Chapter Two from “The Other Island “
Mami doesn’t know that ten year old me has been noticing a permanent change in her mood, recently. She’s just finished hanging clothes out to dry on the clothes’ line that my father strung from our fire escape to the one just across the well formed by the backs of four buildings.
But, when she finished hanging out our laundry to dry, instead of crawling back through the window to the inside of our apartment —to the kitchen, really— she remained outside, on the fire escape, just staring off into space.
As I looked at her without her knowing that I was doing so, I remembered the apparently carefree pretty young mother who, back in El Coquí, happily chatted with her mother or with our neighbors Norma and Mrs. Saro, her mother.
I remembered the same independent woman who took me to my post-polio medical appointments in a different town, who took my two little brothers and me to the first-ever country fair in El Coquí —where she wouldn’t let us ride on any of the rides— who took me to my one-room school every day during that memorable first grade, and who allowed my brother José and me to have a carefree, independent childhood, roaming the dirt-paved roads of El Coquí and its parched-dirt and cactus-filled cattle fields where only a stray bull or two ever roamed.
That woman sitting there on the fire escape seemed not to understand the new culture and the new country in which she was now living. Actually, I think that she was afraid of that new culture and that new country, and I believe that she had secretly made up her mind not to accept them. She was in total denial and little by little, she was isolating herself from everything around her, except her immediate family.
The fact that we did not have a telephone didn’t help either —though I’m sure that if we had had one, it wouldn’t have made much difference since Mami had no one to call in the U.S. — and her only link to the outside world, to her former existence— were the letters that she wrote to her mother, my black grandmother Paula, who didn’t have a phone in her house in Puerto Rico either. Mami wrote to her mother once or twice a week.
I always understood that, during all the years that I lived with my parents, we never had a telephone because we simply could not afford the service. Consequently, I never missed that commodity. As a matter of fact, I grew somewhat apprehensive of telephones. To this day, some 58 years later, I rarely, if ever, call someone on the phone socially, and I continue to hesitate to use that contraption if there is even the slightest possibility that the matter can be handled by writing someone a letter. Or, more recently, an e-mail.
Adding to Mami’s isolation was the fact that she flat-out refused to learn English, even though she had thirty-seven and a half years in which to do so. Because of that, whenever she had to go anywhere and my father was not able to accompany her, either my little brother José, or I, would have to tag along as interpreters. More often than not, I was the interpreter; Mami’s oldest boy, her ten-year-old who was good at languages and who already spoke English fluently.
I didn’t mind accompanying my mother to all sorts of doctors’ appointments for my brothers or for her, and, strangely enough, neither did I mind it when, in order to accompany her somewhere, I was forced to miss a day of school. Nor did it bother me any longer when neither one of my parents would attend parent-teacher conferences. The following day, the teachers would tell me how sorry they were that my parents had not been able to talk to them, and how sad it was that they had not been able to tell Mr. or Mrs. Martínez what a good student their boy was.
“I’m sorry, too, Mrs. so-and-so, or Mr. so-and-so,” I would reply apologetically. Then, I would add:
“My father comes home tired from the factory where he works all day, and my mother… well, she doesn’t speak English.”
I don’t remember whether, after saying that, I would turn my face away from the teacher or not, but I suppose I probably did. Not that I felt ashamed of my parents or anything, but I feared that by never going to school to meet with my teachers, Mami and Papi were sending the wrong message: that they didn’t care about my education. They did care, but the possibility of appearing ridiculous or culturally insufficient were more than they could handle. I certainly never wanted to place them in such an embarrassing situation, and so, I opted for saying as little as possible about my parents in school. Who knows how many people felt that my parents must have been monsters; I didn’t care; I knew better, and I would protect them from all possible embarrassment. I was certain that none of my teachers could possibly understand what it must have been like to live in a very different country, not being comfortable with the language, knowing that they were different —foreigners in a foreign land— and, consequently, more isolated from everyone and everything than other citizens.
