EXCERPT FROM ADRIANA PARAMO’S MY MOTHER’S FUNERAL
Cows’ brains. That’s what Mom cooked the day my brother left. Whenever she was in a foul mood, we all paid. She cooked angry food, which is to say, we ate angry food in tense silence. The brains kept slipping off Mom’s fingers as she tried to wash them in the sink. They looked like a conglomerate of cauliflower heads covered by a thin membrane that made them appear wet. Red blood vessels traversed the yellowish matter.
After the veins and the membrane were removed, Mom dropped the brains into boiling water. She added bouillon cubes if she was splurging or plain salt if she wasn’t. The day my brother left, she used salt. As the brains cooked and their surface became tender and malleable, their smell also changed. It went from gamey to homey; it morphed from alien and backwards to something familiar, something that made our bellies twitch.
On the kitchen counter Mom chopped garlic, onions, and tomatoes, although it looked as if she were doing much more than just chopping. She was murdering the white bulbs of the onions and, with them, she was killing something else. She swung the hollow green ends into the garbage like she was trying to fling them out of the kitchen. What a wild chef Mom was that day.
“My biology teacher says that the green end is the most flavorful part of the onion,” my oldest sister Dalila said, looking at the scallions in the can.
Mom shot her a narrow-eyed, watch-it look. “Who’s cooking, me or the biology teacher?”
We knew better than to take the issue any further and watched in silence as Mom sautéed the onions and the tomatoes in reheated pork lard. When the mixture was ready, she jumbled it up with the garlic bits, the cows’ brains, and three eggs. She beat the concoction with fury. The fork’s prongs rose and fell, breaking the gelatinous texture of the brains, the viscosity of the eggs, and in a moment she had created something very similar to scrambled eggs, filled with protein and maybe unsuspected diseases.
“I have a project for my biology class,” my oldest sister said. She was the only one talking. My other three sisters and I knew that Mom was not in a talking mood. We didn’t scrape or clatter our cutlery against the plates. It was a quiet meal.
“I could get an A+ and extra points if I complete the whole thing,” Dalila said. I looked at her and couldn’t help noticing how perfectly shaped her nose was, how much lighter her skin was than mine, how, when she smiled, her teeth shone even and white like marble sculptures.
“About time you bring home good grades,” Mom said. “What is it you have to do?”
“An anatomy project,” my sister said. “We need to assemble a skeleton.”
My mother, who had never been known as squeamish, had no qualms about this. If her daughter needed a skeleton to do well in her class, a skeleton she would get. Or two, as it turned out.
Back then, graves in Colombia were not final resting places. They were a liminal phase of the disposal of human remains. The bodies were buried in graves leased for five years. At the end of the term the remains were disinterred and the surviving relatives given two options: to increase the term of the lease or to rebury the body in perpetuity. In either case the caskets—if still in good form—were reused and the graves leased again. Disturbing the dead used to be a good business. When the bodies went unclaimed, they were placed in plastic bags and thrown into common graves, which were later incinerated or buried for good, depending on the resources of the cemetery—the final touch of social stratification. Yet accidental disinterment sometimes happened. Twenty years later, my grandfather’s grave would be mistaken for somebody else’s whose lease had expired, and his remains would be disinterred. Mom would go to the cemetery in Mariquita to leave flowers on his grave and find the place desecrated. She would spot his remains in a burlap bag among the undertaker’s tools, other burlap bags containing unclaimed bones, and an army of worms creeping out of a skull. She would cry, humiliated and indignant, lamenting that this would not have happened had her family been upper class.
Adriana Páramo is a Colombian anthropologist winner of the Social Justice and Equality Award in creative nonfiction with her book Looking for Esperanza. Her writing has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Los Angeles Review, Consequence Magazine, Fourteen Hills, Carolina Quarterly Review, Magnolia Journal, So To Speak, Compass Rose, and Phati’tude, among others. Páramo has volunteered her time as a transcriber forVoice of Witness, a book series which empowers those affected by social injustice.
This week’s Wardrobe Best Dressed was selected Nicole Oquendo. Nicole Oquendo is an Assistant Editor for Sundress Publications, and the Nonfiction Editor of Best of the Net. Her most recently published essays and poetry can be found in DIAGRAM, fillingStation, Storm Cellar, and Truck.