So yesterday was the 27th anniversary of my Abuelita’s death. I am no stranger to the reflective energy solemn anniversaries bring with them. I take that energy to weave my thoughts into words as best as I can. My thoughts set out yesterday and had an old photo in mind to illustrate them. Sometimes you find more than what you were initially looking for during your search…sometimes it turns out that you were mistaken about what you were looking for all along.
My Abeulita was born in Caracas, Venezuela in 1895…we think. They didn’t strive for absolute accuracy with birth records in the 19th century. Add to that most births happened at home (by midwife if you were lucky) rather than in hospital, I guess we are fortunate to have records at all. When I was a kid I thought it was so freaky that I lived with somebody who was born in a different century. I likened it to being born on a different planet. In some ways, I guess it was. I get to look forward to being on the other end of that when one day…in the waaaaay distant future…I become the grandma born closer to the middle of the last century than its turn.
She didn’t come here in search of a better life. To hear her tell it, life was pretty damn beautiful in Caracas. They lived on an estate that was lined with lush gardens, plentiful with fruit and flowers. They had a maid and nanny to help care for the home and children. Abuelita was among the last of 12 kids in the family so there was a lot to keep up with, especially without the modern 20th century household amenities. She received some education, although it was not mandatory back then for girls. Her eyes sparkled when she would tell me stories about the place she grew up. How even though it was on the equator, it never got too hot. There in the same day you could go to the beach and go skiing. But that life came to an end when her father died in an accident while away on business in Puerto Rico leaving her mother a widow with five children to tend to. The eldest four of the twelve lived on their own and the other three siblings had long since passed away, each dying before their fifth birthdays. Such things happened in the olden days. Abuelita’s mother, Maria – but everyone knew her as “Tata” – had a sister who married an American businessman. When she heard of the tragedy, she and her husband sponsored Tata and the children to come to America.
I can only imagine the culture shock my Abuelita must have experienced as she left the only life she ever knew on an estate in Caracas to living in a five-story walk-up in Washington Heights. If you are unfamiliar with Washington Heights, it is a section of Manhattan that is north of Harlem but not quite The Bronx…almost, but not quite. Today it is still a Latino community with a large Dominican population. Back in the early decades of the 1900s when Abuelita arrived, there were many Venezuelans, as well as others originally from South America. She never got used to New York. It was never home to her. Caracas was…but sadly, she never saw it again after she left.
She met and married a very dapper Venezuelan immigrant. Unlike Abuelita, he came to America as soon as he was able so he could create a better life. He came from a place in Venezuela called Maracaibo. There, you very much felt like you were on the equator. The land is at sea level so it is incredibly damp. Mattresses had to be made of grass otherwise they would mildew. The only relief from the oppressive heat and humidity was Lago de Maracaibo (Lake Maracaibo). Children there would learn to swim before they could walk. It was rumored that he grew up in a house on stilts, which is a far cry from the lush estate where Abuelita was raised. Also unlike Abuelita, when he came to America, he never looked back.
He and the other men – Abuelita’s brothers and brothers-in-law – decided that once they arrived in America, they were Americans. In order to succeed here, they would assimilate to American culture. They would speak only English…not only while out and about in New York but among eachother and to the children. Abuelita and the other women were resistant to that. They felt it was important to keep the culture of the old country, to speak Spanish at home, especially to the children. Otherwise their past would die. Decades later, I benefited from Abuelita’s way of thinking.
In 1971, our family found itself in Flushing. Glamorous name aside, my original Queens hometown’s notable history includes playing host to not one but TWO World’s Fairs and is home to LaGuardia Airport and Shea Stadium, home of the New York Mets. Yes, I still call it Shea. Always will. Sue me. Flushing is also home to stunning Tudor style homes. That is not the Flushing where I grew up, although I had friends who lived there. My Flushing wasn’t quite Downtown –my daily walks with Mama took us there – but there were welfare apartments all along our block. We lived in the “upper end” of the low-rent district in a large three bedroom, one-and-a-half bathroom apartment on the top floor of a two-family house. Mama insisted on getting a larger apartment after my mother returned fresh from her last beating inflicted by my father when I was six-months-old…that’s another story, which I’ve told before and I am sure to tell again…just not right now.
