Ajos and Hojas
Abuelita sat at the head of her kitchen table, where three generations of Benaventé women worked in silence. The only sounds were made by their busy fingers as they each undertook one of the numerous tasks to make tamales. Abuelita’s grand-daughter, Frances, slouched down low in her seat, breaking down bulb after bulb of garlic and adding each peeled clove to the pile growing in front of her. As the pile grew, Frances slouched lower, trying to use the garlic pyramid as a barrier between herself and her mother, Verónica, who sat directly across from her. Verónica worked unfolding dried corn husks, stacking them into her own piles, like the walls of a fort, barricading herself from both her mother and daughter. Abuelita stood over a wide-mouthed, shallow pan that held corn meal batter, saying a silent prayer that her daughter and grand-daughter would make it through the day in peace.
Abuelita worked the batter, one hand wielding an ancient beater that looked to be the same age as her daughter, while her other hand alternately added lard, salt, and garlic-infused chicken broth. All the while, she tasted a fingerful here and a fingerful there, adjusting the flavor, texture, or consistency of the mixture accordingly.
“Finished,” Verónica said, pushing away from the table.
“OK,” Abuelita said, “plug the sink and run hot, hot water over them.”
Verónica tossed a stack of husks in the sink. “You know, I have made tamales before.”
“Pues, I know, mija. I was just reminding. It's been a few years since you've been home when we made them.”
Verónica rolled her eyes at Abuelita and turned the water on. After a few seconds, steam began to rise from the water gathering in the sink. When Frances and her little sister were younger, they would save the corn hair from the husks where it had dried to a deep garnet color. They would make silky red piles while they worked; then they would gather the hairs in bunches, combing them, and smoothing them straight. The last time Verónica was home to help with tamales, five years ago, she and the girls sat out back in the warm winter sun near the orange tree, mother and daughters in a row. Abuelita had watched as Verónica braided the jewel-toned hairs into Frances' hair, while Frances braided them into Graciela's. The sun made the red glow against their own auburn hues, and the glorious beauty of all of her girls made Abuelita feel so full and whole. And in that moment she was certain that Verónica would finally stay for good.
“Do you want some coffee, Abuelita?” Frances said. “I made some earlier.”
“No, mija, I'm fine. But maybe your mother?”
Frances' eyes went back to the garlic she peeled.
“Don't worry about it, Frankie. I'll pour my own.” Verónica shut off the water and grabbed a mug.
“I think Frances may want some,” Abuelita said to her daughter, not looking up from the pan where she roasted flour in hot oil. The first day Verónica was back was always the worst for everyone. So many minefields for Verónica to cross. So many questions the girls wanted to ask. And Verónica had been gone almost a year this time. The man she had gone off with last had ridden a loud motorcycle and had long, greasy hair that he held down with a dirty bandana. Abuelita spit when she met him. But Verónica didn’t seem to care. From the moment she came home from the bar talking about him, Abuelita suspected that he would be the new fascination.
“Oh yeah?” Verónica turned and spoke to her daughter. “You finally joining the caffeine team with the rest of us?”
Frances shrugged. “Sometimes.”
“All right, then,” Verónica said with a smile. “How do you like it? Cream and sugar like me and your little sister?”
Verónica cleared her throat and poured a second cup.
“Speaking of Graciela,” Abuelita said, “she should be back just as the tamales are ready.”
“Lucky girl.” Verónica placed the coffee in front of Frances. “I'd love to be sledding in the mountains instead of working in the kitchen all day.”
“Someone has to do the work,” Frances muttered loud enough for everyone to hear.
“Is that why you didn't go along?” Verónica said. “Or are thirteen-year-olds too immature for you now that you're in High School?”
Frances snorted. “Sure.”
“No, don't lie,” Abuelita said. “Frances wanted to go, but Graciela told her no.”
“Wow. Gracie said no?” Verónica raised her eyebrows. “That's a first.”
“Lots of firsts happen while you're gone,” Frances said. She peeled the last clove of garlic in a bulb, then turned to Abuelita. “Is this enough garlic?”
Abuelita nodded. “Si,”
Verónica grabbed her purse from where it hung on the chair back and said, “I'll be out back having a smoke while the hojas soak, Mom. Call me if you need me.”
