With her large hands, wide hips and small pockets, Mami was the perfect fit for a farmer’s daughter, or a husband with a proclivity for handing money to the wind. And her height, exceeding my father’s by at least 5 inches, lay claim to the irony that the one who was closest to the clouds was simultaneously the furthest from them.
In a break from the long division, I took a look behind me, at the screen door that rattled as my father sauntered through the entrance. The smell of roasted chicken squeezing through the oven door was thick enough to bite into.
“How was dinner?” my mother asked.
“It was fine.”
“I did.” A rugged kitchen chair creaked where it made room for him, as if it needed its own physical.
My mother put the pan back on the stove, with a clatter that meant a hundred words, none of them good.
“You want to know how much your credit card bill is this month, Ovidio? We’re not exactly swimming in wealth. Who was it for?”
“Father Pat? That’s great, that’s real great.” She pointed to the kitchen window overlooking the church steeple across the street. “We give how many dollars to Father Pat on Sundays, and you buy him a meal.”
It didn’t happen very often, but I could hear the Latin machismo push through my father’s thick accent. “It was my choice to buy his dinner,” my father said. “Not him.”
“We have three children in Catholic school, two in college, the house remodel to pay for, car payments, insurance, and you want to take Father Pat to dinner. Tell that man to raise our children!” Then she turned to me.
“Mario, don’t spend money like your father or you’ll end up bankrupt when you’re 30.”
Papi shot up out of his seat. “I will choose to do with this house what I please!” My father strapped his hands to the back of the chair and stood in angry silence. As if to say, “Try me.”
“That’s good. That’s really good! What a great example you’re setting for our …”
“Tomorrow,” Papi broke in, stumbling over his thick Latin accent, “tomorrow I will take with the goose and shuffle to Cuba!”
Common lingo in our house calls this a Papisim, when my Cuban father gets so angry that his Spanish thoughts precede the English words he uses. Pretending as if what he’d just said made perfect sense, Papi held a stern face and started a tempered walk towards his bedroom 30 feet in the other direction.
“Fly with the geese?” Mami clarified as her husband stormed off. “You meant to say tomorrow you will fly with the geese.”
“Yes,” Papi bellowed from the hallway, trying to protect the serious composure he’d worked so earnestly to create. “Fly with the geese to Cuba.”
The anger wouldn’t last long after that. Papi tried his hardest not to laugh, but even he realized the humor of the situation – that his wife had just helped him yell at her in correct English.
As much as we hated the constant bickering over debts and a house that was falling apart, my brothers and I knew in our hearts that these realities were never going to change.
Topol danced to “If I Were a Rich Man,” and my siblings and I made pacts amongst ourselves that we would grow up to be dentists and firefighters – you know, people with money. But for my parents, it was in their nature to give, as natural as green grass or white chasubles.
No matter how much my parents saved, they would always live in the shadow of the church across the street.
Mario Penalver has master's degrees in education from Pacific Lutheran University and in humanities from the University of Chicago. A community theater director and actor by night, by day he teaches English at Truman Middle School in Tacoma. He is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. On Twitter at @astramario.