How Abuela Taught Me To Love With My Hands

We sit at the dinner table in abuela’s house, our heads down. Focused on the task at hand, it would look like we are praying if it weren’t for the steady sounds of plátano to guayo, the crinkle, and tear of aluminum foil, the “pásamelo pa’cá” and “échale más, sin miedo”. Hands sticky with plátano, moving in unison, following a muscle memory so old it’s holy, 11 of us Cortés Acevedo women make pasteles. I am achingly aware that this moment will not happen again for a long time and yet, we’ve been here before: we are sitting at a threshold and there are other timeless women making pastels with us. Abuela catches my eye and smiles like she knows.

Abuela tiene mano santa, is what mami always tells me.

CREDIT: Stephanie N. Stoddard Cortés

Anything she touches grows. If a tree doesn’t bear fruit, Abuela places her hands on its trunk, talks to it, and has even been known to stick a nail into it too. A few weeks later, we have cerezas, the West Indies Cherry. Now, a month shy of turning 92, Abuela’s hands tell the story of her life. They are brown, mapped with thick protruding veins, swelling scars, and calluses that can be traced to el campo de Moca, Puerto Rico, Barrio Naranjo, where she was born and raised. Abuela is the second of 13 children and because of this, was never allowed to go to school. Her eyes always seem to drift whenever I ask her about this, like she is reliving all the times she begged her parents to let her go to school. “Yo lloraba,”  she tells me, sometimes elongating the second syllable and others, a dry, cutting utterance signaling the conversation ends there. Her parents never relented, not even when teachers came to ask on her behalf. Abuela was to help with daily chores like cooking, tending to her younger brothers and sisters, and sowing the land because whatever they farmed, they ate: Arroz criollo, plátano, yautía, yuca, batata, ñame, malanga, habichuelas, maní, maíz, café, frutas…“de to,” she says with a smile. I thought that because she wasn’t given the opportunity to go to school, she might resent the land, but instead, she found solace in it; learned its sacred language and translated its magic through cooking.

Una jíbara del campo, Abuela took her love of land and cooking wherever she went.

CREDIT: Stephanie N. Stoddard Cortés

One of my fondest memories is seeing her donned in a half apron and a bandana, holding a big bowl to her hip while picking gandules fresh off the tree, under a relentless sun. When the time came to peel them, my eyes would follow her hands’ every movement, which was monotonous, but comforting. Wanting to participate in what I deemed a very adult activity, the next time I saw Abuela heading outside with a bowl at her hip, I asked if I could help. After picking the gandules, we sat there to peel them mostly in silence, a nod of ascent that I was doing it right, an occasional humming or Ave María slipped from her lips, and always the rhythmic process of grabbing a Pigeon Pea pod, feeling its rough almost hairy shell, putting my nails at its center and gently pulling it in opposite directions. Inside, I’d see 4 to 6 green little gandules; they looked cozy in there like they were sleeping.

After the wonder of la cosecha, came the magic of cooking, Abuela’s domain. She soaked the rice for quite a while and then washed it thoroughly. Later, in a series of quick motions, she’d put it in a pot, with water, olive oil and salt. No measuring cups, only the muscle memory her hands inherited from her mother and her mother from her mother before her and so on. After all the ingredients were in, she’d disappear for a moment and return with a leaf from the plantain tree, wash it, and put it on the rice before covering it. At this point, kid me was either watching TV or reading when suddenly Abuela called me to the table to eat fresh arroz con gandules. I’d help with the dishes and that was that: Barriga llena, corazón contento.

When Abuela cooks and overfeeds me, when she teaches me things without saying a word, I know she is telling me she loves me in the ways she knows how.

CREDIT: Stephanie N. Stoddard Cortés

I feel it with every bite, every motion in the kitchen she slows down so that I catch it, the dollar she sneaks into my hand “pa que te compares un dulce”.

In a way it is hard to write about her. Like visiting her these past few years, it feels like I am saying goodbye, that she is dancing on that fine line we are thrust upon the moment we are born, and her physical body will one day—a day a lot closer to this one than I would like to admit or think about— vanish from the chair in la marquesina where we used to peel gandules together. Abuela is the pillar of my family: her house is the center that holds, a beating heart with rooms as ventricles, and the blood as us—as her, coming and going and coming and going. Going. This too might be a love letter to her, mi Abuela Natalia. La corazón de niña y mano santa.

Somehow, I always come back to her hands: their weight on my shoulder; tucking her short hair behind her ears; holding and praying the rosary; her small wave as she waits by the front door after we’ve left until she can’t see us waving back or mami’s car anymore. It’s always the details with Abuela. Growing up, at some point, I stopped being verbally affectionate towards my father and mother. I stopped saying the “te quiero” that marked, or at least in my imagination marked, getting out of the car and into school. But now that I think about it, Abuela taught me that sometimes you don’t have to say it if it’s too hard. Your hands speak for you too. Hands can be gentle, nourishing, loving–and they can hurt too (she knows this well). And so for all the drama that comes with being a teenager, for all the despair and isolation that comes from growing up in a dysfunctional home, I still went to tennis practice with Papi and gripped my racket, one of the most important things to him. I still baked Mami brownies or cake whenever she wanted something sweet. I still woke my sister up in the middle of the night because I’d had a nightmare but pretended it was “ants on my bed again”, only to squeeze together in a twin bed, all lanky arms and legs bumping together. Not to mention how important my connection with nature is, which I inherited from Abuela and our jíbara roots.

I don’t know if Abuela knows she is a Ceiba tree, that her roots are so big and long and strong they transcend space and time; that she taught me so many things without having to utter a word or go to school. The next time I see her I will tell her: Abuela, I love your hands and I know your hands love me.

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