Grown Up - I

    The routine never changed: wake up with the first hint of sunlight, put water to boil, start kneading the flour for the tortillas or the Johnny cakes of fried jacks, and reheat the beans from the day before. Sometimes, it was mash the leftover beans and fry it up with diced onions in coconut oil. If it was pear season, the ripe buttery flesh would be smashed with salt and a good splash of the same coconut oil. With some fried eggs fresh from the chicken coop, the pears were delicious. With strong, hot coffee made from the same brand of instant she had known since she was little, sweetened with the same brand of condensed milk or powdered milk and sugar, breakfast was a routine that set the tone for the day.


    Ever since her mother had been buried in the hillside cemetery a month ago, Irma had been in the kitchen at sunrise. She remembered being able to roll in bed for as long as she wanted, while mama had the task of preparing everything that would nourish the family. It was Irma, her little sisters Lola and Micaela, and her brother Ramon Jr. Papa worked however he could. When the weather was good, he would work the communal land that the village provided, deep into the mountains. Cayo had an abundance of property, but everything relied on the weather and a commitment to work hard. Sometimes, Papa didn’t have the energy to go to the field. That’s what happened when you were much older, and had to raise a family that needed food to eat, clothes to wear, and a roof over their head.

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    Then Mama got sick. There was hardly enough money to go around for the food and home expenses, so Mama hid her pain and fears. The nightmare of the disease that ate away at her insides held fast for a little over a year. When Mama couldn’t handle the hurt, she would spend a lot of time inside the outhouse. There, she lost parts of her that she never even knew existed. It was a sad tragedy that at hardly 35, with four children and a husband nearly 20 years her senior, she lost her life. Irma never knew the real truth behind her mother’s death, but she understood that there had been pain, a lot of pain. The day she found her mother slumped over in the toilet, dead for perhaps hours, Irma grew up in ways she never thought she would at 14.

    In the days following Mama’s death, Papa took to the fields every day. He woke early, making himself a small mug of coffee, dunking the homemade breads that the church women would bring by before heading out. The outpouring of sympathy and foodstuffs was overwhelming, but it would soon dwindle away. At some point in time, they would find themselves alone once again, with no Mama to hold them together. Ramon Sr. often wondered how he had failed his wife, and his children. But the truth was he had suspected that things were wrong, he just refused to acknowledge it. Now, the guilt gnawed at him like the cancer had her.

    Irma had to find the reserves of strength she was not meant to apply till later in life. She woke up the day after Mama had been buried and found her little sisters curled up against her like they hadn’t in years. They may have been 9 and 10, but they had often held on to their independence fiercely. Now, they were adrift, one constant in their life gone away forever. They clung to their big sister, and Irma knew that she had to be strong for them. Her first test came sooner than she expected.

    Nearly three weeks after Mama was buried, the final gifts were dropped off to the bereaved family. Freshly baked bread, a big bowl of soup, and a large leg of deer that could last weeks if cooked and smoked right. With the help of their father, the children helped prepare the meat all kinds of ways to make it last. When the final knot of pure meat was hung over the smoky fire hearth to cure, the family of five sat at the table and ate soup and bread. Irma slowly announced her plans to care for the family. Her father sat silently at the head of the table, too ashamed to admit that he was relieved. Irma, at 14, had only to finish one more term at primary school. While she loved learning, she knew that there had been no plans for her to continue to high school. Judging from her father’s loud silence, Irma knew that there had been no other options. Her little sisters looked up to her and knew that things really had changed. Ramon Jr. simply shrugged, for as the only son, he expected that he would go to high school. It was the way things worked.

    The next morning, a Monday, Irma walked to the school building located at the middle of the village, her father, brother and sisters accompanying her. On his back was a large, and obviously heavy, sack. The small 5-person procession made their way to the building, where Ramon Jr. headed straight to his classes. The two younger girls hugged their older sister before turning in to their classes. Irma and her father made their way to the principal’s. The school was so small and underfunded that the principal was also a teacher, so his office was also his classroom. The short little man looked up expectantly when they walked in. Ramon Sr. dropped his sack on the cement floor with a loud thud. The bag fell over on its side, and out rolled a bunch of vegetables – payment to overlook the fact that a student was not going to finish her basic education. Irma held up her head with pride and explained to her principal her reason for dropping out. Without really understanding, but wanting the unpleasant experience to be over with as soon as possible, he acknowledged the girl’s request, and with little hesitation, pulled out a blank diploma, which he filled out with Irma’s name and handed it to her. She was officially ‘graduated’ from school.

    Back at home, the Irma and Ramon hardly spoke to each other. Instinctively, as if she had been doing it all her life, Irma headed to the kitchen area where she started cooking the rice that would be served with the leftover soup for lunch. The children had a specific hour to eat before heading back to school. Irma’s new life was now underway.

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