Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving with the Rosarios

¡Hola mi Gente!
Thanksgiving, for very personal reasons, is one of my favorite times of the year. I love ritual of breaking bread together and honoring gratitude -- giving thanks. I’ve heard it said that gratitude negates sadness and that’s been my experience.
But I love Thanksgiving most of all because all the great childhood memories. The following is based on true events…
* * *

El Pavo (The Turkey)

[Note: an animal was harmed in the making of this post]

It really was too much -- embarrassing to the nth degree. Everybody on that 60 Wilson Bus was staring at us and the best my uncle could do was laugh that fuckin infectious, jolly laugh of his. He thought it was hilarious and, sensing my embarrassment, it made him laugh harder, causing the other passengers to stare more intently. 

There it was again, a movement from the cause of my embarrassment. You see, in Puerto Rican neighborhoods, it wasn’t uncommon to purchase live poultry from el vivero -- a marketplace selling live animals. Usually that entailed picking or asking for a particular chicken and the proprietor would take it out of its cage, go to the back and prepare it for you. 

But this was the day before Thanksgiving and my mother had insisted I accompany my uncle to the nearest vivero to buy a live turkey. At the time we were living in a then mostly African American Brooklyn neighborhood on East New York Avenue (right across the street from the back entrance of the Pitkin Theater) and the nearest vivero was a bus ride away. My uncle Onofre, Tío Nofrín, was already in his cups though it was still early in the day, and he insisted in a live turkey to take home. This was unusual, I thought at the time, because normally we would tell el vivero to prepare the fowl for us. But my uncle insisted we take the fucker live, so el vivero put the turkey in a large paper grocery bag and off we went. No sooner than we sat down on the crowded bus, the turkey, perhaps sensing this wasn’t going to be his day, began making a fuss and engaged in repeated and often violent attempts to escape the paper bag. This in turn caused all the passengers to stare, which made my already slightly inebriated uncle to laugh out loud.

He obviously thought it was hilarious, the passengers were alarmed at the tipsy Puerto Rican with a live turkey in a large brown grocery bag, and I wanted to die. You see, part of growing up in a society that sees your culture as different or alien, is that there’s an internal tension between the very strong pull to assimilate (and not feel alienated) and the tug of cultural pride. I was raised to be a proud of my Puerto Rican roots, but I decided that I drew the line at live turkeys on the 60 Wilson bus.
My uncle Nofrín, already a happy-type person sober, became even happier the more he drank. And the happier he got, the more he laughed. He had this patented outburst, “Ayyyy Coo-Coo,”  an idiomatic expression that didn’t mean anything except that it usually followed a punch line to a joke/ prank or when something outlandish happened. For example, if grandma fell on her butt in front of everyone, you can be sure Tio Nofrín would follow-up that catastrophe with a hearty, “¡Ayyyy Coo-Coo!” and start cracking up. So here I was with Tio Nofrín, wrestling with a live turkey on a crowded New York city bus laughing his ass off and yelling out, “Ayyyy CooCoo!” every time the turkey attempted to break free of the paper grocery bag. Embarrassing.

But I need to back track just a little here because I’ve started this story at the wrong juncture. This particular Thanksgiving actually began with my sister, Darlene, winning a raffle at the local Catholic Church where we took our weekly catechism classes. The prize? She won a large truckload of groceries. We were so happy. The fact was that while I can’t say we starved, there were times that food was scarce. “Wish” sandwiches weren’t uncommon in the Rosario household and it was rare that we had enough capital to do food shopping for a whole week. My mother often had to scrape up dinner on a day-to-day basis. So the prospect of having a whole truckload of groceries was something my siblings and I saw as a good thing. 

My mother is a proud woman. Even as a child, I often marveled at how my mother could walk down the worst ghetto street and and still manage to appear regal. To borrow the South African phrase (used in the Paul Simon song), my mother walked as if she had diamonds on the soles of her shoes. She had a way of holding herself, an attitude, so natural it didn’t offend people. People just assumed she was entitled to that regal bearing.

She walked straight, with perfect posture, and her manner, though imposing, was unaffected, head held high, her perfectly sculpted nose, and those cheekbones to die for, adding a sublime beauty to that imperial pose. When she barked out an order, people listened and though she was in actuality a petite and small woman, she always seemed taller than her actual size. And while it was true we were poor, my mother would dress us in the best clothes -- clothes bought at a fraction of their price at used clothing stores and Salvation Army centers located in upscale neighborhoods. And she taught us to walk in that same way: to slouch in front of my mother was sacrilegious.

That's why, perhaps, when my mother saw all these groceries being carted into our third-floor tenement walk-up, she became enraged thinking it was charity. She managed to insult the priest and throw the delivery boys out before we could convince her that Darlene had won all that food in a raffle.

So what did my mother do? Did she squirrel away the food, making sure we would have groceries for, like, ever? No! First, she gave away two of the (three) Butterball Turkeys to neighbors in bad straits and then proceeded to call all of the tribe for a big, family Thanksgiving dinner.

