My last living grandparent died December 30; my mother’s mother.
Although I remember her with great fondness, I wasn’t as close to her as I was to my paternal grandmother, and the last 5-6 years she has been declining with senile dementia. The last few times I saw her Abuelita didn’t know me, and asked my mother who “that young lady” was. And during the past year or so she’d even forgotten my mother, who cared for her daily.
Her life was so different from mine – she was pregnant and married at 16, and bore 10 children – two died in infancy, leaving gaps that nobody ever talks about. I don’t think she ever finished high school. She was raised Catholic and married to a Buddhist. When my mother was very small, my grandmother converted to evangelical Christianity and as she went so did her family.
My grandfather owned a watch repair and jewelry shop just off the main plaza in Cuzco – you couldn’t ask for a better location. In a recent moment of lucidity, while my father was singing hymns to Abuelita at bedtime (she became more and more childlike in the last year), she prayed out loud, “thank you Lord… for the store.” It made all the difference in their lives.
She was my mother’s mother. Whenever my sister and I would chafe at some maternal decision or strategy that we deemed unfair or misled, we would remind ourselves of how our mom was raised, and of the vast distance between her own upbringing and how she was trying to raise us. There was a braided leather whip behind the door of the house my mother grew up in, with three strands: “for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,” she said; the threat of discipline constant. When young men came to serenade my aunts under their windows my grandfather would throw cold water on them and my uncles would threaten to beat them with sticks. So our 10:00 p.m. curfew began to seem more reasonable.
Ironically – or perhaps fittingly – during a long virtual family reunion we had via skype after the funeral for those scattered all over the globe, my mom talked about how difficult her mother’s childhood was (Abuelita and her half-sisters were raised by her single mom; she never knew her dad) and how my mom had to take that into consideration when chafing at things Abuelita did – “she just wanted us to be safe.” And the wheel keeps on turning…
Once my mother took me to see where they’d lived when she was a small child. In 1952, Cuzco was shaken by a tremendous earthquake. My mother’s family had gone, on a sudden whim (attributed to intuition of Divine origin) of my grandmother’s, on a picnic outside the city and so their lives were spared. Their home was in ruins. My mom took me there, a colonial-style building on what used to be the rim of the city. Huge double doors over stone steps opened into a square courtyard; through matching doors on the opposite side we could see a second inner courtyard, all rubble. “It hasn’t changed in forty years,” my mother whispered in awe.
After a brief stop to see another equally miserable place they’d lived before moving permanently into a subsidized high-rise for earthquake victims (wires criss-crossed over a muddy courtyard with a privy in one corner) we went to meet a friend of mine at a 4-star tourist hotel in the center of the city. We sat in the lobby waiting for him, leaning back on extravagantly comfortable sofas, looking at artwork and chandeliers, and I almost couldn’t bear the disjuncture.
I know Abuelita, I see her, through my mother. My direct memories of her are soft and faded, like her hands. She made soup and hot tea for us when we would visit. She had a thin, high voice and diminutive stature. She sat with her heels together and her hands folded on her lap and always worried that we might feel cold. She always made her bed. I’m not sure what else I can say about her – we didn’t converse, but exchanged pleasantries. I feel her passing most through its impact and reverberation on the rest of the family, especially her children.
I haven’t talked with my mom since Abuelita’s death; she’s been terribly busy hosting a slew of house guests and working through a tangle of legal documents dotted with misspelled names. And evidently their downstairs bathroom sprang a leak and is out of commission.
There was no question of me going, really, although we went through the paces of considering how it might work out. Airfare for one person would be $4000. It would take about 25 hours to get there. And I didn’t really want to go. So I feel like I need to write all this out, somewhere, to mark her passing, to scrutinize my reaction to her death, to remember her, to honor her life. This is all I’ve got right now.