A Personal Tempest in Cape Coral
by Dayna Reid
The moist, warm, air carries hints of the sea, sand, and palm leaves in a single breath. A twenty-minute drive from town takes you to the ocean. Surrounded by canals, this is not Italy’s Venice … but an American Venice—Cape Coral, Florida. There are no quaint cobblestone streets and bridges traversing the water here. Every inch of waterfront property is taken up by large sprawling private homes with screened-in backyards.
On one of these canals is the home where I am spending my spring break. Large fans cover the ceiling and sand-colored tiles cover the floor in every room. Seated around the kitchen island there are three generations of Cuban women and me—a white woman from Seattle. I recently inherited this extended family through my cousin’s marriage to the youngest woman in the room—40-year-old Denise. Denise and I traveled here for relief from the cold, cloud-covered Northwest and to visit the family that she has not seen in 15 years.
“Ella habla Espanol?” Mima asks. The 92 year-old matriarch does not speak English, and dementia devours her memory of the previous half-dozen times she has asked her granddaughter if the unfamiliar woman amongst them speaks Spanish. Denise leans down to her seated grandmother, puts her arms around her and gives her a kiss on the cheek. Mima remembers the loss of her husband, murdered in Cuba 70 years ago, but she can’t recall what happened an hour ago. Denise extends a platter of deep-fried food shaped like discs in my direction, “Tostones,” she says. “Try one.” I take a bite before I transfer the breaded plantain to my plate. The pan that holds the brown lumpy liquid which looks like gravy is black beans, which I learn is to be mixed with the white rice I have already scooped out.
“You know, there’s a popular Cuban dish we call ‘Moros y Cristianos,’” Denise says, “It means ‘ Moors & Christians.’ The black beans represent the dark-skinned Moors (or Muslims) and the white rice represents the light-skinned Christians. The beans and rice together are symbolic of the cooperative mix of the two cultures.”
There are far more Christians than Muslims on my plate but before I have a chance to fully analyze the racial configuration of my food, Denise insists I need more beans and heaps them onto my plate. Their strong saltiness balances the blandness of the rice to create a perfect culinary diversity. I begin to contemplate the deeper meaning and advantages of diversity …
“She doesn’t go around the bushes,” says Mima’s 67 year-old daughter Adele, Denise’s mother. Her Spanish-to-English translation causes an eruption of laughter among the younger ladies as they realize she meant to say, “She doesn’t beat around the bush.”
Denise intersperses dance steps and sings her questions and answers—switching rapidly from English to Spanish, sometimes mid-sentence—as she assists her mother with dessert. I am exhausted just watching her.
“Denise, calm down. Take a breath.” Adele says. She turns to me, commenting, “Denise has always been hyper.”
Denise’s father asks, “Denise, did you take your Ritalin?” The sparkle in his eyes betray the joke behind his words. Another round of laughter erupts in the kitchen. This trip is good for Denise. Back home in Seattle, life is serious—bills to pay with unpredictable income, meals to prepare, upkeep of the household, care of children and husbands (hers and her daughter Tara’s)—with little time for teasing and few occasions for laughter. Here in Florida, her mother is the one worried about finances, meal preparation, and family needs. Adele frequently starts sentences with “You should do this” or “You shouldn’t do that” in a tone developed over nearly seven decades of managing the household and everyone in it. I begin to see the similarities between mother and daughter. Back home, where Denise is in charge, she frequently starts sentences the same way.
“You should call your daughter,” Adele says to Denise as we finish the Pastelito De Guayaba—fruit and cream cheese filled pastry—and Cuban espresso served for dessert.
“I don’t want to call her right now.”
“You should call her,” Adele says and puts the phone in Denise’s hand. Denise and Tara argue frequently, mostly about the way Tara manages her money and her marriage.
“Hi, Sweet Pea.” Denise says into the phone.
After a long pause, Denise says, “You need to make sure to set aside money for the
cable bill. It’s due on the 3rd.”
After another pause, Denise says, “You need to be responsible with your money.”
Another pause and the conversation ends.
“She hung up,” Denise says.
“You shouldn’t talk about finances to your daughter,” Adele says. “You are on vacation. Why couldn’t you just call and tell your daughter that you love her and miss her? Why do you have to start talking about bills?” Her words cause Denise’s shoulders to slump and her face to darken as if someone turned a dimmer switch to the lowest setting.
“I don’t want to talk about it, Mother.” Denise says.
“You have no morals to tell Tara how to spend her money.”
“I told you I didn’t want to call her, but you insisted. I really don’t want to talk about it mother. I’m going to bed.”
Throughout the next day, Denise’s mother continues to call attention to the things she should and shouldn’t do. That evening, Denise and I sit on the fluffy white comforter that covers the bed in the guest room. I ask, “How do you feel when your mom tells you all the things you’re doing wrong?”
“It feels horrible. I feel like I can’t do anything right. I remember feeling like this when I was growing up.”
“How do you think Tara feels when you tell her what she should be doing?”
After a long pause, with a pained expression on her face, Denise says, “Oh no, I am my mother!”
As her words hang between us, I realize that this trip is about so much more than a reunion of family, gathered by the pool sipping Piña Coladas in the Florida sunshine. In some strange way, the ever looming threat of a hurricane in this area seems eerily parallel to the breakthrough on Denise’s horizon.
She says in a calm, purposeful tone, “I need to call Tara.”
Infused with the desire to break the cycle, she dials the phone and says, “I just want you to know that I love you and I’m here for you.”
Find out more about Dayna Reid
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