The Abuela Chronicles: The Lizard in the Shoebox

It smelled like the rice was burning, so Petra made her way slowly into the kitchen. The big bump on the left side of her stomach had grown, and it hurt every time she moved. She'd try cataplasmas (poultices) and sobos (ointments), but nothing seemed to help. She even wrapped one of her husband's leather belts around her waist hoping the tumor would "go down." Suddenly, there's a sharp pain on her side, and she needs to push. It felt just like giving birth! Another scream and her husband comes running in time to see what looked like a fetus now lying on the kitchen floor. "Pepe, go get the midwife! I think I just had a baby," said Petra, her face full of sweat and fear. The city was Comerío, Puerto Rico, and the year was 1917.

Basilia, the town's comadrona, came in a big hurry and found what looked like a tiny baby girl limp on the floor. She picked her up, noticing immediately the baby wasn't much bigger than her own hand. She quickly warmed up olive oil, and started rubbing her little body. What could she use as a crib? A shoebox from the children's room seemed sturdy enough and just the right size. Basilia made her a bed with cotton, and placed the still baby inside the makeshift crib, using one of Don Pepe's handkerchiefs as a blanket. Then, she went looking for a hurricane lamp large enough that could provide warmth to the frail little one. She made tea using the leaves from nearby lime and orange trees to which she added a little bit of sugar. Then, she took a strip of gauze, dipped it in the cooled infusion, and laid it on the baby's lips. Suddenly, the little one starts moving, and the tiniest tongue comes out reaching for the sweet liquid. "Well, maybe this one will make it for a few more hours," Basilia said to herself, trying not to think that the shoe box could easily become the baby's coffin.

Abuelita, tell me a story: The cuentos of our childhood

Abuela Rigo circa 1977 (Courtesy Carlos Colon Estrella) The hours became days; the days turned into weeks, and the baby inside the shoe box kept on living. Her Abuela Rigo circa 1977Abuela Rigo circa 1977four siblings would gather around the desk, waiting to see if the baby in the box would stick out her tongue as Mom tried to feed her with the tea-moistened gauze. The moment she did, they would all crack up in laughter and say, "Look, Mami, she looks like a lagartijita (little lizard)!" One afternoon, while doing some paperwork at his desk, Don Pepe heard a little cry coming out of the shoebox. He looked inside, went back to his papers and without missing a beat, he announced to the rest of the house: "La lagartijita no se muere" (The little lizard is not going to die).

That little lizard grew up and lived to the ripe old age of 90. She raised four children and got to be there for her 12 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. She was my Abuela Rigo: feisty, full of energy and the poster child of overprotecting love- an incredible human being.

Abuela lived a life full of adventures and hardships. She loved and fought for what she believed in and for those she loved the most. Her stories growing up very rich (and then very poor) in Puerto Rico are the stuff of legends, and I'll try to share them- and her- with you. Welcome to The Abuela Chronicles.

And like she used to say, "Un día de estos se van a acordar de mi." (You'll remember me one of these days.)

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Find the entire series of "The Abuela Chronicles" here:

The Lizard in the Shoebox

The Trouble with Papá's Siesta

A Girl More Famous Than the Circus

Rich at Last