AbuelitaBy Tony Robles
I didn’t notice her when I walked in. I’d walked past her restaurant hundreds of times, barely taking notice. I’d walked past the trees lining the street for years and hadn’t noticed them either. But I notice them now. The breeze tickles their branches—the tips of the branches point to the restaurant at the end of the block. I look at the faded sign. The blue had gone from ocean blue to sky blue–but still blue–and the people walking by in either direction added their own brush strokes, painted with the tongue of experience—the migrant Raza, the African descended, the youth, the Filipino elders—all holding the blueness and grayness and redness and blackness of sky together in struggle. How many times had I not noticed the stained window and worn paint? I had come far north from far south and far south from far north–yet I had no direction because I couldn’t see– couldn’t focus on the images mere inches from my face. When I looked into the window of her place, I saw my own face and it faded into hers and she smiled and the door opened.
I sat at the table whose legs were unsteady. Three legs were on the floor and one was slightly elevated. The table rocked, the legs hitting old tile like heels and canes. I looked at the walls. Painted on it was the ocean, a few palm trees and birds whose color held miracles. I ran my hand over the wall. I felt a crack in it. I felt the drops of water in my empty palm. The sound of the ocean washed over me. I looked and saw the fog rise from the kitchen. A menu sat in front of my face.
“I’ll take this one” I said to the short, slightly stout woman. She looked like the women I’d seen in some of the Pentecostal churches I’d walked past in the Mission, peeking inside while men in suits scanned Bibles, banged on tambourines or strummed guitars. She wore a dark dress, wool sweater and dark nylons. I pointed to an item on the menu: sopa de res—red soup. My grandmother used to make it but she called it boiled beef. The woman said something to me in Spanish which I don’t speak. I said “Si” and shook my head. She looked at me for a moment and smiled.
People tell me I look more Latino than Filipino. My uncle told me that when he was a kid in the late 50s he was locked up in a youth prison. The Chicanos would speak Spanish to him and he would look at them. He only spoke English and the Raza cats would ask him why he was cliquing with the blacks. My uncle would say, “Them is my people ese`…I’m a Filipino but I’m a black Filipino from Fillmore. Don’t get confused ese`…I ain’t one of you”. My Uncle was full-blooded Filipino but he looked Latino on some days, black on others. When we get together in the Mission, people speak Spanish to both of us. “Si” we both say, shaking our heads and laughing.
The woman disappeared into the kitchen. Her face was hidden by pots and pans and dishes. How many times had she looked into those pots and pans and plates and seen her children and grandchildren’s reflection? She quietly did what she had done for many—nourishing and providing—a portion of love, a portion of rain, a bit of sadness, tragedy—rising up like the ocean painted on her wall.
Outside, the world goes by. The trees on the sidewalk are there—they see us. Inside I wait and she emerges. In her hands is a tray. It is heavy and full and she wavers from side to side, her legs unsteady. She looks like she’ll fall–topple over in the indifferent breeze of some metallic automobile. I see the bowl of sopa de res on the floor. I conjure images of blood and bone and the innards of everything she is. It is my lack of faith that makes me think this, a heart lacking the deep marrow of experience. I want to help her, to take the tray or help steady it. It is the Filipino in my blood that cries out to my hands to give of themselves. But I can’t move. I can only sit and watch her carry that tray with all the love and poems and songs in the world, inside a bowl of sopa de res. She brings down every border with every footstep. She places the food in front of me. She walks away and comes back with tortillas. The soup bone and corn and plantain have risen to the top. The legs of the table are firmly on the floor. The Abuelita walks back to the kitchen. She hums to herself. The Filipino in me waits for her to finish. My ears are filled with the sound…abuelita…abuelita…abuelita. Then I eat.
© 2010 Tony Robles