There is a phone call which I will dread receiving… the one which will inform me that the disease, which has robbed my Abuelita (little grandmother) of her thoughts, memories and being, has taken her life as well.
It’s almost a sin that so formidable a woman (even if she was barely 5 feet tall) is now a 90-year-old infant dependant upon machines to help her eat and breathe. That’s not my grandmother… that is a mere shell of the wonderful person I will always cherish.
Tact wasn’t one of Abuelita’s strong suits but nothing was ever said out of malice… only out of pure love and affection. As many of you know, I’m adopted and she would often remind me that even though I wasn’t her grandchild by blood, she loved me like she loved all of her grandchildren. Years later she would just as often say of my cousin’s husband "He’s as black as coal and ugly as sin but I love him to death because he’s good to my Millie", ususally within earshot of said grandson-in-law.
Most of my happiest childhood memories took place within and around the walls my Abuelita called home. It was a huge apartment (or so it seemed to this little girl) in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. That neighborhood was where I first encounted Hasidic Jews but to me any man with white hair and flowing beard had to be Santa Claus on vacation from the North Pole. Imagine the surprise of one elderly Jewish gentleman when I spotted him on the bus and ran to sit on his lap. Abuelita laughed for many years over that little faux-pas.
Her home was where the family gathered every Sunday afternoon and stayed until past dinnertime. She was so proud of her large family of 6 children (3 sond and 3 daughters) and a passel of grandkids. It was where I watched Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and the Wonderful World of Disney in living color on her huge console television. It was where my older cousins and I beat on pots and pans and played air guitar, sure we’d become the Puerto Rican Partridge Family. It was where the grandchildren would gather before the start of each school year to be properly outfitted with notebooks, binders and tons of looseleaf paper because Abuelo (grandfather) worked for the Mead Paper Company. It was where 3 generations of women would arrive once a year in early December at 5am to begin making hundreds of pasteles that were a holiday tradition. We all had a chore… cooking the meat for the filling, grating the green bananas, potatoes and what not, then putting together the final masterpiece and wrapping them up in parchment with string. Late in the evening, each family would leave with scraped knuckles from all the grating and dozens of delicious pasteles.
It was where the best Christmas gifts and treats awaited but only after we all piled into various cars and headed to church for Midnight Mass. It was where we’d gather to listen to the reel-to-reel tapes my uncle Nicky would send from Vietnam… then we’d take turns recording messages for him to listen to half way around the world. It was my retreat, when my things got too tense at home between my parents and they needed some private time to argue and patch things up only to argue again. It was where I found kisses and hugs and lots of unconditional love.
Her politics were simple but unforgettable. When Nixon ran for his second term, she encouraged all her friends and neighbors to vote for him. As far as she was concerned, Nixon personally brought her son, nephew and son-in-law home safely from the war and deserved her undying gratitude. When Abe Beame ran for mayor of New York City, she coined her own campaign slogan, "I vote for Abe because I love rice and Beame".
Unfortunately, my grandparents’ marriage fell apart even though they loved each other dearly. They were very stubborn people who each wanted to get his/her own way and couldn’t stand living together under the same roof. Abuelo half-heartedly found a companion who didn’t stick around long once she realized she would only be second best. Abuela could not bear the thought of another man and remained single.
Eventually the rest of the family drifted away… my uncles, aunts and cousins moved to Puerto Rico. Abuela was one of the last hold-outs but then she too moved to the island when Uncle Marty (her youngest) decided to make a go of it there. My father was the only one of her children who remained in New York City.
Over the years we would visit and she would also make the trip back to New York for extended vacations. She met my friends and boyfriends and made sure to show them how wonderfully in shape she was for an old lady (her words not mine) by demonstrating various excercises and touching her toes. They thought her utterly charming even if they couldn’t understand her very well with the heavy accent and broken English. When I was 19, pregnant and unmarried, I was so afraid to face her… I hated the thought of her disapproval and disappointment. Instead she hugged me and told me she would always love me. Her advice was to do whatever it took to keep my child safe and happy… even if I had to eat dirt (again her words, not mine).
During her visits, we noticed her mood swings and violent fits of temper but it was attributed to "the change of life". Honestly I suspected otherwise but what did I know? I was no doctor. It wasn’t until after Abuelita had bypass surgery that she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Shortly afterwards, Uncle Marty died unexpectedly… he had been in the hospital with pneumonia and was due to be released when he had a massive heart attack. It hit both my grandparents very hard and their health steadily declined… I refer to that time as the beginning of their end. Abuelo left us first, dying mercifully in his sleep after a long battle with diabetes and heart disease. The only kind thing I can say about Alzheimer’s was that it helped Abuela forgot about the death of her youngest child. She eventually became like a child herself, playing with dolls, saying her bedtime prayers and dressing up to watch TV because she was sure that the people inside could see her. As the disease progressed, she became a petulant toddler, spitting her food at people and throwing tantrums.
Before anyone think I’m nominating her sainthood… she would have been the first to admit that she was only too human and had her faults and foibles. However, to paraphrase Shakespeare, this is to honor my Abuelita, not to trash her during the remaing days of her life.
The last time that I talked to Abuelita and she remembered who I was, she assured me yet again that she loved me very much even though I wasn’t really her grandchild by blood. After that conversation, I became just a very nice lady who took time to talk to her… how I miss being reminded that I’m not really her grandchild.
Her birthday’s on August 31st… she just turned 90. My father travelled to Puerto Rico to spend a month with her and share a birthday celebration that his sisters and brothers had planned (his birthday is 4 days before hers). Sadly the party was cancelled when Abuelita suffered a stroke and spent her birthday in the hospital… she is there still. My father returned home a couple of weeks ago but he, my aunts and uncles have prepared for the inevitable and made sure that the one thing Abuelita asked for will be done… she will be buried next to the love of her life… Abuelo.
When my cousins and I slept over as children, Abuelita would always say "suene con los angelitos"… dream with the angels… before turning off the light. I know those angels are waiting to welcome her home.
Te quiero mucho Abuelita