My transition from writing songs to fiction gave me permission to rely heavily on personal symbolism. My writing had to be different somehow, it had to be mine. I couldn’t find a better way to show it than to stamp each story with symbols that conveyed specific feelings and moods. This is how my love affair with writing began. Each one of my stories carries a secret, a little snippet of my past. Today I will reveal a few of them.
Ever since my aunt gave me my first apple following my father’s death, I’ve assigned a meaning to the fruit. Dream dictionaries and the bible won’t ever convince me otherwise. Apples are all about resignation, about picking up your pieces and finding comfort in knowing there’s only so much you can do when life deals you a bad hand. That’s not to say I don’t like the fruit. I do enjoy a piece of warm apple pie with or without vanilla ice cream, or a few slices of apple dipped in caramel. But if you give me a choice between apple or any other fruit, I’ll probably go for the latter. Unless it’s anon (sugar-apple), I mean who eats that stuff anyway?
The five-petal flowers used to grow wild in my grandmother’s bohio (Cuban hut). As a child I was in love with my grandmother’s house, especially her front garden. I remember entering the barb-wire fenced garden and being greeted by tall colorful rose plants and a sea of purple, pink, and white periwinkles. As a gardener my grandma used to work with nature. Whenever she spotted a periwinkle seedling she’d place a ring of pebbles around it and allowed the plant to grow. I grew up with this idea in mind.
Periwinkles teach us to work with nature, allowing our environment to shape us instead of us trying to shape our environment. Grandma was not formally educated, but she was a wise woman who understood plants and knew how to speak to the earth.
When my husband and I moved to a two-bedroom apartment in Miami Beach five years ago I had no choice but to give Presto, my box turtle, to a friend who owns a big house with a large atrium where turtles and tortoises roam free. Presto immediately fell at home in this man-made paradise that consisted of tropical vegetation and a clean pond. Presto, who used to hump my husband’s brown boot thinking it was a female of his species, and who’d attack the broom whenever I swept the floor, was my last pet turtle.
As children my cousins, sisters, and I would often go swimming in a river in San Miguel de los baños, Matanzas. We’d throw rocks at the branches of the tall trees that stood on the river bank. The moment a mango would hit the water, one of us would dive deep to retrieve it. But finding a baby turtle swimming in the stream was better than coming across a dozen juicy mangoes. For a child finding a turtle in the wild is like finding a treasure buried deep under the sand. The little baby would more often than not become a new house pet.
My childhood pet turtle was named Chicha. She was my night companion, always finding a warm place to sleep under my arm or between my neck and the pillow. We didn’t understand the risks of salmonella and frankly, what we didn’t know didn’t kill us. Chicha was my friend and she was welcome wherever I went. One day she disappeared from her fish tank. My mother told me she’d gone looking for her turtle family. Mom was probably trying to protect me from the truth—Chicha had walked out the door and got eaten by a rat.
I dream of turtles quite often. To most people they’re a symbol of endurance and perseverance, and while I agree with the common definition, turtles are a representation of my inner child.
The montuno (Cuban traditional music) song titled, “El pitirre y la tiñosa” was made famous by the musical group Conjunto Cespedes. The lyrics basically state that the gray kingbird, although little, isn’t afraid of the vulture. This little phrase was something that my mother would say to me sometimes. She compared me to the small bird who refused to take no for an answer, unafraid to face its fears and step out of its comfort zone to reach its goal. I can’t say that I’m that person yet, but every time I hear the gray kingbird singing its loud “Pee-tee-rreh,” I’m reminded that my mother saw those qualities in me; and since she gave birth to me and knew me better than anyone else, there must be some truth to it. We’re lucky to have a lot of gray kingbirds in Miami Beach year-round. Every time I hear their song I remind myself to be fierce and unafraid.
These are just but a few symbols I use. There are many others but I think I’ll keep those to myself. After all, they’re part of my secret love affair with fiction writing. Revealing it all would be a form of betrayal. You see, these small details might be irrelevant to everyone else, but they form the key to our intimacy.