All you have to do is listen

As I type this, under a small cantero (planter) in a house in Bayamo, Cuba, six large pickle jars lay buried. Each pickle jar is filled with US Silver Dollars. It’s almost a certainty that theyre still there, as they werent just buried beneath the cantero, but once the diggers had gone a few feet down, they tunneled 3 or 4 feet horizontally below the house.
How do I know this? Because I had dinner with my parents and aunt and uncle last night, and, even at the age of 43, I still learn something new each and every time we sit down to chat.
There’s more, of course:
My dad used to make gas cooktops and oil lamps in the early and mid sixties in Cuba. There was a need for them as when those fabulous revolutionaries took power, the infrastructure went kaput. Power was intermittent at best. People needed to cook and people needed light, so dad, the welder, made those items and would trade them for milk or eggs or some other necessity. He had acetelyne tanks buried in the yard and guess what he used as solder material? US Silver dollars. He’d cut them up in strips and used them to weld his lamps and cooktops together in the dark of night.
I also learned that my demure mother once poured an allotment of milk on a milicianos feet. Pissed that said allotment wasnt enough to make even one cafe con leche for her three year old son.
She also told me the story of the suitcase meat, where dad had once gotten a nice cut of meat and they were travelling back home with the meat – contraband in Cuba – hidden in her small suitcase. She had her heart in her throat the whole trip home, terrified that the milicianos would check her bags and find the meat and arrest her and dad right then and there, where a terrible fate awaited them.
These are little stories that had I not heard them last night while enjoying our arroz con pollo dinner on Three Kings day, would be gone forever. Pieces of history – my history, my family’s history – forgotten.
Which is why I cant stress enough the importance of sitting down with the old folks and listening.
When I was younger I would think “Bah! There they go with the Cuban old days stories again!” But now I realize their importance. They have an incredible history, amazing stories of struggle and sacrifice and clandestine meats and buried Silver Dollars.
Folks, if your parents and grandparents are still with us, spend some time with them and listen to their stories. It’s not just their history theyre recalling, but yours as well.

7 thoughts on “All you have to do is listen”

  1. Unfortunately, Val, a lot of our parents and grandparents are passing without all these stories being told. People from that generation, tend to keep the suffering from their kids and to themselves.

  2. Back in 1967 my mom was in Guantanamo and I was in central Florida. After high school I was drafted into the Army and went to Vietnam. She was constantly harassed about my military service. They told her that US GI’s were dying by the thousands and that I was surely dead. she also was sent to jail many times for speaking her mind. Meanwhile Evelio, my stepfather, was jailed repeatedly for buying and selling meat. It is true Val what you say about listening to the old folks and learning what happened to them because it is what happened to all of us. Most of my old folks are now gone but I will remember their stories and tell their stories to my children and grandchildren.

  3. Buried US Silver Dollars?
    Suitcase meat?
    I. Love. That.
    It falls to our generation to carry on that wonderful Cuban storytelling tradition – a rich inheritance indeed.

  4. Please everyone, video your grandparents and parents telling these stories, or just record them or write them down. These first-person reports are historical gems.

  5. I was the same way when I was young, with the rolling eyes and the “Oh brother, here we go again with Cuban stories.”
    Now my grandparents are dead. But when I told my mom recently I had started an anti-castro blog, she told me her father warned her from the beginning that Castro was a communist and up to no good. My mother, a devout Catholic, would tell him “nonsense” and watch Castro’s marathon speeches, mesmerized by the dictator’s amazing capacity to spew hot air.
    But after a couple of speeches my mother noticed a pattern: Castro would always condemn the “imperialist Yankees” and the “Phalangist priests” during his dull diatribes. Eventually she thought to herself, “He’s sowing the seeds of hate. But God is love. And I believe in God. Therefore, I don’t believe in Castro.”
    At that point she shut the TV off (which was broadcasting yet another Castro monotony marathon) and never wanted to know from Castro again. Her father (my grandfather) would constantly tease he after that about her initial support for the bearded satan.

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