EGGS, 1930

EGGS, 1930

From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul

Eggs, 1930

It’s the fall of 1930 in a small apartment in Spanish Harlem, the home of Lola and Manolín Morales, my abuelos. This is one of a series of homes through which every cousin and uncle and aunt fresh from the island will pass on their way into life in the United States, a kind of family consulate where they learn to ride subways, wear coats, and find apartments and jobs of their own. My grandparents were married a little over a year before, and they boarded a steamship for New York the same day in September of 1929, which means they came north just in time for the great stock-market crash. They walked off the gangplank and into the Depression.

In the years ahead, my grandfather will walk ninety blocks to work in order to save the nickel of the bus fare. He will feed his family on institutional cans of ham and giant jars of jam “liberated” from the elementary-school cafeteria, where he is a stock clerk, and his supervisor pretends not to notice what’s missing. My abuela, who loves color and style, will own a single brown dress she jokingly calls “wash and wear” because you wash it and wait for it to dry so you can wear it again.

In 1941, when the U.S. enters World War II, Manolín will be recruited by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, whose apprenticeship program is actively seeking out workers of color, looking to strengthen the union in a time when patriotism is being used as an excuse to undermine workers’ organizing efforts. He will become a Navy Yard electrician, wiring battleships in Brooklyn. He’ll go on to become a skilled and well-employed worker, a craftsman proud of each detail of what he knows, who delights in sending his grandchildren transistor radios that arrive in Puerto Rico smelling like new cars, boxes of Jordan almonds packed up with bottles of giant orange vitamins, and a special high-tech nylon rope as thin as a pencil, but strong enough to hold a swing for a ten-year-old child. And in 1969, he will retire with my grandmother to the Flamingo Terrace housing development in Bayamón to tend his plants and try to keep my grandmother locked inside the wrought-iron gates of their house.

But this is October of 1930, and my newborn mother is suckling at the breast of my starving abuela. Manolín has been unable to find work, like millions of others. Abuela Lola is faint with hunger. She hasn’t eaten anything in several days, but her body continues to empty itself of nutrients to feed her child. I imagine the minerals draining from her bones and teeth, how they start to crumble. Imagine strands of protein breaking in her muscles, like elastic threads stretched too far. I have seen malnutrition. I know the sucked-in look of it. Hour by hour, she is going there.

I don’t know who knocks on the door—one of the compadres or comadres, that small group of Puerto Rican immigrants who know each other, who act as family in this foreign place where the autumn air is growing chill and everyone is desperate. One of the men has been promoted. No longer a janitor, he will now supervise maintenance at the office building where he works. The others have gotten together to decide who they should groom for his old job. The consensus is that Manolín should get it because he and Lola have a new baby. So the former janitor takes Abuelo down to the building at night and teaches him how to use the big industrial vacuum cleaner. In the morning when he recommends Abuelo for the job, they will both be able to say he has experience.

The manager approves him, hires him and advances him a week’s pay, and when Manolín leaves work in the early morning hours, he buys eggs and butter and hurries home to Lola and my infant mother. He cooks her scrambled eggs, a specialty of his that will be famous to his descendants, his way of expressing love and also exercising his perfectionism and authority in the kitchen. You beat the eggs just so, dice the onions in the most efficient Morales way, put the chopped tomatoes in at just the right heat, stir at the exactly correct speed for the perfect texture.

But in all his cooking career, there are no eggs as perfect as the ones he cooks for his wife that morning, blessed with the compassion of the comparientes, seasoned with hunger and hope, and spooned carefully into the mouth of a woman too weak to hold a utensil. Fifty years later, my abuela will still be able to describe what it was like to eat those eggs, buttery and soft and delicious beyond words, the warmth of them entering her stomach, the surge of strength returning to her limbs. For those eggs were more than eggs—one mouthful after another, they were golden bites of life itself.

Aurora Levins Morales

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