“Momma, she bit me again,” I yelled rubbing the pain out of my arm. “That stupid dog!”
“Tara, don’t talk about your sister like that! Sashay, get yo’ yella behind in here, now!” When she talked her voice clashed with the silence like lightening, and her body rumbled and shook. She was a big woman, dark and creamy skinned. Momma’s words could squeeze the smallest tear from your eyes. Even when you weren’t in trouble and she called your name, just the memory of that extra cookie you took out of her special stash or the glass you dropped and tried to hide the pieces behind the curtain gave your tear ducts an 85 percent chance of a downpour even before you found out why she was calling.
“Mommy, I didn’t bite her! Tara was listening on the phone first,” Sashay whined.
“Only because you cut the hair off of Perming Ashinkishay Barbie!”
“That was cuz -- ”
“Girls! Lord, please deliver me from this evil!” Momma did that a lot: dropped to her knees, looked at the ceiling, and prayed. Sometimes Sashay and I got down and did it too.
That was the year of hot combs, watermelon, and Hello Kitty backpacks.
The three of us lived in a small three bedroom house where there were really no hallways. When you walked out of one room, you were already in another. One of the rooms was occupied by Momma’s sewing machine and brought to life by the many fabrics that lined the walls. All colors and prints; all awaiting to be designed and structured into a dress for me, or a summer hat for Sashay, or a table cloth for Christmas dinner. Momma didn’t believe in buying things at the store when she could make them herself with her own “God-given hands”, as she called them. We even had cabbage and tomatoes planted out back and chickens squawking in the coop beside the house. Oh, but our favorite was the watermelon patch about a half mile from our house. It wasn’t exactly ours, but the whole neighborhood owned it and took care of it. So when the melons were ready, usually when it was hot outdoors, all us kids would go pick a melon and sit out on the side of the road having contests on who could eat theirs the fastest. Faces saturated, hands sticky, and tummies juiced with melon, we’d return home to disgusted mothers who had to hose us down before we could walk inside.
Our days were structured with school during the day, and then we played around in the neighborhood until it got dark. We pretty much knew not to do anything we weren’t supposed to, because somehow Momma would know about it before we even got home. She’d be waiting for us on the porch with her hand propped up on top her hip and her foot tapping the nails out of the porch frame. Sometimes we’d think twice about opening the front gate, because we knew that at that time, it was the only thing between Momma’s heavy hand and…us. She’d tell us to pick a “switch” (a stick) and she’d watch us as we trudged around the yard and decided our fate. She’d whip us right there on the porch because she knew that if she let us get in the house before her, we’d hurry in our room and stuff our pants or put on extra layers to lessen the sting. To this day, I can’t think of whose eyes told Momma on me and Sashay.
After our week of school, there was no doubt that we’d all three be cleaning the house on Saturday and waking up for church early Sunday morning. Momma woke up way before Sashay and I, cooked breakfast and had our dresses hanging up on our door. By the time we sat down to eat, she was dressed herself. We went to Fruit of the Vine Baptist Church where either you were really old or really young. Momma was the only woman her age. Most of the women were old and brought their grandchildren with them and stuck them in the back corner where all the kids were supposed to sit. We didn’t; we sat by Momma where she could keep an eye on us. Momma said that we’d “never learn anything about the good Lord sitting back there. That’s why them kids is bad as they is,” she’d pull us close and whisper in our ears. When we were younger we never questioned why we did things so much differently from the other kids; why momma wouldn’t allow us to grow as children first, make childish choices and it be okay. But we came to the conclusion that it wasn’t her fault. Momma just didn’t understand what it meant to growup. Momma unfortunately was never our age; she was born old and will only get older!
We sat right up close, right in the first pew, farthest away from the only ceiling fan that was in the church and that failed to circulate any air, where, I swear, we could feel the preacher’s sweat flinging from his face and meeting me and Sashay on ours, where if you fell asleep, the preacher would come right up to you and holler “amen” right in your face and the whole church would laugh and say “hallelujah” as you jumped. Every Sunday somebody was bound to catch the Holy Ghost. The preacher would get to shouting and jumping on the pulpit and ask, “Do I have a witness?” and the congregation would answer with a “well” and “yeah.” Hands, by that time, were waving and voices, some yelling out loud and some moaning to themselves. Then someone, somewhere, some lady would pop out of her seat, scream, and she was off, dancing around the church, and blaring to God words that only she knew the meaning of. Everyone else in the church paid no attention to her; everyone but me and Sashay and probably the other kids. We always watched her and would giggle as if we’d never seen anyone act that way. It was just a matter of time until Momma caught us and sent us the look and we knew we were in for it when we got home. Pretty soon, the dancing lady had everybody worked up, and the whole church was clapping and jumping while the pianist’s fingers ran across the keys and somebody else banged their palm on a tambourine to the beat. When it was hot outside, it seemed twice as hot in the church. My freshly pressed dress was wrinkled and glued to my skin from all the moisture. My hair that was hot combed and tied up with a bow that matched my dress, was curling at the roots and had pieces of hair springing out all over the place by the time we were standing up for the benediction.
