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With The Chin Kiss King, her critically lauded debut novel, Ana Veciana-Suarez joined the ranks of Julia Alvarez and Cristina Garcia, authors who have defined the Latina experience in contemporary fiction. In Birthday Parties in Heaven, Veciana-Suarez's first collection of essays, the acclaimed writer and mother of five offers seventeen wise and generous-hearted takes on subjects as diverse as: living in exile; the untimely death of her first husband; being a single mother; interfaith marriage; and the bond ...
With The Chin Kiss King, her critically lauded debut novel, Ana Veciana-Suarez joined the ranks of Julia Alvarez and Cristina Garcia, authors who have defined the Latina experience in contemporary fiction. In Birthday Parties in Heaven, Veciana-Suarez's first collection of essays, the acclaimed writer and mother of five offers seventeen wise and generous-hearted takes on subjects as diverse as: living in exile; the untimely death of her first husband; being a single mother; interfaith marriage; and the bond between sisters. She also offers reflections, by turns humorous and meaningful, on beisbol; motorcycles; the special terrors of swimsuit season; and the sweetness of love the second time around. In these eloquent and moving essays, Veciana-Suarez proves why she is one of America's most popular columnists.
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When David goes back to the house he hasn't sold, the home he occupied and decorated for ten years before we met, he collapses in the master bedroom's bed and squirms and sniffs like a puppy that has returned, finally, to the warmth of its litter. "Aah," he sighs. "Oooh!" he coos. The look of pleasure is so genuine, so heartfelt, that my insecurities gradually vanish. This is not a reflection of our relationship, I tell myself, or of the home we are trying to build together. It is merely the expression of comfort at its safest and most familiar, like that soothing relief we feel when, after a long trip, we return to the well-known contours of our bed.
I have watched David amble about his house with a sense of ownership he does not display anywhere else. He turns on the light switches without patting the wall. He opens the front door without rifling through the set of keys. He goes to the bathroom in the middle of the night without bothering to turn on the light. And he does it all with the ease of practice and the power of experience. To a degree, he does the same in our home—Ana's house, as he sometimes calls it—but I think his actions there carry a measure of reserve. He still feels that most things (curtains, fans, cabinets, doors) are not his, not yet at least. And I can't say I blame him. Familiarity doesn't come quickly or easily, or at least it shouldn't. It takes time, both in number of days and quality of hours, for us to assume intimacy with something.
"I know where everything is," he tells me, during the parade through his bedrooms, baths, and kitchen. "All I have to do is reach out and touch it."
Reach out and touch it: so important this tactile perception of home.
He also announces the obvious as if it were the first time he is saying it: "I love this house!"
Before we married and for a few months thereafter, we discussed selling his property. There was never a question of where we would live because most homes, including his, aren't big enough to accommodate a brood of five kids and the trail of toys, clothes, shoes, books, magazines, sports trophies, framed photos, and just plain ol' junk that accompanies such a crowd. Besides, stability for the children was high on my list in a remarriage. Our idea was to eventually, once my older children were on their own, sell my house and buy an "our" house, a compromise of place and situation. Things haven't quite worked out the way we thought, however. A soft real estate market in his part of town dissuaded us from putting up a For Sale sign, and so his house sits without occupant twenty-one miles away from mine, a reminder that attempts to build a nest, twig by twig, string by string, are too often complicated by things out of our control.
David's place, still furnished, still operational with all its utilities, has gotten me thinking about what makes a house a home, and how, even when we become accustomed to our surroundings for the sake of love and peace, we can still feel like exiles in the place where we reside. Home is never as sweet and peaceful as when we leave it. I am the daughter of exiles, and so know of what I speak. I am familiar with the subtle pangs of nostalgia and the more virulent waves of homesickness. I know that what you don't have, what you give up, becomes better with time and distance. Faults are forgotten, blemishes erased.
That's not to say David's house isn't a wonderful place on its own merits. Patterned after old Conch houses in the Keys, it sits on massive concrete columns overlooking leafy treetops, an octagonal-shaped home of gray-tile floors, yawning spaces, vast closets, and wide windows. It is replete with bittersweet memories of triumph and tragedy. This is the house that sweat and determination and his own hands built. He began life there alone with his children after his first marriage ended, and he rebuilt it after Hurricane Andrew used it as a giant food processor in 1992. No wonder that something with so much history and symbolism is difficult to forget.
