Cyndy Cendagorta

River Lamb

Growing up, we always had lamb for dinner, like any good Basque family. Not the actual meat, because Tia Astoria wouldn’t allow it to be served, but the story of the crying lamb in the river she found when she was a girl. Stories of every sacrificial lamb in our family, told by Tia, the oracle of our tribe. It was part of our dinner theatre. Like playing the game of Animal, Vegetable, Mineral but with names and places of family members who had met a tragic end. Served up every Sunday with the soup.

Tia Astoria, my great aunt, had been regaling the family with stories of accidents, loss, and tragedy over dinner since before I was in my mother’s womb. She would begin with the slaughtering of the lamb she tried to save in spring, her mother’s burns, and brother’s loss in summer and end with her son Samuel’s death in autumn. We were all too aware there was room for one more in the winter of her advent calendar of sorrow, for one more animal, mother or son.

Despite all the tragedies, and the pall over our meals, we always had Sunday dinner together. Seven of us would get together for our ritual meal that rotated houses each week- one week my mother and father would host, the week after we would go to my great Aunt and Uncle’s, who we called Tia Astoria and Tio Paul, then back to Amuma’s, which means grandmother in Basque.

Amuma lived alone after my grandfather died when I was 11, and my father, her only son, took care of her when she needed extra help. She was more than enough to fill that house, though, and was the institutional force behind our Sundays. Somos familia, she would tell us in Spanish. We are family. My brother and I believed in Amuma and thought that she could do anything. When we were little, she told us that she had a tattoo of a snake on her back that moved when she flexed her biceps and that she could lift cars with one finger. She would flex her arms under her sweater, and we would swear we saw the snake rearing its head over her shoulder. I always thought that the fact that we believed her until we were nearly grown says more about her than it does about us.

Tio Paul, Tia’s husband and Amuma’s brother, was the gardener in the family, bringing his farmer’s tan and fresh vegetables to our Sunday table. He kept time by the amount of sun on his crops and grew roses bigger than my whole hand. He came to America when he was 16 to work in the sheep camps, like many Basque young men emigrating from Spain. It was lonely, difficult work, with the men spending months high up in the mountains with no one to talk to. Alone with their memories and their pocketknives, they turned quickly into men who could suffer quietly and pass the time. The sheepherders’ rough, artful carvings cut into the quaking aspens my Tio showed me always struck me as sad, and somewhat prescient. The gaunt people they carved into the trees were ghost-like, of no assistance whatsoever to the lonely men marking time until many years later when the carvings rose higher and higher on the tree trunks, witnesses to the passage of time itself.

With the sheep that dotted the Sierras, came the Basques to Nevada and our generations of family that considered itself of the land around northern Nevada. Our family history was a complicated tapestry of memories of Spain and Nevada, retold in Spanish, Basque and English, sometimes all at the same time. Shared over frittatas and wedding night soup, Basque beans and chorizo and of course Picon Punch-the cocktail that could make you forget your heritage and your name if given enough. Although, Amuma preferred Manhattans.

At Sunday dinners there were rituals observed, scoldings to eat more, nostalgia for Spain, and a rhythm to it all. Soup, salad, bread, beans, meat and boiled potatoes. Laughter and hello again, Tio Pual, a hand to hold while Amuma danced with us in the kitchen, a kiss for Tia Astoria.

“I picked the last of the tomatoes this week. Frost coming,” Tio Paul would say, always watching the weather.    

He boomed every sentence from the head of the table with a minimal amount of space between his plate and his large belly. Eyes sparkling, he loved to laugh even after he gave up the booze. He was funny now, mean before. Sheep rancher, tree carver, storyteller, he always started us off.

“We will start canning next week. Tomatoes, and our peaches, and the last of our peppers,” he would say.

He and my Tia canned fruits and vegetables every fall in the basement of their home on Mt. Rose Street that they had lived in for 50 years. The two of them worked side by side in their aprons, her chattering and him humming an aimless tune, season after season. Both Tia and Tio were remarkably strong after running up and down basement stairs reminiscent of those in the submarine Tio served on in the War. We all took a leap of faith when they invited us down into the basement to see the rows of shelves weighted down with their summer haul.  We were never sure the same of our number would come up as ventured down.

While the upstairs of Tia and Tio’s house was full of knick-knacks and furniture crammed into the corners, lace covers on armchairs and portraits in sepia, the basement was more austere. It was cold, with no functional heater, and when we had dinners in the big room downstairs, the house felt heavy on top of us. It pushed us together, and we would slowly warm the damp basement dining room with our body heat, our laughter, and the soup. Amuma’s house was warm and cozy, my favorite place to be.

