Saturday morning. It’s about 7 AM. The sun is out and I have no school. Awesome. I run into the kitchen in our New Jersey apartment, which is right next to my bedroom. Mami is there, making breakfast.
“Be quiet! Papi is sleeping. Don’t wake him up if you know what’s good for you.”
I don’t listen. I run across the living room, passing my two younger brothers, already awake and running around in their playpen. I run into my parents bedroom. Sure enough, Papi is sleeping. I think twice about waking him up on a weekend, remembering what happened last time I did that. Nope, there will be no grounding this weekend.
I run back to the kitchen, where my special spot is waiting for me. My older brother is still in our room sleeping. I can tell because he is the only 8 year old I know that snores. I sit on one of the dining room chairs that has been set in the corner of the kitchen. Our tiny black and white TV sits on the washing machine in front of the chair. I turn it on. Time to watch Saturday morning cartoons – “los munequitos”.
After breakfast, Abo and Alla come over, my grandparents. That is our nicknames for them. Saturday is my favorite day of the week. Every Saturday, our grandparents take my older brother and I out, giving Mami a break from having to take care of four boys. If we had been born later, we probably all would have been diagnosed with ADHD and put on Ritalin. But this is the 70’s and everybody knows that boys will be boys.
So off we go. We are driving to Roy Rogers now. If you are not familiar with them, they were a chain of fast food restaurants back in the day. With us it was either Roy Rogers, or the Burger King across the highway from the Meadowlands. As we drive, I can hear my grandfather whistling to the radio. He loved country music. He loved it because of the stories they would tell through their music. He would sing and whistle, his wedding ring tapping to the beat on the steering wheel. He was a fantastic guitarist, performing with a trio of musicians in Cuba before they migrated to the United States after the Cuban revolution. I owe my interest in music to him.
I can see my grandmother pulling out our Roy Rogers cards. These were the honorary deputy cards they give out to kids at Roy Rogers. They entitled us to a discount of some kind. My grandmother would keep them, as we would surely lose them. Sometime during the ride, Abo and Alla would get into some type of argument. I don’t remember what they were about, and they would not last long. They had been married so long, and couldn’t live without each other, so it is weird that they would argue like that. This particular day, after a few minutes of arguing, my grandfather turns around to us, moving his finger in a circular motion around the side of his head and says in his broken English:
“You granmatha, she crazy….”
My brother and I erupt in laughter. Of course, that angers my grandmother even more, which is also kind of funny. But she soon is infected with laughter as well. My grandfather had a way of diffusing a situation like that. No one could ever be mad at him for very long. He had a way of introducing humor – sometimes on purpose and sometimes just by his nature – that would immediately put people at ease. He had been a professor in Cuba and in the United States, and from what they tell me, a great one.
So after Roy Rogers, we usually went to a department store. Our grandparents were very much like other grandparents, and as such they spoiled us on occasion. But they were not frivolous with their money. Of course, being kids, we always wanted them to buy us a toy. So to keep us calm and not crying all the way home, they had a rule. One week was for looking, and one was for buying. We were ok with that. So one week we would look at all of the toys that we wanted to buy the following week. Then the next week we could buy a toy. Truth is, we always wanted the most expensive toy, but usually as long as we got something we were happy. Those grandparents were sneaky that way.
This day we end up at Two Guys, a department store similar to a Kmart. My brother and I have to be held back like wild monkeys as we walk through the doors. Abo and Alla each hold one of our hands until we get to the toy section. We are in our own personal heaven. This is a “looking” week, so we can play with anything we want, but no buying. I see some rubber animals, snakes and lizards. I love those, so I pick them up and move the snake along Abo’s arm. He smiles, and takes the snake, moving it along my arm. It tickles. My grandfather has now transformed into a child. He is no longer an authority figure. He is my best buddy, playing with me as we pick up each rubber animal and take turns playing with them.
Then his face changes. It is as if he has been snapped into reality. His smile goes away, and he tells me in a very serious face:
“Don’t show dat to you granmatha. She very scared of that!”
Oh boy. Guess I am not getting one of those next week. Alla was born in a different era and grew up in a different world. She had many phobias, and snakes was one of them. When Abo tells me that, the gears in my head start turning, the mischievous side comes out. I began to devise a plan of scaring my grandmother with a rubber snake. I picture how funny it would be.
I never did, and I am glad I didn’t
My grandmother is 101 years old today. I know she will not be here for a long time. Even though she is remarkably healthy for her age, and her mind is as sharp as ever, time waits for no one. But one of the saddest days of my life was when my grandfather died. The day God calls Alla will be one of my saddest days as an adult. I was 14 when Abo died. I remember the funeral parlor being so packed with people, it was standing room only. But with all those family and friends around, I was so alone. My buddy was gone. I still miss him today, all the times he would tickle me for no apparent reason, the times he would transform into a child to play with us. He showed me how to ride a bicycle. He gave me my love for music and the guitar. He taught me what love was. Abo and Alla are a big reason I am who I am.
I miss you Abo.