A few weeks ago I learned that my essay “Sopa Ministry for the Grieving and Unmothered” won the AWP Kurt Brown Prize in Creative Nonfiction.
Of my submission, judge Sandra Gail Lambert shared:
Impressive in its use of sentence structure, point-of-view and white space, this essay sets the practical concerns of making soup (“Chill with the celery—that shit is strong”) within a ferocious study of grief. As the author tells us how to make her mother’s soup, an ingredient (yucca, scallions, recao) or instruction (mash the garlic, turn the heat up high) drops her and us into the loneliness of an uncaring mother or the devastation of a brother’s death.”
It takes skill to hold an essay steady through a rage of emotions. The author accomplishes this with impressive deft and artistry. She returns us to needs of the soup such as the washing of cilantro or a yucca plant that requires peeling. In this way the essay is more than a study, it is an offering to the reader—make your soup, uncover the hidden grieving of a lifetime, become an adult, be restored.
The essay will be featured in the upcoming anthology Fried Eggs & Rice edited by Angelique Imani Rodriguez. A blurb on the anthology:
Angelique Imani Rodriguez has been developing Fried Eggs and Rice: An Anthology by Writers of Color on Food since April 2018 with the intention of having a collection by writers and chefs of color that focus more on the spectrum of our food experiences as opposed to the gustatory nostalgia of most food writing by POC and the often voyeuristic perspectives of white writers writing about our food. The collection shares food memories through narrative, poetry, and even fiction from 30 plus writers, both published and burgeoning, who explore their emotional, cultural, and spiritual connection to food.
I am indebted to Angie because when she commissioned me for this essay for her anthology, I was finally able to finish this piece that I had been tinkering with for some time. Thanks in part to her keen editing eye, the final draft won this award. Thanks, sis!
My prize-winning essay “Sopa Ministry for the Grieving and Unmothered” is not up on the AWP site so I thought I’d share an excerpt here:
Mom has never known how to say I’m sorry. She says it with a heaping bowl of soup.
Even now, decades after you moved out to make your way in the world and become a woman alone, she still doesn’t know how to say sorry when she hurts you, over and over. Instead, she sends you large tupperwares full of your favorite sopa de frijoles. A soup you’ve never learned how to make. A soup you know you’d ask for as your last meal. A soup she’s said she’d teach you how to make but never did.
You’ve never tried to make this soup. You’ve never looked for recipes online. The only way you would ever make this soup is if your mom taught you, but you’ve given up on the idea, so you wait for the sopa to come, as it always does.
You’ll get a call from your Titi or a text. She’ll say: “Ven a buscar la sopa que te mandó tu mama.” And you’ll know she’ll reach out soon. Your mother. And she’ll act like nothing’s happened. Like she didn’t hurt you with her cruelty. She didn’t say that thing you wish she hadn’t said. She’ll pretend to love you as you are, until you do something to set her off and she’ll disappear again, punishing you by denying you her love, and you’ll long for her and months later she’ll send you sopa and the process will start again…
You know because this has been going on for decades.
Every time you make sopa, you will think of your mother whom you haven’t seen in months.
You will remember that you don’t know the last time she hugged you or touched you tenderly.
You will remember that time you ran into her at your aunt’s house. When she walked by you, she pulled in her shoulder so she wouldn’t touch you. Your chest still caves at the memory.
That kind of shit is distracting. You don’t want to forget any of the ingredients for your soup. Make a damn list...
You had to teach yourself how to make sopa.
You mastered it after your brother died. Your Superman who you tell your daughter stories about. How when you were kids, you followed him around and did everything he did: you climbed onto the top of the closet to leap onto the bed; you dug into the sand at the ocean’s edge at Rockaway Beach, looking for sandcrabs and chased your sister with them.
You tell your daughter about the time you were playing house and Carlos put on one of mom’s dresses, high heels, and a pair of pantyhose on his head for hair. When he flicked his neck and the hose cascaded down his shoulder, he batted his eyes at you and you knew your brother was different. You didn’t have the words for it then but you knew. So when he came out to you when you were both in your twenties, you laughed and told him you’ve always known.
When your daughter has her first crush, you tell her about how your brother snuck you letters from Ruben, your first love from down the block, when you were 12. When Carlos left a few months later, you knew you had to get out too. With him gone, there was no reason for you to stay.
The sopa making ritual was how you took care of yourself when the grief of his loss sent you reeling into the darkest place of your life. They tell you when someone dies, that will be the biggest grief. They don’t tell you about the griefs that grief will uncover. They don’t tell you how those griefs will suffocate you.
The grief that was uncovered for you was your being unmothered. How mommy was abusive and cruel, and that’s why you left her house when you were 13 and never moved back. You had to save your own life and have been taking care of yourself since. But you’ve also clawed for her love ever since too, repeating that “love me please love me cycle” in all your relationships. When Carlos died, you couldn’t run away from it anymore. This truth. How it suffocated you.
Your asthma got out of control. You couldn’t walk a block without gasping for air. You who boxed and lifted weights and rollerbladed and biked and went on three mile hikes a few times a week. Once, while hiking in the woods of your beloved Inwood Hill Park, you felt your lungs seize while climbing a hill. Your albuterol inhaler didn’t work. You stripped off your jacket, sat on a log and put your head between your legs. You had to calm yourself down. “Chill, nena. Breathe.”
That night, you opened your laptop and typed “When my brother died…” That’s when you felt a sledgehammer hit your chest. The thermal you were wearing suddenly felt like a straitjacket. You hadn’t moved the nebulizer from next to your bed for months. You used it four times over the next twelve hours.
Your herbalist friend told you, “Of course your asthma is exacerbated. Grief is carried in the lungs.”
You started making calderos of sopa. You were trying to unsuffocate yourself.
You would eat bowlsful with your daughter, as you sat watching the dozens of movies you had on DVD and VHS. You didn’t have cable then, and in your depression, you let the WiFi get shut off, so you settled for those movies that you watched over and over. Your favorites you watched so often you recited lines together and giggled.
Run Forrest, Run.
Luke, I am your father.
Everything you done to me, already been done to you...
When you sit down with a steaming bowl of sopa,
Resist the urge to text your mother.
If she doesn’t respond it will shatter you.
If she does,
It will shatter you.
Remember: this has been your healing. This is still your healing.
And, you deserve to be well.
To read the entire essay, purchase the anthology when it is available. Thank you!