This morning I took the train to work. A few stops in it got crowded and I felt the other passengers pressing into me on all sides. I looked down at my hand holding onto a rail for support and noticed another pair of hands just a few inches higher. They were older than mine, and browner, but I felt like I knew them. They looked like my grandmother’s hands.
I looked up at her. She was small but still taller than me, she looked tired but not defeated. I smiled at her and she smiled back. I teared up and looked away and that was that.
I remember my grandma, Rosa, as a sweet and quiet woman. I think of her whenever I smell green dial soap, or see something the burnt orangey color of the tiles of her floor. When she saw me, she always said “Ay, que linda.” I didn’t know what it meant, except that she loved me.
She looked frail but she was powerful. My grandpa, Pepe, was said to be the one to wield the discipline, but the family understood that she was the one to watch out for.
She lived a long life and raised seven children. After the first five, she started working for the first time, and loved it. When she had her last two, Pepe thought she would return home, but she wouldn’t. She worked in fields and factories and schools when her children were grown. She went to community college because she believed in making a life for herself in addition to supporting her family.
When I was young, we went to Texas every summer. We’d pile into my aunties’ Astro vans that smelled like stale cigarettes and drive the two days to Brownsville. We’d then pile into my grandparents’ house. We flopped around in inflatable pools while the adults sat around and told stories. We visited cousins of cousins and stopped by the family cemeteries. We walked across the border to shop, we swam in the gulf.
Back up North, I remember feeling embarrassed that my grandma was so much older than everyone else’s. Now I am ashamed to admit that. I think what I really wanted was to have been closer to her.
When her son died, I watched her grieve with her remaining children. I think I absorbed as much of their pain as my body could take. They taught me that it’s possible to survive, to live through the worst thing you could ever imagine happening.
After that, I think she was tired. I would be too. Eventually she came to the Chicago suburbs to be near and cared for by family. I didn’t understand until it was too late, but her time up here was my first lesson in what happens when we’re unable to care for ourselves any longer, and how vital it is to keep loved ones close.
She passed away the summer after I finished high school. I didn’t spend enough time with her before that. I didn’t know what ‘enough time’ meant. I probably still don’t.
That was the last time we drove the long drive to the valley. After we laid her to rest beside her husband, we gathered to celebrate her life. I thought the line of cars outside my aunt’s house must have been a mile long. I thought, how are there still cousins I haven’t met yet? Where are all these tias coming from?
For a woman so teeny tiny, so reserved, the love she gave and received was enormous. Her life was not easy but it was full of beauty. I can only hope to bring into this world a fraction of the love that she did, but I’m sure going to try.