“You started your canning yet?” Tio Paul would ask Amuma as she bustled around the table, filling water glasses smudged with another Sunday’s fingerprints. Dinner at Amuma’s always included an element of performance art as we all tried to wipe the rims clean without Amuma noticing so she wouldn’t offer the dishrag to help.

“No, it’s still summer. I’m going to wait,” Amuma would reply. A not-so-nuanced message that big brother or not, she was not going to can until she was goddamn good and ready.

“You should start, Mary, the weather is changing,” Tia Astoria would say.

Amuma would dismiss her with a wave of her hand, her disdain palpable.  I could never figure out why my Amuma was so rough with her, her quiet war against only visible in the smallest of movements, barely discernable to those outside our family. Tia Astoria, in her pale pink sweaters, Kleenex tucked in the sleeve for whatever emotional or logistical event might require it instantly, never struck me as dangerous, but for some reason she threatened Amuma. I wondered if Amuma would secretly put the lamb in the dinner meal, just to spite her.

Even though Tia’s stories made me sad growing up, and scared me a little, she was always good to me. She would give me baby dolls for Christmas every year without fail. She would sit in her rocker with her floral print housedress and white nurse’s shoes and watch me unwrap the paper. She would clutch her hands in delight when I pulled out the baby, brand new in its box. “Can I hold her?” she would ask and take the baby doll in her arms. She would stroke its hair, and put its feet on her chest, baby’s head resting on her knees. Like a real child.  She would hold the baby for a long time. “Isn’t she beautiful?” She would say in a soft voice. “Isn’t she just so pretty? Babies are perfect, aren’t they perfect.” Getting the doll back from her was more like a hostage negotiation than receiving a gift.

Tia never learned to drive and was dependent on Tio for everything. He drove her to the store and to church every Sunday, with coupons, saints and rosary tucked in her gloved hands.   Creature of habit, she never varied her routine. Talk to this neighbor and that, sweep the floors, call her cousin in Ogden, and another cousin in Spain. Church again and home to rest. Report out her entire day on the phone that evening.

“Did I tell you what so-and-so told me, Mary?” she would ask Amuma when she called her every night. Always hopeful she was delivering something of value to long, deaf ears, she was a record playing the same song until the very sound of it screeched in my Amuma’s head. “Why doesn’t she ever talk about anything new?” Amuma would ask. “I am sick of the same old, same old. The past is dead. Leave it there.”

But the vendetta between them, or at least the hostility my Amuma directed toward Tia, went back long before I was paying attention to those evening calls, and even before I was born. Tia and Amuma were oil and water, forever connected by wedding vows and in-laws, beating against the other. Tia was raised a princess, the blessed child of a doting father and obsessively loving mother. She was raised on her father’s large sheep ranch, and was schooled by nuns in Ogden, Utah. She was pious and never swore. Never took a drink in her life, even when she married a mean drunk. She was meant to be cherished and have beautiful babies, as perfect as the baby dolls.

Amuma was raised in the tiny town of Fordua, Spain, home to Basque separatism and secrets, growing up a strong-willed girl who was always in fear of her father’s looming switch. The father who lashed her when she came home late from dancing. The father who cheated on her sainted mother. There were no princesses in that little house in Spain, only saints and whores. You did what you had to do, and you enjoyed it. Eat. Work. Obey. Yes, father, I’ll be home. Yes, Mama, I will help with the bread.  There was nothing too precious in Amuma’s world, just the satisfaction of a hard day’s work, a cold Manhattan on the patio, and family on Sundays, all together. 

When the canning issue was finally settled at the table, we would all go back to our plates and the rhythm of dinner would pick up again, as predictable as the tides.  The clanking of spoons in our Basque Wedding Night soup and please pass the salt. Egg, garlic, broth made of bones. Dip with bread, dip again. Wait for the next almanac-related comment.

“I don’t want summer to end. I just can’t stand the winter.” My Amuma would say. “It’s so gloomy.” Gloomy – a word she used for any type of weather to include a cloud in the sky or a winter white out. As if winter had personally singled her out to make her miserable. “I’m already waiting for spring.”

And then the show would begin.

Time would slow down as Tia mopped the soup off her chin with her napkin. At 90 years old, the straight shot from spoon to gullet became a winding road and there would often be collateral damage from our meal on her ruffled blouse.

“You know spring was lambing season on our sheep ranch? When they took the baby lambs, and they killed them. Oh, how they would cry. Somehow they knew what was coming. I would just hide behind the house and cover my ears till it was over. I found one by the river you know? I thought I could save him. But they took him.”

