Puerto Rico

A few days before my mom died, I arrived at the hospital to have the nurses ask me why my mother would be speaking in Spanish and if she had been a teacher at some time in her life. You can read more about that day in a post entitled “I AM…”

When I told my friend, who also happens to style my hair, this story she told me I should take some of my mom’s ashes back to Puerto Rico. At that point the ashes were still sitting in my house, so I took them back to the funeral home, bought another overpriced (although much smaller) box and had a small amount of her ashes moved into the new container.

I had my reservations about doing this, but I finally came to terms with having her ashes separated and prolonging the process of grieving by committing to doing more than just burying her ashes once. When my father buried the majority of the ashes at his house, I knew there were still more destined for somewhere else.

If someone had told me that I, “Little Miss Make Decisions and Move On” would get so bogged down in all of this I would have scoffed! I decided that if this took years, it was ok, I was in no hurry.

Finally, after nearly a year of thinking about going to Puerto Rico, last Thursday my husband, my son and I boarded a plane for San Juan.

I didn’t do a very good job of planning. Oh, we had flights there and back and a great hotel to stay in, but otherwise I planned nothing. I wanted the trip to be organic and for things to just happen as they felt right.

I didn’t want to have expectations that could let me down, I didn’t want plans to go awry, I didn’t want to bother any of my cousins (whom I really don’t know well) to take days off from work and plan excursions. I wanted no anticipation, just free time, a little peace and no turmoil.

For a planner such as me, it was difficult to leave without each minute scheduled. Improv is not my gift. I did have Tim get a rental car for one day of the trip about a week before we left. And I couldn’t help but do a quick google search of Ponce the day before departure. Mostly though, we were winging it!

The day before the trip, we met with our minister who was kind enough to bless the box with my mom’s ashes and to pray over us and our trip. I guess if you have to plan only one thing, that is a biggie!

I have only been to Puerto Rico (PR) three times in my life. Well, I actually remember only two of the times, but I was told about the third.

My mom took me to meet my grandparents, aunts and uncles when I was one year old. I remember the story well of how my mom decided to have my ears pierced while I was there. When my mom was growing up in PR, baby girls got their ears pierced when they were newborns. Since that wasn’t the custom in the US, she thought it would be better to just do it while at home in PR.

I, of course, don’t remember any of this, but I grew up hearing how this was one of the first fights my parents had. When mom and I returned from Puerto Rico, my dad was furious that my mom had “mutilated” me with pierced ears. My ears were left to heal up and I was not allowed to get my ears pierced until I was an adult.

The second time I remember going to PR was as part of a cruise with my parents. I was 6 years old.When the ship stopped in PR, we disembarked with everyone, but we did not return with everyone. We stayed to visit my grandparents while the ship continued on to another port. A couple of days later we took a private plane to St. Thomas to rejoin the cruise. I remember some of that cruise and being terrified on the little prop plane, but almost nothing of the time we spent in PR.

The third trip was supposed to be a full summer at my grandparents house. It was just my mom, brother and I. I was about 14. I remember more about that trip, although it isn’t clear memories.

I remember spending time at my Uncle Frankie’s house with his kids who were fun and kind. I remember walking to the bakery down the street from my grandparent’s huge house in the morning for fresh bread and pie. I remember walking to the corner store for icy treats called limbers. I remember riding into the mountains for a big meal at an outdoor restaurant. I remember getting very ill and after being treated for scarlet fever, my mother deciding to cut the trip short and head home.

I remember the generosity of everyone. If I said I liked something, next thing I knew it was mine. I came home with dolls and jewelry and things that belonged to cousins, aunts and my grandmother only because I had admired the items. I eventually learned not to say anything if I saw something pretty, because I didn’t want to take all of their things.

Landing in Puerto Rico 46 years after my last visit, there was of course nothing familiar. Or so I thought.

Listening to the voices around me made me nostalgic for the voice of my mother. It reminded me of when she would be speaking in English and suddenly change to Spanish. I would say, “Mom!! English, English.”

My mother wanted to teach us Spanish as babies. Her thought was that we could speak Spanish at home and then we would learn English out in the world and at school. Then we would be bilingual.

My father said no, that it would slow us down in school and make us odd when we were outside of the house. As usual, my mother was right, my father was wrong. Also, as usual, my mother cowered down and did as she was told. I did not learn Spanish.

The summer I was 14 and in PR for a month or so, I learned Spanish quickly. I could understand most of what was said around me (except when my mom and her family got to talking really fast!) and I could order my treats and converse with my cousins- sort of. As soon as I was back home I forgot most of it. I took Spanish in high school and remembered a lot, but not for long.

Hearing the voices around me as I left the airplane last week, I began to pick up words here and there. I began to remember phrases and sayings.

As soon as we got to the hotel, we felt the warmth and kindness of all of the staff. Since our room wasn’t quite ready, we went straight to the bar for a snack. The moment we sat down, we had food put in front of us. We hadn’t ordered anything yet, but there were 3 dishes with nuts and olives and plantain chips. We soon found out that when you sit down in a restaurant there, they are going to feed you first and ask questions later.

When I later went to the concierge to ask about a restaurant that would serve a certain dish in Old San Juan, the young woman asked me if I had been to PR before. I told her my mom was from the island and that I had been there a few times a long time ago. I told her I was there with some of my mom’s ashes.

With tears welling up in her eyes, she looked straight at me and said, “Welcome home.” And I felt at peace.

I will stop for now- I know that no one wants to read more than a few words in this hurry up world. Our adventures were only beginning as we settled in to our room and began this unscripted experience. More tomorrow.


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Marietta is a graduate of the University of Montevallo with a BFA in musical theater. She has been performing for over 50 years on the stage and continues to perform, direct and teach. Marietta is married to Tim, has a son named Jon, and a cat named Penny.