Quintessentially Belizean - Part III: Sunday

    The first to arrive at the Mai house was Aunty Rose. The children heard her all the way from the road side, calling out her usual jolly “Diiiiiiiiaaaaasssssss!” Following her trail was her little girl – half naked already with just her skirt on, hem stuck in the waistband and frilly lace underwear showing who knows how far down the road. She twirled her shirt in the air, dropping it every so often, and then picking it back up to toss back up in the air. Rose had given up on her child looking presentable, choosing her laughing, happy four-year-old over the sulky, screaming nightmare she could be. Bertha, the eldest girl went out to greet her aunt, who was precariously balancing a covered pot and extra-large purse. With the pot safely ensconced in Bertha’s hands, Rose reached out to fix her Benita’s skirt as they headed into the house.

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    Inside the kitchen, the chaos of morning mealtime was just underway, with coffee pouring, fresh eggs frying in the pan, tortillas still being patted out. Her two nephews and younger niece stood up from the table and gave her a hug and kiss welcome while Bertha found a spot on a covered bucket to set the heavy pot she had brought in. Maria put two eggs on another plate, wiped her hands on a cloth and welcomed her sweet sister with a quick hug. As if they hadn’t just seen each other during the week, they did what women the world over often did upon seeing each other. They looked each other up and down, exclaiming over some minute detail that was different in the other. The younger children took turns cuddling young Benita, who by now was in danger of losing her skirt. With her thick curls framing a most precocious face, everyone ignored her naughtiness. After greetings were over, breakfast continued with the addition of the two visitors. There was always enough food to go around on Sundays.

    Even as food was being ingested, talk turned to the main event of the day, the big lunch. Also coming to visit were Maria’s and Rose’s sister Victoria, whose brood numbered three, with another on the way. Their twin brothers Fernando and Angel would be bringing the watermelons and melons to refresh everyone. Only Angel was married, and his wife Julia had not borne any children yet. There was time; they had only been married for two years. Everyone sitting at the table had decided on Ecabeche for lunch. The tart chicken and onion soup was a family favorite, and it certainly stretched to feed lots of people.

    Maria’s boys were in charge of catching four more chickens from the nearly 100 in the coop, to make sure that children and adults ate enough, and for leftovers later in the evening. Rose had brought over enough onions in her large pot, but she had also brought delicious sweet potato pudding to share with everyone. The get together would be a party indeed.

    With breakfast done, Maria’s girls cleared away all the dishes. Outside, where a single faucet stood dripping into a half full bucket, Bertha took a smaller plastic bowl and scooped out water to fill a basin. Into that basin, she dropped a rag that must have once been a color, but had been faded to a dull gray. After moving the water and rag to an old makeshift shelf alongside the wall near the tap, she poured soap into the basin. Anita began soaking cups into the soapy water while her big sister busied herself with another bowl for rinsing. She turned on the faucet and ice cold water that ran down from the cold rivers deep inside mountains splashed everywhere. Her strong young arms carried the basin to the same table where Anita washed, and together, they found companionable silence as they cleaned every item. When the suds were too much, Bertha found a halved lime in the kitchen and squeezed it into the rinse bowl. Almost instantly, the suds were cut, and rinsing continued.

    Meanwhile, inside the house, a lot of cleaning was taking place. Pots of water were put to boil for the chickens, while her boys were out to catch them. Maria’s husband Pablo headed outside to help sharpen the machete that would perform the grim task ahead as she busied herself alongside Rose. The old scratchy broom did a fine job of clearing out a lot of the dust and dirt that half a dozen pairs of feet could track in. While they swept and dusted the house, Benita busied herself in a corner with some of her cousins’ old dollies. To a child, new didn’t necessarily mean from the package – anything they hadn’t laid eyes on before was a delight, something new. She would be occupied for hours if nothing different presented itself.

    Out by the fowl coop, two boys ran around inside scattering frightened chickens every which way, trying to find four good ones for the pot. Finally, they each had four suddenly subdued young hens dangling by the feet. Their father waited outside patiently with the machete, closing the door to the coop behind them to keep the chickens inside while the gruesome spectacle took place. Heading to a rust covered stump that had obviously seen its fair share of beheadings, all three males readied the chickens. Pablo’s efficient swings of the machete soon had four headless chickens flapping around, blood spurting everywhere.

