“One Dollars.” All the houses in Parque del Plata, Uruguay are not identified by numbers but by their names. “One Dollars” is the name of my grandma’s house. No matter how infrequent my visits have been over the years, that sign remains on the front yard, still standing strong.
My uncle named the house. It was a failed attempt at a joke that was supposed to merge two cultures together. No one had the heart to tell him it didn’t make any sense. Regardless of its nonsensical name, that sign with its shabby paint job and crooked base adds an element of uniqueness to the house.
There’s a slightly inclined driveway leading to the entryway. That driveway, in younger years, was a trek but has now transformed into a few, easy, upward steps. Reaching the top of the hill lends a view to barred windows, a heavy wooden door and a side entrance with a covered roof and patio space. Sitting around on the pavement in front of the house are my past visits: looking at ants climbing the house, deflecting water balloons from the rambunctious neighborhood kids, having conversations about life as the sun went down.
Entering the patio space used to be entering into the culture. I look around and everything seems empty. Family was too busy to visit this time. I remember. A table occupies the space and it is nearly impossible to get by all the grinning family members surrounding it. The men sit around the table shirtless and the women wear comfortable, flowing dresses, it is the only way they survive the scorching heat in the summertime. It takes nearly ten minutes to make the rounds, giving everyone a kiss on the cheek and receiving various rib cracking hugs. If survival is achieved after the initial welcome, the champion is given way to a myriad of feasting options. The table is covered with traditional gathering foods. Focaccia, stuffed pizza, a variety of cheese, bread and sorpresata, Pomelo, and the most important thing in Uruguay, lots and lots of meat. Chorizo, entraña, basio, chinchullîn, all with a substantial amount of grasa.
Walking into “One Dollars” is quite a unique experience. The front door is never used. It remains locked in hopes of keeping away burglars. The side entrance through the patio leads directly into the kitchen, a place where homemade pasta, fresh fruit smoothies and delicious desserts are made. In a kitchen that is so small that it is difficult for two people to walk through, the best foods, which lead to the best memories, are made. My grandmother’s caretaker offers us food and drinks. We don’t know her and we don’t like her. I remember. Random goodies are grabbed at by little hands in places where grown-ups think they are hidden. The refrigerator opens to a slight relief from the sweltering heat in a house that has no air conditioning or fans. Inside, refreshments are always available. Pomelo, a popular grapefruit flavored soda, is the drink of choice. As the flies buzz around the boiling water and fresh tomato sauce that simmers on the stovetop, a younger me runs around, getting in everyone’s way and complaining that bugs are going to get in her food. They won’t do anything to you they say and shove me out of the kitchen and into the dining-living room.
The dining room and living room are attached. There is no separation in between. The only sign that half of the room is indeed a dining room is a white, circular table crammed into the corner. Breakfast, in more frequent visits, was eaten at this table. Toast with butter and jam or cereal were the simplest options and what were offered when my grandma got older and could no longer get us the traditional breakfast pastries. I remember. The table is covered in sugary puffs and pastries, some filled with delicious crema, dulce de leche or dulce de membrillo. I miss those. Sleepy teenagers surround the table as the concerned, underappreciated grandma asks us where we will be for the day and what we will be doing. The questions are evaded and she gets angry, promising that if we do anything bad she will call our parents in the States. As the other two prepare for a full day at the beach and things they should not be doing, I am sick and choose to move into the living room to relax.
The living room is composed of a guest bed that doubles as a sofa, a chair, and a small rectangular table, all facing a tiny box from which grainy images are televised. As I lay on the couch-bed, grandma sits on the chair directly in front of the television. No one can separate her from her daily novellas and I feel as though I have done something wrong to merit health problems and the unbearableness of the bad acting in a Spanish soap opera. The phone rings and rings and rings. Abuela, I scream out to her. She hears neither my yelling nor the phone’s ringing. I finally yell loudly enough for her to hear me and I point. She picks up the telephone and excitedly shouts into the receiver, unaware of how loud her voice actually is. The bed I lie on has had many purposes, the most memorable one being the location my grandpa was put in when his Alzheimer’s disease had reached its peak and he needed twenty-four hour care. I remember. My grandpa with his quiet loyalty and traditional hat lays helpless on that bed. Unable to talk, give us hugs, and tell us he loves us. He’s not the same. My grandpa is gone but the emotions tied with that bed will never go away. They have become a part of that room. As I fall asleep to the sound of the novellas, my grandmother suggests I take a nap. I get up and make my way to the guest room, stopping at the bathroom before hand.
I remember. Never take a long shower. It costs money and your grandmother does not have a lot of money. Besides, the water is cold most of the time. Do not use up all of the hot water. Lesson number one when temporarily living in “One Dollars” is about the bathroom. Lesson number two, a self-taught lesson, came when my seven-year-old self fell off her bike and hit her knee on a rock. Bravely walking back to the house with a bloody leg, head pointing up and not a quiver on her lips, she walks right into the bathroom without telling the grownups what happened and without catching anyone’s attention. Knowing it will sting, she washes out her injury with soap and water. Not a wince. The scar is still on her knee to this day. I look into the mirror over the sink. My eyes and cheeks look sunken; I have lost so much weight. My skin is so dark from the summer sun that I don’t recognize myself. I wash my face, leave the bathroom and walk into the guestroom.
The queen bed and the single bed in the room are empty. They used to be packed. I remember. Going to Uruguay, in past years, meant five, sometimes six travelers. All of us had to fit in the guest room that held only two beds. I would sleep with my sister in the small, single bed and the baby brother would be with my parents. Kids had whispered comments when they thought their parents were asleep. Comments such as, “stop being so loud and go to sleep”, would be heard from across the room. The last visit only included three of us. Twenty, seventeen and fifteen, it was the quinceniera’s birthday wish to travel without her parents. That bedroom on this particular trip was the party room. Music went on, the windows were opened and the dancing commenced. Now, as the other two went on gallivanting with older Uruguayan guys, a cough ridden, skin and bones me climbed into bed and entered a comatose-like sleep.
Blurry eyed and body pained, I wake up and sit up in the bed. The house is silent and everything is dark. It must be nighttime. I get up and walk out of the room. I open the adjacent room’s door slightly. Grandma is sleeping in there. I remember. Nap times on that bed when the other room was full or the perfect place for hide and seek because no one but me dared to enter grandma’s room. As we got older it turned into the preparation room, a place to put on dresses and apply makeup without being disturbed. Now, the room is dormant, used only when my grandma sleeps. I walk through the hallway and into the kitchen. Looking out the window lends a view to a brick BBQ and stools or tree stumps in front of it. I remember. Twelve in the morning every night, when the family was over, was when dinner was ready. The preparations commenced at ten. Of course there was snacking in between, and by snacking I mean full meal in appetizer form. The men, sometimes joined by a rebellious me, would sit in front of the cooking meat. Telling jokes and talking about the family. Iconic Uruguay was in my backyard. Now everything is so dark it is almost unrecognizable.
It has been four years since I last visited “One Dollars.” At this point in time it is uninhabited because my grandma is too old to stay there by herself and it is too expensive to find her a permanent caretaker. Although its rooms are empty, the memories of that house are stained into the walls and they come alive every time I visit. From the front yard, through the small interior and into the back, there is not one piece of land that is without memories.