In many ways, my grandmother was the heart and soul of our large family. She was extremely funny and always had a story or joke to tell every time we met. Her stories and jokes were mostly from her experiences as a child growing up into a woman in rural Cuba. Such stories helped shape the woman and the mother she would become. From her stories, it was easy to glean some of the values she had instilled in her children and grandchildren.
My grandmother was born in Boston, Massachusetts to a seamstress and a librarian. She was the third born in a family of six. She often told us how her elder brothers use to bully her at home but if someone else tried to do it in school, they were quickly given a thorough beating. One particular story involves her brothers hiding her only pair of shoes so that she would be late for school. When she finally arrived at the school, she was chastised for her lateness and consequently the other kids began to make fun of her. One of her brothers found her sobbing in the school playground as children kept poking jokes at her misfortune. Suffice to say that her classmates were extremely sorry to her after her brothers had had their way with them. Throughout her childhood and adulthood, her two elder brothers were her constant bodyguards ensuring that no one hurt her.
By the time she was 13, my grandmother and her family had moved to Cuba probably because of the strong family roots that they had in the country. The way my grandmother put it, everything in Cuba was a complete culture shock for her and her siblings and even for their parents. They had moved to Cuba right after the Cuban revolution to be closer to family as well as to take advantage of some of the gains made due to the revolution.
According to her, the first 15 or so years after the revolution were her proudest years in Cuba. Prior to living here, she hardly knew anything about her people or their rich culture and heritage. She had grown accustomed to being made fun of in American schools due to her culture. There was a point she even felt disdain for the Cuban culture. However, going back to the country help her re-unite with her traditions and what it really means to be Cuban.
Sadly, my grandmother and her siblings could not continue with her education due to the death of her seamstress mother. My great-grandfather was unable to cater to all the needs of the six children and the eldest children had to fend for themselves. My grandmother has always told us about the value of education and it is quite clear that she was saddened she could not continue with her education. She always told me that she wanted to be a nurse like Florence Nightingale when she grew up. Unfortunately, fate had other plans for my grandmother.
For a while, her two elder brothers took care of her and they even rented a small apartment in a rural Cuban city. Her brothers worked at a small milling firm and from their meager earnings, they would provide her with her basic needs. However, she began to feel the need to take care of herself and supplement her brothers’ income. Thus, she looked for work all over the town and landed a cooking job for a military family.
My grandmother is an exceptional cook and from the stories from other family members, it is clear that her cooking earned her praise everywhere. Many of my close relatives believe that her cooking is probably the reason that the eldest son in the military family offered to marry her. The proposal came as a surprise to many mainly because of the difference in social classes of the two lovebirds. Furthermore, my grandmother was such a petite woman it would have been difficult to pick her out in a room full of average height beautiful women. Nonetheless, the two got married and soon after had their first bundle of joy.
Her husband pulled some strings and was able to move his new family back to the States. He did not like Cuba very much and feared for the safety of his new wife and child due to his family’s connection with the previous regime. The move depressed my grandmother as she had begun identifying with and relishing the thought of being Cuban. However, her sadness soon dissipated when she landed a job that most people would only dream of at the time, a hand model.
Her husband saw an advertisement looking for hand models in the newspaper. He begged her to try it hoping that the experience would cheer her up about moving back to the States. She reluctantly agreed and within five minutes of the audition, she was handed the job. She went on to become a lucrative hand model for more than 10 years after which she retired to focus on her one true passion; cooking.
My grandmother was a wonderful cook who loved to showcase her culinary skills in almost every family event. She has baked a cake for every single birthday of mine ever since I was a baby. In addition, all our family holidays were spent in her house where she would serve one delicious meal after another. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to know and learn from my grandmother. I will gladly continue using her recipes for both food and happiness for the rest of my life.