Tía Mimí was lumpy. My tía Esther was fat. My father’s two sisters never married.
“You’ll grow up to be old maids like your aunts,” mami sang to Patricia and me.
“Julita doesn’t appreciate your wonderful papi,” they refrained. “Your mami’s spoiled,” they said. “She doesn’t deserve him.”
Our tías were surrogates for mami. One or the other would sleep at our house to help their brother Eddie when mami had to travel for treatment.
Tía Mimí with dark brown hair and eyes like mine had little bumps all over her body and her face. Most were no bigger than a pearl. Some grew to the size of marbles. They floated under her skin; I felt their softness when I held her hand. This was how she was, and no one talked about it.
Tía Esther, whiter than her sister with blue, luminous eyes, wore loose turquoise and pink dresses that landed below her fleshy knees with a pliable fabric belt made in the cloth of the dress. Tia Esther never removed the small diamond studs held tight at her ears.
My tías lived in a modest apartment on the second floor that pulled a good breeze through the ironwork and thin metal screens at the front, the curio cabinet, and out the kitchen window at the back. Tía Mimí had a rectangular table of cool white metal where she rolled the famous dough. Unlike other white women of her class, she worked. “Secretive like a Mason,” mami used to say, tía Mimí poured her heart into pastries that she made at home and sold to mothers and wives for their parties.
I learned to roll pastry with tía Mimí, to cut circles with the open end of a glass and to lift the perfect moons and place them gingerly–without pressing much–into the tiny metal pans. I was taught to drop a petite dollop of prune or pineapple or guava mixture into the center of each pan. After that tía Mimí would let me use the wavy rolling wheel to cut thin strips of remaining dough and place an “x” over the filled pans. Last, I dipped the tip of a fork into icy water and pressed the edges of the strips to link them gently to the dough underneath.
We filled large rectangular baking trays with rows and rows of the little tarts. Two pans at a time, tía Mimí bent down and placed them into the preheated oven. She knew exactly when they would be ready. But she always checked. When we sat at her table at the end of the afternoon, she would let me suck on the tangy pulp of tamarind seeds that we picked from the tree outside at the back. The sweet and sour sensation twisted my mouth in wincing delight.
Tía Esther studied nursing and became an RN, “no una práctica!” she insisted, wagging her finger at us. Tía Esther took care of other women’s babies at the hospital, accompanying the families home after the birth and taking care of children when their parents traveled. She was one of them–white people could trust her. Though tía Esther saw herself belonging to two distinct worlds, collecting old clothes and money for “mi gente,” the mestizo maids and ordinary people she encountered in the humble circles of her nursing work.
Tía Esther pierced our buttocks with the sharp points of medicinal syringes. She checked our throat with the thick paleta that tasted vaguely of orange as it pressed on our tongue and made us gag. “Never drink from someone else’s glass or take a bite of their fruit,” she warned us. “Don’t borrow panties from your friends and cousins,” she whispered.
My tías kept hundreds of tiny figures inside a four-tier wood cabinet with glass sides and shelves. They were the size of a fingernail or a single joint of a finger, maybe two, objects collected during tía Esther’s travels with her nursing colleagues or brought by friends who knew of their cherished cupboard. Diminutive people in porcelain, plastic, glass, and wood from Guatemala, Holland, Venice, Japan, Spain. Plates, forks, spoons, pies, cakes, washing board, easel with dots for paint, comb, shoes, dolls with tiny feet. My brother Carlitos, his small back curved like a “c,” could be still for hours, squinting his eyes, peering inside. Cowboy boots, watermelons, bananas, guavas, pineapples, chocolates with a cherry in a box, boy with marching drum, sail boats, airplanes, helicopter, horse, birds, snakes, dogs, cats, frog, donkey, kite, sling, beachball, baseball, bat.
Tía Mimí was just as proud of their treasure, although she never said an extra word. We saw tía Mimí push her younger sister with quiet. (Sometimes we heard them fight like cats.)
Tía Esther picked my sister, the first-born as her pet. “Patricia, mi preferida.” The breath got caught in my chest every time (and I didn’t like her). When she got excited, tía Esther’s voice would start high then break into miniature chirps, like the periquitos that my tías kept in a white cage next to the curio cabinet. When we heard this sound we knew there would be presents. One Christmas, tía Esther’s high-pitched call signaled something special, and we ran to the balcony where she was standing. There was a big smile on her face; she was clutching her purse. When the three of us were properly attentive, tía Esther twisted the snap of her purse with a flourish. She pulled out three thin booklets, each in a blue paper sleeve.
“Here’s Patricia’s.” Tía Esther slid one of the books from its sleeve. “See her name here? These are bankbooks. See the number five? I’ve put in five dollars for Patricia and for each of you. Every Christmas I will deposit another five; this will teach you about saving.”
From a drawer in her bedroom tía Esther pulled out a large cardboard box. She lifted the top and spread the white tissue to show us a beautiful pollera. I touched the white embroidered flounces of the festive dress. “You’ll get it dirty, Marlena.” She held up a smaller box full of tembleques, the loopy, beaded ornaments that a girl wearing a pollera would pin on her hair. She lifted a cadena chata, a long necklace, the metal parts flattened. “This one is real gold… de oro. This is my pollera made by the best artisans in the countryside. It’s for Patricia when she turns thirteen.”
