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 Texas : Features : Columns : Notes From Over Here :

Home Again

by Byron Browne
Prior to a couple of weeks ago, I had been to Puerto Rico for exactly an hour and a half. That was two years ago when my wife and I were on our way to the Dominican Republic to witness the baptisms of our nephews. My wife is Godmother to one of them. These are two of the most adorable little boys you have ever seen however, that is another story.

My wife and I, along with one of her sisters, had landed at the San Juan airport on our way to Santo Domingo. The pilot of the small, dual-prop aircraft that was taking us from one island to the next, entered the cabin to have a look around. He wanted to inspect and evaluate the relative corpulence seated around the fuselage. I was disconcerted that the plane was so immature as to warrant the readjusting of the weight of our bodies. There was an enormous man seated across the aisle from myself. The pilot instructed him to move to a seat near the back, on the left side. His wife, equally Rubenesque, was to occupy a seat across the aisle also in the rear. I, always a thin wire, an exposed nerve, was allowed to stay where I was. But, this too, is another story.

We arrived into San Juan in the late evening. The lights of the island, yellow and golden, appeared suddenly from the black space that is the Caribbean sea and all at once we were glad to see it realizing, of course, that we had, for the better part of an hour, been sailing, precariously, over open water. Now here was the safety, the terra firma of Puerto Rico. Having been offered the embrace of a warm welcome, the pilot accepted he invitation and set the plane down. My son and I entered a new land, terra incognita; my wife was home.

My in-laws, known more affectionately as Mami and Papi, were waiting for us at the baggage claim. Our son, at six foot five, towered over the five foot three figure of his grandmother. The dichotomy was so stark that some people stared; we laughed.

We left the airport with my wife driving the SUV that belongs to her mother. There are three pillows in the back hatch area that my mother-in-law has to use as a sort of perch when she drives. This too, makes us laugh.

My wife was raised in the city of Humacao, about an hour east of San Juan. Her parent’s home, the one she was raised in during her adolescence, rests near the center of town. This town, like so many on the island, is comprised of narrow streets and tightly positioned dun homes. Most of the windows in the town, indeed, the entire island, are barred with wrought iron grating. The level of crime is so severe, so pervasive, that even the patios of upper level apartments are guarded by this same sort of ironwork.

My in-law’s home is close enough to Papi’s office that he walks to work almost every day. Most days, he returns home for lunch at 12:30 and then, dutifully, walks back to work. Lunch consists, frequently, of beans and rice and plantains. If lunch runs long, he will drive his 1994 Crown Victoria back to the office. He is a pediatrician and has a practice that consists in large part of delivering vaccines to Humacao’s children and teenagers. The afternoon that my wife, our son and I visited the office, there was a young mother waiting with her infant son in the anteroom. The child was wailing and inconsolable. When my father-in-law came out from his examining room to discuss something with his receptionist, he noticed the constant crying and, without interrupting his conversation, walked over to the mother, silently asked permission with his eyes, to hold the child and took the infant in his hands. Having turned the boy around, with the child’s back facing him, he seated the child’s bottom in his left hand and placed his right hand on the boy’s chest leaning him forward just slightly. The child ceased crying immediately. The mother smiled, we smiled and my father-in-law continued his talk with the receptionist, never acknowledging what he had just accomplished. He handed the boy back to his mother with a jostle that said, Here-this is how to hold him, but when the mother took possession, the child again began to cry.

When we arrived at the house from the airport that first night I heard for the first time the very near, constant and multiple song of the Coqui-the species of frog indigenous to the island that doesn’t so much croak as sing a continual, staccato whistle. I’ve read that in Hawaii they hate these frogs. They’re too loud. No respecters of wealth and position the coqui’s constant noise infuriates the soft slumbers of this other island’s affluent population. They spray the forests with sodium bicarbonate of soda. The broad fronds of the jungle leaves hold the white powder that the frogs like to rest on. This powder kills the frogs and, because it is a natural pesticide, allows the users to sleep at night; to the two-toned whistle of the coqui.

There are lizards everywhere in Puerto Rico. When my father-in-law took my son and I to his backyard to show off his avocado, mango and plantain trees, we saw no fewer than six lizards rushing around trying to get out of our way. There was one in the hallway the first morning of our trip and my wife asked her mother to shoo it away. Mami said she would but, she soon forgot about it and it was there the next morning too. The mango tree is enormous and already has bunches of clusters of fruit hanging from its branches.

The three of us, my wife, our son and myself, went to the ocean one afternoon. Being on the east side of the island, the beach was deserted. Most people, tourists and natives alike, prefer the beaches on the other side of the island. I’m told they’re prettier, bigger, more traditional looking. For myself, now supersaturated with strip malls and condominiums, it was beautiful. My wife sunned herself on the hot sand while my son and I swam in the dark, salt water. The waves were warm and because of the shark net just out there, even the smaller schools of fish, so prevalent in Texas’ intertidal zones, were absent. It was incredible to consider that looking farther east the next landmass was Africa. Below us and closer than the United States above us, would be Venezuela.

We spent a few days in Humacao and my wife shown us those landmarks of her youth. She pointed out the traditional, perpetual and then those things that are new and unfamiliar. I was surprised to learn that the Pizza Hut had been there for over thirty years. In fact, it had been the only restaurant in town when my wife celebrated her quinceanera.

As we drove to the airport on the last day of our trip, my wife and her father held a soft, lengthy conversation from the front seat. Their Spanish, lilting and melodic, floated to the back where I understood none of it. After several minutes the three of them, excluding my son and myself, began, as they always do, to offer prayers for safety and departing. These were constructed in near-whispers, Our Fathers and Hail Mary’s repeated again and again while we swam through early morning traffic towards San Juan. Their orations, votives placed at the altar of familial affection, filled the car like incense in a nave.

© Byron Browne
Notes From Over Here
April 1, 2010 Column
Byron Browne can be reached at Byron.Browne@gmail.com

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