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Losing the Flavor

This single mom worries her kids are missing out on their rich heritage

Karen Valentin and her two sons cooking dinner

You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Matthew 5: 13a NLT

The elevator door opened and the smell of a Puerto Rican feast greeted me. She’s cooking again! I sighed, breathing in my sweet neighbor’s cooking. The scent of Caribbean spices filled the hallway and brought me back to the childhood I spent sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen. I used to sit at her table while Abuela would pace from sink to stove, peeling and rinsing, tasting and stirring until the aroma of her feast would envelope me with flavors, the clatter of Spanish voices all around me.

Walking past my neighbor’s door, I ached for her to open up and invite my two boys and me inside. It didn’t happen. So I balanced the pizza I’d bought in one hand and opened my own door with the other. Brandon and Tyler raced to the table waiting for their slice, their big brown eyes looking up at me with anticipation. They were excited about our meal, but after my neighbor’s reminder of my grandmother’s cooking, I knewthat what I was serving them was lacking.

I’ve always wanted to give my children more than what I had growing up. I believe that’s every parent’s wish. But as I put the flat slices of pizza on their paper plates, I wished it were possible to give them even a taste of what I had when I was a little girl.

Most of my family rented small railroad apartments in Brooklyn; but the rooms were filled with a sweet chaos that I long for once again.  My grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins were a constant presence in my life. With family dispersed and long distances between us now, there’s an emptiness in my home that not even two active boys can completely fill. My mother and father cooked and cleaned side by side. They’d dance and sing to an audience of two giggling girls.

I make my sons laugh too, but I do it alone. I do it mostly to ease the aching questions “When are we going to see Daddy again?”  The beautiful Spanish language I grew up with is silenced, the passion-filled stories followed by laughter, the soft Spanish prayers that lulled me to sleep are sounds my boys don’t hear.  There was a rhythm in which we moved, a flavor to our lives that was delicious in every way. Had I lost the flavor?

The day after pizza night, I blended pepper, cilantro, onions and garlic into the secret-weapon sauce of all Puerto Rican meals…sofrito. I peeled, cut and fried plantains and made a big pot of white rice. I added sofrito to pink beans, seasoned the steak just so, until the aroma matched Abuela’s and my sweet neighbor’s.

If food is an expression of love, then, I decided, I would love my boys with herbs, spices and Puerto Rican cooking.  If the house is empty, I’ll fill it with people—I’ll lure them in with my cooking. My home can be filled with a sweet chaos if I choose. I can teach my boys gracias and por favor, I can pray over them in the language that gave me such comfort as a little girl.

I can’t change divorce or an absent father; but I can teach them the lessons I have not lost from my childhood. I can be an example of love like my family was to me. I can teach them to move on and appreciate life. I can show them how to forgive and pray for others, even the ones who’ve hurt you. I can encourage them to be the salt God has called us to be, to go out into a flavorless world and be the flavor that others never even knew was lost.

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