Spoons would circle in our bowls, as we all looked into the china, trying to find a trapdoor in the eggs and garlic to avoid another trip to the river. Another trip through the body count we knew like our own heartbeats.

Tears would fall into Tia’s soup as she talked about the river lamb. He was, and still is, the gatekeeper to her suffering. He stands, Christ-like at the head of the table and invites her to add up the losses. He personifies her pain. She does this every Sunday. Because she can. We are captive – can’t get up lest the soup get cold.  And no one else in her life will listen. They stopped long ago. Besides, we too, are practiced in these arts.

“That’s enough Astoria,” Tio would tell her.

“Leave the past in the past. Why do we always have to talk about the past?” Amuma would say, as she spit out bits of the bread and stabbed at the broth with her spoon.  Tia would taint her soup with this sorrow, and Amuma couldn’t have that. The soup was her love letter to her son, her grandchildren and her family, and she hated my Tia for this. Wanted to smother her with the dishtowel I’m sure. Or put her out to eat with the dog.

Tia would move forward, undeterred. “They were so precious, so precious, Jacob.” She always spoke only to my father even though there were seven of us at the table. She spoke to him as if he was her son, not Amuma’s. As if she owned him as much as she owned her story. “But oh, how they suffered. That’s why I will never eat lamb in my life. Never.”

My brother and I would sip water from our slippery glasses. Amuma would slam her Manhattan like it was the cure for cancer.

“We have all suffered so, I just don’t know why everything happens to us? Why our family?” Tia would ask, like it was the first time she has ever pondered the question. She would lean into her history, lost to us. She would be off to the races, wide eyed and earnest. Like she stepped inside a photo booth at a carnival and couldn’t get out. Wrestling with the curtains and shielding her eyes from the flash, she would continue. 

When I think about Tia, and dinner, and Sunday, I think about the past, and how it is never really past in my family. But tragedy does that to a people, especially when they keep talking about it, keep it alive instead of the loved ones they lost. Like Samuel.

My Dad was six when he was playing tag with his younger cousin , Tia’s son Samuel, in the backyard ringed by Tio’s roses when Samuel tripped and fell. He hit his tiny head on a sprinkler head and died three weeks later. Deep down, my father knows they blame him.  He feels a fraud at this table, taker of life, not beloved nephew, when she talks like this. She leads him in, beckoning to him with her handkerchief and her sadness in these stories on Sunday.

“So what really happened with Samuel?” I asked my Amuma once.

“Nah.” She replied. Subject closed.

“How did you explain this to my father when it happened? Did you ever talk to him about it?” I persisted. No answer.

“Never?” I asked again. “No!” She said. “It was more complicated than that. Enough.”

Many Sundays after I talked to Amuma I finally get the nerve up to ask my Tia about that day. We are alone today at her house – just Tia and my infant son, Aiden and me. She sits with his feet on her chest, head on her knees, just like the baby dolls.

“Tia, what happened with my Dad and Samuel? He hit his head on a sprinkler right? When they were playing. Had some sort of head injury?” I ask.

As she rocks in her ancient chair with the baby, she covers the genealogical topography of our family as it exists in the natural order of her mind, of the river lamb, her mother and brother, and the jewel in her martyr’s crown, her son Samuel, who died 65 years ago. She tells the story as I have heard it a million times, always ending in winter with Samuel.

Distracted by the baby’s warm breath and little folds of skin on his tiny thighs, she tells her life story without taking her eyes off him, ending with Samuel. “He had a brain tumor, you know?” She says, like she is reporting the weather.

“Cancer?” I say. “I thought he fell and hit his head when he and my dad were playing? He fell out back by Tio Paul’s roses, right? I always heard it was an accident.”

She is still playing with my son’s sockless feet. His hands are tangled in her sweater. “No,” she says, “The doctors did an X-Ray to look for a concussion and found two tumors. That’s when they found them. Right here.” She puts her hand on the back of her head, just above her neck, then moves it to the side by her ear. “We took him straight away to Stanford, and they thought they could get it but they couldn’t, and he died right there, during the surgery. They were just playing anyway,” she says, tiny feet holding her attention in the now.

I negotiate the baby back out of her arms, and I drive as fast as I can to my parents’ house. I find my father in the garage, building a table, sawdust in the air. Flannel shirt suck together in places from the pitch, workpants covered in paint, stain and effort.

“I just talked to Tia, Dad.” The mention of her brings something to his face I recognize but cannot name. He sets down the sandpaper, and I recount the conversation, careful to get the words just right. I put my hand on the back of my head and by my ear just where she did. I tell him the timeline just as she told it – the fall, the X-rays, the find.