Tía Esther unveiled the silver pieces that belonged to “my side of the family, your father’s side.”
(Tía Mimí, not so showy, became mine by reduction.)
Tía Esther tried to console me with empty words, “Marlena, you take no nonsense from your mother.” You belong to your mother. This is what tía Esther really meant. It made me want to defend mami.
“Don’t say that, tía Esther.”
Tía Esther, who could drive, motored us proudly down the streets of Panama in her bulky green Plymouth.
It wasn’t mami who took us to Regina cradling a thick fold of fabric to have our dresses made. That was tía Esther.
Tía Esther, fresh in her pink puffy skin, squeezed between the tubes of cloth that leaned crazily into the street in the sweltering tiendas de tela on Avenida Central. She thumbed through packets of dress patterns cut by Vogue or McCalls held losely in boxes, bodice and skirt quarters printed on thin yellow paper with skipping lines and dots for the pins when making pinzas under the bust (if you had a bust).
Regina, her pockmarked face next to my face, measured la talla, holding the soft yellow tape at the center of my shoulder line, drawing it down to my waist. Regina, who may have been from El Salvador, pinned the puzzle of sheer pattern pieces around me and cut the shoulder if it was too wide or added a slice of newspaper to make the skirt wider. I liked to feel the cold, curved edge of the scissors pressing against my skin when Regina cut a scoop around my neckline, dragging it on my chest and along my back. This was me.
Our guitar teacher spent our class time sliding his flat finger over the cords making us swoon at his music, plucking with his right on the strings of a classical guitar. He was serious and proper in his all-beige suit even though it was hot, his face and hands a yellowish dark, and he puffed on a cigar. He may have been Cuban. It was papi who organized this. I could hurl a flamenco song in a strong pure voice, Granada or La Virgen de La Macarena played at every bullfight, but I had no aptitude for the difficult work of pressing the plastic strings and denting my fingers red at the top of the guitar.
So I push a new wave of yellow skin with my thumbs. I pull in my breath to send strength to my fingers that catch on the silky straps of her gown. The skin mingles with the drooping gown. Mami is lying face down on the big bed, almost naked. Her face is turned to the louvered window and her right arm is twisted backwards. The red fingernails scrape little arcs on my knee. Today mami is a witch. If I don’t think or breathe I will disappear. Her flesh is clammy. It’s always clammy. There are specks of black on the top of her shoulders, “my freckles,” she remembers, as I press on them to send the muscle down. Her mouth is loose. In a few moments she will let out a snore that will startle me.
Shall I leave? Instead, I stare at the vials of yellow pills on the night table. I check the flesh on my own chewed fingers. I can give “un masaje delicioso,” mami says. I know it’s true. I also know that I am not mami. Why do I know this? Because I am not nervous. Because I work at lining up my thoughts.
Mami talks about her cuerpo all the time. Her mushy lungs and cancer or a lump on her teta or the muscle of her pumping heart or her ear-shaped kidneys or her scary tongue and the painted skin. It’s mami’s body against me.
An Interview With Marlena Baraf
by Streetlight editor Susan Shafarzek
What intrigued me most in this essay was the way it shows how family relationships affect identity. Can you say more about how you came to focus in that way?
When we are small humans starting in life we’re exposed to the world of our families. They help define who we are by responding to us in one way or another. But we may disagree as we get a little older and begin to measure ourselves against them. I found that I was very different from my mother. I was or I made myself to be as different from her as I could. But then, as a grown woman—and after writing a memoir—I’ve discovered that I have much more in common with her than I ever thought possible.
I want to add that maiden aunts were important. Do they still exist? Generally, they were not well protected by men. They could not fall back on the traditional roles of wives, keepers of the house, and mothers. They had to invent themselves and fight hard. Were they the first feminists? In my case they offered up views of women that were not typical.
The wonderfully detailed descriptions of food and clothing helped make this vivid for me. Can you speak more about what other aspects of this subject drew you to it?
The physicality of everything. The bodily sense of the tías—the fat and the bumps. The white skin of my aunt’s leg when she’d roll up a stocking to the middle of her thigh, the press of the elastic band against the bulging skin. I felt it viscerally. With my mother too. She would press with her thumb on her teeth to calm her anxiety. Because I both loved her and was resisting her, the sense of my mother’s body was the most difficult. The smell of these women too. But that lies deeper in the folds of memory and harder to call up.
My favorite tía had this other issue about the bumps. It was a genetic illness as I’ve discovered. The beauty of that—which I think I conveyed in the story—is that the condition never made me uncomfortable. My love for tía Mimí made the bumps inconsequential, almost invisible.
I gather that this is part of a longer work? Is it something you expect to have soon? Can you hint for us at what else will be in this memoir?
Skin is part of a memoir that I’ve pretty much completed. I’ve called it, At the Narrow Waist of the World, as it begins in the tiny isthmus of Panama and follows me to the big United States. Several excerpts have been published in literary magazines, and it was a finalist in a recent contest for publication with a respected, small press. So I’m hoping very soon to find a publisher. I am ready to see it out in the world.
In the memoir there’s the very early death of my beloved papi, and you will witness the beginning of a transformation within me as I move from one society and culture to another. It’s a coming of age story with a Spanish accent.Share this post with your friends.