And that’s when she charged my uncle and me to “go get a turkey from el vivero.” When we finally arrived with the live turkey, a great hue and cry ensued. First, my mother wanted to know what had gotten into my uncle that he would be crazy enough to bring a live turkey to her house. Her instructions were clear, she enunciated in tones usually reserved for intellects hovering at the idiot level. I feared she would task us with returning the damned thing, but then my grandmother insisted that she could “prepare” the turkey. After all, my grandmother reasoned, she had been raised in small Puerto Rican town, and slaughtering and preparing food wasn’t something foreign to her.

A quick, impromptu family meeting was held in order to decide how to go about preparing the turkey and soon a full-scale heated debate erupted which culminated in my grandmother rushing out, grabbing the turkey by the neck, and spinning it violently above her shoulder. According to my grandmother, this was a sure-fire way of killing the turkey, a technique apparently used for generations in Salinas, the town she was born and raised. 

Unfortunately for the turkey, this twisting only resulted in a wicked crook in its neck, which became immediately noticeable as soon as my grandmother let go and it started running wildly around the apartment seeking a way out of its predicament. I felt so bad I almost opened the door for it, but the turkey was doomed, and with his neck now at a right angle to its body, I doubt it would’ve been able to exploit an escape opportunity even if it recognized it. By now, half the family was in hot pursuit of our potential meal and the other, younger half was screaming traumatized. I'm sure some of my cousins still have nightmares of screaming turkeys with crooked necks. the only one who was clearly enjoying himself was Tío Nofrín who was yelling out “¡Ayyyy Coo-Coo!” as he joined in the chase for the wayward turkey.

Eventually, someone caught up to the turkey and it was then decided that the best, most merciful course of action would be to slit its throat, which my stepfather, Vincent did. But all this accomplished was that the turkey, resuming its valiant quest for life, ran praying great splotches of turkey blood everywhere. Eventually, the turkey was subdued and a large pot of water was set to boiling in order to plunge the turkey in for the removal of the feathers. No sooner than the turkey was plunged into the boiling water that it quickly jumped out and again made one last attempt at life. This time, everyone was traumatized, screaming in horror. Finally, my grandmother, upset that her fool-proof turkey killing technique was shown to be ineffective, grabbed the poor fellow, and with one last pull on its deformed neck, finished him off.

Suffice it to say the turkey no longer gave anyone trouble and before you knew it, it was de-feathered and prepared in the pavo-chon Puerto Rican style (a turkey that tastes like a lechon). Soon all the aunts, all high-strung, creative cooking geniuses, were busy preparing the dishes they were best known for (and getting on each other's last nerves in the process) and the rest of the family settled in for fun and games.

You have to understand that I come from a family of cheaters. For example, my grandmother, bless her soul, was a notorious card cheat. Mind you, she wasn’t a good or adept card cheat, in fact, she was quite bad at it. But a card cheat she was, and in our family cheating at games is actually allowed. People who marry into our family have a hard time understanding our ethics, but I assure you we have our moral standards, they're just difficult to describe.

We’re also a family comedians and pranksters and if you happen to commit a gaffe, or do something particularly embarrassing, you will forever be associated with that action/ event. For example, one friend of the family had the tenacity to stick her finger into some food an aunt was preparing and she was quickly chastised with a whack to the head with a large metal ladle. From then on she was known as La Lambia -- the greedy or starved one. I have an aunt who’s predisposed to exaggeration -- actually she’s compulsive liar -- and part of “family fun” was asking her questions about events we all would know she would exaggerate and then make fun of her for her exaggerations. One part of the family, my mother’s sister’s brood, were known for their bad tempers and were called the “Pissed Offs.” Another part of the clan was called the “Mini Munchkins” because they were all short. 

Individuals were similarly named. For example, I was affectionately known as mal tiempo, literally meaning bad time, but was a label normally used to describe natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods. My sister, Darlene, was called La Princesa because of her pretentious airs. Also, if you were an unfortunate victim of an accident, that too was fodder for humor. One cousin, who accidentally shot himself in the foot, was ragged on for years. Even something as mundane as taking a shower or taking a shit during family get-togethers was fraught with danger, as a cousin would invariably rush in with a Polaroid camera to snap a picture or a brother or mother would dump a pail of iced water on an unsuspecting bather.

So, fun and games in my family was in actuality an excuse to engage in all manner boundary trespassing, psychological torment, cheating, hysterical and inappropriate demonstrations of affection and anger, and ridiculing. And you know what? It was hilarious! As long as you weren’t the butt of the joke, of course. And every year, there would be a different theme and a different butt of the "holiday joke."