Sadness envelopes him like a cold front.  He puts a hand up to his mouth, wiping sawdust into his beard. He is silent.

“She was very clear.” I tell him, reassuring him that this is the way it is. “She told me all about the doctors and the tests and the tumors. It wasn’t the fall Dad. It wasn’t your fault.”

He is silent.

“This makes it better, doesn’t it?” I put my arms around him.

“I appreciate you telling me this. Oh my God,” my Dad says as he gently pulls away. “I need some time to process this. I will see you at dinner.” I am left holding the baby in the middle of the sawdust and stain as he turns to go into the house. I walk to my car with the baby wrapped tight in my arms, warm prophylaxis against the chill of our family’s narrative. I thought telling him this would free him somehow, take away the years of guilt and leave him blameless. I don’t understand his reaction.

We gather, hours later, in Amuma’s wood-paneled kitchen with metal diner chairs pushed up against her table with the plastic cover. The plastic was so old that it had outgassed all its chemical smell decades ago and had taken on the patina of wax. It was yellowed and smelled of so many Sundays. Amuma, manned the kitchen with an ancient dishtowel tucked into her apron string, discolored and soaked with enough oil that over the years it had stopped being effective at mopping up anything. Amuma’s dishtowels were, at this point, more of a public stance against modernity than a useful kitchen implement. Being at her house made it easier to hear Tia’s stories, as if we were inoculated against them by Amuma’s sheer will.

Only hours after the conversation with Tia about the tumor, the same refrain is playing at our familiar dinner table. We are back in the autumn of Tia’s narrative calendar,  having already worked through spring, the soup and the ink fish Amuma spent all day preparing.  Tia retreads the past right on time, her story more urgent and powerful than the truth.

“My little brother Louis fell off the roof you know? Died in your father’s arms, Jacob. So young. He was on the lattice, and it just didn’t hold him. Oh, he was such a beautiful boy. Your little cousin was named after him. Samuel Louis. Just so he would not be forgotten, you know?”

Nothing but soup sounds now, the clanking of dinnerware louder than a few moments ago.

“And my poor mother. She was never the same after she slipped in the geyser at Yellowstone that summer. The lights went out, and she took a wrong step. There were no fences there then. You know 80 percent of her body was burned? They put butter on her in the hospital. You know they did that then. And the poor man who gave them the tour, he tried to kill himself after. Had nightmares. The man, he was the proprietor, he tried to help her get out you know, but he just ended up pushing her in further.”

Amuma gets up to make another drink. I am surprised she doesn’t come back with the entire bottle or tape for Tia’s mouth.

Tia isn’t finished.  “And later my father wouldn’t – well, he wouldn’t do the things he used to do with her again. That a husband and wife should do. It burned her everywhere. You know, Jacob, that’s hard on a marriage, ” she tells my father.

Amuma puts away her second Manhattan in record time. The soup spoon in her hand more shiv than utensil as she stares Tia down.

My father gives Tia a sad smile, nodding. He is her chosen listener and understands his role. He will hold her pain in trust. He owes her that much after what happened to Samuel. He attends to his soup and bread with great care. Please pass the butter. Thank you. Just a little more.  He wants to turn away, but like a bystander at the scene of a crash, he is fixated on the trauma. We all are.

“Yes, Tia. I remember. It was winter wasn’t it?” He is trying to advance her calendar of tragedy to end the telling of it all because he knows what is coming. Better to rip the Band-Aid off before we get to the ham.   

She doesn’t answer. Her endgame is in sight now. She moves on to another stanza in her anthem of grief. “And poor little Samuel. My sweet boy. You know all he wanted was his stuffed bunny when he died? Tio drove all the way home to Reno from Stanford right before the surgery to get it, but he died on the table. My Samuel was only three. It’s terrible to lose a child, Jacob. Terrible.”

Tio Paul slams his hand on the table. The forks dance and our soup washes over the sides of our bowls, pooling on the plastic. “Enough Astoria!” He yells, red faced, trying to the stem the bloodletting of his wife’s memory and the rich vein of my father’s shame.

Tio unclenches his fists and continues to eat. My father’s head hangs. He is part of the pain once again. He is no longer a bystander, ever listening nephew. He is now a principal in her passion play.

“You boys were playing and you pushed him, remember Jacob? He hit his head on the sprinkler, and he wasn’t the same. Just stopped walking and stopped talking. Dead only three weeks after.” 