Frances stood at the counter working the blender making more of the garlic-infused broth. She added three to four cloves of garlic to the pitcher at a time, along with chicken stock left over from the day before. Frances started the pulse low, as her grandmother had taught her, slowly increasing speed so that the garlic and stock blended together in an almost creamy texture.
Abuelita laid a hand on her granddaughter’s shoulder.
Frances stopped the machine, and turned to face Abuelita. “She makes me crazy.”
“She hasn't been home a whole day; how can she drive you crazy already?”
“It makes me crazy when she's in the same room as me,” Frances said quietly, her hands arranging the garlic cloves on the counter into little piles.
“She's your mother,” Abuelita said.
“But you're my mom,” Frances replied.
A short time later, Abuelita stood next to the table taking the batter-covered corn husks and placing a spoonful of meat and chilé sauce mixture in the center of the husk. After adding the perfect amount, she folded one side in at a time, the sides of the leaf hugging the filled center. Squeezing from the bottom she pushed the mass up an inch, then folded the bottom up, making the tamale into a neatly wrapped package.
Verónica returned from her cigarette with renewed energy and worked non-stop, covering husk after husk with batter and lining them up on the table for Abuelita to fill. The table became crowded as Abuelita had to smooth each one out before she could fill it because the batter was spread unevenly, sometimes thick and sometimes thin. When there was no more space left on the table for more husks, Verónica grabbed a clean spoon from the drawer and plopped a spoonful of the chicken and chilé verde mixture into the center of a batter-covered husk. Abuelita watched as her daughter folded the edges of the husk over the chilé mixture and placed it in the pan, then grabbed another spoonful and husk.
“That’s Abuelita’s job,” Frances said, the spoon she was using to spread the batter clenched in her fist.
“Well, now I’m doing it, too,” Verónica said, placing another tamale into the pan. “Besides, we need to pick it up on this side. Mom is getting backed up.”
“Well, mija,” Abuelita said, “I’m having to smooth the ones that you’ve done so they are even.”
Verónica cocked her head to one side. “Does it really matter? They’ll all steam up fine.”
Abuelita shook her head but held her tongue. It wouldn’t help to argue with Verónica today. Instead Abuelita just kept working her own way, smoothing the batter and making sure the tamales were stacked neatly in the pan, only occasionally repositioning one that Verónica had put inside. While they worked, Abuelita couldn’t help but search her daughter’s eyes to see if her pupils were dilated.
Three hours later, the first pan of tamales was bubbling on the stove, and Abuelita listened as Verónica spoke to Frances.
“...And after I get a job, we'll get a cute place, Frankie, maybe by your school so you won't have to ride the bus anymore.”
“I don't mind the bus,” Frances said, grabbing a spoonful of batter and spreading it in a thin layer over the cornhusk she had laid open on the table.
“Well, even if you don't mind, I mind. No daughter of mine should have to schlepp on the bus. You can even get your license soon. And if I get a great job,” Verónica said, sing-songing, “maybe a car is in your sweet sixteen future.”
Abuelita’s brow furrowed. Verónica was at it again. “Wow, a car would be something,” Abuelita said. “I could never have imagined that when I was a girl. Where are you thinking of working?”
“Oh, I don't know. Something will come up I'm sure.”
Abuelita reached into the pan, scraping the last of the meat and chilé mixture. “OK, my mijas, break time. Then we’ll need the other pan of carne from the garage to do the second half.”
“I'll get it,” Verónica said. “I want another smoke anyway,”
“Ay. Don’t you think it’s time to cut back, maybe stop smoking altogether?”
Verónica laughed. “I have no intention of quitting!” she called as she went out the front door.
“Don't ever start smoking,” Abuelita said to her granddaughter “It's a nasty habit. Your momma should never have started.”
“Don't worry, I have no intention of being like her,” Frances said and pushed up from the table, heading down the hall towards the bathroom.
Abuelita sat down in her daughter's chair and sighed. It was worse than usual this time. Since Frances and Graciela were little girls, their mother was in and out. Frances took it harder, but she normally came around after a few days. This time, though, Frances seemed different. Less mad. More cold. Abuelita hoped things would fix themselves when Graciela was back. A small smile appeared on Abuelita's face. Her youngest granddaughter was a firecracker. Once, when Abuelita went to put away some clothes, she found Graciela dancing on Abuelita’s bed wearing one of her slips. Graciela had turned on the record player, and it blared “the lady in red, the lady in red” while Graciela's little feet moved fast, her body twisting and turning to the rhythm.