I, too, like it, like its simplicity and charm, and have, in the past few months, spent more time in it than he has. Twice a week, sometimes more often, I drive southwest, from the manicured rigidity of my walled upperclass subdivision to the rambling, weedy, buggy groves and farms of rural Miami-Dade County. Dodging tractors and produce trucks, I speed down a paved thoroughfare until I turn onto a dirt road, where homes of different sizes and pretensions interrupt the hues of waxy green, mottled brown, and blue the shade of stonewashed jeans. His house of weathered wood is set back from the road, peeking out on five acres of exotic tropical fruit: lychees, longans, pomelos, mamey, sour oranges.
This is where I come to write.
Sometimes, though, I just sit. From the kitchen table, or the living-room sofa, I watch this foreign world with a mix of awe and apprehension. Crows pick at ripening fruit. A jackrabbit hops onto an open field, turns to look both ways, then hops back into the undergrowth. A cardinal or two, maybe three, fly in a flash of red from tree to bush to nest. Across the road, a brown cow munches on the grass, chewing ever so patiently while a white cattle egret balances itself on its meaty hump. When it's cooler, I open the windows and listen to the strange noises: the chirp of a jay, the haunting call of a whippoorwill, the metallic gurgle of an irrigation pump at work. In the afternoons, if I'm attentive, I can smell the rain coming in.
Still, for all the sensuality of the country, I feel like an alien there. I'm a city girl, born and bred. When we stay overnight, sleeping cozily in the bed David so likes, in the house he so misses, I am occasionally frightened by the denseness of the country night.
"It's so dark here," I complain.
"Yeah," he agrees, smiling, "and look at the stars."
Ah, the stars, so many, so bright, some I never even knew were up there.
It occurs to me that these day trips into a world I knew little about until I met David are a form of exile, self-imposed and temporary of course, but a separation from the known nonetheless. The temporary quality is what, to some extent, defines exile, what differentiates this process from that of immigration. An exile expects to return as soon as a government falls. He cannot imagine it any other way.
Though I am in the grove house provisionally, I have tried to mark it with something of my own, in much the same way students decorate their hallway lockers: to stake a claim for a while. I crave possessions, things that belong to me as surely as I belong to them. So over time I have transported from one house to another two potted African violets, still without bloom, one cordless telephone, snacks for the refrigerator, magazines for writer's block, framed photographs, and a wedding gift I didn't know what else to do with. These "flags" are strategically placed so I can see them when I look up from the tyranny of my computer screen.
When I was young, my parents did the same in our first houses in exile. What they had managed to squirrel out of Cuba—a black-and-white wedding photograph, say, or a small, carved jewelry box—was given prominent display. Or they improvised. To this day my favorite wall hangings are the tacky calendars advertising a mom-and-pop bodega or a neighborhood farmacía while reminding loyal customers of home with pictures of Cuba's natural wonders and historical sites.
The other night I asked David if he was ever going to sell the grove. He had mentioned earlier in the week that a couple of homes in the area had already sold.
"As a matter of fact ..." he replied, and I wondered if I wasn't asking him to give up too much.
The Bible's book of Jeremiah traces the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the city and the Temple, and the exile to Babylonia of Judah's king and many of his people. At the end, it precisely tallies the numbers: 3,023 people in the seventh year, 832 in the eighteenth year, 745 in the twenty-third year—in all, 4,600 exiles. You would think that the people of Judah would have gotten the hang of exile by then. After all, their ancestors had wandered in the wilderness for forty years, after they had left Egypt and before homesteading in the Promised Land. Yet, an entire book, Lamentations, is devoted to the aftermath of ruin and exile that followed the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.
The old people no longer sit at
the city gate,
and the young people no
longer make music.
Happiness has gone out of our
grief has taken the place of
When the Jewish exiles fled to the Chebar River in Babylonia, and when Moses' Israelites trudged through Moab and Kadesh Barnea, when they crossed the Jordan and camped near the Gulf of Suez, how did they think of home? In what way did they make desert and riverland a familiar, if not welcoming, domicile? Did they carry a potted houseplant from one encampment to the next? Was the carved chair, a family heirloom, given prominent display under the tent? Did they cook food in the same way with the same pots and the same tools? How did they realize they had arrived where they belonged? Was it the certainty of knowing where everything is? The feelings of welcome and repose? Or was it simply arbitrary boundaries drawn from here to there by an alternately loving and wrathful God?