    The squawking alerted the women inside the house, and boiling water was poured into a bucket, taken outside for the carcasses to be soaked and prepared for plucking. Rose’s deft fingers would make a quick job of all four. Maria corralled the boys into grinding corn that had been boiled in lime, while Anita was tasked with picking tomatoes and wild cilantro from the back portion of their garden. Bertha washed some rice to add to the mix for lunch, while her mother took to chopping a mountain of onions. Pablo searched the sour orange tree for ripe ones to be squeezed into the soup, juicing them into a large jug with enough for a good refreshing juice. Usually, Angel’s wife would bring her small bucket of watermelon juice as well, so there would be plenty to go around. Since they drove the small beat up pickup, the twins would be passing by the shop around the bend that had a kerosene refrigerator. Ice would be included in the refreshments.

    Almost as if on cue, a car turned up the bend carrying three laughing children, two boys and one girl in pigtails that flew in the wind as the car drove up. Watching over them was their indulgent uncle Fernando. In the cabin of the car sat Angel driving his wife and a heavily pregnant Victoria. Before the car could park properly, both boys were scrambling on the side of the pan. All down the road they had sat on the slab of wood specially bolted to the sides of the vehicle. Nearly every vehicle that traversed the roads through the village had something similar – makeshift seats to pack in as many people as possible. Now Victoria’s sons flew off the side of the car, hitting the ground at a run as they headed to their aunt’s house. Victoria slowly came out the cab and watched her brother swing her little girl safely to the ground, then he too jumped off. Two doors slammed as Angel and Julia also left the cab. Lending his arm to his sister, Angel led both ladies to the house where the noise level had risen dramatically.

    The stereo set had been set on high, and soca music blasted out to the audience that ran around preparing a feast for many. The smell of smoke grew heavy as Pablo blew a small smoking corn husk, trying to make a fire with a few scraps of wood and dried husks on the outdoor hearth where large meals were cooked. On the side of the rustic clay stove lay a halved gas tank, and leaning against it was a blackened, sooty metal grate. The barbeque, where coal was poured and gasoline splashed for a whoosh of fire, and burning embers that smoked, seared and cooked meats for those special occasions. Today, the fire was all they needed to burn off the tiny feathers that couldn’t come off the newly plucked chickens. Pablo blew harder, his cheeks puffing as sweat poured down his forehead. A tiny flame leapt up, hungrily seeking out more fuel, and soon, a fire was well underway.

    Food soon came together, sisters sharing the kitchen chores – and the men strung hammocks, horsed around with the children, and kept an eye on everything else while their lunch was being readied. A turn of the dial changed the station on the radio to softer, more romantic Spanish ballads. With a quick eye towards the sun, Pablo headed to the top of the shelf where a bottle of brandy stood, a fine sheen of dust coating the glass. All the wives shook their heads knowingly as the traditional pre-lunch drink was poured. A good splash of brandy, a few drops of water to cut the liquor, and at least an hour to nurse each drink until the meals hit the table.

    A Sunday afternoon to while away, with the family, good food, a few drinks, music, from rhythmic drumbeats to soft crooning, to, eventually, the heartbroken strains of country as the sun dipped lower in the west. A cool breeze always wafted down from the mountains into the valley where children ran and danced, a few grown-ups swung in their hammocks, and others sat on chairs dragged outside. When chairs ran out, and more people stopped by for a quick hello and an even longer drink or dessert, empty buckets that had been stacked up for the rains that fell hard and fast, sweet and cold – they were turned upside down. Makeshift seats held up bottoms that refused to budge. Even as children’s eyelids drooped, and they curled up on empty sacks laid out on the cool grass, the talk continued. Planting season was coming up, the new baby would be born soon, a new car needed to be bought, and always, gossip around the village was hashed and rehashed. As often as they took place, these Sunday family visits never changed. Looking around at the family as they had worked together, ate together, and shared lives with each other, Sundays would always be around.

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