Some things I expected
When I first started reading the book, I expected it to be a growing-up story about a family with a distinctive ethnic background, and I was right about that.
“How we live confuses some people, so Mami starts her usual explanation. Our three flat-top houses are exact pink triplets, and they sit side by side here on Sixth Street…..(Mami) named it Las Casitas….the little houses. I just call it home.”
Merci Suarez and her family live intergenerationally, in and out of each other’s houses and intricately involved in each other’s lives.
I also expected the story to include versions of challenges many people face in their tween and early teen years, including bullies, issues with friends, school problems, and changing relationships. And I was right about that too.
“Edna’s eyes trail over me. She takes in everything from my hair all the way down to my scuffed shoes. It’s like I’m getting a primer coat of ugly for the day.”
And some things I did not expect
But this story had a surprise for me, too. I didn’t expect that Merci Suarez’s grandfather suffers from dementia, and that an undercurrent of the story is Merci’s early ignorance of his disease changing into confusion about his behavior and finally – finally – into understanding, grief, and acceptance.
This part of the story hit close to home. My father suffers from dementia and I struggle with the loss of his guidance and care and the unfairness and indignity of this disease. I treasure our time with him and the moments when he has joy.
Merci Suarez rides her bicycle throughout the story. It isn’t a new, shiny model. It’s an old hand-me-down. But eventually a gift comes her way – yes, a new bike.
“I stand there, staring at the perfection and wondering if it’s a mirage. My heart races as I check out everything up close. The basket, the water bottle, the clamp for my phone, the headlamp and bell.”
So, in the end, Merci Suarez Changes Gears is a lot of what I expected. It is a growing-up story celebrating a family with a distinctive ethnic background. The story includes versions of challenges many people face in their tween and early teen years. It includes real issues families face, including our own. And Merci Suarez learns how to go forward.
“I don’t know what is going to happen next year, no one does. But that’s OK. I can handle it, I decide. It’s just a harder gear, and I am ready. All I have to do is take a deep breath and ride.”