Essay by Chantel Acevedo
My grandmother grew up in Matanzas, Cuba, years before the heady and
chaotic days of the revolution. When she’d describe her childhood to me, it
seemed nearly pastoral. Sure, there were stories about eating only powdered
milk for a week, and of watching planes flying over the island during World
War II, but for the most part, the Cuba she remembered was idyllic.
That is, except for all the dead children.
My grandmother, Tita, seemed to know many dead children, and she never
hid a single, gruesome story of each child’s demise from me. The stories came,
always, at the most opportune time. There we’d be at the zoo in Miami,
watching the lazy, bloated alligators in their shabby concrete canal. I’d stand up
on the railings to get a good look at these giant creatures, and at once, Tita’s
large hand would come down onto my back and yank me down.
“Ay, don’t you know that your head weighs more than the rest of your
body? I knew a boy in Cuba who did just that at a zoo like this one, and oomph!
He fell over and the cocodrilos ate him up.” She’d go on to describe the red-
stained water, and the chomping alligators. All they’d found later, she’d said,
was a wooden top that had fallen out of the reckless, big-headed boy’s pocket.
On another family excursion to the fair, I felt that same heavy hand pulling
me out of line for the double-looper roller coaster. My hair hung halfway down
my back then. My grandmother had taken a hold of all of it and tied it with a
rubber band she kept in her purse.
“Mi’ja,” she’d said, “I knew a girl in Cuba who rode a montaña rusa just
like that one in Havana with her hair loose. And what do you think happened?
Her hair got tangled in the tracks, and fwa! Her head came clean off.”
Tita had the unfortunate distinction of personally knowing the girl who went
swimming on a sand bank and lost her life when the sand gave way to a big
wave, the boy who sat so close to the television during an electrical storm that
when the glass inevitably exploded, it sent a missile-like shard right into his
temple, killing him instantly. That same storm took out a girl who stupidly
talked on the phone while the lightning illuminated the sky. A bolt traveled
through the phone line and into her ear, detonating her head, right there in her
own living room.
It’s little wonder then that as a child I was afraid of roller coasters, bull
sharks, race cars, rocking chairs, scissors left open on a counter, pressure
cookers, and sewing needles. All of those things played a role in the death of
an innocent, if not foolish, Cuban child, and I did not want to be one of them.
My grandmother turned eighty this year. I took my daughter, Penelope,
an exuberant toddler, to visit her on our last trip to Miami. Inside my
grandmother’s apartment, Penelope played with a vast collection of porcelain
dolls for hours. I sat on edge the entire time, imagining a shattered doll, and
slivers of porcelain stuck in tiny bare feet. “Don’t be boba,” Tita said to me
when I voiced my concerns. “She can’t hurt herself with a doll.”
That day, my grandmother gave Penelope her first taste of Cuban coffee,
a potent, sweet mixture that keeps non-Cubans up for days. “It won’t hurt her
at all,” she said, when I scowled a little. She circled Penelope’s wrists with
tiny beaded bracelets (the kind not suitable for children under three), and let
her play with a bottle of may-be-hazardous-if-swallowed perfume.
My grandmother had changed, I thought. Perhaps the ghosts of all those
dead children were finally put to rest. Perhaps the dead boys and girls of her
imagination had stopped whispering to her, urging her to tell their tales.
By evening, the temperature had dipped into the low 70s—cool by
Miami standards. Small owls were already hooting in the crowns of palm
trees, and the traffic outside had thinned considerably. A steady breeze lifted
Penelope’s hair as I settled her onto my hip. I kissed Tita goodbye, and I
could see the strain on her face. She’d never cried in my presence, and she
was dry-eyed each time I left Miami.
I was thinking about the many months before my next visit as I walked
away, pondering the way the years had mellowed my fiery grandmother. And
then: “Ay, cover the baby’s mouth!” my grandmother yelled into the fading
afternoon as we walked down the sidewalk to the parking lot of her complex.
“Don’t let the cold get into her lungs!” she shouted. “I knew a baby girl in
Cuba once. . . .”
Chantel Acevedo is primarily a fiction writer. Her novel, Love and Ghost
Letters (St. Martin’s Press, 2005), won the Latino International Book Award
for historical fiction, and was a finalist for the Connecticut Book of the Year.
Her short stories have been published in many literary magazines including
Prairie Schooner and Cimarron Review. Acevedo currently lives in Auburn,
Alabama, and teaches literature at Auburn University.
On “Cuban Ghosts”:
This short essay is about the stories I was told while growing up in Miami. My
grandmother, an avid storyteller, chose to impart her lessons with horrific tales
of unfortunate children. In retrospect, the stories are humorous, and I’ll
begrudgingly admit, effective.
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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of Contemporary
Volume 2, Number 2
Copyright © 2007
by Leah Browning, Editor.
All future rights to material
published in the Apple
Valley Review are retained
by the individual authors