Bidding farwell to Hilda and Rene, I hopped back into my Ford Focus with free GPS and headed back up that same damn hill. Passing maybe five or six houses, I see an older lady standing in her driveway looking down the hill. That, ladies and gentelman, was my step-great-grandmother. That was Angela.
Angela's place in my family is an interesting one. She is my step-great-grandmother. That's an interesting and slightly confusing designation, if I may say so. Here's what it really means: My great grandfather, Alfredo, had two wives. He had his children (one of whom was my grandmother, Helen) with his first wife. Alfredo and Angela didn't have any kids. Therefore, I'm not directly blood related to Angela, but she is still family!
I pulled up my car next to her house, and the first thing that she says to me as I exit the car is "Tu hablas espanol? (Do you speak Spanish?)" It made me laugh out loud. Imagine if I didn't! This would have been the shortest reunion imaginable, and perhaps the most anti-climactic as well. Luckily, I have some Spanish chops.
We walk inside of Angela's house. It's small and sparsely furnished, with religious symbols on the walls, wicker furniture, and photos of her family on the walls. It actually reminded me very much of my grandmother's house.
I took a seat at the kitchen counter and we got to chatting. One of the first things she said to me was that when Alfredo died (in 1990), that everybody forgot about her and didn't call her anymore. Awkward. However, she's absolutely right. The last communication that she received from the family was a postcard from 1994, announcing the birth of one of my cousins. Since then, nothing.
I changed the topic, as I was uncomfortable and truly didn't even know she existed until about a week earlier (further proving her point). We start talking about our families. She tells me about her sons, I tell her about my parents and sister. Then, Angela goes over into another room and pulls out a stack of pictures which look like they haven't been touched in 20 years. I thumb through them, finding many pictures of Alfredo, some pictures of my grandmother, some pictures of Aunt Nancy, and then, a baby picture. Angela tells me that she isn't sure who the baby is. I look a little bit more carefully... and realize it's my sister! It's a baby picture of Lauren, I announce with characteristic enthusiasm! What are the chances that there is a baby picture of my sister in some little village in a remote corner of Puerto Rico? Incredible.
We continued chatting for about an hour or two, and then Angela asks me if I'm hungry. I wasn't really hungry, but the thoughts of a sumptuous Puerto Rican meal, hand-made by a genuine Puerto Rican abuelita were too enticing. I said I was hungry.
Here it comes. Real PR food. I wonder if she makes her mofongo by scratch? Maybe she'll make me some rice and beans? My mouth is watering just writing this.
She comes back from the refrigerator. A plate of brown rice. That's cool, that's okay. Then, a tupperware container. I bet it's the mofongo!! It has to be. Luchresi cannot tell a mofongo from a sherry!
She pops the tupperware in the microwave. Ok, fine. But the mofongo, Mateo, the mofongo! It beckons!
It's done. The ding of the microwave, 'tis truly a clarion call for culinary celebration! A fanfare for festive feasting!
Angela unceremoniously plops the contents of the tupperware onto my plate of brown rice. A bit uncouth, but a student should never question the master so early in his education! Either way, it's... it's brown. I can see-- I guess those are onions? Either way, I'm here in Puerto Rico and here is some actual Puerto Rican cooking going on. Let's do this. Mofongo ahoy!
I dig in. I taste chicken. That's a good start, but I really can't tell what is in this. Finally, I can't take it anymore. What the hell am I eating? I ask Angela what is in it? "Chicken, onions, peppers. It's good right? Very fresh." I agree, and politely refrain from mentioning that she needed to nuke it longer because most of the contents on my plate are still frozen. I continue putting the chicken, onions, and ice shards into my mouth and wash it down with some instant coffee that Angela whips up for me.
[Side note: Instant coffee holds a special place in my heart. When living in London, I spent most of my time at a cafe that I lived on top of called Tiffins Cafe. Run by Roy and Jane (a lovely pair of Indian immigrants who grew up in Kenya and then moved to London and subsequently became my second parents when I lived in London), Tiffins is a simple kind of a joint, serving a mix of construction workers, locals, and the occasional hungover American grad student. Very simple meals are served with tea, hot chocolate, or, you guessed it, instant coffee. Ever since then, I don't mind the ashy, bitter taste of a fine cup of Nespresso. In fact, I love it. I'm instantly transported back to Tiffins, sitting at the table next to the window, eating fried eggs, baked beans, two rashers of bacon, and enjoying the welcoming company of Roy and Jane.]
I ask Angela how she makes it. She goes over to the freezer, and grabs a bag. "Here." Oh shit. It's a frozen dinner! So much for authentic Puerto Rican cooking!
After some more chatting, I felt like it was time to go. But before I left, I asked Angela if I could take her picture. She refused at first, saying that she was "fea". Not true! Bonita! Eventually, I got her to accept. And, here she is:
We exchanged phone numbers and addresses, and I bid Angela farewell. Getting back into my Ford Focus with free GPS, I waved goodbye, switched on the AC, and turned up the salsa. Climbing back up the hill, I stopped and pulled the car over. Reflecting on what an adventure this had been, I grab my pen and paper and start furiously taking notes.
And that's my story of how I found my step-great-grandmother in the hills of Puerto Rico.