Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Love Letter about Bears, Fleas, and the Middle Finger

Dear Grandchildren,

Love your grandparents. Love them now and love them hard. Love them ferociously. Love them like your hair is on fire and then love them some more.

All of mine are gone. A fact I still don’t have a full grasp on. And maybe that’s a good thing because then it means that their absence is so vast that they were so important in my life that I’m not sure where to continue without them. I’ve lived 34 lucky years; lucky to have had the kind of grandparents that I had.
I never met my Abuelo Joel. All I know of him is what I’ve heard; that he was a good man. That he loved my mother and persistently asked my dad when he was going to marry her. He was also the only person my dad ever had absolute respect for, never daring to raise his voice to his father, not out of fear but out of reverence.

What Abuelita Hilda lacked in height, she doubled up on in stature. She was self-sufficient, earnest, straightforward, and practical. She drove her own car until her last breath and worked in a factory for almost as long; she retired not soon before she passed away. I still think retirement was what did her in; the kind of woman without a pause button, with an inexhaustible motor, left with nothing to do? It never would have worked. 

I wish I had online photos before she passed away
It never dawned on me that people didn’t live with their grandparents because Abuelita was as permanent a fixture in our house as were the walls and the floors. She was part of the foundation. She was a part of our home. When I’d visit my friends’ homes I’d wonder which room was their grandparent’s room. The first boy I ever loved lived with his parents, siblings, and grandparents. Coincidence? Maybe. But doubtful. 

Abuelita Hilda lived her whole life dedicated to one man… my father, her only son. Poor guy never had a chance. He would never know how to totally take care of himself living with his mother and his wife. She loved him so fiercely, like a bear or like a lioness with her cubs – whichever animal would kick the other one’s ass is the animal she was. Even the day, the moment she died was about him. My mother promised her, comatose in her hospital bed, that she would never leave my dad and that she would always take care of him and at that moment my grandmother left in peace. Not a moment sooner. She was that kind of mother to him.

My grandfather was the funniest of my grandparents, both in actions and words. This might have been because he was the most talkative too. There wasn’t a stranger in the world he couldn’t – or wouldn’t – talk to. Never mind that the stranger spoke English and he only spoke Spanish… that was a tiny detail. Sometimes I think he would call his bank to argue about his statement just to talk to somebody.
He loved telling stories of our family tree and our ancestors, a topic he was most passionate about and that lent itself to hours and hours of storytelling. It was a perfect union because I loved listening to them, they were my own personal fairytales in which our blue-blooded ancestors made me a de facto queen… according to my grandfather.

He would talk to me after taking his dentures out simply because he knew it amused me.

He used to pretend I had fleas so that he could pinch me and blame it on the flea.
“What? I’m just removing the flea I saw jumping on you. You should take better baths,” he would joke.
Once as a teenager, he made the same joke and my grandmother, his wife, seeing my irritation said to him, “Leave her alone. She’s too old for that now.” Whew. That was a blow. Maybe she had meant it to be or maybe she hadn't. I hope she had because it did the trick. I was utterly destroyed. I felt my heart break into a million tiny glass pieces, each piece stabbing what was left of my heart. I hated my stupid teenage self, my teenage irritation for ruining a joke that Abuelito had loved so much, that kept he and I connected i the silliest of way so I responded to them both, “No it’s ok. I should really take better baths.” The joke lived on… thank God.

What I wouldn’t do for a thousand fleas right now.

My mother’s mother, Abuelita Dora was a stoic woman among so many other things. She was the youngest of all her siblings by default; her two younger siblings had died when they were kids. Maybe that’s why she was so careful to never get sick. Don’t stand in front of the refrigerator with wet her. In fact, don’t do anything with wet hair. No swimming after eating; actually, no swimming, no showering, no getting wet of any kind after eating… or you could die. We laughed this off but she was dead serious.

She was the last of her family to pass away and the one who laid my grandfather to rest. She said it was her job, her job to take care of him until the end. I can’t imagine what that feels like, to watch those you love the most slip away while you outlast them all but I can only hope I would be able to handle it with her grace because while she endured such loss in her life she always moved forward with an unwavering hope and strength.

She had 4 great grandchildren when she passed away, all of which she held, all of which she kept an eye on at some point – a job she didn’t take lightly. At 86, when I asked her to watch Rafaella, my first child, she took that baby in her arms and literally watched her. Like. a. hawk. A tornado could have blown through our house and her eyes wouldn’t have left my daughter’s sight.

She was modest and understated. She made me laugh in the kind of way that wasn’t made to make people laugh. My grandmother was infamous for having bad hearing. My grandfather was infamous for speaking loudly and a lot. (These two made for an interesting marriage.) One day he was howling at her for not hearing the way old couples do, an argument I’m sure they’ve had a million times before in their decades upon decades of marriage. He turned to walk away, still bellowing about his frustration and I watched her not knowing I was watching her. And when he turned his back – still roaring – she simply put up her right hand and dropped all of her fingers except one. She was discreet, I’ll give her that.

I had an amazing childhood: a home I grew up in that was always full of good food and wonderful friends that lived around the block and down the street. Our house exploded with toys and games and music and laughter. But the year my grandparents, my mother’s parents, moved to Miami and I was confronted with the question of what I wanted for Christmas the only thing I could think to put on my Christmas list that year was them. I wanted them for Christmas.

Now that they’re gone, I find myself singing the classical hymn. I wish I had more time. I wish I knew more about their life when they were young - before they were my grandparents, before they were parents. I listened a lot but I wish I listened more. I asked a lot but I wish I asked more. I had time but I will always wish I had more.

So when I tell you, grandchildren to love your grandparents, to love them now and love them hard. To love them ferociously and like your hair is on fire and then love them some more I say it as someone who loved her grandparents this much and it still seems like it wasn’t enough.  

A grandchild

Thanks to In an Opal Hearted Country for organizing the February Expat Blog Challenge opportunity.
Day 12: An Open Letter

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