Grandmamá Martina and Papa Polo

I was close to my grandfather, Papa Polo. He was an intelligent man, spoke English like a Brit; and he saw in me an eagerness to learn. He ordered  El Tesoro de La Juventud (The Book of Knowledge), an encyclopedia of 20 volumes, just for me!  He had a very serious conversation with me: I had to take good care of the books. He had even purchased a new armoire in which to keep them.

I was overwhelmed. Papa Polo said that I could have only one book  at a time. I thought I was smarter than he was, and asked him to let me keep the key. This way, I wouldn’t have to disturb him every time I finished reading one. I’d grab as many as I could. He probably realized my sneaking about with the extra books; however, he let me get away with it.

I heard the whispers among the servants about Papa Polo. He had attended the University of El Salvador. Halfway through he quit and attained a high position with the American Singer Company, becoming their representative to all the fourteen states in El Salvador.

Mama Martina’s schedule was like a soldier’s: She got up at five in the morning to light the fire in the horno, or oven. It was made out of adobe brick. She filled it with firewood, set it afire, waited until the wood turned to ash, pushed the ash out and slid the pans of loafs and pan de dulce (sweet bread) into the oven.

Martina’s workers filled flat round baskets with the bread and sold them all over town. Martina did all her math in her head. On their return she knew exactly the balance from each. No one cheated her.

This happened every morning, year in and year out. No vacations, no holidays. And bread wasn’t the only thing; my grandmother worked three shifts!

The second shift: Cooking. With her crew of servants, she made the most delicious meals anyone could taste. No one knew what she’d be cooking that day, but they knew it would be delicious.

Then the third shift: At three in the afternoon she made fresh cheese, pouring milk into a long wooden trough, where it set up. She skimmed the cream off the top, sold it, then made cheese out of the rest.

She was well known for her temper, but also for her generosity. A girl, sometimes no older than fifteen, pregnant, would show up and ask for a little tortilla with a bit of cheese. Martina would look her up and down and ask, “When did you eat last?” She knew the girl’s problem.  She’d had the cook give the girl food, then told the girl to go to a room where supplies were kept, and where she could sleep.  A few months later, the girl would give birth and there would be one more playmate for little Amanda!

I had so many playmates. But sometimes, I still felt so alone. My mother was gone, with her new husband, José Villatoro. He wasn’t my father. Who was? I didn’t know. No one ever talked about him. But he had lived in that other town, Berlín, where the maids said I had been born. Who was he?

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