I looked into my pot this morning and, quite by accident, I realized I had made Ropa Vieja. The last few weeks have been hard; a cognitive setback from my concussion has left me struggling to complete the simplest tasks. I had really only been looking for a way to make something delicious without any gluten. But, somewhere in the recesses of my mind, suggestions came for onions, and bay leaves, garlic, and peppers, among others. I have a hard time planning now so what I had intended to be last nights dinner will become today’s lunch thanks to the wonders of a slow cooker. Smiling when I saw what I had done I immediately thought about my old friends. It has been many years since I’ve seen or heard from them, but I still remember them fondly.
The day I learned to make Ropa Vieja standing in the sunny kitchen of my friends’ house, their mom stood by the stove cooking and teaching me how to make what would become one of my favorite meals. The black beans, the rice, the shredded beef, it was spectacularly amazing. She would make it on special occasions for one of her son’s celebratory meals, or as dinner before going away to college. At some point, she made it for me. She had promised to make me whatever meal I wanted. I can’t remember whether I was going away to college, or it was for some other occasion, but I knew what I’d ask for before she had finished her sentence – ropa vieja.
Mom and I switched churches when I started high school, and I became friends with her boys. Since we attended the same church and youth group for a few years, when my mom went to Ireland for a few weeks, she asked if I could stay with them. It was one of the best experiences of my life. I felt like I was living in some Leave It To Beaver episode set in the 90s. I loved the entire family. My stay there was the first experience I had to live a real in a two-parent household that was the kind I wanted when I grew up. It’s not that none of my friends had two parents at home, there were a few but, they weren’t the kind I wanted. Both parents were strong Christians, and both were very kind to me. I had a key to their house before some of their kids. I will never forget their quiet kindness.
They were Cuban, Portuguese, and hilarious! My friends, the boys, were always up to something and their much younger little sister was just cute. One of the boys insisted on teaching his mom to say, “‘Sup Foo?” whenever he entered the house. He labored away at trimming away her consonants for about a week. “What is up, fool,” became, “What’s up fool,” became, “sup Fool,” until she finally achieved the final, “fooooo” with the appropriate pitch. It was gut-wrenchingly funny and we laughed until it hurt. There was always laughter and jokes in their home. Everyone pitched in to help with whatever was getting done. The kids’ report cards would be displayed on the kitchen wall with encouraging notes after each marking period. They even had an adorable little dog. Picture perfect. The boys worked on the house with their dad, the mom took in clothes to hem, did a paper route and generally kept everything running well. The smell of delicious food was always present and laundry was always in some stage of being done. One day their mom confessed to me that when she first got married, she even ironed underwear, those days were over she laughed, and I wished I could live that life. The house was a quiet-noisy – the kind that lets you know people live there and are hanging out together, enjoying each other’s company, but there wasn’t loud music or crazy fighting. It was just comfortable. The well-worn couch was the kind you’d sink into and just fall asleep. Comfortable.
I think God brings people into our lives from time to time to give us a glimpse of something He wants to show us. Sometimes it is to show us which path we must not choose, at other times it is to show us what is possible. I have my own beautiful brood now: husband, kids, pets, home, and, as I look at the Uno cards and Jenga piled high on the piano bench listening to them pretending to clean their rooms before they return to our game, I’m content. Sometimes sharing Old Clothes, a few games, and a comfortable couch with my family is the best part.