babies and pregnancy · birthday · culture/multiculturalism · Hispanics/Latinos

The Book of Our Heritage: Mis Abuelos and Abuelas

Todays’s Jewish Treats on grandparents got me thinking about mine.

Mis abuelos, my grandparents, never had a chance to spoil me.

Because of a family schism, I didn’t see my father’s mother before she died. And I have only one faded, threadbare memory of her. I thought it was a recurring dream but my mother told me later that it was a real memory.

I was three years old and I was standing in the hallway outside of my grandmother’s apartment. She was kicking my mother out. All of us, my mother, my grandmother, my father, me, were living on top of each other in a four-room apartment in Washington Heights. And like typical mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relations, things were not well between my mother and my grandmother.

There was a lot of screaming that night. I remember some sort of stuffed animal in my hand scraping the floor as I tried to reach for my grandmother. But my mother pulled me back. My parents got their own place soon after. In the privacy of their own apartment, they held their own screaming matches.

I only have one memory of my mother’s father, too. We went to visit him at his store in the Dominican Republic. My mother explained that he was Spanish so I expected him to lisp over his words. He didn’t. But he did tell us we could have any toy in the store we wanted for our birthdays that summer.

I was about 11 or 12 and I don’t remember what I chose. But I remember that my five-year-old sister rescued a police car out of a corner. My grandfather laughed. “Oh that’s for boys!” My mother, my sisters and me gave him horrified, dirty looks.

“My aunt is a police officer,” I reminded him.

Of course, he would have known that if my aunt was speaking to him. But she wasn’t. He’d never been a part of her life and she didn’t want him to be. Later my aunt told me that my memory was false. I hadn’t met my mother’s father. I had met HER father. My mother had a different father altogether, one that I never met.

My father’s father was a bit more memorable but again I have only one memory. He wasn’t the kind of grandfather that you called “Grandpa,” even in Spanish. Everyone knew him as Blanco, though he was surely no white knight. I had met my grandfather only once when I was eight years old. My mother had told us crazy stories about him like she had told us crazy stories about everything. But some of the tall tales about him were true.

My grandfather was nothing short of charismatic. A charisma that oozed from every twinkle of his eyes, every smile and secret sidelong wink. In my one and only meeting with him, he seemed to smolder and radiate. His smile was the widest I had ever seen and when he bequeathed to me a little toy cow, I had shuddered, I was seduced. Oh, what pleasure. What ecstasy.

My grandfather had, in fact, given so much ecstasy to so many women over the years that it wasn’t until his funeral that all of his children, handfuls of children, really knew how far reaching my grandfather’s love had been. They met there at his funeral.

My mother’s mother is the only grandparent I’ve ever really known. The year before I was born, she gave birth to one of my aunts, my mother’s youngest sister. So by the time I was born, our playdates were already arranged.

I spent so much time at my grandmother’s house that I called her “Mami” just like I did my mother. I like to think that it was because we were close but maybe someone realized it wasn’t right to be calling this thirty-eight year old woman “Grandma.” (She’d had my mother at 16.)

When my grandmother and my youngest aunt moved back to the Dominican Republic, I was inconsolable. And when they moved back around my thirteenth birthday, they were more strangers than family. But four years later when I was running from home and I had no place to go, my aunt convinced my grandmother to take me in. When my mother found out, she was out for my grandmother’s blood.

I went to church with my grandmother. I hung out with her in the afternoons. I tried talking to her in Spanglish. But our relationship never took. In no time, she was talking to my mother again and trying to convince me to do the same. I stared at my grandmother in disbelief. “Don’t you remember what this woman did to me?” I asked her.

Eventually, my grandmother asked me to move out of her apartment. Later, she found out that I was living with my aunt, the cop. My grandmother told my mother and my mother started stalking me. Restraining orders ensued. Years later, my grandmother even tried to testify against me in family court when I was fighting for custody of my sister. I didn’t get it but I realized eventually that my grandmother’s relationship to my mother was more important than her relationship with me. I wasn’t her daughter, I was just a grandchild, one step removed.

After I got married, my great aunt, my grandmother’s sister who had missed the wedding, was in town visiting. She’d suffered a stroke recently and the family was concerned for her health. The only problem was that if I wanted to see her, I had to go see her at my grandmother’s house. I debated not going. My great aunt told me that my great-grandmother was also living with grandmother and because she was (and is) still in her 90s, I wouldn’t have many more opportunities left. I took my husband to smooth things over. He was a hit.

At one point in the evening, my grandmother confessed she was no longer talking to my mother. “Too much trouble,” she said with a stony look. I looked at her and I realized that she was trying to apologize. It wouldn’t make the last couple of years disappear but it was something.

Now I try to call my grandmother once a month. I should visit more often. During my last visit, I sat her down for hours and made her draw me a family tree and tell me about our ancestors. Apparently, there were some Puerto Ricans and Spaniards in the mix. I also learned that because of my brave grandmother leaving her town in Santiago in the Dominican Republic in her early 20s, my sisters and I are American today. Eventually, my grandmother ended the conversation because she had places to be. But for those hours, I finally got a taste of what it’s like to have a real live grandparent.

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