BROWNING UP NICELY by S.M. Brodie
The 1970’s were full of firsts for many people. Richard Nixon became the first president to resign from office. Raul Castro became the first Latino to hold the office of Governor in the great State of Arizona. My mother, Anita Ortiz, became the first in her proud, Hispanic family to marry an Anglo. Thomas Gordon, my father, became the first in his Anglo family to marry a divorced, single mother of non-European descent, although they were fond of describing her as “Spanish.” Thomas and Anita then went on to have me, their first child together, but not their first child. My half-brother, Luis, was my mother’s first.
Shortly after my birth, my mother returned to work and started attending college. While school was in session for my mom and brother, my dad’s mother watched me during the day. Until I started attending school myself, this is where I spent half of my life. My father’s family lived across the city and a world away.
My grandparent’s white ranch house sat on a little over an acre, nestled between old orange groves. Set far back from the street, the long drive stretched out lazily next to the neat rows and rows of trees that hid the neighbors’ houses. Out behind the drive and the garage was the back acreage, where my grandparents always kept a couple head of cattle and let the neighbors’ horses graze.
The little ranch had a rhythm as steady as a heartbeat. Every morning that I was there, my grandmother would give my grandfather a lunch packed in a shiny metal lunchbox, a thermos full of coffee, and a kiss. In the morning, he always smelled like a combination of mustache wax and aftershave, his wavy, grey hair neatly parted and combed. He would walk out the door, off to his job of designing jet and rocket fuel, with a pen and mechanical pencil in his front pocket, his keys, and a pack of Camel cigarettes in his hand. In this house, everyone spoke English without an accent or a brogue and the breeze carried with it the sweet smell orange of blossoms and fresh cut grass.
Summers in Arizona could give the Devil heat rash. My mom drove a 1973 AMC Hornet, which had a special setting on the air conditioner for “desert climates.” This did nothing to prevent crayons from melting into the floor mats, vinyl records from warping, or the big metal seat belt buckles from branding us while we waited for the air conditioning to kick in. My brother and I would threaten to report my folks for child abuse if they tried to drive us across town during the summer. So, if my parents ever needed a sitter in the evenings, on the weekends, or during the summertime, we stayed with someone from my mom’s large extended family, all of whom seemed to live within a five-mile radius of us. It was within this tight circle that I spend the other half of my childhood.
When I went to my grandparent’s house, the routine was always the same. My mother walked me up to the house. The adults exchanged pleasantries. My mother told my grandmother when she could expect her to return. My mother gave me a kiss and I waves goodbye from the back porch.
With my mother’s family, it was a crapshoot. We’d drive up to one of the aunts’ houses; my brother and I tumbled out of the car like excited puppies, tripping over ourselves to get to the house and out of the sun. We’d knock on the door and if someone answered, we’d turn, wave to our parent and go inside. As soon as we passed the threshold, they’d back out of the drive. There were no arrangements made, no pick up times discussed. If the door opened, we went inside. If not, we trudged back to the idling car, reluctantly got back in, drove a couple blocks in any direction, and repeated the process. The first house we usually hit was my Tia Gloria’s house.
Gloria was my mother’s oldest sister. She and my uncle Hector had five kids ranging in age from their early twenties to just a few years older than Luis. All seven of them lived in a little yellow house in the middle of the barrio. Their back yard was home to an old pickup that had wood running boards that creaked and moaned when you stepped on them, and a handful of wiry chickens that left their eggs all over the yard including in bed of the truck. Two mutts named Frito and Lay protected the chickens from cats and hawks and other poachers, but mostly they slept in the shade under the truck.
In this house, accents came and went, thicken and soften depending on the audience, the mood, or the weather. Some spoke Spanish heavily peppered with English, other English sprinkled with Spanish phrases and slang.
Here the air was heavy with the sticky, sweet smell of cooked citrus juice coming from the big brick processing plant that made the syrup for Squirt soda at the end of the street. Any noise coming from the plant was drown out by kids laughing, dogs barking, music playing, and people talking to each other over fences and through the open windows and screen doors. The only time the noise subsided was when everyone headed inside for dinner.
By the time the Ortega family settled in for a meal around their Formica and metal table, my Tia Gloria and my cousin Sofia had been cooking for forever. It was amazing to watch those two women gracefully glide and spin around each other in that tiny kitchen. Even the food seemed to be a part of the dance, somehow popping, bubbling, and sizzling in time to the Tito or Celia Cruz songs coming from the radio that sat on top of the fridge.
I so wanted to be a part of the culinary ballet, not knowing that I was witnessing was a finely choreographed performance, honed over years of practice. When I rushed in and begged to help, I did nothing but throw them off their steps. As a five year old, they banished me from the kitchen, ordering me to go play. But I didn’t. I perched on the arm of the couch, so I still had a clear view of their dance, and sulked.
Tio Hector came home from working at one of the farms that used to surround the Valley and found me pouting in his living room. Every day for the better part of a week, he walked in the door, kiss me on the top of my depressed little head, and ask “¿Que pasa, mijita?”
