Following is a chapter of a book in progress entitled Clean Pepín.
Dancing through my grandma Pepín’s wide-open front door, a big ole chicken entered and clucked its way about the living room floor. It was mud-baked, and it chucked its body back and forth, flinging, even slinging, about these chips, as she waddled, now at me.
Pepín came and – with a sway of her wrists – she had “la gallina estúpida,” that stupid chicken, flapping violently right back out the front. Hands to hips, she addressed me sternly and did so with an accent for which I had not been prepared.
“Aye’am ju granma,” she said with her lips pursed out a mile revealing the golden twinkle of one front tooth. She, then, pointed at me with her Marlboro, “Soy mamá de tu mamá. Me llamo Pepín.”
I felt like the chicken she just flung out the front, not understanding a word, but I wasn’t dancing about it either. I stood frozen, looking into her ancient, round eyes as I said, “Mamá?” Was my real mother giving me up?
“Pepín!” she spouted, poking the air with her Marlboro. She was puckering strangely as she enunciated emphatically, “Ma. Ma Pe. Peen.” Then, shaking her head and laughing, she walked away.
I hadn’t bargained for another language when I agreed visit Puerto Rico at 13. I had no idea that other languages existed. I mean, well, I guess I did because half of my family’s Hispanic, but no one had ever addressed me before in Spanish.
I had no vision of what the mother of my mother would look like either. They certainly didn’t look alike. Pepín was a dark, rugged, olive-skinned, whittled old Taíno woman with the ever bouncing belly of a Hispanic Santa Claus, and always wearing a house dress.
My mom on the other hand had a pop model look with the face of Patrick Nagel’s Sunglasses woman. Chic. She was always charmed with looks, rightness, control. I turned out gangly and plain, like neither of them.
I scurried to sit next to mom at Pepín’s Formica table, a wide-rimmed, overfilled cup of pure blackness suddenly appearing below my nose. Steam emanated from five rings of oil just below my inflow. Olive oil? Each ring spread unevenly as they floated, bouncing on the sides of my cup.
She turned around, waved her hands under her chin, and with lips pursed, she was emphasizing syllables, like the sound “Le” then, “Che” She said it again and kept repeating it louder, louder, as if I couldn’t hear. She added, “Me-elk,” then “Quieres meelk?” then “Tienes meelk.” then “Hijita?” and other words I could not understand until I was stupefied into a frenzy of words, not one of which was intelligible to me.
I looked back down at the quiet oil rings in my cup, next to which suddenly appeared a small pitcher of hot milk. “Bueno?” Pepín said with all smiles.
Ting! I looked up, spied that old chicken down the hall on Pepín’s linoleum-tiled, concrete floor. I smiled and babbled at Pepín my first Spanish word, “Bueno,” back in unison with her.
Her response? “Gud, berry gud.”
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