Written by
Martha Rodriguez
October 2011
Written by
Martha Rodriguez
October 2011

The adults are crying and hugging as they come into the house and as they leave.  One lady nestles my Mami’s face in her hands.  It looks like she is trying to hold Mami’s face together.  Another person gives Papi a big hug, the kind where they slap each other on the back really hard.  The kids aren’t crying or hugging, we’re playing on the floor with a set of Jacks.


The cold tile floor feels good against my legs on this warm Cuban night.  We are in the corner of the living room that doesn’t have furniture in it so no one can step on the Jacks as we spread them out on the floor.  It’s my turn and I’m on twosies.  I’m nervous because the Jacks are very spread apart.  I’m not sure I’ll have enough time to scoop up two Jacks before that very bouncy little red ball comes back down.  I know I have to throw the ball in the air high enough to have a few seconds to pick up those two Jacks, but not so high that it hits the low ceiling.  I’m trying to concentrate on the force of the throw and the quickness of the swipe, but it’s hard.  All I hear is the adult conversation in the middle of the room.


Mami and Papi told me and my brother that we are going on a trip in the morning.  Abuela ironed our clothes and carefully packed everything this morning.  I guess we’re not taking too many things with us.  Everything for six people fits in one suitcase.  Hanging on the rod just inside the door of the chifferobe are two suits, one for Papi and one for Abuelo, a pair of pants and a shirt for my brother, and three dresses, one for me, one for Mami and one for Abuela.  We’ve worn these same clothes to parties and weddings before.  They are the nicest clothes we own. I guess this trip is important.  I wonder how long we’ll be gone and what we’ll see when we get to New York.


I have to stop listening to the adults and start concentrating on the Jacks game.  It’s not easy to do because there’s so much talking.  I was able to pick up four sets of twosies and I only have one set left.  If I can pick these last two Jacks up off the floor and then grab the ball before it bounces twice, I can move up to threesies.  The Jacks are very far apart.  Here goes.  The ball is in the air, I swipe the two Jacks and let the ball bounce once.  Oh, no! I didn’t catch it.  My turn is over.  It’s my cousin’s turn so I give her the ten Jacks and the ball and she takes her first shot at onesies.


While my cousin takes her turn I turn my full attention to the adults’ conversations.  Abuela is giving her Saint figurine to her brother.  She tells him that they won’t let her take it to America and asks him to pray to the Saint for health and happiness for our family.  That’s not the only thing my parents and grandparents are giving away.  Everything we own that’s not in that suitcase in the bedroom is being passed on to our cousins, aunts and uncles, or friends.  I can tell they feel bad about taking our things.  My uncle says he’ll hold on to Papi's watch until they see each other again.  He’s looking forward to giving it back to Papi someday. 


Neighbors and friends express their gratitude for the clothes and shoes for their children or grandchildren because it’s hard to get clothes and shoes these days.  They talk about how they stand in line all day only to get to the front and hear that there’s nothing left to buy.  They say it will be different in America; that we can buy, do and say whatever we want there.  As they leave our house, they try to hide the items as best they can.  Some things need to be stuffed into big purses and others fit in small suit pockets.  I ask Abuelo why they have to hide our things before they leave our house.  He says that the government is watching but I don’t understand what that means.


The man who is talking to Abuelo tells him that we’re lucky to be leaving the country as a family.  Many families have been split up.  The government has given permission for the children to leave but not the parents.  Other Mamis and Papis have put their children on airplanes heading to America.  They are sending them to live with other family members who were lucky to get out of Cuba months or years ago.  Some kids don’t even have family in America and will go to foster homes.  For some parents it has already been years since they’ve seen their kids.  It makes me sad to hear that and I hope those kids see their families soon.  I’m happy to be with my family.


My brother and cousins keep playing Jacks.  They are laughing and having fun.  I walk over to my other Abuela, the one that is not going on the trip with us.  The minute I stand next to her she puts her arms around me and kisses my cheek.  I can see that she’s trying to hold back her tears but it’s impossible.  She wipes the tears away with her pretty embroidered handkerchief that’s already wet from other tears.  I hug and kiss her back.  She tells me how excited she is for me and my brother to go to Miami and then New York, our final stop on the trip.  She reminds me to visit the Statue of Liberty, a big statue that stands on a little island in New York.  I turn and ask Papi if we can visit the statue.  He assures me we will.


I listen to more conversations as I walk from one side of the room to the other.  Some conversations I understand and others I don’t.  It’s getting late and there are just a few family members left in the house.  The Jacks game has long been over.  None of the kids got past twosies but they had fun trying.  Some kids are asleep on the couch and others in the arms of their parents.  We give and get final hugs and kisses as the last family members leave.  The adults have to go to work in the morning and the kids have to go to school.  It’s time to put our pajamas on and wash up for bed.  Mami and Abuela prepare warm milk for us and it’s as delicious as always. 


Before I go to bed I remember that I haven’t packed my Jacks.  As I go to put them in the suitcase, Abuelo stops me.  He says I can’t bring them with me, just like Abuela can’t bring her Saint figurine.  That doesn’t seem fair.  I should have given them to my cousin for safe keeping until I see her again just like Papi gave his watch to my uncle.  Abuelo suggests I do just that.  He helps me write a note to my cousin.  I put it on the kitchen table and arrange the ten Jacks in a circle on top of it.  I put the little red ball in the middle so it won’t escape.


I climb into bed while my parents finish picking up around the house and packing a few last things.  I wonder what it will be like in New York.  I hope there are Jacks there.  I hope our family will be able to visit us there.  Maybe when she comes to visit, I can take my other Abuela to see the Statue of Liberty.  I think she’ll like that.  I have to remember to ask Papi what liberty means.


Copyright 2011, Martha Rodriguez

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  • Mollie Pearce McKibbon

    Oh my.  You have told your story so well, Martha.  What an adjustment you must have had to make!  I suppose it must have been harder for your parents.  I lived in the Northwest Territories for two years when I was young and I remember how strange that all seemed to me.  Now it is a wonderful, enriching memory, but before we got there I was just upset to be missing out on my first ballet recital.  The world of ballet was spared.  :)

    Thank you for telling your story.  Please tell us more.

  • Deanna Fry

    Wow, reading your story gave me some insight into what it might have been like for my great and grand parents to leave Cuba decades ago.  My grandparents would have been about your age then.  It is wonderful that you remember the events so clearly, only being 3 years old at the time.  Do you think you somehow understood, even at such a young age, that your life was about to change? The adults in the room had to give some clues how important this trip was. I hope this post leads to a series, because I am so interested in what happened once you got to New York.

  • Sherrey Meyer

    Oh, Martha, what a poignant story!  I can sense your confusion at the adult talk, words you don't understand, and questions that you hold quietly inside.  How confusing it must have been to not be able to take things with you and to leave behind so many loved ones.  We who have lived in America all our lives have no ability to comprehend and understand what it is like to leave our homeland to seek freedom.  We definitely take too much for granted.  Thanks so much for sharing this part of your story.