Papi's childhood tales about growing up poor in Puerto Rico were in constant question. As one of eighteen siblings, Papi said they all started out sleeping in a bedroom drawer. Once they outgrew a drawer, they'd eventually make their way to a bed, which was already shared by at least two other children. The oldest then graduated to a space on the floor. Papi's father made it very clear that Cano, the youngest, was his favorite, by buying him candy as the other children watched.
We could never weed out Papi's true stories from his half-baked jokes, which usually started out as a tale about a friend from work and ended with his over-telling the punch line. He always said he was lucky to be second youngest, but only complained about not owning his own shoes:
"Jeah, me and Cano walked to school gwearing the same choes every jeer. He wore one choe. I wore the other one."
We knew that wasn't true, but we listened through to the punch line, until Papi laughed himself to tears. During family gatherings, Papi's love of stories, told and performed through jokes and music, quickly led everyone to the kitchen were he produced all our yummy Puerto Rican meals. Then our living room became a transformed space infused with cuatro guitars and congas beating softly to Afro-Cuban rhythms that weaved en clave between Spanish conversations. We sang in crying salsa rhymes of Hector Lavoe:
Vamos todos a bailar, al estilo Africa no.
Si no lo sabes bailar, yo te ensear mi hermano.
A ti te gusta la bomba, y te gusta el baquin,
para que goces ahora, Africano es el bemb.
Che che col, que bueno e' Che che cofriza, muerto 'e la risa...
We did our best to snag plates of platanos maduros while he was busy delivering mocking compliments about Titi Meris bundled hairstyles. Then he'd walk behind her pretending to hide a huge metal spoon in her mounds of hair. Papi was, as always, dancing and laughing at his own jokes, except around midnight.
Every year, as far back as I can remember, as soon as midnight struck, Papi would begin crying. My sisters, cousins, and I ran around hugging and kissing everyone in sight screaming, "Happy New Jeer!" By the time we reached Papi, he was slumped in a chair, ready to burst like an overfilled water balloon, with Mami by his side joining him in the ritual of crying.
Like his laughter, Papi's tears were just as contagious. Within minutes, every adult in the house joined the ceremonial midnight cry. We'd sneak away with cups of coquito to huddle and complain about the crying adults, "Dang, we gotta swear we're not gonna cry like that when we grow up. God, everyone was just laughing and dancing merengue ten minutes ago!"
We'd eventually feel bad about our refusal to participate, so we'd sit at Papi's side petting his big, curly hair. Papi wasn't like the other men in our family. He cried about anything, including White Sox games. At Noche Buena, he seemed to give everyone permission to openly cry with no reason needed. All would laugh, and eat, and cry some more.
Papi is like cilantro en el arroz con pollo. A touch of him shows up everywhere in my life: my lazy little garden, my daughters laughter, midnight tears on New Years Eve. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.