I was born and raised in Washington Heights, New York – a Dominican enclave where Spanish is the signature language in the bodegas and on the streets. My trip to Yolanda’s beauty parlor was just an elevator ride down and a block away. My cousins, tias, abuelos and neighbors had regular gatherings in front of our ten floor building on Broadway. Folding chairs would line up along the sidewalk — old Doña Ana’s beach chair would stand out from the rest.
Living in Washington Heights was far from boring. The loud music coming from oversized car speakers sticking out the trunk, the boom box carried on the shoulder on a skinny guy walking melodically, and the excited voices resonating from crowds — were all part of my cultural scene.
Going away to college marked my first exodus from my beloved Washington Heights. Although I was only a mile away (Columbia University), it felt like a world apart. This was the beginning of cultural negotiations — keeping the best that my familia had handed down and integrating new perspectives and ideas. I went home on many weekends for mami’s mangu con salchichon y cebollas fritas, and her delicious moro con guandules.
After college, I moved north to Riverdale, in the Bronx, a small family-friendly community with tall trees and two popular bagel stores. I loved it there. I was still close to Manhattan, but it offered the calm and quiet I needed at that time in my life. Over the next several years, I continued to move up north and eventually ended up here in Rockland County – the smallest county in New York State.
What comes to mind when you hear the name of a town called “Valley Cottage?” Close your eyes…
You’re right. It sounds like Little House on the Prairie. Valleys and cottages surround me, in this small suburban town. It was the perfect antidote for decades of living in the fast-paced, stressful streets of New York City. Eight years ago, I desperately needed to walk on green grass, look far into the distance, sit by a peaceful lake and enjoy the meditative sight of blue jays in my backyard.
But in exchange for this new lifestyle, I gave up so much. My sister, my mother, nieces and nephews, tias and tios are still in New York City. Our regular get-togethers for dinner during the week became special occasions that require picking up mami from her apartment in the Bronx and bringing her back the next day. I have not seen the cousins I grew up with and played with, for years. There are no Dominican restaurants here, and it takes a car drive to the nearest pizza shop.
Because of the distance, my children are growing up in a very different family environment than the one I had. I used to spend hours and hours with my grandmother; she taught me how to use a sewing machine and how to make arepas. Titia Dulce showed me how to peel platanos, and abuelito taught me how to play cards. A parade of friends, neighbors and families came through my grandmother’s apartment, where I learned much about cultural norms and social graces. Not so in Valley Cottage. The seldom times when the doorbell rings at home, my kids jump to see who’s the stranger that’s knocking on the door.
A Plan to Reconnect with la Familia
Not long ago, I asked my 12-year old if he knew who one of my dear cousins was. He answered “I don’t think I’ve ever met her…” It broke my heart. “And, what about Titia Dulce?” I asked. He shook his head. A wave of guilt engulfed me. My kids didn’t know my family — their family.
I had to do something about this. And soon.
This is the plan: Every Saturday, beginning in the Spring, we will drive to a family member and visit. I spoke to the kids and told them about this idea and the importance behind it. Since my 12-year old loves technology, apps and taking photographs, we decided to make it a fun project. We will draw a large family tree and hang it on a large wall at home. The same family tree will be designed on the computer. During each visit to a family member, we will share family stories with the kids and end the visit with lots of photographs. The kids will then upload photos of each family member (with name and relationship) to a family tree on the computer. We have about 10 homes to visit, but I know it will be an unforgettable experience for the kids.
At the end of the summer, we hope to invite everyone to come and visit us and spend a full day together.
My kids might have missed out on years of building their relationship with our extended family, but it is never too late to reconnect and build new memories.