About once a month, or whenever Momma was tired of fighting with our hair, Sashay or I would be propped up on our knees on a kitchen chair with a hot comb laying down every strand of our hair with its intolerable heat. Momma would toast the cast-iron comb by putting it on the stove and would test it by licking a finger, quickly touch the tip of it, and the comb would hiss back at her telling her it was time. After placing a towel on the back of my neck, Momma would run the iron comb trough my hair in small portions at a time, making the process even longer than it really had to be. I’d flinch with every movement of her hand. Sometimes when she hadn’t even picked up the comb, my back would already be curled up tight, eyes clinched shut, jerking away from her, anticipating the next stroke of heat that would slip through my hair. Soon after, tension and fear were replaced with relief as Momma freely combed through my hair with an ordinary comb. No longer did Momma have to rake through it; no longer was styling my hair a struggle of two forces: Momma’s hand and the underlying naps residing in my hair. I opted to stay inside rather than playing outdoors after having my hair hot combed, in an effort to preserve my recently straightened hair.
There were only three reasons why a girl my age wasn’t found outside in the evenings: sick, in trouble, or just got her hair straight and didn’t want to reverse its results so soon. You knew better than to come home with your hair returned to its recent condition of thick wavy roots within the same week of its transformation to silky, manageable locks. This hot combing process continued until you were about 14, where you began going into the beauty shop for relaxers. By that time you were a woman doing womanly things to your hair like parting it and wearing it down rather than up in five separate plats springing out from your head like branches from a tree with barrettes that matched each dress. I was ready to make that transition from girl to woman and strut out of a beauty shop one day with hair lustrously straight, able to swing it from side to side after hearing the town’s gossip conversed between me and the other women with their womanly heads in the shampoo bowls and under dryers in the shop. Until then I had to endure the wrath of the hot comb and wait for my time to come.
Sometimes, during the summer, we had church outside under a tent with chairs spread underneath it. The heat inside the church would be so unbearable that the direct beating of the sun outdoors somehow felt better. The summer meant that we were free temporarily and out on bond until we had to return back to school and to prearranged days. Momma made a new pitcher of fresh lemonade every morning, the house was cleaned, clothes washed, and breakfast prepared by time Sashay and I were awake. To this day, I still wonder how she did it. Momma’s day was well on its way when the rest of the world was just rolling out of bed. The house was usually awakened by the shaking of the screen door; no one ever knocked but just rattled our old wire screen until someone rushed to answer it. It was either some old woman from the church or a middle-aged man coming by to sit and have coffee with Momma. As a child, you never actually take in life’s beauty, but I always knew that Momma had something that I didn’t see in other women; a glow about her, making her set apart. I’ve come to realize that Momma was a beautiful woman from the smile on her face, on down to the way she stuck her chest out and arched her back when she walked, and to the way you couldn’t help but listen when she talked. The words she spoke were always as beautiful as the mouth they flowed from. We called the love-struck men that visited Momma her boyfriends, but she refused to agree that they were, even though the hint of pink emerging from underneath her cheeks wished differently. Momma and her guest sat on the porch while Sashay and I played in the sprinklers and with the water hose in the front yard. Momma always said not to listen in on “grown folk’s conversations”, but when she’d be talking and sitting on the porch, I’d watch her and observe everything she did, the way her mouth rounded out her words, and the way her eyes never left yours when you talked to her. Sometimes when me and Sashay played, I’d pretend to be Momma and I’d try to walk slow but still cover a lot of ground like she did, and make my hands cut through the air as I talked. Momma was who I would one day become if I continued to stay under her wing. If I kept practicing her moves, if I kept sitting by her in church, and understanding why she gave us the look when we did wrong, I’d allow her to mold me and make me the woman my momma was. It was all a part of her master plan. She knew one day I would understand what she was doing. She knew that in time I’d realize that my momma was instilling morals and the idea that I don’t have to accept the minimum that life hands to us, but to go far and beyond the average and create my own standards and live above them everyday.
It was then, the year of hot combs, watermelon, and Hello Kitty backpacks, that I lost my mother and the same year that I found out exactly who she was and who I longed to be when my time comes.
I mouthed the sentence I was to read silently and I prepared myself for another try. I was going to rattle off this sentence flawlessly. I was going to knock the socks off my speech therapist, and this would be the very last session I would have to attend. In fact, from this day forth, I was going to speak so effortlessly, so perfectly, that my amazing eloquence would almost surely set me on the path towards becoming the President. Yes, I was going to be the President.
