A solitary life, confronting memories of the dirty war in Argentina, and the uncomfortable silence of an ordinary day.
Julio arrived home from the doctor’s office and placed his car keys on the table by the front door, like he always does, because he is after all a creature of habit. His husband, Roger, is at a book club meeting and won’t be home for hours. So, there is nobody to talk with when he enters the house; nothing but the silence that permeates this place. He’s feeling jittery and unsettled. When he parked on the driveway, he almost ran over a damn squirrel, but that’s not what's bothering him. He is feeling spooked because of what the doctor told him, “Get an MRI, get a biopsy, and we’ll go from there, buddy.” It's not what Julio had wanted to hear.
He heads straight to the refrigerator. It’s too early to have a cold glass of chardonnay, although he would dearly love one. But, it’s never too early to eat a piece of cheese smothered with orange marmalade. Comfort food to help him escape the dullness of reality. “Just let me be,” he says to himself as he chews on his snack. “Just let me enjoy this orange marmalade.”
Orange marmalade like his mother used to make. Tart and semi-sweet, harsh when it crosses your lips, but shockingly pleasant when it goes down your throat. The first time he tried it he was five years old in Buenos Aires, accustomed to disgustingly sweet candies like chupetines, caramelos de dulce de leche, and gomitas. Lollipops with extra sugar, candies made from sweetened condensed milk, and chewy drops guaranteed to give you cavities. His mother, by all accounts a horrible cook, borrowed a neighbor’s recipe for the marmalade made from orange peels. She tried it one morning, pots and pans spilling chaotically all over the well-kept kitchen that the maid would laboriously scrub. Mara instructed the maid to leave the kitchen. “I intend to make this recipe on my own, without help from anyone,” she said.
Julio walked in as his mother was peeling the oranges. He asked, “What are you making?”
Mara didn’t look at him as she continued peeling the oranges. She nodded him away, telling him “you will see, you will see.” Which meant, “Go play with the dog, and don’t worry about other people’s business.”
The next day, Mara’s creation was served to him by the maid, who seemed as confused by the orange marmalade as he was. She smeared it on a piece of dark toast and put it on his plate.
“What is this?” asked Julio.
“La Señora Mara made it,” said the maid. “Try it, I think you will like it.” She praised the marmalade enthusiastically, but the expression on her face said otherwise.
Julio tasted it, slowly and hesitantly. It was bitter. It had hints of sour orange peel, which he did not like very much; but it was also citrusy and sugary, which he liked quite a bit. The contrast of the sourness and the bitterness, the sweetness and the tart shivers, enchanted him and took him back to days he did not know. Perhaps it took him back to days when he was a baby, the only time that Mara cuddled him.
Mara is an ancient Hebrew name that means bitterness, but a bitterness with a character of sweet melancholy.
He ate the toast with orange marmalade, and he loved it. His mother had never made anything like this before. Mara did not usually cook. The maid was in charge of preparing all the meals and she served them to him at the designated times. He always ate alone. His parents ate later, or earlier, or not at all. Never with him, except on Sundays.
Over the years, his mother did not prepare the orange marmalade again, except once when he was turning twelve, and he asked for it by name. “What would you like for your birthday?” she asked; and he responded, “Your orange marmalade.” She looked at him across the table, across her powdered cheeks and her deeply glossed lips, in her furiously brushed hair and a tight-fitting dress, and said, “I will make it for you.” And so, she did, that one time, that one more time. She pulled out her pots and pans and made a disaster of the kitchen once more, and the maid would clean up the kitchen once again. And the maid would serve the marmalade the next day, and again Julio would taste and adore Mara’s orange marmalade.
Years later, when Julio was still living in Argentina, his father abandoned them. On a certain Sunday, unannounced, unexpectedly, Father set off to another country and was not heard from again, except he sent money monthly. Occasionally, Julio would tearily complain that he missed his father, but Mara would have none of it. She never shed a tear for the husband that left her, and never complained. Instead, whenever Julio cried, Mara opened one of the many store-made orange marmalades that she kept in the cupboard and fed it to Julio. “Hush child,” she said. “Let’s not get dramatic about this. Put this on your toast and let me know if you like this brand.” Through the tears, Julio uttered that he liked the store-made marmalade, but it paled to Mara’s recipe.