Our household consisted of Mama (my mother’s mother), Henry (my mother’s father and the pedophile that both raised and abused me…again, another story I’ve told before and will again…just not now), his mother (my great-grandmother, my Abuelita who was widowed for 10 years by then), occasionally my mother (when she wasn’t “on dates”) and me. Mama was a homemaker, as was Abuelita. They shared household and childcare duties with Mama, a woman of her 40s, undertaking the majority of tasks. I’d like to say that it was a seamless blend of the three generations, learning, loving and laughing the days away…but I’d be lying. Harmonious it surely was not. Mama had a gruff, sandpapery, strong disciplinarian way about her. Abuelita was gentle and patient and very nearly deaf. Even though caring for me was a lot more work for her, I think one of the reasons Mama liked having me around was that I offered a distraction to Abuelita, and she for me.
Sometimes I would spend the whole day in Abuelita’s bedroom with her. She spoke to me in Spanish, English, too, but she tried to speak Spanish to me as much as she could. Living with her since I was less than a year old, I learned English and Spanish at the same time. Abuelita thought it was important that I have someone to speak Spanish with otherwise I would forget how. One of the many things that she was right about. Abuelita died when I was 17 and I haven’t consistently spoken Spanish with anyone since.
I used to love hearing her stories. She’d tell them over and over again. I would never tire of them though. She would point to the scar on the top of her head, “Do you know how I got this one?” And I would proudly recite the tale of how the bunch of bananas growing on the tree in her yard chose the exact moment she was passing under it to fall square upon her head. Tata thought that Abuelita was going to die, the gash on her head bled so profusely. But she didn’t. All that happened was that she got a permanent scar and a story to tell. There were a lot of stories like that. Abuelita was clumsy and awkward. It made me feel less awkward somehow.
We would go through her old photos and she would explain to me who these long dead people were. At the time, my little brain couldn’t comprehend that these people in the funny old, black and white or sepia toned photos were real people, let alone my relatives from generations past and worlds away. I just loved hearing the stories. Even more than the stories themselves, I loved listening to her tell them. Her sweet voice with all its inflections. How she would hold my hand during the dramatic parts. The way she’d lovingly look into my eyes during the poignant tales. As young as I was, I knew that these stories were important to my Abuelita and that made me pay very close attention to every word she said, whether it was in Spanish or English. I’m glad I did.
Although she didn’t do it very often, I would always be Abuelita’s helper in the kitchen when she cooked. Abuelita had some old school ideas that didn’t make sense to Mama. For one thing, Abuelita did not believe in refined sugar. She would use honey in and on almost everything. As a kid when all the other kids broke out their PB&Js, I had a PB&Honey. They thought it was weird. I thought it was delicious. To this day, if I am feeling out of sorts, you’ll find me munching on one. I helped her make platanos, arepas, ropa viejo, carne frito and everybody’s favorite…FLAN! She never had a recipe written out for any of her dishes. If we wanted to know how to prepare any of her recipes, we had to follow her around the kitchen and take notes. This made Mama nuts. Especially with the flan. All families have their own recipe for it and technique is crucial otherwise it won’t set up correctly. I am like Captain Ahab chasing Moby Dick trying to piece all the notes and memories together to make Abuelita’s most perfect flan. I can still taste it. My last one is probably as close as I’m ever going to get to it.
But the thing I loved most was when she would trace the features of my face. I would drift into a sort of trance. Abuelita would sing to me in Spanish (always in Spanish). My eyes would close and I’d get the feeling that I was floating and the top of my head would get all tingly. No matter what was going on, it all went away in those moments. I felt loved, wanted and at peace. I think she felt the same. I think we were eachother’s oasis.
Then when I was 8, Abuelita had a massive stroke. It left her entirely paralyzed on her left side. She was confined to a wheelchair. She couldn’t bathe or go to the bathroom herself. For a while, she reverted back to her native language exclusively which was a problem for Mama. Mama only knew a few Spanish words here and there. The communication barrier made a hard situation ever more difficult. I was able to help some but I was in school for much of the day. Eventually her English came back which made communicating a bit easier but after a long while, caring for Abuelita and me alone became too much for Mama to handle. Abuelita left our Barclay Avenue apartment to live in a facility where she could get 24 hour care. Mama got a part time job there so she could keep a watchful eye on Abuelita but she never quite got over the guilt over this decision. I was devastated. After Abuelita left, on so many levels, life for me on Barclay Avenue was never the same.
