Mrs. O walked into our small apartment without knocking, as most of our neighbors did. Like family, except, somehow, all of us kids knew the difference between family and being familiar. We lived on the ground floor, so it was much easier for our neighbors upstairs to drop in, than it was for us to walk up.
Our place was the meeting ground, for the children more than the adults. They had work to do.
There was no elevator. Nobody complained, probably because none of the neighbors was obese, probably because there was no elevator. If you lived upstairs, you had to think twice before you made up your mind to go across the street to the pharmacy, which had a soda fountain, to order a black cow.
Ask your elders what a soda fountain and a black cow were.
I was raised in the tropics. Ours was an open stairway. If you got caught in a rainstorm, which happened with mechanical regularity, your race for shelter did not end at the building’s entrance. Our neighbors had to hurry up, two steps at a time, before they could get to their front door. There was a crawl space under the stairway: a dark, unpaved haven that I used to think of as my medical office (I knew, early on, that I would be a doctor someday).
Our tiny kitchen had only one small window, set high on the far wall, which led to the same crawl space. Our pots and pans never saw the light of day. One 40-watt fixtureless light bulb, screwed to the ceiling, allowed my mother to see the roots and vegetables that she cut into.
Mrs. O went straight through to the kitchen, which was as far away from the front door as you could get. Tony, my best friend, followed in tow. To my disappointment his sister Magda was not with them. I was hopelessly in love with her. I told her that I was going to be a doctor; that she would be my nurse; that I needed to examine her closely so that I could learn. She was eager to comply with my requests: there were many times that we explored ourselves underneath the stairway.
My mother was busy making soup. This was my father’s daily bread. Every day; for lunch and dinner; rain or shine. She made a big batch in a large pot, which would last for a few days. Mrs. O sat on the red highchair that we kept in the kitchen. It had two steps that swung under the seat cushion. This chair served as our ladder when we had to change a light bulb or clean a cobweb that was out of reach. It also served as the confessional for the neighborhood wives.
My mother taught school during the day and pursued a graduate degree in the evenings. She raised three kids, by herself, because in those days men brought home the bacon and did little else. I know now, sixty years later, that there was no way that she could have a moment to spare. Yet somehow, she did. When she listened to anyone, she kept her gaze steady, never letting on that she was in a hurry. People flocked to our kitchen for their therapy sessions. I never heard her give a word of advice.
“The soup smells good,” Angie said.
My mother cut into a large piece of summer squash. She placed half of it in the boiling water. She looked up for an instant and smiled.
“I barely made it home before it rained. Lucky me; I just had my hair done!”
The potato peeler came out of its drawer. Rinds began to fly onto the tiny kitchen table.
“Something very odd happened last evening.”
Angie looked at the floor. She looked toward her son and I for a second, then fixed her gaze on the kitchen window. She had an elegant face: what we would call classy these days. Her daughter was lucky to inherit her looks.
A teaspoon of salt went into the pot. My mother reached for a bunch of carrots.
“One of Tony’s students knocked on our door last night. Tony was out, teaching the classes they sponsor for veterans. It’s extra work, but the government pays well.”
The carrots were peeled and cut into small pieces. Into the pot they went.
“She told me that she was Tony’s lover. That they wanted to be together all the time. She said that she wanted me to give him a divorce.”
Her fingers trembled a bit. As did her lower lip.
“You know how it is these days, Annie,” she continued. “These women are so aggressive. We were not raised like that, but now… She looked to be close to my age: she’s no child. She scared me.”
One solitary tear fell down her left cheek. My mother lowered the heat once the water boiled.
“I did not know what to do. When Tony got home, I told him what had happened.”
A long pause.
“He said nothing, Annie. He looked away, as if I were not talking. I expected him to act different, with me being so upset!”
A bone that had a few strings of meat still attached to it went into the mix.
“She may have a point, which worries me. We used to have real conversations, Tony and I. We went to school together. I was the smart one! Everyone wanted me to study with them. This is how I got to know Tony better. He had no plans for his life; he just wanted to finish his degree. I steered him through.”
My mother looked up from the stove, just for a second, to let Angie know that she was listening.
“Then I got pregnant with Tony, and we had to get married. He stayed in school, and I did not finish my degree. Now here I am… I feel so stupid! I pushed him to get his master’s, and I worked so that he could afford to study full-time. Then he got a government grant for his doctorate. Now he is department chair, and I have nothing to show for all this work. And this woman…”
She could not finish the sentence. The tears began to flow in earnest.
“I asked him, why he was saying nothing, and he got angry. He waved a fist at me; he told me that he loved me; that he would never leave me; that these were stupid students… He swore on his mother’s grave, Annie. But all that he did was scare me. I did not want him to scream. If he had only hugged me for a little bit!”
The lid came off the pot while my mother checked on the progress. She placed it back on and looked at her friend for another instant.
“Where do I have to go, Annie? What would I do? Tony’s a good father: the kids adore him. We lack nothing. How could he take this away from us?”
She sat on the red stool for a few more minutes, blankly staring at our backyard. Then she straightened out and stood up.
“The soup smells great, Annie. Be sure to save some for us: I think Tony would love it.”
She turned towards us.
“We have to go home now, Tony. Say good-bye to Paquito and Mrs. Garriga.”
As she walked away, it dawned on me that her face looked a lot like the faces that I saw in the pictures of famous paintings that my father was fond of showing me. In Spanish they call them “Magdalenas,” women whose faces clearly reflect suffering and pain. Women who were strong, survivors, who were being mistreated by a man who did not appreciate the gift that they represented.