Goddammit woman!” Tio yells and raises his hand as if to hit her. She blinks. She closes her mouth. Soup drips off her spoon and down her hand. She makes a little sound like a cat and starts to cry. Her emergency tissue is not fast enough this time. Tears fall into her bowl, over salting Amuma’s soup. 

He has silenced her for now, but says nothing else. He doesn’t correct the record. He knows, I think, as I look around the table. Amuma knows. They sacrificed my father on the altar of the family – so there would be no tumors here. No sickness. No curse. They call it an accident, as if no one was chosen, but they chose someone. We choose someone still, with our silence, as we salt the meat and pass the wine. I need to say something, but the words won’t come. I look at my mother, ever reasonable and optimistic, and even she has cast her eyes toward her plate. My brother is playing with a string on his sweatshirt, too young to understand. I say nothing.

My Dad lifts his head, love for Tia on his face. “I still think about it, too, Tia,” he says. “I still miss him.” He reaches for her hand, smiling at her. I realize I am clenching my hands under the table as I watch this, waiting for Tia’s reaction. She just smiles back and tucks her handkerchief in her sweater sleeve.

I see what my father has done, all these years. Tia’s son is gone, but this is something he can give her, this communion over her pain and the wine. He agrees to go back to Tio’s roses in that backyard year after year, so she won’t have to go alone. He stands in for the source of her pain, so she won’t have to search for it in her womb or in her faith in Jesus. No sacrificial lamb, but the rightful claimant to the patriarch title that will soon be his when Tio Paul passes. He is strong enough to hold us all together.  He has proven that every Sunday in memory.  

I exhale, and we move on to the potatoes and the beans. We talk about politics and the economy, our gardens and how the tree out front keeps cracking the pavement. Is anyone going to fix that? These bits of minutia stitch our family together, and flow in and out of dinner like the wine, our laughter, and Tia’s ability to stay in the present.

We laugh when Amuma pulls the ham out of the oven and drops it on the linoleum. It bounces like a basketball and she pushes it back on the platter, hand on top, holding it still. She keeps walking to the table, ham intact. She is nonplussed.

“What?” she says when my brother and I laugh and point.

“Nothing happened!” She says. And she makes some unintelligible Basque noise that roughly translates to “I have no idea what you are talking about, but even if I did, I don’t give a shit.”

Because for Amuma, the truth doesn’t serve. She serves ham only. And the perfect Manhattan. On her third now.

The foundation of Amuma’s wood paneled world is rock solid after years of throwing salt over her shoulder to ward away Samuel’s sickness and Tia’s sorrow.  She protects our lives with hearty soups and resilient hams, a pocketful of superstitions and a ferocious faith in our family and in her son, my father. She doesn’t distinguish between the fall and the tumors, and she has nothing for the past. She fixes whatever is broken, usually with rubber bands and duct tape patches, and she moves on. Salt, fix, patch and serve, Manhattans and linoleum ham. 

My brother and I kick each other under the table. We shouldn’t laugh at Amuma. She only wants dinner to be perfect. She loves us fiercely, and her fight with the ham illustrates just how far she will go on any given Sunday.

“Oh this is a tender ham, Mary,” Tia Astoria says, nodding her head. She is back with us in the now, cheeks pink and rosy like her sweater.

“Very tender. And I love the pineapple braised like this,” my Mom says, trying to be helpful.

Ham and sides are devoured. The talk turns to my brother’s baseball team and dessert arrives. Always Tia’s favorite, she is smiling at the pie as my father wipes off the carving knife he used with the ham to cut her a slice.

“I have a sweet tooth you know, Jacob? I always have.” She grins at my father, as if nothing ever happened. 

And nothing ever did. We never saw the ham or the accusations fly, or Tia’s tears fall. We never watched my father cut through years of shame to carry the grief when Tia couldn’t. No one had to wipe up soup pooling on the plastic like stains on our memories or search our bowls for a trapdoor in the ribbons of eggs and garlic. We never saw Tia’s army of saints and martyrs claim our table, as white and unblemished as Samuel, to be sent away by Tio’s fist and my father’s grace, saved for another Sunday like the china. And we never, ever, acknowledged the lamb we just had for dinner. Any of them. Somos familia.

Cyndy Cendagorta is working on a collection of short stories about broken things, including bodies, children, faith and love. She runs a policy consulting company in Reno, Nevada that specializes in social innovation, and is a special needs mother and advocate. She holds an MA in Political Science from Washington State University and is a past Women’s Research and Education Institute Fellow. Her work can be found in Cagibi, The Spectacle, Salmon Creek Journal and Please See Me. She lives in Reno, NV, with her husband and three children.