“Nada,” I responded, trying to look as dejected as possible.
“I’m not allowed to help. I’m too little.”
“Then go play.”
“It’s too hot.”
Then he patted me on the shoulder as if he understood the troubles weighing down my soul, and he headed to the shower to wash off the bits and pieces of his day that stuck to him. But after a few days, he’d had enough.
“¿Quieres ayudarme?” he asked me.
I paused before I responded to his invitation to help. I hoped that it didn’t involve standing in the backyard, waiting to fetch tools or beer while he worked on that ancient truck. But, even that was better than doing nothing.
“Si, como no.” I finally answered.
Every day after he came home and showered, he worked with me so I could master my new responsibilities. The first day I watched.
“Mira, mijita,” he began. “Take one of the papeles and lay it like this.”
He laid the tiny rectangular sheet of paper on the coffee table in front of us. He sat on the sofa and I knelt on the floor between his bare feet, both of us facing the table. He hunched over me, so that the paper and his hands were directly in front of me. As I watched, I could smell the Ivory soap on his freshly scrubbed skin. He grabbed a pinch of what looked like pencil shavings from a pouch, and laid them in a neat little row on the edge of the paper.
“Mira, only this much. No mas or it falls out.” He put my index finger over the row.
“See, only as wide as your finger,” he instructed. Then he nimbly rolled it into a tight little tube with his leathered and calloused fingers. He picked it up and held it out at my eye level.
“Pick it up like this. Okay? With the edge of the paper facing up so you can lick it like an envelope.” I turned to watch him quickly swipe his tongue along the edge.
“Not too much vavas. You don’t want to make it wet.” He continued his lesson. “Okay, this is important. Gently run your finger over the edge to press it down. Remember, gently, just to get paper to stay down. Don’t pinch it or mush it.”
We practiced that way every evening for days. The first cigarette, I watched. The second, we did together, his sun baked farm hands guiding mine, still baby pink. The third, did on my own. By the end of the week, I graduated. From there on, it was my job to have three cigarettes waiting for Tio Hector. After he got home and showered, I went in the backyard with him and looked for any eggs the chickens may have hidden while he smoked the first cigarette. When he was done, we washed up for dinner. I never saw him smoke the other two. He saved them for just before bed and right after breakfast the next day.
One day my mom came earlier than usual to pick us up.
“Hola,” she called as she walked through the door. Tia Gloria and Sofia paused just long enough to stick their heads out from the kitchen, returned the greeting, and returned to cooking.
“Monica, go find Luis and tell him it’s time to go,” my mom ordered.
“Just a second,” I said as I brought a tightly rolled cigarette up to my lips and licked the edge.
She just stood there, dumbfounded, and watched me as I smoothed the paper down and set the cigarette next to the other one I had finished just before she walked in the door.
“What are you doing?” she finally asked.
“Making cigarettes for Tio Hector,” I proudly stated. “He taught me.”
“It’s true,” Tio Hector said, his voice coming from behind my mother, which made her jumped a little. He was beaming at me, his pride nearly matching my own. My mother’s face did not mirror ours.
“I don’t think she should be doing that, Hector.” She sounded worried. My heart sank. I didn’t know why she wasn’t happy too, but I knew enough that it worried me. However, my uncle didn’t stop smiling at me even for a second.
“Why?” he asked.
I watched her struggle for an answer. Then, after what seemed like an extremely long time, she finally offered something up.
“Well, it doesn’t seem right that she knows how to roll cigarettes but she can’t even tie her own shoes yet.” I watched both my mom and tio’s faces.
“Maybe she should learn how to do that first,” she offered.
“¡Aye, mija!” Tio Hector exclaimed dramatically putting his hands over his heart and rolling his eyes. “You don’t know how to tie your shoes?”
I shrugged my shoulders, not quite understanding why this was a big deal. The flip-flops and sandals that I wore during the summer didn’t have laces to tie. Tio Hector smiled down at me and put his hand out. I smiled back and handed him his three neatly rolled smokes.
“That’s fine,” my Tio Hector said to my mother. As I stood and started to follow her out the door, Tio Hector asked me, “Where’s my hug?” As I hugged him, he lifted me up, kissed me on the cheek, and softly said, “Gracias, muñeca.”
The next day, all of my family descended on our house for my brother’s birthday. Most of the houses in our neighborhood were older, filled with what my dad called “blue collar families”, and had tidy yards with a bike or skateboard strewn under a tree or on the sidewalk. And almost all of them had swimming pools.
Our swimming pool was ancient and the plaster would peel layers of skin from your feet. But it was ours and in the summer, we practically lived in it. We were also the only ones in the family on either side with a pool. So everyone showed up any time there was an excuse to use it, like my brother’s birthday.
I loved it when my Grandpa Gordon would come over to swim. He taught me how to swim like a frog and side scissor kick. He’d throw coins into the deep end, and my brother and I would see how many we could grab before we had to come up for air. When we got tired, my grandpa and I would share an inner tube or raft, and just float around until it was time to eat.
