Josué Aceituno Díaz

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Josue & his sister Jacqueline in "el batey"

EL PATIO DE MI ABUELA –

Learning to ride a bicycle. My first broken bone. Water balloon fights.  Sleeping in the hamaca.  Those were the days in el patio de mi abuela, where I spent most of my childhood. My grandmother’s house was located in Cagüitas Centro in Aguas Buenas, a place where my whole family met on the holidays.

Her name was Agueda Ríos Medina and my grandfather was Antonio Díaz De Jesus but everybody called him Toñin.

El patio is sometimes called by a Taino word, el batey. It was a big area around of my grandmother’s house that not only included space for my family to gather but also where Grandma grew her coffee, vegetables and had her fruit trees. My grandparent’s had twelve children and ten of those children also had children. Those who lived near enough all gathered in el patio for birthdays, weddings, and the many holidays we have in Puerto Rico.

This was where I also spent most of my afterschool time. We lived really high up on a hill.  So, when I got too tired walking home from school, the first thing I did was run to Grandma’s rancho near the patio to swing in the hamaca to catch my breath.

Tienes hambre?” It was my Tía Josefina who lived with my grandmother shouting to me.  We called her Chepina. She had been diagnosed schizophrenic but she was very capable of taking care of me, my sisters, cousins and doing housework. Though she had a mental illness, she never hurt her family and most of the time I spent with her, there were no indications of her illness. She usually had ten months as a “normal” person and then two months of hallucinations and behaving completely opposite of who she was.

I eagerly answered, “Yes. I am hungry.”

The best season spent in my grandma’s el patio was summer because all the fruits bloomed and we feasted on mango, fresas, guanabana, quenepas, jobos, coco, and guineo maduro. Because it was so hot, we went to the river, which was very near, and searched out and collected colored stones. Sometimes we also helped grandma with her flowers and plants and picked coffee seeds. At night, she boiled coffee for us to drink. While we played hide and go seek the adults, specifically my uncles, played dominoes.

Playing Dominoes on "el patio"

Summer may have been the best and most fun season, but Christmas was the most memorable of all.  Every Christmas morning we woke up, opened presents and played with them in el patio de mi Abuela. All my family joined in for the food preparation, my abuelo preparing el fogón, and my abuela cleaning el patio and all of my uncles preparing the pig for slaughter. It is tradition here, to raise a pig and then kill and eat it at Christmas time.

Then my aunts cooked the food in the fogón.  El fogón was kind of a handmade stove of wood. It was a traditional way of cooking in Puerto Rico. My grandparents used it because when my mother was a child they didn’t have the money to buy a kitchen gas stove. The food cooked in el fogón tastes very different from food cooked on a normal kitchen stove. For us, it tastes better and it has more flavor.

I don’t remember ever having breakfast, because by seven a.m. my aunts already had pastelillos and sorullos ready for everyone to eat.

Then we’d hear the pig squealing and that was when my uncles killed it. I didn’t like to see that kind of thing, so I stayed away from the activity.  After killing it they took a big pile of coal and laid it in the rancho and set it on fire. Then they cleaned the inside of the pig, seasoned it and impaled it on a big stick to cook.

Roasting the "lechon" in the "rancho"

El rancho was a type of garage handmade by my grandpa with wood from the forest near our home. It had a zinc roof. I think it was originally made for a car, but we really did not use it for that. My grandpa hung a hamaca inside the rancho and passed the day sometimes swinging inside it. It was also use to cook or roast pork.

My aunts took the pig intestines, cleaned them really well to make morcillas, a typical plate here. Then we gathered around and began peeling pounds of verduras for about two hours or more, and then we blended all of the verduras to make pasteles and alcapurrias. When all this was ready, it was time to eat, arroz con gandules, pasteles, alcapurrias and lechón asado. For dessert, arroz con dulce or tembleque.

This tradition continued for many years until my grandpa got sick. My grandparents and almost all my uncles and aunts suffered from diabetes and since my mom was a pharmacist, she had always taken care of my grandparents and my aunt. In July 2001, my grandpa had gangrene in his left leg. By the time my mom noticed it, it was too late so the doctors had to amputate his leg. He also had heart problems, so he did not survive the operation.  He was eighty-four-years-old. My grandma had to stay strong for my aunt, but my aunt took it really hard and relapsed into schizophrenia. She was committed to a facility. My mom had to be even more committed to help my grandma with the situation. My uncle, who had lost his wife years before moved into my grandma’s house so he could help my mom with Grandma’s care.

Tía Josefina spent four months in the facility and seemed to be getting better. Christmas came that same year but the traditions we once had were not present that year. Only one or two relatives showed up and my grandma was still grieving my grandpa’s death. That Christmas, we had bought a present for my aunt, hoping she would be released early, but the day after Christmas December 26, 2001 we received a phone call. My mom was not home, so the doctors refused to give us any details. I thought she was getting released, but this was not the case. The call was to announce that my aunt had died. We were in such shock, because she was not ill the last time we had visited her.  She did have diabetes, but she was looking very healthy. We never found out why or how she died. My mother refused to see the autopsy.

The next two years, el patio was not the same.  My uncle took down the rancho and the hamaca. The area became rundown and abandoned. My grandma stopped taking care of her plants. She did not have enough energy to take care of the el patio anymore. One day, my mother discovered gangrene in my grandmother’s toes. Fortunately, my mother took her in time to the doctor. Due to the diabetes, she lost three of her toes. Because of that, my grandma had to move in with us. We really tried to make her feel happy even though most of the time she wasn’t. My uncle took care of the house, but did a very poor job. Then his daughter and her family moved in supposedly to help, but ended up ruining all that my grandparents had built.

My grandma loved her patio.  One day she went to visit the patio and she was really sad to see that my two uncles had turned her house and patio into an animal farm, covered with mud, surrounded by many animals and trash. The house was filthy and the patio stank. She became really sad and angry and after that, never wanted to see her old house again. Neither did any of us.

We asked our uncle to clean it, but as always he ignored our wishes. Since then, I have not been back. My grandma lived with us for five years. She was sad and constantly asking for God to take her away. Though I didn’t want to lose her, I understood.

In June 2007, my grandma’s gangrene came back, but this time was different.  This time it was not outside the skin but inside and for two whole months the doctors did not know what to do and could not find what was wrong with her. Her whole body slowly burned and disintegrated. They tried skin replacement, but because of the diabetes it only made it worse. For two months, she suffered and for the first time all of my uncles and aunts rallied to help my mom take care of her. On August 7, 2007, she passed away, it was very hard for me because that week was the first week of college after summer, but I tried my best to keep it together.

El patio today is still dirty, full of domestic animals, not a flower in sight. Overall is not the same place I used to spend my childhood. It will never be the same, and from now on the only things that are there when I see it are the memories.

 

2 Comments

  1. I’m truly sorry for your loses. In my experience, life, like caviar, is an acquired taste, and like love, its bitter sweet. I hope one day, you let it all go, let it go far, far away into Caribbean breeze. Lets those memories fill you with the warmth of wonderful feelings and moments that once bloomed from all those people. Again, my condolences, may happiness follow you wherever you go.

  2. I’m so sorry to hear how your life with your family slowly degenerated. I feel it is completely up to the youth of a family to keep traditions and customs alive and practiced. You should use this photo and this story to create your own family memories with your immediate family and your future family so that your kids will value the same things you did and help keep your legacy alive even when you are no longer here.

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