A Cuban Funeral - Part three: Cuban coffee - sweet and strong


Someone is making coffee, Cuban style. It's Café Bustelo, my favorite. The smell tickles my nostrils while steam rises in the air, sketching a short woman with a hunched back, beady blue eyes, gray hair, gray hairs on her chin, too. I blink and remember a conversation we had two or three months ago:

"Grandma, why don't you try waxing, por favor? It looks awful. I can bring you these strips that -"

"Qué wax ni wax! Mind your own business! Do I say anything about you waxing your privates, cochina, so you can wear a bikini that shows it all?"

The steam goes away, but Grandma stays, dressed in her everyday muumuu, the one with the red polka dots. She is wearing her old wooden sandals, the chancletas that used to make a clap-clap noise around the house. Oddly enough, she has kept the hideous funeral home makeup.

Her presence doesn't surprise me. I have always seen things - the kind of things that regular folks never see. Mom took me to a mamalosha, a Santeria practitioner who owned a botanica in Calle Ocho, and she assured her that I was a clairvoyant. The school counselor, on the other hand, sent me to a psychiatrist, who wanted to put me on Valium. "The cure is worse than the disease," Mom said. She distrusted tranquilizers and just cautioned me against getting "too much into that stuff."

"Remember that your grandfather was interned in the Mazorra Psychiatric Hospital for a whole year before he passed away," she said. "There is a streak of craziness in the family and you might have inherited more than your share. Be careful, eh!"

In any case, I learned to keep my visions to myself. I don't see human ghosts too often. I see spirits of animals, though. Lots of them, which probably accounts for my desire to become a veterinarian. I have encountered disembodied cats, dogs, donkeys and even parrots. For a while, I was visited every day by spectral birds trying to find their way to their cages because they believed they were still alive. It was a challenge to convince them otherwise. I wonder if I would have to go through the same with Grandma.

Now she winks at me. I start to tell her how sorry I am about what happened, but she doesn't stop to hear. She ignores the casket and the visitors and walks to the family corner, all puffed up like an angry hen and ready for a fight.

"I caught you two badmouthing me!" she says in Spanish to Mom and Aunt Cecilia. "I should remind you that I did work when we came to Miami. I was the first one to get a job as a maid, while you were busy learning English and becoming all Americanas. Who took care of the girl all these years? Who babysat her while you went out? The ingratitude!"

With that, she flutters away, following the aroma of Café Bustelo that seeps out of the kitchen.

"Grandma?" I mutter.

But she has vanished. I steal one last glance at the corpse in the casket and return to my seat. Mom and Aunt Cecilia are drinking coffee in tiny porcelain demitasses. I am thankful they are not clairvoyants.

"This tastes like cardboard," Aunt Cecilia declares.

Mom shakes her head.

"How can it taste like cardboard, chica? Have you ever eaten a piece of cardboard? You always have to criticize everything."

"I know what I'm saying - this is old coffee, coffee that has been in the cupboard for a year at least. That was one of her tricks, to offer stale coffee to visitors. Have you forgotten?"

Mom chuckles.

"Ah, yes! She started hoarding in Cuba and kept it up here, even though she didn't need to."

"She did it to annoy us," Aunt Cecilia frowns at the memory. "That's why I stopped bringing my dates home. She would serve them old coffee and dusty crackers just to embarrass me. 'Here is some Cuban coffee, sweet and strong,' she would say with her best smile. And you could see the poor guy trying so hard not to spit it."

Yet it wasn't Grandma who made coffee today. It must have been Uncle Lewis, Aunt Cecilia's husband, who loves espresso and has learned to make it the Cuban way, using a teta - a cloth filter shaped like a breast that hangs down from a tin stand. Very simple, but it works better than any Mr. Coffee or Black & Decker coffeemaker. You just put ground coffee in the cloth, pour boiling water over and wait until it drips into a mug placed below.

All very natural, organic and eco-friendly, as Uncle Lewis, a San Diegan, says.

"Look at the faces people are making," Aunt Cecilia points out. "They've already noticed that the coffee tastes like cardboard, but are too polite to say so."

The Spanish version of this story can be found here.