Tuesday, April 29, 2008

La Primera Agua de Mayo

I was rooting around, trying to remember that ditty about “30 days have…” because I needed to know when the month was changing, when I remembered my old Cuban granny.

I was an obnoxious preteen when my grandparents came to live with us in the United States. We lived in Staten Island, one of the outer boroughs of NYC. At the time, there were maybe two Cuban families who lived there. So when they arrived, strangers with even stranger customs, it took some getting used to.

First of all, they didn’t speak a word of English, ni una papa. Grandma insisted on answering the phone, so we had to tape a cardboard with “Ruthy, no jiar. Col leira” to it. The floors got cleaned by a wooden toothless rake with a rag on it. And Grandpa, who had never seen snow, suddenly saw himself in charge of disposing of mounds of it. Although he only had a third grade education, he was pretty sharp. In no time at all, he had created a snow plow out of one of those old summer baby carriages and a piece of tin. Unfortunately, it was too light, so my toddler brother was forced to sit in it as Grandpa plowed up and down on the sidewalk.

You could set your clock by their habits. Every day at three o’clock, they would take a bath and change into their afternoon clothes, not to be confused with their going out attire. At five, they would eat. Suddenly all sorts of tubers and the like started appearing on our kitchen counters. She would boil them or fry them up and chase me around with a little dish she had put aside for me.

So one day, I was doing something or other in the backyard, when Abuela came running out with a glass of water, thrusting it at me. “Ruthy, Ruthy, tienes que tomarte esto!” she insisted. I eyed the clear liquid with suspicion. “Que es, Abuela?’ or “What is it?” I asked. Es la primer agua de mayo, she informed me, the first rainfall in May. Now we lived across the aptly named Kill van Kull from all the petro refineries in Jersey, and it was not unusual to wake up and find the lawn furniture corroded in the night, which made me a bit hesitant. “Toma la primera agua de mayo para belleza,” or “Drink the first rainfall in May for beauty,” she iterated. I looked at the glass; I looked at her beaming face, sharing herself, her past with me; and PBC’s or no PBC’s I gulped it down. Heck, a little beauty wouldn’t hurt either.

So watch out for that first rainfall. I’m a little unclear as to whether it works for guys, but unless you live in Staten Island, it can’t hurt.

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