Sunday Scribbling--Chronicles of Nora (a fiction)
“That’s because they are passionate, intense people, who live and love hard,” piped up his sister, Marisol. She sounded just like Tia Patricia when she said that; like she was repeating an old story, down to the tone of voice.
I stayed silent, I did that a lot in those days. But I remember what I was thinking, “I believe in happily ever after.” I did because I saw it. My Papi was devoted to my mother, Nora. Everyone knew it, and everyone said it to me all of the time. “You’re so lucky Maritza. Tia Nora is like…a saint, or something. She never even gets mad! And your parents are so cute! Ay, so in love!”
And they were…almost always together at these weekend parties, when usually the couples broke off into their units, wives in the kitchen stirring an endless pot of mole, or giving the babies bits of arroz to whet their appetite. Doctors be damned! Husbands in the living room drinking cerveza and paying cards. Only my parents fought this separation, so standard it almost seemed like nature. They sat apart in the corner of the living room, watching the men play, always in deep conversation. Every now and then Mami would run into the kitchen for something, and Papi would just watch the space where she was until she returned to fill it. But lately Papi would bring me to the weekend parties alone, at Mami’s urging, because she was so sick. El cancer. I wasn’t supposed to know that, but of course, I did.
We kids usually sat in the bedroom, balancing on the queen sized bed with the pink flouncy bedspread. There was always one adult designated to tell us stories, play games with us, and keep us out of trouble. It alternated between our youngest tia, Sonia, and our abuela.
Abuela was a wonderful storyteller, dreaming up fairy tales that were way more interesting than the stuff we read in class. It was one of those that we’d just finished hearing.
“And what’s a chronicle, anyway? I mean…nothing we do is all that important, so chronicles must happen to other people, right, abuela?” Tomas was looking to be contradicted, I could tell. No one wants to think what they do is not important, not even my know-it-all cousin.
“I think it’s like…like the history of the important people,” Bak said. I’d almost forgotten…he was there too. Not that I wouldn’t have known that, known it with every cell back then. Bak was my Sunday crush—the one that made those endless parties a little exciting. He wouldn’t have fit in with my friends or school at all, but that only made it better—like I could put on this whole other person, just for him.
Bak was short for something…but I don’t think I ever knew what. No one ever called him anything but that. There was always all sorts of mystery around him—he was adopted by one of my uncle’s best friends, after something happened that no one ever mentioned in front of us kids. Bak was exactly the kind of person who would have a chronicle, and I told him so, surprising myself. He blushed hard, rose flush on such tan skin, and pulled himself into himself.
Abuela grinned and said, “It’s something like that—the important history of people are their chronicles…and everyone has them. You live forward, but meaning streams backwards behind you. That’s why you have to keep looking behind you to understand yourself.”
Not me. I could just look straight ahead. My mother was going to die. Everyone knew it, even though no one said it. And then everything that happened after that would be what made my life. It made me feel heavy, like after I had the flu for a week.
“I mean,” Abuela continued, “I’ll bet you never even heard one of my favorite stories!” So of course we all clamored to hear it. She pretended to be considering against it, then hunched forward, and started to tell it.
“So here it is…the Chronicle of Nora. When we first got to this country, Nora was just eleven years old.” I sat up straighter—a story about Mami! I nuzzled closer to Abuela. My Mami meant I could sit in a position of honor, because it was my story too.
“Ay, we used to call her Nora la Electradora…Nora the Electrifying One…because she was such a fireball of energy and fury and love and just…everything you’d want from a daughter. But oh, she had a TEMPER!”
“Mami?” I asked in disbelief at the same time that everyone else said, “Tia Nora?”
“Yes! Yes! Nora, your Nora, she was not always the angel you see now.” She laughed again, an inward laugh, as though she was laughing from the time the story happened and the chuckle just reached us now.
“We all loved fast food back then…it was so American, and anyway, it was all we could afford. But none of us could speak Ingles, so we would wait until our neighbor’s son, Jose, started work. Then he could take our order in Spanish. Well, one day, I guess Jose was sick or something…and he never showed up. And we sat there, in the back of the Burger King, and we were STARVING. But no one dared to do a whole order in English. We just knew very few words back then. Until finally Nora had enough and she strode right up to the whitest, blondest kid there and said, 'I want an American Love!' See, the ad back then was 'Americans Love the Whopper' and I guess she thought that was the whole name of her favorite sandwich.
Oh, we all laughed and laughed--looking that girl's confused expression, and Nora all proud like she'd figured out two plus two! But Nora…she didn’t even blink. She just grinned and somehow, she got her burger and all of us watched her eat for a minute before we couldn’t take it anymore and went to muddle through our OWN orders. Now…” she said when our laughter died down. “You could look at that story two ways. For sure, Nora looked foolish and I’m sure deep down she was embarrassed. But I don’t remember it that way. She was like un military…a soldier! She fought for what she wanted. And she still does…just more quiet.” Abuela squeezed my hand. I held my head down, watched the unexpected tears dropping on her hand. “Nora can fight, mi’jita. And she won’t lose!”
But she did. El cancer took her just a few months later, and Abuela passed about two years later, taking all of those stories with her. But she gave me this story of Mami, a different, fire-living Mami, and many others as well. Those stories burn inside of me, have burned themselves into my DNA, and I only look for the words to make them breathe again. To make them inspire me, again.
Despite everything, I still believe in happily ever after. My Mami had it her whole life long, and Papi...well, he never married again, adoring Mami until his end. And me? Well, maybe for me it will be happily after everything.
I am on my way home now, from far away New England, to celebrate our annual “Dia de los muertos”…our remembrance of Mami, Papi, of Abuela, of everyone in our family who has passed, but who live on in us.
This year there will be a new picture on the memory table. Bak is gone this year. Killed in Iraq. He took Abuela’s words to heart on that day—decided to tell his story forward with bravery. Now it was up to us to look backwards and make meaning on his behalf.
And when I got to the Tia Sonia’s house (no more apartments for us—we really were Americans now), the family drifted out to greet me. And they all looked like pieces of string, disparate, waiting to weave themselves around the bones of our loved ones' memories, and make life again.
To read more Chronicles of life and love, go here.