And so, as I come out of my reverie and I continue staring at the poor, lonely woman sitting there on the fire escape, it dawns on me that that the cold, impersonal monster that is New York City has begun taking a toll on one of the members of my immediate family. It’s begun with the lonely, tropical flower that is my mother, transported as she’s been to a hostile environment.
I’m only ten years old, and although I’ve caught a glimpse of the danger lurking nearby, I can’t imagine that things can get worse for my mother or my family. But they can, and they will.
I’m slowly beginning to comprehend that life is a series of ups and downs, one pleasant experience always followed by an unpleasant one. Or several.
When, two years previously, my little brothers José and Leo, my mother Gloria and I, boarded a Pan American Airways four-propeller plane, we had been all excited and happy because we were setting out on a first-in-a-lifetime adventure. Imagine! … leaving a small hamlet on the quiet southern shores of a small Caribbean island and traveling — to stay!— in one of the world’s largest and most cosmopolitan cities! Where they spoke a different language! Where it was sometimes cold! Where there was snow! Where you kept your windows shut most of the time! Where you spent more time indoors than outdoors!
That had been exciting, as had our first apartment in New York City’s “Little Italy.” The religious processions, the Italian so tantalizingly close to our own Spanish. The friendly crowds in the neighborhood streets. The delicious smells of food wafting in the air. Even, going grocery shopping with my white grandmother Leopolda.
Mami was happy then, too, because we lived upstairs from my grandmother’s apartment, which grandma shared with two grown-up daughters, my aunts, and my nine-year old girl cousin Chiqui. My two uncles also lived fairly close by. So, Mami had people to talk to, an extended family that reminded her of our Puerto Rico.
Yet, we only lived on Mulberry Street, in “Little Italy,” for about a year, if that long. After that, we moved to an unfriendly neighborhood close to Second Avenue, up in the upper East-Side of the city, where we stayed, I believe, for only six months.
From there, we had moved, yet once again, but this time to a nice, family-oriented neighborhood in mid-Manhattan, on Amsterdam Avenue, just around the corner from West 64th Street. The then soon-to-be future site of The Lincoln Center for The Performing Arts. That was the apartment where I first noticed my mother’s sorrow as she gazed out upon the bleak skies of New York City and the desolate landscape of the backs of mostly six-story high red-brick buildings.
It’s 1953, and about two months ago, Mom was sick for several weeks. German measles.
“Just my luck to get a childhood disease when I’m almost thirty,” she joked. Actually, she was not “almost thirty.” She was twenty-six years old. She had had me when she was sixteen.
We don’t normally all sit down at the table to eat together, at the same time.
“Your father needs to eat in peace. And, it’s one of the few times in the day when he and I get a chance to talk in private.”
That’s fine with José, Leo and me. We’re usually hungry before my father comes home from work, anyway, and we eat without waiting for him. When he comes from work, he washes up and then he sits down at the table to eat. My mother always sits down with him, even though she usually also eats before he returns.
And, they talk in low voices. Then, when he’s finished, my mother picks up the dishes Papi has used and she washes them. They exchange small talk about little things that happened at work that day. Finally, Papi opens up the large-format newspaper that he’s brought home folded under his arm, and he tries catching up on current events with his Journal American.
But not today. Today, he made my brothers and me sit at the table with him and my mother because he had something important to tell us.
“Boys, your mother’s going to have a baby!”
We are all excited, but we really don’t know what questions to ask. The last baby born to my parents was my little brother Leo, who had been born seven years before. So, we had no idea how we were supposed to react. What would it mean to have a little brother or sister who was born in New York City, not in Puerto Rico? Would it be a boy or a girl? In those pre-sonogram days, you actually had to wait until the baby was born in order to know its gender. And, what would it be like having a baby sister, if it was a girl? So far, all of my parents’ children had been boys.
We paid attention when Papi, with his very fair skin, his receding hairline, and his little rogue mustache, reminded us that from then on, we had to be especially nice and helpful to Mami, and we promised to do so without complaining. At least, my brother José and I promised; Leo was really too small to fully understand what had just been revealed to us.
Mami, was beaming, as was Papi. My brothers and I knew, of course, that nothing more would be said about the matter, because in the traditional Puerto Rican upbringing that we were receiving, parents didn’t share with their children anything even remotely intimate.