When Roger comes home, thinks Julio, I will tell him about the doctor’s visit. But not right away. Not right away.
When Julio turned seventeen, Mara counseled him to leave the country. Too many of his friends had vanished, under an undeclared civil war against the people by a military junta intent on ruling by force. “It’s time for you to go,” she told him. “Your uncle will help you in the United States. You will study. He will keep you, he will feed you, and he will keep me in touch. Simple as that. Let’s not make a big deal out of this.” Julio thought he saw a tear in Mara’s eyes, but they never talked about it.
In his suitcase, Mara placed two cans of store-bought marmalade. “I don’t know if they sell it in the United States,” she said. “I know this marmalade heals you when you ail, so you should take some with you until you can find a new supply.”
In his early days of living in the United States, Julio laughed at the American stereotype of melodramatic Latinos. It is not what he had experienced in his life, ever; and it’s not what he experienced in America. While living with his uncle, he studied at college during the day, and every evening he worked at a frozen food factory. All night long, the machines at the factory made their Tacka-Tacka-Tacka noise, the one that has left him half deaf. There was no time for melodrama while working and studying.
After she had shipped him off to America, the neighbors asked Mara for Julio’s whereabouts, but Mara wouldn’t tell them. In those days, the years of Videla, Massera and Agosti (the military junta), you could trust no one. You said nothing to anyone. Sheepishly, Mara joined the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the mothers who publicly protested the disappearance of their sons and daughters. They protested every Sunday, without fail, in front of the presidential palace. She never told Julio, who she knew would worry.
In 2005, a few years before she died, Julio brought Mara to visit him in the United States. She liked his home, his American life. “Do you want to come live with me?” he inquired. Mara shook her head. “What for? I’m comfortable where I am. Why make waves?” She had been told by a very good doctor that her skin cancer had spread to her lungs and stomach, and there was nothing she could do. Mara knew and Julio knew; she told the doctor in Buenos Aires to tell Julio about the cancer. But they never talked about it, and she never complained.
Mara passed away, alone in Buenos Aires. Like his father before him, Julio had been sending her money every month so that she could continue to have a maid. They talked by phone on weekends, and she wanted to know all about his life in the United States. "It's good you left," she told him.
Today, living comfortably in Pennsylvania, Julio still has an obsession with buying orange marmalade in the supermarkets and farmers' markets near him, but he cannot find the right one. They are all too sweet, or too bland, and they are never the same as the bitter orange marmalade that she made, the bitter orange marmalade that spelled love.
When Roger comes home, he surprises Julio with some prosciutto sandwiches that he bought at the local gourmet store. He asks, “What did the doctor say?”
“Never mind the doctor, tell me about the book club.”
“Oh, you know how it is,” answers Roger, putting the sandwiches on the kitchen counter. “We’ve been reading Gogol’s Diary of a Madman, and all of us are obsessed with the ending. Do you remember how it goes? The madman in the insane asylum sits by the window and wails ‘Mother, Mother, is that your home I see Mother? Mother save your child today, please. Don’t you see how they torture me? Mother, mother, pity your sick child! And, by the way, did you know that the Earl of Algiers has a huge wart under his nose?'"
Roger laughs hysterically at the punchline ending of the Diary of a Madman. “I’m the only one in the book club that appreciated the humor of that man wailing. ‘Mother, Mother, Mother.’ What a hoot. Everyone else in the group thought I was being insensitive.” Roger continues to laugh. “You have to see the humor in it!” he insists.
Julio is only half listening to what Roger is saying. Roger’s incessant laugh sounds like Tacka-Tacka-Tacka, his old nemesis from the days at the factory. He hears Roger talking about somebody’s “Mother, Mother, Mother.” He gulps.
Mara, Mara, Mara. What ails me? What would you say? You, who never complained.
Roger repeats his question. “So, what did the doctor say?”
“Never mind the doctor, Roger. Let’s enjoy the prosciutto sandwiches. I intend to smother mine with orange marmalade.”
THE END of ORANGE MARMALADE MEMOIRS
November 3, 2022
© Ernesto Beckford 2022
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