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Creative Non-Fiction: Hand Dance by Sarah Aldama


Life without movement: all the running, dancing, thoughts, and paintings, but incapable of being done. This is how I perceived Matika, my honorary grandfather, when he first visited from Southern Romania. Lost and eager, he wandered the suburban streets of trees and light, seeking a friend for life.  This living relic from the Second World War took pride in his daily walk, perhaps to ease the stiff hollow bones and breathe a little easier. He visits his middle-aged daughter every fall and winter, bringing the aromas and songs of her forgotten homeland while the black ice hardens outside.
I introduced myself on a Sunday morning, with an offering of mint tea in hand, a gesture that was mutually met with an invitation for dinner that same night. Matika speaks four languages: Romanian, French, German, and Italian. My mother is of Northern German descent, raised in the center of Detroit. My father hails from the key of the Caribbean: Cuba and the grass hills of Argentina. Both claim the United States as their one true identity, forgetting their parent’s gestures and tongues, leaving me dumbfounded in the face of Makita, a linguistic luminary.

I speak two languages: English and Spanish, one a given, the other a commitment. Not knowing any other way to converse, I engage with Mikita using my romantic mind, churning my abstract ideas into soft, slow, Spanish expressions. He returns in a broken, but lovable mixture of poor English and concise Italian, the closest relative to my second tongue. Through our extensive hand dance and slip of accents, we create the most lively, half-understood conversations.

Dinners became lunches. Lunches became holiday feasts. Christmas is now redefined by the aromas of rose tea Matika so greatly brings back every year, pairing ever so delicately with his daughter’s sarmale, a holiday-specific dish of crafted pork folded seamlessly in layers of supple sauerkraut and cabbage. Together we are ever so well with warm candlelight and multilingual games of chess, a family not limited by one’s blood or nation.

Though I enjoyed hearing his voice, shame would wash over me, criticizing my feeble mind for not being able to understand my grandfather. Therefore, I used my hands. I used my hands to paint for him. Pretty pictures are not hard at all to craft, but when you use the wet, rich medium as your translator, thoughts become heavy and hesitate. My grandfather and I learn together the effectiveness of process, which is essentially a mad race between art and your own fear.


In my backwoods studio of no artificial light and heat, I live through movement and it just so happens to resolve itself, marking the scavenged Masonite and plastic. Ink collects and streaks as my left hand writes and my right hand holds. The echoing beat of my homemade radio projects Chicago Blues and Beirut, guiding my hand through twists and turns.  With every choice made, I feel less free and yet born is this creation of happiness and painting prosperity. This connection between sight and sound drive me further into the perceivable bliss of my studio and he can understand me. My grandfather can understand me.
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