That evening —we had been given the news late on a Friday afternoon— Papi went to the local liquor store and he bought a bottle of 86-proof “Four Roses” bourbon whiskey, which he then drank all alone at the kitchen table between stanzas of “Bajo un palmar” (Beneath a Palm Tree), a romantic ballad by the Puerto Rican composer Pedro Flores.
It was on a beach on my beloved little island,
By the seashore…
A couple of hours later, when José and I had watched all the TV that we could in the living room, we opened up the folding sofa bed in which we slept, and we drifted off to sleep, listening, all the while, to my father’s liquor-soaked voice as he concluded, for the umpteenth time, the same Pedro Flores ballad.
Bajo un palmar,
Bajo un palmar,
Bajo un palmar,
When my parents brought him home from the hospital, everyone loved our little baby brother. Even I, who upon learning that Mami was pregnant had thought to myself “another unnecessary complication,” even I loved him. Actually, I loved him immensely from the moment that I saw him.
Before my brother José and I had a chance to ask “What’re we going to call him?” as if referring to a puppy that we had just bought, Papi proudly announced “Muchachos, this is Dionisio!”
José and I knew that the baby had been named for our paternal grandfather who died before we were born. And, as for the name, which we knew would not go over terribly well in English-speaking New York City… well, we both knew how to handle that. After all, José had the same linguistic ability that I did.
I knew what he was thinking when we heard the baby’s name for the first time. And he knew that I knew. So, it was only a matter of time before one of us verbalized it. I was sure that it would be José since he was always bolder than me. And, sure enough…
“Mom, can I hold… Dionny?”
My parents very willingly cradled our baby brother up in José’s arms, while hovering close by and ready to intervene to avoid any mishaps.
I, too, then held him in my arms. Such a sweet, angelic face! The name Dionny fit him to a tee. From that moment on, except at doctors’ offices and on official documents, he was Dionny to everyone, including to my parents.
For the next couple of weeks, we enjoyed our baby, we stared lovingly at him, and we observed how he grew even handsomer with each passing day. Our first sibling born in the continental U.S. had very light skin, comparable, perhaps, only to my father’s, but even lighter. And he had big, light chestnut-colored eyes. No one in our living family had that color eyes; my mother’s were coal black; José’s, Leo’s and mine, were all dark brown, and my father’s were dark green. Grandmother Leopolda had steely grey eyes, and the eyes on the rest of my uncles, aunts and cousins were dark brown.
Most interesting of all, our baby had blond hair! We knew, of course, that given the racial mixture possessed by most Puerto Ricans, that was always a distinct possibility, but still, it added to the mystique of this most beautiful baby. I looked up the name “Dionysus” at the school library, and I learned that the Greek god of wine and song was always portrayed as a beautiful young man with delicate features. It also occurred to me that our baby’s name might also have been based on that of the god Adonis. Either one, Dionysus or Adonis, was befitting: our new baby with the name of a Greek god was just as beautiful.
As the months wore on, my little brothers and I noticed an uncommon sadness come over both of our parents. I don’t know if my brother José noticed it as I did. He was two years younger. Neither do I know if he had the same strange feeling that I had; that our parents’ sudden sadness had something to do with Dionny. Before drifting off to sleep, on several occasions I had heard worried, hushed, night-time whispering coming from my parents’ room, and on more than one occasion, I had heard my mother crying.
One day, I went into the baby’s room and I stared down at him just lying there, in his crib. I looked at him lovingly for a long time. He had grown physically quite a bit. His long spindly limbs were active, and he was even more beautiful than before. I don’t know why, but that disturbed me profoundly. Something wasn’t right.
My hunch, which I’m sure my brother José shared, gained further support when, seven or eight months after coming home from the hospital, Dionny still did not crawl or sit up in his crib. He just lay there, looking more beautiful and more innocent all the time. José and I both also definitely noticed that our baby brother constantly flailed his arms and his legs in the air. And he turned his head to one side and then to the other, uncontrollably.