My parents have been exiles for an almost biblical forty years, and though they have not wandered in the physical wilderness like the Israelites, they have known, at least in the beginning, a spiritual wasteland of sorts: the isolation of not belonging, the harshness of the unfamiliar. Their Jerusalem floated one-hundred-and-forty miles from where they live today. It was a paradise of halcyon nights and glorious days, an island where the ocean was bluer, the sand whiter, the palms taller. It never existed, of course. Nostalgia rewrites history. Yet my parents would have given anything over the years to return to Cuba, to live again in Havana's La Vibora neighborhood, in their little tiled house with the wrought-iron, gated porch; to walk the little narrow streets that weren't always clean; and to shop in their little bodegas that weren't always well stocked but where everybody knew their names. (Nineteenth-century American playwright John Howard Payne hit the nail on the head when he wrote in "Home Sweet Home," from the opera Clari, the Maid of Milan: "An exile from home splendor dazzles in vain, / Oh give me my lowly thatched cottage again....") Instead of the tiny home in La Vibora, it was el exilio—a state of limbo when you are where you don't expect to be—that defined the final years of my parents' youth and all of their middle age. It marked my childhood, too.
We did not celebrate Thanksgiving, the most American of holidays, until my last years in elementary school. I have no early memories of pumpkin pie and sweet potato casseroles, of family gathered around the bounty of a table. Unless it was Christmas Eve. And even then, Christmas was a subdued affair, with none of the overwrought glitz of today. We did not get a Christmas tree until I was in fourth or fifth grade, a fake silver beauty that I watched for hours on end when the revolving colors of a reflector light shone on it. This penury during the holidays, I now believe, had little to do with money but plenty to do with hope—hope that life in these United States would be temporary, hope that next Christmas would be celebrated in Havana, hope that one day they would look back at this period of their lives as something sad but brief, and altogether finished. Celebrating would have been to admit a hopelessness. This is how exile translates into marginality, a living on the sidelines without knowing when to jump into the game.
Yet, little by little, first in word then by action, whether they knew it or not, their lives evolved into a search for rootedness. My parents bought a house when they had saved up enough money and explained it this way: Very few people would rent out to foreigners with young children, even if these renters were clean, modestly dressed, well-mannered, and professionals in another country. Eventually they fixed up this house, added a bathroom and bedroom for the in-laws, put up a fence, remodeled the kitchen, planted a mango tree in the back and red ixora bushes in the front. As their children grew older, as their children birthed children in exile, they spoke less of a return to Cuba—"When we go back home ..."—and more of the horrible possibility that, in their old age, they would be put in a nursing home in much the same way that los americanos sent their old folk away. My mother talked about retiring to a condo in Miami Beach; my father spoke of expanding the business.
When did exile become home? After they planted the mango? When the grandchildren were born? Now, as they approach retirement?
I have grown interested in answers as I see David wandering about my house, or collapsing in his old bed in his old house in the grove. No matter what he says, I know he doesn't feel at home in either place. He is where my parents were about twenty years ago—in between, not there but not quite here either.
My family has lived in three different countries and spoken three different languages in the span of three generations. My grandparents, Catalonians on both sides, fled their homeland because of poverty and civil war. Their foods and their language, that rich guttural Catalan I heard in my childhood, eventually melded with the new customs of their new island home. Their children, in turn, later scrambled across the Florida Straits to another exile, also because of political upheaval. What, I sometimes wonder, might be in store for me? As a woman listening to stories of my ancestors' comings and goings, as a Catholic married to a Jew who has never seen his people's Promised Land, the concept of home is important to me. But not only to me—actually to most everybody I know. We all need a place where we belong, a place to return to, where the contours of the bed are well-known and the light switches are just where they're supposed to be: a place where we can listen quietly, comfortably, to the stirrings of the heart and whispers of the soul.
My Lowly Thatched Cottage
My Father, Mi Papi
Ritual and Refrain: Scenes of a Miami Summer
"Wait Until You Have Children"
Birthday Parties in Heaven
Second Time Around
Bugs in My Teeth
The Religion of Love
Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death
Open Letter to My Son (As He Leaves for College)
Moving Up, Moving On