There’s a memory of an impromptu holiday family gathering that I treasure. Outside of funerals, weddings, or life passages, that out-of-the-blue gathering stands out in my memory as the only time my family, a family that rarely managed the goodwill towards one another to invest time to be together, gathered in celebration.
On that day, titi Andrea was guiding us, children, in the process of making coconut candy over an open fire. It felt like days since we started the preparations. We helped with the gathering and peeling of coconuts. After being shown how to safely handle a knife, we have been instructed on the size and shape of the desired coconut chips we need to produce. We gathered, washed, and cut many squares of banana leaves and twine to be used to wrap the candies, and of course, we gathered wood for the fire. We also helped with moving, cleaning, and setting up “abuela’s caldero pan” in the open fire. That caldero seemed almost magical to me. It was the cooking vessel used to prepare many meals for family, friends, and strangers over the years. It held plenty; there was always enough, and then some. Whether you were family or not, there was always a meal available.
My cousins and I carefully surrounded abuela as she started to methodically stir the coconut chips which we had prepared, releasing the aroma of toasted coconut infused with the smokiness of burning wood. Once the coconut chips had reached the desired golden color, abuela poured just enough water to cover the chips and boil them so that they would soften. Then we were invited to take turns adding sugar to start the sweet alchemy that would transform coconut chips into crystallized candy. As the cooking finished, we kids moved quickly and carefully, holding the banana leaf squares as abuela and titi scooped the hot candy mixture into them and placed them on a table to cool. We tried to move as expeditiously as we could muster while trying to steal away a little taste of the candy here and there.
The candy was made, the caldero was rinsed, and titi moved into making dinner for all of us. As if summoned by the call of food, family members started to trickle into abuela’s house. Two large tables were brought out and set with food, drinks, and a plate of smokey sweet coconut candy. We laughed the night away with real joy. In my mind, this event anchored itself as a signpost of hope. Maybe, just maybe, the various real and imagined strifes wedging themselves between family members would disappear. Maybe we would break bread again like this if only during the holidays.
Next year I was waiting anxiously for titi’s call to start preparing for the coconut candy making. But the call never came. The winds of peace had shifted; resentments rooted themselves again, hardening any soft spaces between family members. Yet, at least for me, the sweet taste of that memory kept the bitterness away.
Years later, walking through the same grounds where abuela’s caldero was set, I got a hint of the smoky-sweet smell of sugary coconut candy and my memory was kindled again. I could not help but wonder what could have been if we had opted, as a family, to uproot resentments and tended to honor one another. While it may have been a missed opportunity for my family, the memories of those few days helped me gain the following perspective. I can choose to move through the world in ways that honor, respect, and care for others. That I can make a choice to speak tender words instead of hard ones, to be a sweetening presence and not a bitter one; to serve others with the plenty produced by hope to keep the famine of despair away. That I can honor myself, and others, by setting clear boundaries and opting for honesty instead of letting hurts fester. Because of that memory, I believe that we can cook in seasoned vessels of faith meals of plenty to feed our hungry spirits and share with others, whether friends, neighbors, or strangers. Our vessels of faith can hold plenty; there will always be enough, and then some. It all starts with honoring our relations.
Honoring our relations requires discerning our intentions and commitment to tending to them. That we be judicious about what is as ours to carry and what needs to be put down when our relating to one another frays at the edges. Honoring our relations is a commitment to affirming that our dignity is precious, to letting compassion bridge the gap between us, and to trusting that justice will be tempered by grace.
Dr. Ortega has been serving as President of Meadville Lombard Theological School since July 2019. Prior to coming to MLTS, he served as Associate Professor of Social Theory and Religious Ethics at Drew University Theological School. His primary teaching and research areas are Sociology of Religion, Religious Ethics, Cultural Sociology, Social Movements, Critical Theory, Africana Studies, Latinx Cultural Studies.Learn more about Dr. Ortega