I was an underweight Jersey girl. So skinny I could knot my underpants. “Pero, que nina flaca,” complained my grandmother one day.
I searched her eyes, looking for the remnants of weekend revelry, but Abuela’s rosy cheeks were scrubbed. Her eyes, sans makeup, were bright, eager to please.
When sober, Abuela mended her frequent offenses by cooking. She’d fling open the wooden cupboards in search of beans and rice determined to fatten me up.
Soon, the aromatic concoction of sofrito filled our small kitchen with the scent of garlic and cilantro.
Most weekends, Abuela failed to cook because she was nursing a hangover. Her penchant for Bacardi rum superseded family responsibilities.
Like a Caribbean pirate’s curse, Abuela’s appetite for Puerto Rican rum was ginormous and so I grew up despising that maldita botella.
On most Saturdays, like clockwork, Abuela’s portly guests arrived in their ill-fitting polyester garb, carrying half-pints of this and nips of that.
Blaring boleros wailed from Abuela’s corner record player as they shifted dominos into right and left angles, cackling and hee-hawing between shots, burning midnight oil.
Sometimes the muffled sounds of Spanish words got the best of my curiosity, so I crept down the stairs to gaze through the smoke haze. Abuela took notice of me and shooed me away with the flick of her hand and a Spanish word-of warning, “¡Subete para arriba!”
On some moons, a factory amante arrived.
A lover who’d sneak kisses. A lover who warmed her bed temporarily. One who’d smoothly manage to slip out the back door into the cold of night to return to good and wholesome.
With sleep still running through their veins, Abuela’s children awoke to her demands. Abuela called from her downstairs bedroom where we’d find her splayed across her pink satin sheets with matted hair strands stuck to her face begging for black coffee to cure her of her hangover.
Under Abuela’s roof, children didn’t get off scot-free. My task was to empty her foul-smelling chamber pot, filled with wads of swollen toilet paper. I seethed with anger as I flung the dirty pail to the upstairs bathroom.
A word exists amongst the Puerto Rican community called rebolú. It means problems or chaos.
Maybe it was my childhood experience with rebolú which led to my diminished appetite.
Rebolú was curse words. Rebolú was a back-talking uncle and the sole flip-flop which Abuela flung across the room. Rebolú was slammed doors and angry tears.
Rebolu was my oldest aunt fed up with Abuela’s drinking so she packed and moved to Atlantic City’s shore.
Abuela wasn’t a faithful church-goer, but it didn’t mean she failed to believe. She pinned her mint-colored rosary beads to her lampshade. She burned tall glass candles, genuflecting to wailing dark-skinned saints.
Abuela lived life like the thirsty Samaritan woman Jesus had met at the well. The one of failed marriages and lovers. Who filled her empty water jug when no one was else was watching. The one Jesus loved regardless.
Today, with eyes of grace, I understand why she anesthetized her pain with Bacardi. It’s the same reason why I’ll choose creature-comforts over what’s sensible or spiritual.
Rebolú is the unquenchable thirst we sometimes fill with everything, but God.
Through her quiet chaos, Abuela managed to comb the snarls out of my waist-length hair. She washed my clothes and hung them to dry.
She gifted me with the words of our ancestors, the sing-song cadence of island jibaras dreaming of better tomorrows, no matter the ache of their hearts.
-Si Dios quiere.
-Arroz con habichuelas.
-Tostones y sofrito.
Abuela loved us as best as she could and her attempts to atone for her shortcomings overshadowed the multitude of her offenses.
Eventually, she realized no amount of Puerto Rican rum could satiate her soul hunger. She finally sought medical treatment for her years of alcohol addiction.
Abuela understood the deep cistern of her thirst could only be satisfied by agua viva.
It’s the same living water we have at our disposal.
Spiritual water which quenches and stimulates a soul-hunger for righteous living.
Agua viva potent enough to kick rebolú to the curve.
May it well up inside us all…