Dispatch 25 (Nov. 26-28 part 3)

     After Gina and Juan returned and said their goodbyes, Gina and I hit HEB where a few last-minute meal preparers like ourselves were hunting for this can of cranberries or that two-person turkey.
     Gina grabbed a bottle of wine, cranberries and dinner rolls before we paid and headed back.
     By the time we returned to the house, the kitchen was a warm flurry of activity with pots cooking, steam rising and a mix of scents, some familiar, others foreign to me, mixed in the air.
     Gina’s grandmother moved with fluid grace through the kitchen as if her feet were gliding on dust bunnies, carried this way and that from task to task.
     When we arrived, she put an arm around Gina’s shoulder and led her to a large pot where rice ("arroz con leche," Mari told me) was bubbling. Mari told Gina to stir the thick mixture where whole cinnamon sticks were mixed in with the milky white rice.
     Feeling that I wasn’t being useful, I began to retreat to the living room, but Mari stopped me.
     "We have more work, Heather. You stay here with us, bueno?"
     "Bueno," I answered.
     I baked, then buttered rolls from the medium-sized oven. I peeled and cut bananas that Mari was going to cook. I opened the can of cranberries that would sit alongside the homemade stuffing that Mari was preparing.
     From what little Gina had told me on the way down from Austin, I knew that Mari’s husband, Gina’s grandfather, had died many years before and Mari had never remarried. I knew that Gina’s family was large, but spread out far across the U.S. Many of Gina’s aunts, uncles and cousins were in California, New York or Florida. Beyond the immediate family, a whole branch of her family tree was in Mexico, specifically Los Herreras and Monterrey.
     Gina told me that Mari would cook for us and probably help one of Gina’s aunts cook a second meal later – a dinner for most of the rest of the family that still made its home in the Valley. Gina said she might put in an appearance, but that she was here for her mother, not necessarily to see all the relatives she would surely see again in a month during Christmas break.
     Sandra sauntered into the kitchen, bed-headed and newly awoken, close to noon. She was rubbing the sleep out of her eyes as Mari foisted utensils and cloth napkins for Sandra to use in setting the table.
     As I was helping Sandra, Miguel arrived, holding a bag in his hand from an Eckerd’s drug store. He disappeared into the bedroom where Gina’s mother still lay, and when he returned, he seemed more relaxed and at ease than he had the night before.
     "Como se sienta?" Mari asked him when he came back.
     "Lo mismo, but she slept, so un poco mas tranquila."
     "Bueno, sientate. Vamos a comer," Mari said, pushing him out of the kitchen and toward the dining room.
     I helped carry plates and dishes and bowls, all of which held more than enough food to feed the five of us. As I had that thought, I remembered that there was a sixth person – one who couldn’t join us at the table, but whose illness had gathered us all here.

* * *

     Mari said a prayer which I could follow for about three words: "Gracias a Dios," before she lost me.
     No one held hands, as was common in my family for Thanksgiving grace – instead each person bowed their head in prayer as Mari spoke.
     The next word I understood was "Amen," as everyone opened their eyes and began eating.
     I ate a little of everything, enjoying stuffing and cranberries, sliced white-breast of turkey, tamales Mari had brought from a freezer stash she’d made a month before, wine, and my own buttered dinner rolls.
     My tongue alternately burned, blushed and bathed in the tastes of the meal. Dorm food and even healthy Austin food (tofu and gardenburgers) were nothing compared to this. I didn’t care if I was gaining weight – I didn’t care if I had to hit the campus gym for weeks after this – it was worth it. The meal was incredible.
     When we were done eating, Gina went to the kitchen and motioned me to follow. She grabbed a small plate from the cupboards and put a little bit of turkey, some mashed potatoes and some stuffing on the plate. She poured a glass of water.
     I went with her as she walked from the kitchen. Miguel and Mari looked at us, neither smiling, but seeming to share with us a look that mixed concern with gratitude.
     We went down the dark hallway to the bedroom. Gina walked slowly, as if in a trance. I saw as the little girl she might have been – carrying the plate and glass carefully, afraid to spill anything, afraid to break a silence.
     At the door, Gina knocked softly. She waited for an answer, but when none came, she opened the door.
     The bedroom was furnished with cherrywood – everything from the bed’s headboard to the hutch to the full-length oval mirror. It all gleamed even in the meager light.
     Gina’s mother lay under thick covers, her lined stretched face poking out. She was stirring, her eyes half closed.
     "Mijita," she said, weakly.
     Gina went to the bed and sat next to her. She put the plate and glass on the nightstand and stroked her mother’s face. She whispered something I couldn’t hear and her mother nodded slowly.
     Gina turned to me and waved me over. I walked with trepidation, unsure if I was supposed to be here, part of this moment.
     "Hello, Heather," Gina’s mother said, her voice surprisingly firm. "Did you have a good meal?"
     I smiled at Gina – despite my near-orgasm at the dinner table, food was the last thing on my mind at the moment. That she cared what I thought of the food made me feel that despite my pleasure, I still hadn’t enjoyed it enough.
     "It was wonderful," I said. "Really tasty."
     "I brought you some, mama," Gina said. "Can you eat?"
     "Ay, I think so," she said. She began to push up with her body and Gina helped prop her to a sitting position.
     Gina began to feed her small forkfuls of food.
     "Your grandmother can make a meal out of some beans and a cup of flour," Gina’s mother said. She tried to laugh at her own joke, but instead began to cough. Gina didn’t smile – her face was tensed into grimness. I thought she might cry at any moment.
     Gina helped her mother with the water, propping the glass up as she drank. When she was finished, Gina’s mother had eaten less than half what we’d brought her. She lifted her hand in protest – she was full, she said.
     "Bueno, Heather you take of Gina for me in Austin, okay?" Gina’s mother said.
     "I’ll try," I said.
     "It’s not easy, I know," she said. "She likes to get into trouble."
     I was a little shocked, and unsure how to react. Gina was holding her mother’s hand and didn’t even blink at the words. Maybe she’s heard it before, hundreds of times.
     Gina’s mother slumped back into bed and closed her eyes. Gina and I walked out, closing the door softly.
     I followed Gina as she went through the kitchen, deposited the plate and glass into the sink and walked straight outside. She was walking so fast, her sandals clacking rapidly on the kitchen’s tile floor, that I struggled to keep up with her.
     Once past the carport door, she ran to the backyard. It was sunny outside and rays blinded with their floating dust motes.
     Gina ran to a tire swing hung from a large mighty tree. She jumped at the rope and swung, propelling herself through cool air and bright light.
     The tire revolved and as her face turned toward me, I saw the flush of it, her eyes wet with tears, her hands gripping the frayed rope as if it were a lifeline.