The Open Door

The Open Door

The door was always open. Locked, for sure, but open in spirit.  A security screen door, then a regular front door—a double entrance for those trickling in on Friday evenings.

We were young couples in Miami, my husband and I, and his extended family:  his sister and two cousins he grew up with.  Carlos’ parents, Mercedes and Jesus, lived practically all of their lives under the same roof with another couple, Mercedes’ sister and her husband.  Each couple had two children, so the four grew up pretty much as siblings.

Mercedes and Jesus, my in-laws, could not be more different from aunt and uncle, as couples and as individuals. Mercedes and Jesus were down to earth homebodies; aunt and uncle loved the limelight of social events and were always impeccably dressed in the latest trends. Mercedes read the newspaper and loved word puzzles; her sister had her nose in fashion and celebrity magazines. Uncle had a university degree was a professional.  Jesus, my sweet suegro (father-in-law) was a chicken farmer, and then a bartender for most of his life.

And he was a gem of a character.  The story was that when the family—the two couples with their children—reported to the Havana airport on their assigned day of departure—their belongings, their language, their culture, all folded neatly in suitcases—one was not allowed to board the plane. And that was Jesus.

This was not unheard of in that tumultuous time as Castro’s regime took power.  Sometimes there reasons—was there a connection to counter-revolutionaries?—or no reason at all.

“We’re in charge,” the militia men in green grab told him, “and you’re staying.”

And stay he did, for another two years when he was finally granted a visa through Spain, that would eventually lead him to the U.S. to reunite with his family.  A double door of sorts that had allowed him entry to America.

There had been terrible stress, especially on Mercedes, and now there was great joy.  But there had been a shift, too, in his absence, and now there was a resettling, a readjusting in a new land—new for Jesus, that is. There was a routine in place: the kids went to school, the adults went to work.  They had jobs, he did not. They all knew English, he did not. They had their place in this new world—he was just figuring it all out.

And with love of family and love of learning, persistence, and resourcefulness, he did. He got a job as a bartender at a golf resort, and absorbed the English vocabulary he needed; a fluent conversationalist he was not, but he communicated.  He got a used car, previously owned by a priest, and it was immaculate. A white Plymouth Valiant that ran beautifully, though it had no air-conditioning.  One day the cover on the interior light broke, and Jesus immediately fixed it with an empty Mazola margarine container.  Cubans recycle everything.  The Plymouth letters on the back of vehicle broke off, and he fixed that, too. He glued the letters back on. Now they read P-l-u-m-o-y-t-h.

With little formal schooling, Jesus was quite the literary man and a regular library patron.  He read constantly, and was the only one in the family I, a nerdy English major, could sit down with and discuss Don Quixote, which he had read several times.

As a bartender, Jesus worked night hours, so during the day, when everyone else was at work, he took charge of the kitchen.  He loved doing los mandados—the groceries—and was the family chef.  I learned a lot from him—not from instructions, because he couldn’t tell you how much of what went into anything—but by watching.

“Hand me a can of tomato sauce,” he asked me once. I opened the pantry to find a bunch of cans without labels. I smiled.

“How can you tell what’s what?” I asked.

“They were on sale,” he explained.  “Here, try this one.” He handed me a can, and directed me to shake it.

We listened. “That’s it! Open it,” he said.

It was a can of peaches. We burst into laughter. We hit the jackpot on the third try.  Finally, tomato sauce.

One evening after work, we all staggered in more or less at the same time, our weekly family reunion. We rang the doorbell, and walked through the ornate living room (para la visita—for company), past the dining room, and into the kitchen where the table was set and pots simmered.  This is where the real gatherings happened. There was wine and beer, familial chaos with multiple conversations going on at once. Uncle was telling a work story, aunt was interjecting unwelcome editorial comments, serving dish in hand. Mercedes giggled and munched, wiping the counter. Cousin washed his hands at the sink, and yelled hello to the neighbor out the window. Eyes widened, eyes rolled, eyebrows were raised. We enjoyed the noise of one another, the laughter and updates, all the while taking in the delicious aroma of Jesus’s culinary masterpiece, arroz con pollo (rice and chicken).

We were ready to begin the meal, but where was the cook?

“Go get him,” Mercedes said. “He’s watching his novela (soap opera) in our room.”

Off I went past the fancy dining room, through the ornate living room, to their bedroom.  I heard the TV full blast, and the door was slightly open.  I knocked and called out, “Jesus, la comida (dinner). Come eat!” But he didn’t hear, so I knocked again and pushed the door fully open.  As expected, Jesus sat regally on his big brown recliner, watching his novela. He still hadn’t heard me.

Then, turning slightly toward me, and shifting his weight—he let out a full-throttled ffffffff-arrrrrrrr-t.

Our eyes met. He jumped, startled and embarrassed. I convulsed in laughter, and could barely talk back at the kitchen table, tears streaming down my face.

After that, Jesus would cook, and hang out more at the kitchen table.

And he would lock his bedroom door.

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