A bit of Yucatan

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"Chris did all this!"

Alejandra Bolles sweeps her arm over the wooden patio at Three Stones Mexican Mayan Restaurant on Canal Street in Brattleboro, then gestures to the indoor dining room and kitchen.

"He just came and bought this place and said, ‘Mama, I already bought the restaurant!'"

Christian Makay, tall and busy and kind, smiles at her. "It was after eating her food for four years all the time."

Alejandra settles into a slatted bench and continues. "He kept on saying, ‘We can sell this, we can sell this.' So I said, ‘Go ahead.' So he and Mucuy, my daughter, own the restaurant now."

"But she's the boss," Chris says over his shoulder as he walks back into the kitchen to prep for the evening.

Mucuy Bolles, dressed like her mother, in a loose, knee-length white dress with elaborate cross-stitch at the collar and hem, steps onto the patio.

"That really means she doesn't have to worry about paperwork or licenses or taxes," she jokes.

Mucuy and Chris met about five years ago when both were working on a touring production of "The Lion King." Now affianced, they opened Three Stones in December 2009 after retiring from long careers in dance and technical theater, respectively.

"I just come and do whatever I want," Alejandra says with airy delight.

"We're really her slaves!" Mucuy laughs.

Alejandra nods. "Especially Chris, because he can lift things."

Laughter swells on the patio and from the kitchen.

"My mother is very charismatic," Mucuy says. "A lot of times people will call and say, ‘Is your mother there tonight? Next week? OK, I'll make a reservation for next week.'"

"I like to talk to people. They ask interesting questions."

Mucuy gazes at her mother and smiles. "I think she gives interesting answers. They ask, ‘Why don't you serve fish?'"

Mucuy switches into her mother's light and musical Mexican-Mayan cadence.

"So she says, ‘Well, I don't know where to go catch it! If it's not fresh I don't want to serve it. Do you know a place to catch fish?' Then they start laughing. Right, Mami?"

Alejandra nods. "In Mexico, where I grew up, we would take our frying pan with us to the beach. You find three stones and start a fire in the middle, you have your pan and some oil, and you can eat your fish when you catch it!"

"She grew up without refrigeration," says Mucuy. "And she cooked on three stones and fire. She learned everything from my great-grandmother who was Mayan, she didn't speak any Spanish. Chris thought of the name for the restaurant, because all that cooking was on three stones."

"We never had a stove. When I came to the U.S., I left the stove on all the time, because at home I don't have to turn off the fire. Once you put on the fire it stays lit! So David was going crazy because I left the stove on all the time, even when we go out."

Alejandra met her husband, David, an American ethnolinguist and former archaeologist, when she was 26 years old.

"At Chichen Itza!" she sings. "I went for the first time to look at the ruins, and he was there!"

"You were working, right?"

"Yes, my father ran a little teeny merry-go-round, we children had to make it go round. My brothers carved the horses."

"He was an interesting character, my abuelito," says Mucuy. Abuelito is Spanish for grandfather.

"He did all kinds of things to get rich really fast," says Alejandra. "It didn't work." Mother and daughter laugh ruefully. "Nothing works unless you buy a lottery ticket."

"And if you win," Mucuy adds.

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"They were really interesting, my parents," says Alejandra. "We grew up by selling tacos at the train station. The train stopped for only 20 minutes, so you had to be ready to sell everything. So we had an 8 o'clock train in the morning and a 4 o'clock train in the afternoon, so we're making food since five in the morning, all day."

The eldest girl in a family of 10 children, Alejandra worked constantly, making and selling food, caring for her siblings, gathering water for washing, cooking, and bathing from sparse wells.

As her brothers and sisters married or left home, she chose to stay with her Mayan grandmother.

"I wanted to stay home because it was quiet with her. And she didn't yell at me. Yeah. We were like friends." Her voice softens. "Her name was Manuela Chan."

"But you called her Chi Chi," remembers Mucuy.

"Which means like leather, hard. She was good." Alejandra smiles. "My grandmother was really wise. Even though she didn't know how to read or write or anything.

"My mother had, how do you call it, a temper? So if we burnt the rice or burnt the beans, or something, then my grandmother said, ‘Oh, don't worry, we'll fix it before your mother comes.' So she really saved me a lot from my mother's anger. And I learned from her, when children do something, you shouldn't yell at them or beat them, just try to fix it."

"How old were you when she died?" asks Mucuy.

"I was," she squints and thinks, "28 or so."

"So Papi met her."

"Yeah, he did. I was 26 when Papi came and he met her. Then David went away for four years."

"It was a big saga," Mucuy says.

"Yes. One of my Korean aunts, I'm part Korean, said, ‘What!! You had a gringo boyfriend and you let him go!' So she told me, ‘Just send him a letter.' So I did and he came back."

Thirty years old, not speaking English, never having left Mexico, Alejandra boarded a plane for the first time and moved with her husband to New England.

Luckily, David was deeply interested in Mayan culture, and the couple regularly traveled to Mexico with their three children to live in Mayan villages.

"Yeah, I never get bored there," says Alejandra. "It was really hard when I got here after I married David. What am I going to do? The food is done, everything is done! So then David took me to the University of New Hampshire and I started taking classes.

"But it was hard for me because I only went to second grade in Mexico, because my parents thought that women don't need to go to school, so I think, what am I going to do, I don't even know how to read! But they were very nice and patient, and David helped me a lot."

Mucuy looks at her proudly. "She has a BFA in fine arts. She's an artist. We're going to have a gallery opening in July. Hopefully we'll be part of the gallery walk if we can get it together, because she's got beautiful work. You're very artistic."

"You, too."

They hold hands for a moment and grin at each other, tender and delighted.

"When I was a sophomore in high school, I went to a boarding school," says Mucuy, "and then when I was 17 I got my first dance job in NYC and just lived there, from 1988 until 2009.

"It wasn't until I retired and started this restaurant that we've been able to be with each other. That's why I'm kind of trying to absorb all her knowledge now, because I finally have time."

"She is learning to speak Mayan, and cooking, and weaving, and cross-stitch, and making hammocks," Alejandra beams at her. "I say you are like Penelope Cruz in that movie."

"'A Woman on Top,'" Mucuy explains.

"She does everything!"

Mucuy thinks for a moment. "She brought me up where it doesn't matter what you're doing, you should do a good job. Chris and I are used to being in the theater where people are very passionate. So whether you make more or less money, you're doing it because you have a passion for it. So now together we have a passion for this restaurant -- it's my culture, Chris's dream, her childhood."

"Yep," Alejandra affirms, and it is time to go to work, chopping and cooking, teasing Alex the resident tortilla maker about girls, heading to the store and lifting heavy things, among much else.

"Come back sometime and sit at the bar," Alejandra calls as the front door swings to a gentle close," and we can talk all night!"

Becky Karush is a regular contributor to the Reformer. To suggest people for this column, write to her at reformer.ourneighbors@gmail.com.


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