Part 22: If Wishes Were Horses
Hunger has no law; it’s just hungry.
- Honduran proverb
It has been a while since I put pen to paper. Looking back I know I’ve written those words more than once but it is as true now as it was the first time or two I wrote them. I could wish for more time but it is a commodity in short supply and it isn’t the only one. We have all been so incredibly busy. I just finished taking another pot of hot ginger and honey tea out to Mateo and Roy. Mateo told me to go to bed but I worry about them out there on a night like tonight as much as he now worries about me. The nights are so much cooler than they should be but we’ve learned to deal with it except tonight, my one reason for having the extra time since I’m prevented from doing any kind of outdoor work, an icy drizzle has been added to the misery and it is only mid-November for goodness sake.
It should have been Roy and Robert on guard duty this evening but Robert’s leg isn’t up to all of the walking yet and the last thing the boy needs is to catch a chill. A dunking in a cold, wet puddle is the last thing he needs. I wish … but I’m getting ahead of myself. I always seem to be running ahead of myself and wishing for things to either hurry up or slow down or … there I go again.
It has been both easier and harder than I expected to integrate Lena and the children into our lives. There was definitely a learning curve involved for all of us but overall things could have gone much worse. My worry over adding all of the extra mouths was justified but we’ve managed to work things out and ration the “exotic” supplies we can reproduce. That doesn’t mean we can be complacent; far from it. But the physical logistics have actually been easier to manage - despite their urgency and threat - than the emotional and mental ones were at first.
After about a week with the kids I began to feel like I was losing something in the translation. There was no one thing that I could put a definitive finger on and eventually I realized it wasn’t the children at all. It took me a while but I finally realized that it was Lena and she was trying to guide the children into accepting Mateo and I as parental figures as she took less and less of a role in their daily lives. It was the children reacting to this subliminal message that had been causing the problems.
“Lena, just please tell me why. This really … forgive me but this makes no sense to me,” I said when finally feeling forced to confront her over the issue. I didn’t want to get into an argument with her but it was beginning to have an adverse affect on the children’s behavior whether they understood what was going on or not.
Smiling almost beatifically, like some saint of old, she said, “Leah, I’m an old woman. We both know how fragile life is. I don’t have much time left on this earth. Annie and Roy, regardless of what they believe, are too young to hold this family together without some help. I see you and Mateo as their best hope. You have far exceeded my prayers.”
Stunned at having my suspicions confirmed it took me a moment to form an acceptable reply that was at the same time polite. “So, you’re just going to give up the ghost and leave them to their own devices … after all that those kids have already lost you’re … you … I don’t even know what to call it. No one can just come along and fill your shoes Lena. Mateo and I are little more than strangers to them. Don’t do this to them … please.”
She was adamant that she was doing what was right. I was just as adamant that giving up was far from the right thing to do. Neither one of us budged. I was very tempted to make a scene but I controlled myself which is probably one of the more difficult things I have ever done. I was already tired, under stress, and worried – as everyone was but I was also dealing with something more personal and unplanned. What I didn’t know was that Roy had overheard us and then run to Annie who then caught up with me as I was in the middle of trying to find Mateo so I had someone to vent to.
Annie was not happy. “Is it true?” she demanded.
“Annie, not … look I’m … I need to talk to Mateo and …”
“Is … it … true?” she demanded once again.
I was pretty upset and wasn’t paying enough attention. I huffed and asked, “Is what true?”
She grabbed my arm; she was a couple of inches taller than me so the move could have been mistaken as aggressive though she was just trying to get my full attention. “Roy said that Abuela thinks she is dying and she is trying to talk you and Mateo into … into …”
A bright bulb flashed on in my head and I tried to pull myself together enough to address the upset young woman in front of me. “Annie, I’ll be honest and say I’m not sure what your grandmother thinks she is accomplishing. You kids need her. I mean I understand that she is … is afraid but how she is going about it … I’m … I’m not …”
Annie registered that I was nearly as upset as she was but she took it for the wrong reason. In a hoarse and emotion-filled voice she said, “You don’t have to worry. You aren’t going to get saddled with us.”
I’ve got a temper of my own and I’d used up just about all my quota of patience. “Annie, will you just for once give me some credit?! This has nothing to do with worrying about being ‘saddled’ with you and your siblings and everything to do with me trying not to be furious at your grandmother. I don’t know if it is a cultural thing or not but to me what she is talking about is … is abandoning you, tantamount almost to suicide. Haven’t you kids suffered enough? Losing her, now, when you’ve finally got someplace stable and relatively safe to try and recoup and regroup …. Look, I know she is your grandmother and I’m trying very hard to … to be respectful for your sake … but this is just about beyond my ability to be polite about.”