Frances snapped Abuelita back to the present. “I'm not moving back with her this time,” she said.
Abuelita took her granddaughter in her arms. It shouldn’t be like this between a mother and child. “No, mija, no. Your mother, she'll settle this time. She's already talking about a job and a place to live. Maybe a new car for you. She needs to be here to show you how to be a young lady.”
“Ha! What does she know about being a lady?” Frances said. “She runs off, then comes home and tries to play normal life. Besides, you know what will happen. She'll be here a month or a few months. And maybe she'll even get a job. But we both know one day she'll be gone, and there'll be a note, or a message on the machine, or nothing at all. And we'll move back here. And Gracie will cry for a week.”
Abuelita was quiet. When had Frances figured everything out?
“She isn't a mom,” Frances said softly. “She's a bad big sister who comes to town and ruins everything. Even Gracie.”
Abuelita wanted to cry. It was true. But Verónica was their mom. She carried them in her stomach. She had to love them. “No more. That's enough. She is your mother. And if she wants you with her, you go. If she tells you to do something, you listen.”
“Enough! I mean it. Your mother is coming, and I want you to be a good girl. Show her what good girls she has.”
Frances closed her mouth, but her eyes pleaded.
Abuelita knew what she had to answer. A daughter needs her mother. She shook her head.
“This smells delicious!” Verónica said as she walked in the door carrying a large pot full of tamale filling.
Frances broke eye contact with Abuelita and turned to her mother. “Hey, Mom!” she said with a false-sounding enthusiasm, “Guess you're here for a first after all.”
Verónica pushed the door shut with her foot. “I'm sorry?” she said.
“Yeah, you know firsts, like we were talking about.” Frances slapped a corn husk on the table and grabbed a heaping spoon of batter. “Gracie's off having a first right now.”
“We've been to the snow before,” Abuelita said.
“You know what she said?” Frances continued, her eyes on Verónica and a mean smile on her face. “She said it doesn't matter anyway, because you'll end up sleeping with hundreds of people, so why is the first one important.” In a swift downward motion Frances flicked the glob of batter on the spoon to the corn husk
A look of horror dawned in Verónica's eyes.
“She said, ‘Whatever, Franks, you should get it over with, too.’” Frances’ voice broke a little. She looked down at the corn husk and roughly spread the batter. “So great, Mom, back just in time to see Gracie becoming a slut, just like you. Aren't you proud?”
Abuelita closed her eyes. She didn’t want to believe what Frances was saying. Gracie having sex? The sound of Frances slamming her spoon down made Abuelita open her eyes just in time to see Frances pick up the batter-covered corn husk and fling it into her mother’s face.
Verónica let go of the pan and brought her hands up to protect herself from the soft flying object. The pan full of pork and chilé crashed to the floor, splattering chilé in a deep red slash along the length of the kitchen.
“Great. Now you ruined the tamales, too.” Frances looked at her mother. “Why don't you go back to where ever you run away to and leave us alone?” She stepped past her mother, through the mess, and out the front door, leaving chilé tracks in her wake.
Abuelita looked at her daughter, who stood covered in batter and chilé. She didn’t know what to say. Nothing could fix the pain her daughter must be feeling in this moment. So Abuelita handed her daughter a kitchen towel and began to sweep the chilé and meat into a pile.
It was Verónica who broke the silence a moment later. “Is she right?”
Abuelita exhaled and shook her head. “No, mija, your place is here, with your family.” She set the broom against the wall and went to her daughter. “We will just keep working here, and then Graciela will be home, and we can sit and have dinner, and everything will be all right.”
Verónica leaned against Abuelita. “You think so?”
“Good food always makes things better.” Abuelita gave Verónica a little squeeze, then went to the stove. “These should be done, now. I can smell them,” she said, and she took the lid off of the pan and set it aside, waiting for the steam to clear. When it did, she peered inside and saw chilé and meat on the pan walls, in the water, and covering all the other tamales that hadn’t leaked. She closed her eyes and exhaled hard, in a huff. Most were probably ruined. They could clean the mixture off some of the ones that were sealed properly, but it was all a big mess now.
“Everything look OK?” Verónica asked.
“Si,” Abuelita said as she put the lid back on the pan.