For the next four years until my mother remarried and we moved to Glen Oaks from Flushing, I visited Abuelita at least twice a week; every Wednesday after school and every Sunday for most of the day. Then after I moved, until I could drive, I took the bus every Sunday to see her. She would tell the same old stories and I still loved to hear them. We didn’t have the old photos but the faces were well committed to memory by then. Peppered throughout our talks, Abuelita tried to prepare me for her eventual passing. “Jesus calls everyone home. And when he calls, you have to go. No matter who you are.” This would lead into a conversation about my soul. Abuelita was a devout Catholic. I was never baptized nor did I ever get any formal religious instruction. By blood, I was half Jewish and half Catholic. By philosophy, I was neither, although, I was exposed to both religions. When I was little I used to watch mass on TV early Sunday mornings with Abuelita. It was too difficult for her to get all the way to St. Michael’s so watching mass on TV was the next best thing. She also told me that she didn’t care what the new Popes had to say; eating meat on any Friday was wrong. I especially enjoyed this practice when it lead to going to Howard Johnson’s – she’d eat the fried clams and give me the HoJo cookie from her orange sherbet – or Athur Treacher’s Fish n Chips. As we both got older, Abuelita became more passionate about my getting baptized. Not only for my soul but so that we would see eachother again. To this day I remain unbaptized. To this day I wonder if my soul is in jeopardy because of it.
We’d end each visit the same way. As best as she could with her arthritic right hand, she’d trace the features of my face while she sang a Spanish song. After I woke from my trance, she’d say over and over with a desperation in her voice, the memory of which still brings a lump to my throat…”No me olivide. No me olvide…” Don’t forget me. There’s no way I ever could.
On the morning of February 16, 1988, my phone rang. I knew what it was before I answered. It was a Tuesday and the Sunday before, Abuelita looked terrible. So terrible in fact, she asked me to go. She didn’t want me to remember her that way. Jesus would be calling soon. “No me olvide.” It wasn’t Jesus calling on the phone. It was Mama. I hung up the phone and cried for a little while. Then I picked up my spiral notebook and wrote.
When I was done, I called my friend Aruna. I had a license and a car so I used to drive her and some other friends to school (or elsewhere). I told her that I’d be getting her for school like regular but I wouldn’t be going in. My Abuelita just died and I need to get a poem to the head of our English Department to submit to the Annual Spring Poetry Festival. I needed her to tell Mr. Mead to remove my prior submission and replace it with this. February 16th was the submission deadline. My composure caught poor Aruna off guard. That happens a lot. After I dropped Aruna and my poem at school, I went to Flushing to pick up Mama and Henry. We went to Gleason’s Funeral Home on Northern Boulevard and planned a beautiful, Catholic funeral. I remember seeing her that last time in her Sunday best, clutching her rosaries, praying that I’ll get to see her and hear the old stories again someday.
A few months later, the winners of the Annual Spring Poetry Festival were announced. I wasn’t one of them. My poem did receive an honorable mention and was going to be read at the Festival’s award ceremony at City College. Mr. Mead, the chairman of the English Department was beyond excited when he gave me the news. Apparently it was the first time any of our High School’s entries received any recognition. The ceremony was kind of a big deal. They usually have actors do the readings. Family is encouraged to come. My mother and stepfather didn’t think it was worthwhile to take the day off, especially since I didn’t actually place. I wasn’t at all surprised but Mr. Mead was stunned when I told him. He decided to make a field trip out of it, having the students in his writing group join us. We had Chinese food at this hole in the wall restaurant in Chinatown. He told the students the story of the last minute entry given to him by Aruna. I told them the story of the birth of the poem from the death of my Abuelita. We went way uptown to City College, which is not too far from Washington Heights. It was beautiful and the auditorium where the readings were taking place resembled a church. I thought that was so fitting. Earle Hyman, best known at that time for playing Bill Cosby’s dad on The Cosby Show read my poem. I still get goosebumps when I think of his strong, expressive voice giving life to my words. Now nobody will forget her.
I am the family secret keeper and the teller of tales. Is this who I always was…or was my role created out of necessity? I wonder if Abuelita always knew this about me? It was so important to her not to be forgotten…who better to pass along the family’s treasure, the family’s stories than “the writer?”
I never did find the photo I was looking for. In it, Abuelita was sitting in her wheelchair with her eyes closed, looking relaxed and content. My 8-year-old self, sporting that damn Dorothy Hamill haircut, was leaning into her, one chubby little hand holding a pot of lip balm and in deep concentration as the forefinger on my other hand glided across her mouth, just as she had done for me so often before. I hope that even though I wasn’t able to scan the original image here, I did a good enough job so that you see it anyway.