Until I was about eight, I thought my grandpa was a Spaniard. This may have had something to do with him looking a lot like Antonio Banderas in Zorro, but probably had more to do with the fact that I couldn’t understand a single fucking word he said. And like most kids who grow up in Florida, the only other language you are even a little bit aware of was Spanish. Meaning: that when he talked and I couldn’t understand him, I thought he was speaking Spanish.
But I had been raised to be very polite. I never thought to point out to my grandpa that no one could understand him. Never thought to ask: Could you speak a little slower? No, what I did was way better: whenever he said anything, I would just smile and nod, and well…this went on for a long time. To be fair, it wasn’t my fault that I didn’t know he was speaking English. No one told me that I should ask for clarification. No one told me anything. In fact, I wouldn’t know that my grandpa wasn’t my grandpa but instead my grandma’s fifth husband until I was ten.
Now, Grandpa only said three things I or anyone outside of my family really understood: pookie, rascal, and trouble. Imagine my surprise when we’re all sitting at dinner and my grandpa asks my dad if I could meet my great-grandparents (my grandpa is way younger than my grandma). Well, he says something sounds to me more like Wrouldaneyanughyeachyuckbeh? Anyway, my dad apparently understands and says he’ll talk to my mom about it. While eating mashed potatoes, I had two thoughts: “Wait, Dad speaks Spanish?” And, “I’m going to Spain?”
So, the day finally arrives and it’s time to go to Spain. I’m all excited, ready to go, and then we get in the pickup and head on up the interstate. My grandparents chainsmoke the whole way. I’m talking if you pat my shirt sleeve, so much ash is gonna fly off of me you’re gonna be worried about nearby volcanic eruptions. Anyway. We drove for a long time. In reality, it’s about four hours. To a child? Eternity. As we’re going, the roads get a little bumpier, then a lot bumpier, then there’s no road at all, just some vague dirt marker that’s like, “Eh, why not?” And I’m looking out the window watching these trees get droopier and droopier, a little swampy. Eight-year-old me: Man, Spain sure is a lot wetter than I’d thought it would be.
Towards mid-afternoon, we pull in front of a house where this older couple is waiting outside, my great-grandparents. My great-grandma hugs Grandpa tight and then just loses her mind over me. She hauls my gangly body into her arms like I’m nothing. She’s talking a million miles a minute and calling me ma petite chou, mon ange. And I’m thinking, “Hey, Grandpa says that.” Let me just let you know now, there are no dots being connected.
While we’re sitting on the porch next to a BAYOU just catching up, my great-grandparents let us know they’re having a get-together for people to see my grandpa because he’s been gone for so long. Just a few people, nothing to worry about. And eventually, around seven, two guests show up on a boat and park it right on the dock. And then those two people turn to four, the four to sixteen, the sixteen turn into…well, you get it. For hours they’re drinking, smoking, playing music, and stirring these huge pots that smell like literal flame. It’s way past dinner, way past my bedtime, way past any hour I can remember being conscious for. And just when I feel like I’m going to starve to death, everyone’s pulling these tables together and laying down newspapers.
People are starting to crowd the table, so Grandpa stands me to the side and I watch as these huge guys carry out these big boil pots and toss ‘em out on the table. To date, maybe the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen: It’s this waterfall of corn, potatoes, and these little red lobsters. Everyone sits, there’s a prayer, nothing to drink. Everyone tucks in and Grandpa turns to me, picks up one of these little fellas (it’s a crawfish, y’all), rips off its head, and slurps out the innards.
I’m horrified. I’ve never seen food so brutalized before in my life. But Grandpa’s looking at me expectantly, so ready for me to take part in what is so obviously a right of passage, so I reach out and grab one. My weak child hands can’t rip off the head, so to avoid embarrassment, I shove the whole thing in my mouth and crunch on down before anyone can stop me.
You’ve never seen anyone so close to literal combustion. Out flies the crawfish and a hundred people are laughing while the inside of my mouth is peeling. I’m crying, snot is dripping down my nose, my hair is probably singed. Eventually my great-grandmother brings me a glass of milk and I drink it in shame because everyone found out that Tony’s granddaughter is a punk who can’t handle the spice.
The table goes back to eating and then my grandpa is the only person looking at me. And he’s holding up another crawfish and for the first time in my life, I understand him. It’s like I’m having the ultimate moment of Zen where everything in the universe just makes sense. And I understand that he’s not Spanish. And I understand that everything he’s been saying over the last eight years has been in English muddled by the thickest Louisiana accent you’ve ever heard. It’s such a sweet and tender moment that Hallmark couldn’t replicate. And he says: “Try again.”
I take the crunchy red shell, look at it, back to him and his expectant gaze, and say without any reservations: “Nope.” And I put that sucker right back down and drank milk until I went to bed. And you know what?
I still can’t eat spicy food.