“Um, Anant? You can go ahead now.”
Abruptly awakened from my reverie, I prepared to speak.
It was as if I had suddenly struck a wall. It was not as if I did not know what to say — I knew so well the texture, the composition of the verbal barrier that confronted me. Yet scaling that barrier was another matter altogether. I knew especially well the potential and possibilities that lay beyond this wall. If only I could cross to the other side.
* * *
A few months into kindergarten, I was placed in a speech therapy class at my elementary school. I was told that I had a speech impediment, namely a stuttering problem, which interfered with my ability to communicate with clarity. Every week, the speech therapist, Ms. Polly, would pull me out of class for our hour-long sessions.
Past the familiar library, past my beloved computer lab, I was taken to a cozy room, neatly tucked away in one of the forgotten corners of the elementary school. The walls, laden with inspirational posters and depictions of far away places, lulled me into soothing daydreams of a hopeful future.
Ms. Polly was a kindhearted individual who genuinely cared for my progress. Unfortunately, I didn’t take to her lessons with nearly the same enthusiasm as I did to the decorations on the wall. I felt embarrassed to be attending these sessions, singled out as the kid with “the problem.” To cope with the embarrassment, I convinced myself that I was never “really trying” even as I floundered through speech in daily life.
When my teacher used to ask questions of the class, I would mull long and hard over the perfect reply, anticipating any and all potential counter questions. The teacher would be impressed, and my classmates would be in awe. With a confident smirk, I would put my hand up, only to be reduced to the class laughingstock as I stuttered and stumbled before I could even start my elaborately planned response. I was the architect of the most magnificent ladders, but I could not climb past the first rung.
Despite my difficulties, my dreams persisted. There was no stuttering, no hesitation, when I was delivering the State of the Union Address or when I was giving my post-Superbowl interview.
As high school approached, I saw the opportunity to join the speech and debate team as the first step toward making my dreams come to fruition. My first few rounds, however, were very trying experiences. As I perused the judges’ comments on my ballots, the words of one judge — whose name I cannot remember — caught my attention. “It looks as if you have a lot of meaningful things to say. Take things more slowly — one step at a time.” Sure, it may seem simple, obvious even. But for me it made all the difference. For the first time in a long while, someone had seen me not as the hopeless kid with the speech problem, but instead as a capable kid with a special problem, a problem that I realized I could fix.
Now when I spoke, I didn’t think about what I was going to say five minutes later, the applause I was going to receive at the end, or the presidential address I was going to deliver in 40 years. My vast ocean of thoughts was channeled into a steadily flowing stream of consciousness. I would focus only on what I was to say at that moment and nothing more.
Of course, my mental adjustments were not met with immediate results. But as I continued to commit myself to this new perspective, I grew to love the communication arts and developed a special appreciation for the spoken word.
I haven’t discovered the cure for speech impediments, nor have I formulated some magical mindset for success. At heart, I am still a developing teenager, endlessly distracted by my own demons of ambition. What I have discovered, though, is a personal affirmation, my own meaningful reminder of one of life’s simple, yet Zen-filled truisms. Whether I’m making a speech, beginning a clarinet concerto, starting a research presentation, or even writing an essay, I can be sure of one thing:
It’s hard to climb a ladder if you’re only looking up.
by Jessica Colom
“Jutía. You have to be Jutía,” he punctured the silence as we entered the legendary town, shrine of my bedtime stories. “All the women in the family have been Ñañacas, but you’ll be Jutía like the men.”
Sticky with enthusiasm that first year, I arrived and the west, the north, and the east switched directions — giggling. I was to be the youngest in the Jutíos community, the granddaughter of the renowned artist and town idol “Cumba” Colom. My dad’s obsession with his natal town, Vueltas, had always been an amusing mystery for my 8-year-old, city-girl rationale, but the simplicity of it began unfolding in the gold paint vapors and scented sawdust erupting in joyful euphonies out of the warehouse, where the exotic float was being built. As we went downhill, I looked up, squinting my eyes in the morning shimmer, and admired, through my rainbowed eyelids, the fantastic adobe palace crowning the village. Squeezing our way through the miniature road, strange, tanned faces on terrace rocking chairs acknowledged me warmly, as if my surname were clearly spelled in the crevices of my eyes. I embraced the temporary life bestowed on the town by the festivities.
The house was white and high-roofed; grandmother almond trees grew behind it to indicate the way home, to indicate the right door otherwise undistinguishable from the continuous row of cottages, now blue, now white, now covered in mildew. I swung out of the car and ran into flaccid arms and a cotton head not much higher than mine. My grandma’s. She was a small white mouse, scurrying to mend, prepare, secure, and hold together the country house with the blue glossy ceiling, the house with the cracks between the white wooden planks through which the light flooded the bustling, summery atelier.
