I like going to estate sales. Even if I buy nothing, I enjoy seeing the nice houses that made up my home borough. I wander the rooms and imagine the lives that were lived there, the celebrations and sorrows, struggles and accomplishments. There had to be some level of success to afford to buy property here. I admire the architecture and use of space. What did they eat, wear and decorate with? What were their schools, sports and hobbies? Could we have known each other?
I arrived late to one sale today and immediately grabbed a Puerto Rico souvenir plate. Guitars, Caribbean artwork, statues of saints, Guardian Service cookware, clearly this was a Hispanic family. As I admired some beautiful china a man asked me: ¿Estas Boricua? He looked just like my father’s late cousin looked about thirty years ago.
In a flash I remembered how Dad’s family circled the wagons during a tumultuous time in my early childhood, how I didn’t even realize things were bad because all they showed me was happiness and support. They treated me like I was cute, intelligent and funny. I played with their kids, I had sleepovers at their homes. This cousin wasn’t even a blood relative, he was married to Dad’s actual cousin, but we didn’t make distinctions. Family is family.
¿Estas Boricua? Are you Puerto Rican?
I’m not bilingual so I had to do a quick translation. “Uh, yeah, why do you ask?” (I stifled the old impulse to narrow my eyes and stiffen my jaw. I’m old enough to remember when this was a loaded question.) He noticed that I had the plate. It was clutched close to my chest. And as is my habit when I’m caught off guard, I babbled some brief but pleasant nonsense conversation with him and his wife. Was it my imagination that he had the same voice as the cousin he resembled?
I am lucky. In my lifetime I have experienced societal changes that include the acceptance of Hispanics into the mainstream, with the same opportunities and levels of expectation. I came from an intelligent and loving extended family. I got to work hard to live something close to the life I dreamed of. I am mother to an amazing young woman.
I am lucky that a brief moment with a stranger can bring up joyful memories. Bad things happen to all of us but Dad’s family showed me early on how to handle adversity. Bad luck did not escape me, but I knew to fight it with everything I had: tenacity, positivity and the love of some very good people.