ostomate like me, especially when I have to change my pouch. That's one thing you definitely can't do while holding a flashlight or by candlelight!

Every time the tiny (but very loud) generator runs out of gas everything goes dark again, but something is better than nothing and it was very good of the college to remember us. Many of our neighbors on this street aren't so lucky. All in all, things have started looking up (we might even have someone interested in renting our large lonely house in the tiny city -- which has electricity, of course!).

But I'm still raging against the Machine, specifically the Machine that is supposed to provide our electricity but doesn't. And the worst part is that I can't dump them and find another provider. At least in Puerto Rico the government is responsible for PREPA so they have make sure that the company provides good service because their own record depends on PREPA's performance. Here, they can get away with anything and what can people do? Only rage against the Machine, I suppose.

In the end, AEP has been lucky. No one on our street had a medical emergency that an ambulance was unable to get to because of the debris they didn't clear up until yesterday, and gringos around here tend to view events in their lives with a degree of resignation that must hearken back to their Calvinist cultural roots so no one (other than me and my boricua friend) has made much of a fuss about this. Not even the sick elderly people who could have!

I, on the other hand, still have fantasies about pelting AEP with my rotten food. I know, of course, that it's not the AEP workers' faults. They, like the PREPA ones, are to be commended for all the dangerous work they do. It's just their huge monopoly of a company that sucks. And please save your breath and energy, because no amount of reasoning with me will change my mind. Let me continue to rage on against the dying of the little light I have.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

No me tragó la tierra

The rumors of my disappearance from the face of the Earth have been highly exaggerated. But it's certainly true, and rather surprising for me to realize, that I haven't stopped to write here at all so far this month. So let me remedy that lapse immediately, now that I actually have a few minutes to breathe.

In the past few weeks, I held my graduation party, which was the best party (if I may say so myself) that I've been to in a while. My wonderful advisor came and I got a chance to celebrate the Ph.D. with my incredibly nice colleagues. My husband gave a very moving toast and everyone had a nice time. We came home with loads of leftover food from the caterer, who prepared delicious hors d'oeuvres and had nicely decorated the rooms in one of the old houses of my small college on the hill where we gathered.

The first three weeks of classes have gone by in a blur, and I'm still playing catch-up with my preparation although I'm learning to strive for less perfection and leave more in the hands of my students. I have two strong groups and I'm having a lot of fun each time we meet, and while I'm doing a lot more grading because I'm trying a new approach that has them writing a 2-page response paper for each class (which translates into more than 50 pages of writing through the semester), I'm reading a lot more quality material because they're being thoughtful and thorough in their comments about the readings.

Last Saturday was apportioned to an annual checkup and some shopping with Dr. S and my new colleague-friend in Drama, Ms. M, so this was the first Saturday back to the farmer's market, also with Dr. S. She was kind enough to take the picture above for me so I could finally post today and dispel any fears that I've fallen off the edge of the world, or forgotten my little space here.

Also today, Dr. S helped me to buy some fabric for my quilting class, which started last Wednesday. This coming Wednesday we will start cutting fabric and I'll re-learn to operate the sewing machine. My loving abuela, the same one who now lies demented, talking nonsense to the dead, and slowly shriveling on her death bed, was an accomplished seamstress and had me take sewing classes eons ago. Young girl that I was, I didn't pay much attention, sewed a terribly distorted dress that got tossed into the garbage , and I gave up on the attempt. The best I've ever been able to do is hem and I'm not even very good at that (although I mostly use a simple basting stitch) so I'm not too optimistic of what will come out of this quilting endeavor.

But I want to do this quilting for my abuela, who even though she herself never quilted, did try to instill in me a love for detailed, manual work, something I've never had the attention span or patience to cultivate. In her honor, I'm going to try, and if I get to make the quilt, I'll post a picture here so you all can see it. At least I picked what I think are really cool fabrics with the help of Dr. S and the kindly ladies at the quilting shop in town.

At the farmer's market today we stocked up on fresh veggies even when there were much fewer stands because of the pelting rains that we've been having in these parts recently. Still, I got my locally made sharp cheddar cheese, some lima beans for my husband, and some onions and sweet peppers to make a home-made sofrito.

Tomorrow, I have invited two first-year students to dinner here and I'm thinking of making the fried chicken again. That means that I'd better get my ass in gear now so I can go buy the locally grown chicken and the locally produced buttermilk and get the fresh peaches for my fifth? cobbler of the summer.

As Dr. S's lovely picture shows, however, summer is ending because the fat pumpkins are singing. This weekend is summer's last hooray, as my husband pointed out. It was a good, if kind of crazy busy, summer. Long live summer, indeed!