Luggage in one hand, my own hand on the other, my dad cooed to the limping parrot who pirated the shiny, paper-bag colored floor of the patio and threw my possessions between the two red columns with hanging pots of yellow poppies. We had to go “downtown.” We walked for two blocks in which he solemnly presented me to each of his half-centennial friends as “la nieta de Cumba Colom.” They replied with reciprocal solemn interest. It was a peculiar place in the middle of nowhere, where people seemed to have a common understanding of things conveyed by the position of one’s shoulders, where foreign things were worshiped, where I obtained my one superstition: I’ll never get married if my feet are swept on.
The chassis of the float was placed on the main street, encircled by steaming kiosks selling bread with pork and tamale, and crowded ice cream machines that trailed melted pink and brown. Echoes of hammers, sweaty men laughing a sugar-cane laughter, and the exclamations of the people, as piece by piece the exotic float was assembled on the chassis all at once, reverberated on the 300-year-old church’s walls, threatening its existence with zestful, folkloric vibrations. A hundred meters apart, down the same street, stood the enemy float. They had been rivaling for 97 years then. For the Jutíos, the Jutíos always won. The Ñañacos, for their part, asserted they had been, undoubtedly, the winners every year. It did not even matter. Although comparsas flip-flopped through the streets representing their neighborhood, and shiny posters with insignias like “Ñañacos are going down,” or “Fear the Jutía” hovered above us, the crowd joined either of the groups joyfully.
As I was led away from this circadian scenario, we passed the desolate cemetery. My dad seemed to know no one in there. He smiled in his enthusiasm and got submerged in a conversation about how, as a kid, he used to steal cupcakes from the Chinese baker “el Chino Pinto” who didn’t know his way back home because the north, the west, and the south had switched places for him, too, when he arrived in the town. We passed the precarious houses with red roof tiles, blackened by past stories of led astray, descending remnants of fireworks. He showed me the white sand road that led to “The River of the Mocho” where so many times el Mocho, a very short, one-armed man who decided to own the river and make its bushes his home, chased him and the rest of the candy-and-pie-stealers gang, shrieking in his purple fury: “It’s you with your dirty feet who are making the waters turbid!!” We passed by silent streets where famished dogs were overlooked because the boastful crowd, carousing two or three blocks away, muffled the wails of their hunger. He showed me the place where the church of his infancy had been, reminiscing with cheerful nostalgia about the day he entered the raw oak doors, his hat folded in his 18-year-old hands, to ask God’s forgiveness for the last time. He said: “God, forgive me, but from now on I can’t believe in you anymore or I won’t be able to study.” The Revolution had triumphed then. Surely. We passed by white walls cornered by black-mold-covered houses, spelling in red letters falling apart with the whitewash: “Socialism or Death.”
We went back home as the night dragged and some fireworks, in the rising heat, could not resist the temptation to ignite themselves. “Do you want to go on the float?” They had prepared a disguise for me that fused with the other exotic visual delights. Long white-tulle tails embroidered with golden-vinyl trailed all around the house, the auric makeup scattering in the floor, bathing the soft dainty feet of the beautiful young women. Striking, sumptuous masquerades lost in feathers, rhinestones, and amalgams of glitzy colors, promenaded amongst manual Singer sewing machines, oil paintings of the defunct grandfather “Cumba”, with the float masterpieces of his creation spread out on the laps of reminiscing viejitas captured in photo albums dating from 1937 through 1991 like little bits of miracles. I could not understand at the moment why such a bright mind, autodidact pianist, autodidact English and French speaker, architect, painter, thinker had chosen the life of this town, to exist with it solely in the month of August. I could not understand these people, how they spent a whole-year’s saving on one night of luxury.
I rumbaed with the others out of the house toward the dazzling float that featured the theme “Una noche en el paraíso” (A Night in Paradise). The Ñañacos displayed an ice castle in a wintry, iridescent landscape. Lifelike characters that motioned arms, hips, and legs in a majestic fashion adorned the 30 meters of the gargantuan floats. From there I gaped at the crowds, not knowing which spectacle was more extraordinary, theirs or mine. They were glazed for an instant under the splendid light of thousands of handmade fireworks, installed in firework standers cramming four entire blocks by the valiant children who did not care to be blown to pieces by the gunpowder as long as the firework effect thrived. This was life. This was grandeur. No matter where you belonged, nothing could seem more lively and intense. Nothing was more worthwhile. The roofs were immersed in the balmy light of the fireworks, the houses elated by the explosions irradiating the commitment and effort of the people… He did well to stay there veiled by anonymity. Maybe the enchantment of the town was what spurred his genius. At 5:00 a.m., exhausted and overjoyed, I understood my father’s obsession. I welcomed the madness of every August.