No one ever sat Leo, José or myself down and explained to us what had happened. We found out indirectly, by putting together bits and pieces of conversations that we overheard, and through comments by my paternal grandmother or my aunts —comments not meant for the little ears of Dionny’s brothers. No one ever told us that German measles during the early months of a woman’s pregnancy could lead to birth defects. That when the doctors first suspected something of the sort, they did tests on Mami. That in a mother and father conference with the obstetricians and gynecologists at the hospital, the physicians informed our parents that if the pregnancy was allowed to continue to term, it was almost one hundred per cent certain that the baby would be born with severe retardation and other possible birth defects.
No; no one told us that my parents had refused to have an abortion, knowing full-well what to expect. And, of course, what the doctors warned our parents about did, indeed, occur.
The baby’s first birthday came and went, and little Dionny grew physically… but in no other way. He had never crawled, he had never tried to sit up in his crib, and he had never uttered a single word. We all knew that he would never do any of those things; that he would be a baby for the rest of his life.
I did some more research at the school library, and I learned that severely retarded children often had the same angelic beauty that everyone saw on Dionny’s face.
For some reason, I remembered what must have been a very old saying that my none-too-religious father often quoted to his equally irreligious sons. Roughly translated it meant “God doesn’t give anyone a load they can’t bear.” I knew exactly what that saying meant, but for some reason, I always automatically also identified it with the phrase “The Lord Giveth, and The Lord Taketh.” However, I always transposed the clauses in that saying, and I substituted the conjunction “but” for “and.” I understood my father’s saying to mean that whenever God took something away from you, he always felt sorry and gave you more of something else. That would explain my little brother’s extraordinary beauty. It didn’t make my little brother’s condition any better, but it showed some pity on God’s part.
God’s feeling sorry for visiting terrible illnesses on innocent children and giving them more of something else also applied to me. My intelligence, my artistic talent and my tenacity were all consolation prizes for all the children’s games that I never played, for all the years of feeling somehow inferior to other children, and for having to go about feeling ashamed of my withered, match-stick legs. It sort of explained what had happened to my little brother and to me —but not really. In a way, I only felt somewhat vindicated with destiny much later on, in 1963, when at the college library, I picked up Robert Frost’s most recent book of poems and I read the book’s dedication. I was shocked that a sensitive poet capable of writing beautiful poems about walks in the winter woods and about taking the road less traveled could preface his book In The Clearing with the words: “Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee, and I’ll forgive Thy great big joke on me.” I knew exactly how he must have felt when he wrote those words.
Although I had been the first “casualty” in my immediate family when I came down with polio at age four, I didn’t really blame anyone because that had happened in Puerto Rico. It was New York City that was chewing up my family, one by one, and spitting out the shells. Dionny was not the indifferent city’s first victim; my mother had begun dying inside, emotionally, since shortly after our arrival in Manhattan. Dionny was certainly another victim of the city, and his condition contributed to my mother’s slowly wasting away inside, emotionally, a little more each day.
Neither would Dionny be the last member of my immediate family to be mauled by New York City and come to a tragic end. Before the city was through with us it would also tragically claim the life of my younger brother Leo —my youngest brother to be born in Puerto Rico and to have traveled with us to “the Big Apple” in 1951.
Chronologically, the third victim in my immediate family would be my father. Of course, he couldn’t let on that he was suffering inside —our culture frowned upon that kind of weakness in a man— but we all knew that he was hurting inside. We knew that his Friday and Saturday night solitary drinking binges were an attempt at a slow form of suicide.
As Dionny’s condition became more apparent, Papi’ssinging of the more upbeat songs by the Puerto Rican composer Rafael Hernández —songs such as “Little Oleander Bud” or his very romantic “A Scent of Gardenias”— changed to his singing stanzas of the same composer’s “Puerto Rican Lament,” as he downed his bottle of whiskey or his pint of ale:
Everything, everything’s deserted,
and people are dying
dying of need, oh!
dying of their need.
This lament is everywhere heard,
throughout my unfortunate Borinquén.
What will happen to Borinquén,
Oh, Dear Lord of mine?
What will happen to my children
and to my home?