Love Songs Sung As the Rice Is Sorted

Every day that my children and I spent in a small Costa Rican town near the Osa Peninsula, we ate breakfast in a small restaurant or soda owned by a local family.

Twelve square, wooden tables were placed so that any seat provided a view of the bay as well as the shops and abandoned buildings below.

Like most of the sodas in town, it had large open-air spaces for windows and doors. At night, mesh fences were pulled across the openings, constantly allowing air to cool the restaurant.

Some restaurants kept a television in a grillwork box, and in the afternoon children would wander in to sit at the back table and watch cartoons.

We tried to get to the cafe before the heat of the day slowed our walk there.

When we arrived, some of the proproprietor's family would be sitting at the front table. A few children might be eating cereal. Work or school papers might be spread out before them.

An older woman rocked in the chair placed just outside the door.

About three times a week, the older man who owned the restaurant separated himself from his family and sat alone at a nearby table. He poured a pile of rice that covered most of the table space, save a perimeter about the width of his arms.

We had watched at other sodas as men and women separated what my daughter, Hallie, called the ''bad'' rice kernels from the good. It was a repetitive task. Often people dropped by to visit as the rice was examined kernel by kernel and divided into piles.

At our favorite soda, however, the owner worked alone. He wore a crisp, white shirt and dark pants, looking as though he could as easily attend a wedding as sift through piles of rice.

On the days he was seated at his table, we would choose a spot near him.

He liked to sing while he worked. From what we could tell, with the few Spanish words we knew, it was a love song. It had a short, slow chorus that he started low and soft. The finish came with a deeper, louder line that rose to meet and start again the beginning of the song.

For our entire meal, he would sing, picking kernels and tossing the rejected pieces to the doves that circled his feet or waited outside the door.

The song's end would be reached again and again, and the pattern continued. But as with a single tapestry thread, each verse, though apparently the same as the last, was delivered with just enough of a difference to make the song rich in images as every end slid into a new beginning.

Sometimes, our breakfast could stretch as much as 45 minutes. Occasionally, I would order a second hot drink, while my son and daughter ran to the park below to play. Local dogs might wander in and thump their tails in hopes of a scrap.

The man's song was soothing as a lullaby, and during the times that I was longing for family and friends, I took comfort in his rituals.

The most soothing rituals -- lighting candles, cleaning floors with the swish of a rag mop, hanging laundry to dry fresh and sweet in the summer breeze -- allow for constancy amidst change, a chance to rest from all that is perplexing or unfamiliar.

I never found out how long the man sat at the table. Often, after 45 minutes, the pile did not look appreciably smaller to me. If we came back for dinner, he was working in the kitchen or wiping down the tables and chairs.

I often wanted to ask if he finished a pile before he went on to something new, but my Spanish wasn't good enough.

I suspect it was a task similar to the delivery of the song, one intended more to sustain rather than accomplish. The circular tasks, those that never seem completed, are the chores that allow a mind to drift, to contemplate, to sing a love song.

WHEN we left town, my children drew pictures for the people at the soda who so kindly introduced us to breakfasts of beans and rice and drinks made from fresh blackberries and milk.

We left the spotless wooden tables, the sugar dispensers with clean white napkins folded into silver spouts. We left the doves, the stray dogs, and the image of the bay in the early-morning heat.

We took the love song, and now while I wash dishes at the sink, I find myself humming the melody and thinking of the never-ending task of separating rice.

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