|He chewed like an animal. I'd imagine cows, baboons and giraffes chewing and how much my father resembled them while he ate. I'd try to control my laughter but I couldn't.
There was always rice in our house. Our rice came in all varieties-cold, sticky, day old, 2 days old, fried and burnt. I slept in a bunk bed on the bottom with no one on the top level. My parents kept promising that I'd get a little brother to occupy the upper bunk but that always prompted more questions.
"When am I going to get a little brother?"
"How's my little brother going to get here.are you going to buy him from the store?"
At that point a gap would appear in the conversation inching towards silence.
"Shut up and eat your rice."
I would pick at my rice. I didn't really like it to be honest. I liked French fries and mashed potatoes and my father would sit across from me eating rice with his hands.
"What's wrong with you?" he'd ask, unknowingly spewing rice grains from the corners of his mouth.
My father would swallow another handful of rice and take a bite into a dark green chili pepper. He'd reach over and grab me by my left ear lobe.
"Nuthin? Yeah.that's exactly what you got in your head. nuthin. You better study hard. I don't want any dummies in my family."
I would sit and pick at my rice that had turned cold.
"And eat all that rice on your plate.or I'll knock you upside your head!"
I tried not to look at my father's face but I couldn't look around it. He chewed like an animal. I'd imagine cows, baboons and giraffes chewing and how much my father resembled them while he ate. I'd try to control my laughter but I couldn't.
"Eat your rice!"
Grandma was an unpredictable rice cooker. She cooked rice in pots that looked to be a century old. They sat in a cupboard with the plates and empty cookie tins showing brands of cookies no longer in existence. Sometimes her rice was soupy and sometimes it was slightly overcooked and sometimes burnt. She would sit across from my father wearing a mint colored robe. She sat and sipped at her steaming hot tea. I would watch the steam from the cup rise and caress her face.
"Grandma, I don't like rice," I said.
Grandma put her cup down. She walked to me and looked down. She smiled.
"What's wrong with my rice?"
She looked at the rice and laughed.
"I burn the rice sometimes."
|It would be another 20 years when I'd talk to my grandmother about rejecting her rice at the kitchen table. We would sit and she would boil a pot of water. When it got good and hot, she'd pour some old burnt rice into the pot.
She took my plate and scraped the rice into a jar filled with old rice. She then took a potato and put it in a pot of water. My father kept chomping away at his food.
"Look, he's an Irishman", said my father disdainfully. The water boiled and grandma put the potato on my plate where it sat next to a hamburger patty. I mashed the potato with my fork and topped it with a chunk of butter. The potato burnt the roof of my mouth. My father sat and watched.
"What did you learn in school today?" he asked.
I sat with the roof of my mouth peeling. I searched my mind for an answer. Why did he have to ask that question again? How could I tell him that my teacher made me sit facing the corner for talking out of turn? How could I tell him that I still performed mathematical equations using my fingers?
"Answer me!" he screamed.
Grandma put her teacup down.
"He is a good boy, a smart boy."
My father went back to his rice, scooping it with a bit of fish.
"He ain't smart" said my father, "He can't even tell me what he learned in school."
Grandma and I locked eyes. She sipped the last of her tea. I ate my hamburger and my potato. She wasn't angry with me. She knew me, and knew the things that I knew, whatever they happened to be.
"What did you ever learn in school?" Grandma asked my father.
I looked at Grandma's eyes. They fell on my father who was almost finished eating. I avoided my father's eyes. I looked straight down at my potato and hamburger. "All you ever did in school was goof off," Grandma said before finishing her cup of tea. My father was silent. I thought about animals chewing and I smiled.
Suddenly I felt a sharp pain in my leg. I looked at my father's face. It did not laugh. I looked under the table and saw his black leather boot. I ran my hand over my shin and pretended nothing happened. My father got up from the table and put his plate in the sink. I finished my food while Grandma watched me. She washed the dishes and I watched her move her pots into the cupboard.
"Study hard, kid," she said as she wiped the kitchen table. She hummed to herself and I saw a mouse dart into a corner followed by another. My father was in his room and I made my way to my bed. My leg still hurt but I was ok. Grandma kissed me goodnight on the way to her room.
"Study hard so you can get a good job," she said before leaving me.
I turned over in the dark and thought about school and how I'd have to try harder. I couldn't remember what the teachers said. I tried but it was hard. I fell asleep and waited for the next morning. It was the same thing at school-I just couldn't concentrate. I began asking myself, "What did you learn in school?" I had no answer. It would be another 20 years when I'd talk to my grandmother about rejecting her rice at the kitchen table. We would sit and she would boil a pot of water. When it got good and hot, she'd pour some old burnt rice into the pot.
"What's that?" I asked.
"It's tea. I use the old rice to make it."
We sat down and drank that hot tea. Grandma would sit and the steam would still caress her face. I sat and thought about the old rice in the jar. Grandma didn't waste anything.
© Tony Robles