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I wrote this on 10/27/10, a couple of days after I returned from visiting my blood sister, Becky, and my adopted Jamaican sister, Marcia, in North Carolina. They are both beautiful, nurturing and tough as nails. My Jamaican sister doesn’t have much in terms of material things, but she always finds ways to give. She indeed has a treasure trove of kindness, wisdom and good cuisine. And she doesn’t mind sharing. We often talk about our respective islands and the trees we used to climb when we were growing up. Often, she’ll talk to me longingly about a particular fruit, like a gnep(sp?), and I’ll say “I know what you’re talking about, it’s called quenepa!” I couldn’t be luckier than to have run into Marcia during my adventures in North Carolina.

This small poem to our friendship and Caribbean kinship is my humble attempt to reciprocate her many gifts.

A mi hermana jamaiquina, on occasion of having found another tropical fruit we both like to eat.

 You breathe out coriander and Thyme

                Which, in your mouth, is the endless Time we wish we had.

Your essence turns noses and eyes –  

a trail of sweet pheromones is your blessed footprint.

Love, kindness and forgiveness march in your army.

Lightheartedness is your shield.

You, ephemeral songbird rising up.

You, bright star in the darkest wood.  

Your table is always set

                and welcomes all.

I bring the chicken, you rub the curry.

I bring the breadfruit, you show me how to bake it.

I bring the climbing gear

useless

 until you show me how to climb our mountain.

We’ll build a bonfire at the summit

and look upon our children

hundreds of them

shining like bright stars in the dark Caribbean night.

(For now, we’re just an archipelago of two small islands.)

My knowing sister.

gnep, quenepas, mamoncillo

Quenepas I photographed (and promptly ate) in Puerto Rico.

My Jamaican sister.

You see all, what could I add?

Here are some quenepas

                they’re all I have.

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Back to the beginning

…That was the year the Reyes Magos (Three Wise Men who bring gifts on the eve of Epiphany), left a book under her bed. It was big and colorful and it had a sturdy cover. The title was Héroes en Zapatillas (a 1974 Spanish translation of Varona and Olivar’s Eroi In Pantofole, Edizione Paoline, Roma, 1971). Every European hero from Aníbal to Ulises, and with the generous inclusion of Gengis Khan, was there in caricature form. No mention of women.  Still, the book provided hours of entertainment and later she would beg her mother to keep it for her when she went to college. (The book is still around for the granddaughter. It’s yellow, not as colorful, and the pages are coming off the unstitched spine. It will be a supplement to the heroine stories they’ll read.) 

By the time she was in eleventh grade, our girl barely recalled the details of the medical kit from Christmas Past. But she remembered the feeling. Everything started to come back to her as if in a tunnel when her guidance counselor refused to give her an SAT application.

“Una niña como tú debería quedarse aquí (en la isla) con su mamá y su papá.” (“A girl like you should stay here (on the island) with her mom and dad.”) He wanted me (you already knew it was me) to concentrate on taking the College Board exam and forget about the SAT. I guess La Academia (my parochial private school) was more interested in raising overall scores than in placing their students where they wanted to be. I switched high schools my senior year and chose not to graduate with my friends over this. I did great on the College Board, got into UPR Rio Piedras, and Sagrado Corazón just in case, then turned around and left for FSU. It wasn’t easy. No one wanted me to leave. Many said I wouldn’t make it past the first semester. Too young, too sheltered, too attached to family. I went around all objections. Found a friend who went to school at Fort Buchanan to get me an SAT application, took the test at her school without any help. Then I took things one step at a time. My parents saw how determined I was and rallied behind me. My whole family sacrificed a lot to send me to college. Every semester was a small miracle. Twenty-something years later, my life is a miracle. The doors that seem to close just lead me to better things than the ones I imagined for myself. And really, I have a lot of say on which doors close.

So, listen to your children. Pay special attention to the girls and take their dreams seriously. Don’t tell anyone, boy or girl, how to play –let them teach you how to play. And for the record, I don’t want to be a boy anymore. Life’s more interesting as a girl.

All this writing about cross-dressing female doctors from the 19th century got me thinking about another story. Habia una vez una niña que queria ser niño. She did not dislike herself, she just wanted to be more than what people told her she could be.

It started one Christmas morning when she was three. She tore open the last present to find a strange red box inside. It was plastic and it looked like a lunch box, only bigger and with a curved top. Inside the strange red box she found small white instruments. There was a long cord with a plastic cone at one end and two plugs on the other which her mother said went in her ears.  “To listen to your heart beating.” There was a thin plastic cylinder with some lines on it, to take your temperature.

Her grandfather offered himself as a patient and she eagerly went about the task of becoming a doctor. But after she had examined her patient and decided which small bottle contained the right medicine for him, grandfather said “you will be a good nurse someday.” The game suddenly stopped. She wanted to cry, but she didn’t know why. The lump in her throat turned into a yell as she threw the medical bag on the floor and said she didn’t want to play anymore. At three years of age she knew that if she couldn’t play doctor, the role she chose, there was no sense in playing the game at all.

Later, she played Zorro with her neighbor Jorge and with her younger sister. The long pods from the flamboyant tree (a royal poinciana) made good swords and sabres. She didn’t listen when she was told to take the old blankie off her neck. That made a good cape. Zorro made a good role model, for lack of any female ones. There was much jumping off tree stumps and swinging from torn clotheslines, unsheathed sword (pod) cutting a Z in the air. 

On January 6, 1978 she would have been nine…

(Second part.)