My first memories of my grandma were with my grandpa. They were always referred to as “Grandma and Grandpa” in our house, where I capitalized their titles like they were names, like Jesus. They were, looking back, the backbone of my family. My grandpa was a chess-playing, bar-b-queuing generous man who loved me. My grandma was the center of the house, wherever she was.
Her name was Juana. She was born on the October 31, the eve of All Saints on the Catholic liturgical calendar. In Mexico (where she was born) it also was Día de los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead, a celebration that represents the unity between life and death, where merging of the Catholic feast with Indian rituals was commonplace. This was a picture of my grandma’s faith: Catholic to the core with a little spiritual concoction thrown in.
“Mija,” she once said to me when I was old enough to digest a strong spiritual truth. “Last night I dreamed that we were in a funeral, crying, crying.” She looked a little excited, delivering this news to me. “This means there will be a wedding in our family!” Sure enough, my cousin Debbie was engaged the next week and grandma pretended to be surprised.
She was also a big believer in church, confession, the Rosary and honouring the spiritual superiority of Catholicism. When I told her in 1987 that I was leaving the Catholic Church to begin attending the Methodist church with Mario, she shook her head and pursed her lips. “Oh, Janet...” she half-whispered. “What have you done?” In her eyes, it was almost the same as a tattoo or a piercing, an action unbecoming of a granddaughter of hers.
With all of this said, I must tell you that my grandma was the most amazing person I ever knew. She was the most loving, most personable, most teachable soul I have ever met. She was my hero from a young age, for who she was, her ability to make others happy, and her capacity to be there whenever you needed her.
She stood not quite five feet tall, with black hair that hung down to the middle of her back. I didn;t know this until she spent the night at our house once, and she unrolled her braid from the crown that usually crested her head and brushed it out before she went to bed. I almost gasped in the dark, but I was supposed to be asleep. From my bottom bunk I heard her praying for a long time, then finally fall asleep. “Patty,” I whispered to my sister above me, “grandma has long hair!” Patty was asleep, but apparently my “secret” made me a laughing stock at the breakfast the next day.
“What did you think it was, moron!” Patty giggled over our mush and hot chocolate. Grandma was laughing, too. She thought the whole thing was precious.
Since she never learned to drive, she seemed to cook constantly, always being ready for surprise guests (who always were showing up, actually surprised that a meal was awaiting them). When we (her immediate family) came over, she would reach into her kitchen drawer, take out a ball of dough and roll a tortilla and have it in our hands before we could sit down. She made molasses cookies sprinkled with sugar that always had thesame size and shape (I still remember how they tasted) and beans that were so famous in our town that our driver’s ed. teacher actually drove us by her house just in case she’d be cooking them.
In a world of changing everything, she was a constant. A beam of joy and light and joy and everything I ever wanted to be.
Today would have been her birthday.
On February 21, 1992 she died, after a short illness. My kids knew her as their great-grandmother who cooked burritos for them. I knew her as my whole world’s ozone, the one who held everything inside, the one who was the touchstone of everything. I was perplexed at how few tears I shed at her funeral, confused by the thing that others call grief. I was still in shock.
It wasn’t until 1993, at the Police Olympics in San Diego when I got in touch with my grief. It was the weirdest thing in my life.
Mario, competing in the decathlon, was out after ripping a hamstring muscle the first day of competition. While disappointed, he made arrangements for us to at least enjoy the trip while we were there. We decided to take the red trolley into Mexico the next day, where we would shop and eat. On the crowded train, a woman of my grandma’s stature sat directly opposite me. I looked up at her, and realized she was a small Mexican lady, with a black braid wrapped around her head like a crown. She had my grandma’s eyes, her shoes, even the style of dress my grandma wore.
I looked up at her, and she smiled at me.
I smiled back, then for some weird, unexplainable reason, I began to cry. She was so like my grandma, who I now remembered was absent from my life. A woman who I missed beyond measure, who left a gaping hole in my heart that was just revealed to me. I realized that in the past year I had become very busy, taking care not to reconnect too much with her memories or her things. The tears became sobs and Mario looked at me, startled.
“What’s the matter, babe?” he asked, pretty loud. People were staring already. The woman across from me opened her purse and took out a McDonald’s napkin that was folded in her purse, handing it to me. I tried to say thank you, but I couldn’t speak. She knew she had triggered something, I think, because her eyes were knowing and made deep contact with mine.
Mario’s concern turned to a whisper. “Janet, what is wrong? People are starting to give me dirty looks.” It was then that he saw her. “Is it this lady? Is it grandma?” I nodded. He put his arm around me and escorted me off the train at the next stop, I assume for air.
When we got off the train, it all dried up again. I was left, speechless, tearless and without any good explanation for what happened on the train. Mario didn’t need any explanation, he just held me for a bit and then we got back on the trolley.
When I got home I called my mom. I told her the story about the mystery lady on the trolley, and she totally related. I made a point to actively grieve my grandmother, every time I remembered her.
Last year I planted a big, pink rose in my garden called Rina Hugo that reminded me of her. It has gorgeous, old rose delight, with big pink buds that in the Southern Hemisphere, are open on her birthday. Just like grandma – bright, fragrant, delightful.
On Dia de los Muertos, the person who died and is honored is believed by some to have a spirit that is expected to return to their home. I know my grandma is home.