I stood there breathing harder than I had any reason to need to, staring at Annie so hard, willing her to understand that I was upset for them and not at them. When she all but threw herself into my arms I nearly pitched backwards in surprise and alarm. “Annie? Honey?”
“I thought I was the only one that saw it. I thought I was the only one that … that … cared.”
Poor kid. I hadn’t given her enough credit. Getting wrapped up in my own feelings I had forgotten hers. She was old enough that she probably had seen what was going on and her grandmother had probably even been dropping broad hints. I saw Roy standing in the tall grass looking shocked, whether at what he’d heard his grandmother say or at Annie’s sudden folding I never did find out. I called him over and he helped me get his very shook up sister over to one of the many benches I’d placed around our property.
Trying to address emotional teenagers wasn’t new to me but it had been a while and never over a subject quite so touchy and potentially volatile. “Roy, Annie … your grandmother only wants what’s best for you and you both know that. I think however we need to forgive her for the way she is going about it. The whole lot of you have a home here for as long as you want one so don’t worry about that part of it – Mateo and I gave you our word and we stick to our word – but we need to figure out some way to keep your grandmother engaged in what is going on around here, not let her disengage and fade away, even if it is by choice. I’m to the point I wouldn’t even mind if that meant guilting her into it even though that isn’t a good long term solution.”
Roy caught on before Annie did. “She likes the goats. At dinner you’ve said that you keep meaning to try stuff with the goat milk but you’re afraid of wasting it on experiments. I heard her say a couple of times it isn’t as hard as you are making it out to be and you shouldn’t be so scared to try. Maybe we could … you know … get her to like be a teacher or something. She could teach you, Annie, and Nydia; and Sylvie might like it too since she’s trying to learn to do everything that Nydia already knows how to do.”
I sighed in relief and no small amount of gratitude and told him, “Roy, that’s exactly what I mean and that’s a really good idea. Annie, what do you think?”
She rubbed her eyes and said, “I think Abuela will figure out what we are trying to do before we even try and do it.”
She had a point but I wasn’t ready to give up yet. “Perhaps,” I agreed. “But we can’t just sit around doing nothing.”
And we didn’t. It took a couple of tries but we eventually did get Lena to cooperate and apparently to her own surprise she had a lot left to teach. Turns out I was on the right track with the goat cheese, I was just a little too careful and over handled the curds making them tough. She told me I worried over things too much and I remember my mother telling me essentially the same thing on several different occasions. In addition to the goat cheese she showed me how to make goat ricotta which was a very welcome addition. We will need some type of refrigeration if we are to save enough cream from the goat milk to make butter in the future because it takes about five gallons of goat milk to make one pint of cream. Mateo has been fooling around with one of the storage containers that Tag’s people helped to move to our homestead. It was formally a refrigerated storage locker and it still has all of the appropriate gas lines, etc. in the container walls. If he can just find a few more things he thinks he can create a small walk-in cooler. I’m afraid of getting my hopes up and since he only has a limited time to work on the project we may be waiting a while yet even if he can tinker his creation into existence. Mateo laughed and said he’d travelled a strange path to get from desk bound white collar investment manager to mad magician trying to turn illusion into reality. In all honesty I was just glad I was no longer only one trying to pull a rabbit out of my hat.
In addition to the goats Lena started remembering some of the things that she had been taught by the elders in the village she grew up in. Originally it was just something she did to keep the younger children occupied but the results really were useful and quite pretty in my opinion. She wove banana bark baskets and bowls from the banana trees that had pretty much given up the ghost due to the change in weather. We still had some that we are protecting but I wish that we had some way to keep the enclosures heated. Lena was also teaching anyone who cared to learn how to crochet. I already knew how but her suggestion of pulling the threads out of old rugs and other things in the rag bags was nothing short of brilliant. Dismantling the rugs and other things gave my hands something to do when it got too dark to actually sew. Nydia and Sylvie seemed to enjoy the handcrafts so I taught them how to weave palmetto fronds into baskets and mats and they went at it with such gusto I was beginning to wonder if we’d have any palmetto fronds left or would they all be nude by the time cold weather arrived.
Along with the crocheting Lena recognized some plants that would be useful if we can save them and then cultivate them when the weather warmed up. In the yard with the bamboo she found a large patch of jute and we gathered as many of the plants as we could, planted them in pots, and then placed them in the greenhouse. Apparently jute can be used to make twine and thread but it can also be eaten and is very nutritious. Color me surprised. I guess you can learn something new every day.
