Tuesday, February 14, 2017

"Abuela, My Redeemer" By Yesenia Flores Diaz - Winner of the 2016 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize


                                                                "Abuela, My Redeemer"


                                                                    Yesenia Flores Diaz

She emerged from the dimly lit platform precisely when the chime sounded. The woman shoved a shopping bag between the closing doors and wedged half of her body into the car. With a free hand, she struggled to pry one side open. In a tone as brisk as the winter air, the conductor ordered her to let go: “There’s another train right behind this one. Stand clear.”
The doors reopened and the woman quickly made her way onto the train. Bing-bong, chimed the doors. She shuffled towards the row diagonally across from mine and plopped into a seat. A passenger picked up the empty can that spilled from her bag and handed it to her. The woman turned and flashed a toothless smile his way that was both bright and warm. “Ay, gracias,[1]” she said and tucked the can back into the bag.
She wore a full-length, tweed winter coat with hues of black and gray. A fuzzy, dark green knit men’s cap was pulled down to her eyebrows. The woman’s eyes were magnified behind her thick, plastic glasses. The walls of my chest tightened at the sight of Abuela[2]. I turned away, shamefully, so our eyes would not meet. Why was she out by Flushing Avenue so late?
Dusk had already set in Brooklyn and the lights flickered briefly in the car. As I stared at my reflection, I silently wished I could erase my imperfections with the same intensity as the street artists who tagged their names on the window: the unruly hair tamed with Aqua Net hairspray; the oily skin, peppered with pimples, that shined beyond Neutrogena’s control; and, the blackheads that dotted the pudgy nose I inherited from my grandmother. When I could no longer bear the mirror image of big, brown eyes filled with sadness, my gaze shifted downward.
A wave of emotion rumbled inside of me. Get up. Yet, teenage arrogance kept my baggy, blue jeans stuck to the seat like Doublemint gum. I tried, in vain, to admire my freshly manicured acrylic nails but fretted over my savings from my summer job at St. Barbara’s instead. Would this be me for the rest of my life, worrying about how I’d pay for stuff? I couldn’t reach out to Mami[3] for help with senior dues and other activity fees, like the ski trip and prom, since she didn’t have the money. While my crisp black, high-top Reebok classics were laced tight and right, Abuela’s dingy sneakers, two sizes too big, were untied beneath her brown polyester pants. Not me. I will not be like Mami or Abuela. 
As the train pulled into the next station, the conductor announced the Lorimer Street stop. I was reminded of the Key Food Supermarket on Grand Street where Abuela and I redeemed glass bottles and aluminum cans late last summer. Nothing shamed me more than accompanying her to work. Despite a lifelong battle against Type 2 diabetes, Abuela and her swollen feet limped through Los Sures, the Northside, and Greenpoint with a carrito de compras[4] to scour the streets and trash cans.
Bing-bong, chimed the doors. I closed my eyes and recalled a sweltering morning Abuela and I grabbed gloves and lined her carrito with a clear, industrial-size bag. Early in our route, stale beer and sticky soda leaked from a hole at the bottom and left a trail of tears behind us.
            We collected roughly fifty cans and bottles for redemption. By the time we arrived to Key Food, vending machine lines moved fast. We beat the rush! Abuela and I separated glass from aluminum as we inched closer to the front. In halting English, Abuela chatted with others about the best places in Brooklyn for collection. We made $2.50.
At the Hewes Street station, the conductor announced a train up ahead at Marcy Avenue. C’mon, move. Close to home and each other, Abuela and I were still generations apart in the same subway car. I thought back again to the time she and I collected on this side of Los Sures, how I kept my head down and walked a few steps ahead of her, just far enough to hear the glass bottles clink and the empty plastic cans squeeze behind me. I didn’t want friends from I.S. 71 who lived in the neighborhood to see my Abuela and I in despair. It would crush my pride like the vending machines that fed off Abuela’s bottle redemption.
I rose from my seat and walked over to Abuela as the conductor told us to stand clear. Bing-bong, chimed the doors. I squeezed into the small space next to her. She did not smile at me. I smelled Irish Spring on the cheek of my Puerto Rican grandmother when I kissed her.
“Bendición, Güela,[5]” I greeted her.
“Dios te bendiga. Estaba pensando cuánto te ibas a tardar en reconocerme. Tú sentada allí con la cabeza hacia abajo, ¿eh sin vergüenza? No puedo ver pero tampoco soy ciega! ¿Para dónde vas?[6]
I avoided her eyes and watched the buildings on Broadway whiz by.
“I’m gonna meet up with Margie,” I answered.
“Recuerda que las señoritas no deben estar afuera muy tarde. Las calles son peligrosas,[7]” she warned.
“I know...I know…and where were you?” I asked.
“Fui a comer en George’s Restaurant cuando salí de mi appointment en Woodhull y di una vueltita por Graham, recogiendo mis tesoros.[8]” she replied and patted her shopping bag.
As the train pulled into the station, Abuela and I got up from our seats.
“This is Marcy Avenue, last stop in Brooklyn...Step up and stand clear. Next stop is Delancey,” announced the conductor.
“Gimme the bag, Güela. I’ll hold it and help you down,” I offered.
Bing-bong, chimed the doors after us. We stepped onto the platform, walked through the turnstiles, and exited left. Abuela descended the stairs sideways and took one step at a time. She used to be so fast. How can skinny legs be so heavy? Her small, mighty fingers clutched the handrail. They were sturdy and endured the legacy of our family. The lines on Abuela’s aging hands wove a story I had not yet uncovered. 
She should have enjoyed retirement during that stage of her life. Instead, she worked hard and tirelessly. Although she performed degrading labor, Abuela earned an honest living to supplement her Social Security benefits. She’d often say: “La renta no se paga sola. Hay que trabajar.[9]” Furthermore, her collection and redemption of bottles and cans provided relief when her $7 food stamp booklet was exhausted.
On a good day, Abuela’s carrito overflowed like her generosity. If she collected seventy cans, she and her grandchildren, myself included, enjoyed an order of pork fried rice and chicken wings from the Kam Sing Chinese take-out on Grand and Bedford. On other occasions, family, friends and neighbors who visited her tiny, one-bedroom apartment enjoyed café con leche y pan con mantequilla[10] during their stay and left with their hearts a little fuller. Through her living example, Abuela, my redeemer, modeled how to treat others with empathy, kindness, and respect because she believed no one should ever have to suffer from hunger or loneliness.

[1] Translation: “Oh, thanks.”

[2] Translation: Grandmother
[3] Translation: Mommy
[4] Translation: Shopping cart
[5] In traditional Puerto Rican families, one asks for blessings or bendiciones from their elders. It is a sign of respect. Güela is grandma.
[6] Translation: “God bless you. I was wondering how long it would take for you to acknowledge me. You sitting over there with your head down, shameless. I can’t see but I am not blind. Where are you going?”
[7] Translation: “Remember, young ladies should not be out very late. The streets are dangerous.”
[8] Translation: “I ate at George’s Restaurant after my appointment at Woodhull (hospital) and I strolled around Graham picking up my treasures.”
[9] Translation: “Rent does not pay itself. You have to work.”
[10] Translation: Coffee with milk and bread with butter

[1] Translation: “Rent does not pay itself. You have to work.”
[1] Translation: Coffee with milk and bread with butter

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