It was the end of the first week of June, 1963. I had just finished third grade at Shenandoah Elementary School and I was looking forward to summer vacation. Papi was a third-year resident in neurosurgery at Jackson Memorial Hospital; he was on call 36 out of every 48 hours.
Neither my mother nor my father was particularly young: Papi had been 45 when I’d been born; and Mami, almost 42. I was their only child: their hija consentida (pampered daughter).
In 1963, Mami had just turned 50. As for Papi, both his salary, at $219 per month, and his age, at 53, were “record-setting,” according to Mami. “He was the oldest resident in JMH’s history.”
My sweet natured, shy – yet gregarious – father had befriended many of the staff at the Jackson. A tall, lanky, bow-tie clad, pipe-smoking Tennessean became his special friend. He called my father, “Fred.”
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Basil Yates, who figured in our lives for many years to come, came to our financial rescue. Estábamos muy apretados: we didn’t have much money. One day Yates asked his friend Fred if he had enough money to take care of his family. Papi very honestly responded, no. Yates reached into his pocket and pulled out $200.
With Yates’ generosity, we were able to move from the kindly, shabby tenement, “El Vanta Koor” (Vanta Court) to a better apartment building several blocks away. Not only were we to move, but – thanks again to Dr. Yates – we were able to spend a month on Miami Beach that July. We rented an apartment in the Amsterdam Palace Hotel.
There was no air-conditioning, but that’s the way Mami wanted it. Las brisas del mar – the ocean breezes – provided plenty of cross-ventilation. When Papi could join us, he was able to enjoy the alcove that fronted the balcony, right smack in the middle of the second floor of the Amsterdam Palace.
For my part, I played among the statues and fountains on the first floor, ceaselessly rode up and down the elevator, and spent as much time in the ocean as I could. Sometimes I went swimming twice a day. Mami liked to take me in the early mornings, when the sandbanks were built up, and we were able to walk out into the ocean as far as we dared. I became vey tanned that summer.
There’s a picture of me at a party, sitting next to Papi, where I’m muy bronceada y rosada, very bronzed and rosy, indeed. I’m wearing a white shift with big roses on it. I’m shyly looking down at my hands and Papi is glancing over at me. This is the way I remember myself from the summer of 1963.
Late summer found us in the new apartment. For three years, I had all but stumbled out of bed to get to school, as “El Vanta Koor” was located next to Shenandoah Elementary. Now I had to walk a few blocks.
As my English had improved tremendously, I fully expected to find myself in an English-only fourth grade classroom. To my horror, I found myself being directed back to my third grade bilingual classroom! It turned out a number of us Cubanitos were in the same predicament. We soon found out we were not being held back – we just needed a little extra “tweaking.” I remember not finding it so strange after a while.
In the old days, walking from Calle Ocho on Southwest Tenth Street Road, one was able to run smack into Shenandoah Elementary. All three floors of it, with its Mediterranean tiled roof and graceful arches.
Passing underneath these arches on Nov. 29, 1960, I embarked upon my first grade experience in the United States. I didn’t speak one word of English. I remember my first grade teacher, Mrs. Morvil, speaking to me in English. Looking up at her, quizzically, I responded en español. And that’s pretty much how it stayed, all year.
At the beginning, I wrote a few letters to my teacher in Cuba, asking her to send me my textbooks. And then I didn’t open my mouth, to the point that I almost failed first grade. I had learned enough to know that an F was a bad grade, and I had received six of them. Somehow, I was passed on to second grade.
The first six weeks of second grade were pretty bad. Then something happened: a small group of us were handed over to Mrs. Bustillo, a Cuban teacher who spoke enough English that she was able to teach us in both languages. I did much better with her, ending up the year with my lowest grade being a C in Physical Education. And, oh, how I hated P.E.
On the other hand, I didn’t fight learning English, any more. I did really well: I became the spelling champion in our class, and runner-up in the entire grade. I actually remember breathing out, “hand-ker-chief,” in spurts: that did the job.
Third grade was my year of glory at Shenandoah: the Spelling Bee, and the Hungarian Gypsy Dance.
Two Hungarians were the obvious choices to lead this gypsy dance out from underneath the central arch, under the lights one May evening in 1963. Nicky Perusina and I were all dolled up in our red velvet and gold-trimmed jackets. He wore black pants, and a long black bow fringed with gold tassels. I wore a white skirt with red and green stitching, a flower-trimmed headdress, and carried a little bouquet of flowers in my hands. I even got to wear makeup – I felt so grown up.
I DO remember being nervous, and trying to remember on what foot I was supposed to skip out, first. Most importantly, I remember telling myself, “Don’t trip. Don’t trip.”
Well, I didn’t trip. We all had a good time. And I became known as The Hungarian Dancer.