It wasn’t just the girls that Lena taught new tricks to. She taught Mateo and Roy how to make Guaro from sugar cane. I wasn’t too thrilled about that when I found out but Mateo said it would make for good trade goods if we could continue to increase our cane fields. For those that don’t know, Guaro is one of the primary alcoholic beverages in Central and South America and will flat out put you on your backside if you aren’t prepared for the punch. Because it is just a sweet liquor, the power of it will sneak up on you … or so claimed Mateo. When I asked him how he knew he would only mumble something about a misspent youthful summer. Uh huh. Sure. Accepting the inevitable I asked him how we would make this “nectar of the plantation” if the winter ruined our crop but he just shrugged and said then we would do something different but he expects the weather to go back to normal in a year or two. I’m more practical. I figure by raising cane in the green house we’ll at least have a starter crop if things ever do return to normal.
Annie and I received the best of the recipes that Lena remembered from her youth. A Plaintain Soup that was made from plaintains that were still firm and green was a rare treat. The silky texture of the soup was just perfect. We also made Horchata which is a kind of rice milk only … not. It is a sweet drink and I thought the kids were going to go nuts begging for more. Even Mateo had a hard time being content with his small portion one night when we served it with a bowl of popcorn. I’d make it more regularly but I’m being forced by circumstances to closely monitor how much rice we use; that is one thing I haven’t got the foggiest idea how to grow to replace what we use.
I was especially pleased to learn how to make Nacatamales; they are similar to Mexican tamales but instead of corn husks you use banana leaves. Making the Nacatamales was work so they’ve been reserved for Sunday meals. They also use six cups of masa harina at a time which is another reason why we reserve them for occasionally meals instead of every day fare. You take six cups of masa harina, one cup of lard or shortening, and a tablespoon of salt and mix together in a bowl until you have something with a mealy texture. After this stage you are going to add a half cup of sour orange juice (which I canned in abundance for marinating wild meat to make it palatable) and four or five cups of chicken stock which I made from granules. Mix this until you get a soft, moist dough. I got my hand whacked lightly with a wooden spoon for beating up the dough. Lena said, “Softly my dear, softly. We want fluffy, not hard and chewy.”
I can’t say I was pleased with her teaching methods but I smiled in spite of myself because she reminded me a bit of my mother when she would fuss at me over how I made my biscuit dough. “Your daddy is going to break a tooth on those biscuits girl if you don’t ease up.”
Once you get your “fluffy” dough, cover it and set it aside for about thirty minutes and move on to the next step. You take your meat – it was supposed to be pork but we use whatever we have on hand which recently has been an odd combination of things – and season it (need about three pounds worth). Add in three quarter cups of cooked rice, and a mix of whatever vegetables we have on hand and then whatever mint perks things up. Now comes the fun part.
Lay out a banana leaf square with the smooth side up. Place one cup of the masa in the middle of the banana leaf and, using wetted hands, spread it out a little. Put about 1/2 cup of your meat on top of the masa and sprinkle 1 or 2 tablespoons of rice over it. Lay 1 or 2 slices of vegetable on top of that and then top with 1 or 2 pieces of onion, 1 or 2 pieces of pepper and a slice of tomato or something along those lines. Top it all off with a few mint leaves.
Fold the top edge of the banana leaf down over the filling. Bring the bottom edge of the banana leaf up over this. Then fold in both sides to make a rectangular package. Be careful not to wrap it too tightly or the filling will squeeze out. Flip the package over so it is seam side down.
Set the nacatamales in the middle of an aluminum foil square and wrap it up tightly the same way you wrapped up the banana leaf. We reuse the aluminum foil as much as we can but I can foresee needing to find some way to tie the packet shut at some point. Set the packet aside and repeat with the remaining ingredients to make ten to twelve nacatamales in total.
Add 2 or 3 inches of water to a pot large enough to hold all the nacatamales. (You may have to use two pots if you don't have one big enough to hold the nacatamales in one batch.) Place a rack in the bottom or toss in enough wadded up aluminum foil to hold the nacatamales mostly out of the water. Add the nacatamales and bring to a boil over high heat. Cover tightly, reduce heat to low and steam for 3 to 4 hours. Add more water as needed to keep the pot from boiling dry. When the packets are done steaming remove the nacatamales from the pot, take off their aluminum foil covering and serve hot. Each diner opens the banana leaf on his or her own nacatamale before eating.