So here it was Thanksgiving Eve and the music was blaring, the home was warm with all the cooking, fogging the windows, and you could smell all the great food being prepared. Family members were all engaged in the joyful activities of family holidays when the men decided they would all venture on a “Boy’s Night Out” outing, much to the expressed dissatisfaction of the women. One of my earliest lessons as a young boy was that one should never anger the women on my mother’s side of the family, for they are a ferocious group of females. In any case, the men went out and they took me along with them because they wanted to school me in the ways of men. Going out, for the men, meant going somewhere where there was liquor, loose women, and illegal gambling. Apparently, being man meant being able to hold your liquor, no matter how much of it you imbibed, and demonstrating your virility by flirting with/ picking up women my mother would kill for even thinking of looking at me.

And this particular night, the night before Thanksgiving, there was a lot of gambling going on. At first, my stepfather, Vincent, was making a killing, and while sober, Vincent was a model of stability, inebriated, he lost all self-control. Instead of quitting while he was ahead, he instead lost all his winnings and his paycheck to boot. This I knew was bad news, but Vincent was beyond listening to my appeals for sanity. Eventually, he convinced my uncles to lend him money and in that way help him win his money back, and he went on another winning streak, only to commit the same error, managing to lose the money loaned by my uncles.

It was 5 AM in the morning before the men began to sober up and come to the realization that they would eventually have to go back home to a group of assuredly angry women waiting for them. So they came up with the following plan: they decided it was best for me to go upstairs first in order to scope out the situation. No sooner that I walked into the apartment that I realized things were worse than even I expected. Most of the women were sitting at the kitchen table silently seething, waiting for the men to return. You could actually see the waves of anger coming off of their bodies, distorting the air like heat waves. 

I went back downstairs and dutifully gave my status report and most of the men were balking at going upstairs, thinking (quite wisely), that discretion is the better part of valor. But Vincent, who seemed to not have sobered, guffawed, got out of the car, and with a swagger told everyone else he would show everyone who wore the pants in his home and proceeded upstairs. I followed, honestly fearing the worst.

There was this long flight of stairs that reached up to a small foyer-like area to our apartment, and it was here where my mother confronted a clearly incoherent and drunk Vincent. Somehow she surmised he was gambling, had lost his money, and was drunk, and she became so incensed, she pushed him out of anger. Vincent, still drunk from the huge amount of rum he had imbibed, didn’t stand a chance and he went down that long flight of stairs landing in a way that no human body should land, his neck now at an angle eerily similar to the turkey’s neck the day before.

I turned to my mother, said, “You killed him.”
My mother, “I did not!”
Me, “Ma, I saw you push him. Look at him I think his neck is broken.”
My mother, “Don’t you say that! I didn’t push him, he was so drunk, he fell on his own!”
Me, “No he didn’t mom, you pushed him!”

At this point an aunt, the compulsive liar, who up until now had been asleep, appeared out of nowhere and said, “I saw everything and Lydia didn’t push him, he fell!”

Before I could continue several of her sisters and my grandmother came out and all stated, though not one of them had witnessed anything, that Vincent had fallen of his own accord and they all gave me this look that clearly indicated it was dangerous to persist in this line of reasoning.

By this time I realized the whole conversation was a moot point and went downstairs to check on Vincent. I was certain he broke his neck, but no sooner that I called his name that he opened his eyes, smiled at me, and managed to get up. I guess it’s true that God loves children and drunks because to this day, I don’t know how he survived that fall. 

Then I felt rather than saw something fly over my shoulder and land with a loud crash. My mother, in her anger, had thrown the turkey, which had been slowly roasting in a low-heated oven for several hours, down the stairs and it crashed, pan and all, and broke into several large greasy chunks of turkey parts.

Thanksgiving, which had begun on such a high note, had now been ruined and we didn’t even have a turkey. My mother and her sisters quickly dressed and left the house, the rest of the men probably getting similar treatment outside.

My sisters, and some of my younger cousins, immediately gathered and started a choir of wailing and crying because Thanksgiving had devolved into a dysfunctional madness and the turkey had now died yet again. And I was so upset with Vincent that I told him he was responsible for all the  crying and for the ruination of Thanksgiving dinner. Upon hearing this, Vincent seemed to sober up a little, pulled himself up, said, “I’ll fix this,” and began picking up the pieces of the turkey.

I was beyond shocked, “How the hell are you going to fix this, Vincent, the turkey is gone!”

“You’ll see,” he mumbled as I left to go outside for a walk, unable to take it anymore.

When I came back, Vincent and my sisters were busy trying to sew the turkey back together again and it was so funny, I had to laugh and we all started laughing. I mean, this turkey was all discombobulated, legs akimbo, stitched all together like some monstrosity made up in a horror story. And true to form, we christened the turkey, “Frankenstein’s Turkey,” and one of my sisters would chuckle and say, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” and we would all laugh.

And when the rest of the family finally came back, my mother saw us all laughing, took one look at the turkey, and she started cracking up. I mean, it was impossible to look at this thing and not laugh. And that’s how we spent that Thanksgiving, eating a horribly tortured and reconstructed turkey.

Happy Holidays…


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