After my grandfather had shared a second piece of cake with me, he was sitting on the pool deck, smoking a cigarette. I sat down next to him and picked up his pack of Camels.
“How many are in here?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Let’s look on the package.”
I examined the box until I found the number.
“20!” I exclaimed. “Wow. It would take a long time to make all those.”
“They have machines that do it really fast,” my grandpa assured me as I handed him his pack.
My mom was walking around the patio and pool deck collecting plates and glasses. She called me over to help carry the stuff she’d gathered.
“Don’t talk to Grandma and Grandpa Gordon about cigarettes. Okay?” she said quietly. She had that same look on her face as before, as if we were going to get in trouble.
“Why?” I asked, all my concern punctuating my question.
“Well, it’s just not good manners, I guess.” She said, her eyes hopeful that I would either understand or just leave it there.
“Is it bad?” I asked and heard her let out an exacerbated sigh.
“No, not bad. It’s just not polite.”
The whole next week at the Ortega house, after Tio Hector came home, I learned to tie shoes. He taught me as patiently and methodically as he had before. He brought out every shoe his kids owned and set them out on the floor in front of the TV. I practiced, while he washed up. If I knotted up one shoe, which I inevitably did, I just moved on to the next one. By the end of the week, when our mother came to get us, I eagerly showed off my new skill.
After that, I went back to rolling cigarettes. It took a few days for my mom to catch on that I had started production again. But when she saw the three cigarettes waiting for my uncle on the coffee table, the look returned to her face.
“I don’t think Monica should make cigarettes anymore,” she announced as Tio Hector walked into the living room.
His thick black hair was still wet from his shower and he had slicked it back. He looked like Ricky Ricardo in cuffed blue jeans and a white t-shirt instead of a suit.
“¿Por que?” he asked. His voice sounded like he was tired of this conversation before it began.
“It’s just not right,” she began and looked up to see how even that much of the objection registered with him. He just looked at her and then at me, waiting to hear more.
“The tobacco is full of chemicals and nasty stuff,” she continued. “She shouldn’t be touching it. What if it turns her fingers brown?”
Tio Hector smirked at the idea. Then he looked her straight in the eye. “That’s not the problem,” he decided. “What’s wrong?”
My mom flushed, took a deep breath, and then blurted out, “White kids don’t roll cigarettes.” She took another deep breath. “What are the Gordons going to say when they find out their granddaughter is rolling cigarettes?”
Although she said everything very calmly and quietly, she looked embarrassed and guilty.
“I think they have machines that make cigarettes,” I offered, trying to help. However, this only made her more upset. Tio Hector went over to her, gently wrapped her in his arms, and hugged her for a minute.
“Calmate,” I heard him tell her. “Esta bien.”
He stepped back and swept her hair away from her face with his finger. “You can’t avoid it, Anita,” he said. “She’s going to brown up sooner or later, and not because of the tobacco. I promise you, they will love her either way.”
She sighed and the redness that showed up in big angry blotches on her cheeks and neck began to fade. Tio Hector pulled her close again until I heard her say, that he was right and she was sorry. As we drove home, Luis kept asking why no one was talking and what was wrong. I didn’t answer because I didn’t understand what happened or how to explain it. So, we were quiet.
The next time I went to the Ortega house, there was a little box wrapped in comics from the Sunday paper and tied with a bright piece of yarn sitting out on the coffee table.
“Mija, that’s for you,” Tia Gloria told me. “Pero, escuchame. Don’t open it until Hector comes home.”
All day I was drawn to the little, neat package. I ran my finger over the fuzzy yarn until I accidentally untied it. Luckily, I could tie it again, but I couldn’t remember if I needed to double knot it or not. I did anyway, just to be safe. I held it up to my ear and shook it, then quickly set it back down. Finally, Tia Gloria took it away and put it on the kitchen counter because I was driving her crazy. That day I drank a gallon and a half of water just so I had an excuse to go into the kitchen and see if it was still there.
After what seemed like ages, Tio Hector came home. I asked if I could open the gift as soon as he walked in the door.
“Just wait until I take my shower,” he instructed.
“Hector!” Tia Gloria yelled from the other room. “Don’t be mean. Let la niña open it!”
I ran to retrieve it from the counter and hustled back to sit next to Tio Hector on the couch. As I peeled away the paper, the glossy box underneath showed a picture of a toy I’d never seen before. In my experience, boxes were reused a lot, so you couldn’t trust the picture on the outside. I quickly opened it to find the same curious toy I had seen on the box. I looked up at my Tio Hector and said thanks but with a question mark hanging on the end.
“It’s a machine,” he took it in his hands and examined it. “A machine that rolls cigarettes for you, like you said.”
He handed it back to me and pulled the instructions out of the discarded box. For the next few days, we learned how to use my new rolling machine. It stayed at the Ortega’s house and I used it every day that I was there, although we never spoke of cigarettes again.