One of the best and most appreciated things that Lena taught me to make is called Vinagre de Pina or Pineapple Vinegar. And the best thing about this particular recipe is that it used the scraps of pineapples rather than the whole ones. You start by taking the peelings and trimmings of one pineapple and chop them up good. Next you gather three quarter cups of piloncillo or dark brown sugar and one and one-half quarts of water. The method is you clean a large glass container with hot soapy water and rinse it out well. Add the pineapple trimmings, piloncillo or brown sugar and water and stir with a clean spoon to dissolve the sugar. Next you cover the container with plastic wrap and a lid and set in a warm, dark place for about 4 to 6 weeks. The liquid will turn murky and brown at first. But as time passes, any solids will settle out and the liquid will clear. Once the liquid has cleared, strain the solids out of the vinegar by pouring it through several layers of cheesecloth or through a coffee filter. Store in a clean bottle away from light and in a cool place.
After the vinegar is strained and stored, it may eventually develop a gelatinous mass that either sits at the bottom or floats at the top. This is called the "mother" of the vinegar (madre de vinagre), and it is harmless. If you start a new batch of vinegar, make sure to include some of the "mother" from the old batch to keep help it develop.
I’ll admit that not everything Lena cooked thrilled me. I was never a fan of what my parents called chittlins … more properly known by the name of chitterlings or tripe. But beggars can’t be choosers and I just don’t look too closely on those nights we fix Sopa de Mondongo. Translated into English it is called Tripe Soup. Ugh. I did get to get out of the job of cleaning the tripe, but that is another story.
Lena wasn’t the only one teaching either. Mateo and I got the boys helping to build our defensive wall as soon as they were no longer needed to clean and organize their new home. I have to admit, while Roy’s mouth will sometimes outpace his commonsense, he’ll work until he drops … literally. Because of this Mateo had to keep a close eye on him at first and finally, in desperation, told him he had to be more careful because the younger boys looked to him as an example. We all needed to stay safe and healthy and even a willingness to work so hard didn’t mean he actually had to perform to that extent if it put future labor at risk. After Mateo explained that to him – something about the law of diminishing returns from the way it sounded - neither one of us was quite so worried though Annie and I always made sure that water or other hydrating drinks were close at hand.
I also made an arbitrary rule that made the kids think I was crazy at first. I told them that they had to read something every week. They were free to borrow from my personal library but that we would discuss whatever it was they read on Sunday afternoons. The younger ones that couldn’t read would receive lessons to remedy this. Yes, it increased my workload yet again but I just couldn’t stand the idea of an entire generation of kids going ignorant when there was something I could do about it. And it has actually turned out to be an activity the kids look forward to; they all seem eager to take their turn sharing on Sundays. I usually fix a snack or drink and sometimes the discussions get pretty detailed. I’ve even caught a couple of them sneaking a peak into the dictionary when they don’t think I’m looking. They know they can and I won’t say boo about it but it has become a bit of a game to use new words to see if they can trip each other up during the afternoon discussions. They especially think it is funny if I have to stop and think about what a word means. Oh well, so long as they are learning and enjoying it I don’t mind being the butt end of the occasional good natured joke.
While Mateo and the boys worked on the wall Annie and I … with help from Lena and the youngest children … built several more raised beds. I used up all of our compost in the process and then resorted to skimming the local ponds and canals for algae and muck to mix in with the sand to try and build it up. Just as soon as we would finish a bed we’d plant it, mostly with beans but also with root crops, greens, and fast growing squash and cucumber varieties. The cool weather brought our planting to a close but I think we timed it just right and haven’t lost anything to the weather. I had to pull the bean plants and hang them to dry in the barn but I’d been doing that all along anyway. Between the beans and the peanut plants I had lines strung all over the place trying to keep them up off the ground so they would dry. What a mess that was, but at least it is helping to replenish my compost piles. We also divided the strawberry plants and I used some of Lena’s woven baskets to expand my potted herbs.
In near desperation and worry over the slow progress we were making enlarging our growing space I had Mateo and the boys spend a couple of days dragging as many bathtubs out of the other houses in the area and using them to grow things in. The fiberglass tubs were the easiest to move and they were also the easiest to drill drainage holes in. They are considerably ugly but in the end I simply tell myself that I don’t care so long as we can get food out of them. It just seemed that no matter what I did or what plans we made, we were playing catch up while still falling further and further behind.
And then by the end of September my worry proved justified and I had to confront Mateo.