She lived for 104 years.
She saw the world transform – from the mountains of Ecuador to the peaks of New York City buildings. From radio to the television screen sizes. She lived so many different lives – a daughter, sister, a Mother of 6, and the wife of a man who dreamed of coming to America. She was a seamstress in New York City as so many immigrant women were. She was strong enough to keep going, despite the small apartment, the rough subways, and the language barrier.
She is America, my Grandmother and the matriarch of our family. She had a way of making 3 small pots of food feed everyone who came to visit – her 6 children, 11 grandchildren and, eventually, 15 great grandchildren and even 2 great-great- grandchildren! Her biggest fan, Luis, my grandfather, always got the 1st plate. She and my Grandfather founded a family whose story breaks cultural barriers and defines what it means to be an American. We define what it means to be a New Yorker.
But I only know the part where I came in. The part where I know for certain that I am my Grandmother’s favorite. How do I know this? Because I am the one my cousins would get to ask permission to go places. Like, if we wanted to go to the park, they’d pay me with quarters to go ask Grandma.
“She likes you, you ask.”
“She’s Grandma. She likes all of us….”
“No, no, she likes you most because you read a lot. You’re ‘responsible.'”
The funny thing is that I never really learned how to speak Spanish fluently. And my Grandmother never learned to speak English at all. Our conversations were a special type of Spanglish on both ends.
“Quiero vas a la park”
“Al parque? Si, si, via con cuidado. Before I could run off to the bunch hiding on the porch, she’d laugh and say, “Ay, La Niña Nancy no hablas Espanol.”
Off we would go, my cousins Stephanie and Omar and my sister Lisa. Off to the park 2 blocks away, up the steep hill and stairs of death, in Woodside, Queens, New York. We’d get Omar to push all us girls on the tire swing, we’d run like mad children, chasing each other with sticks. We would stay there forever, but I swear we could hear her calling us to come home from 2 city blocks away.
At Grandma’s house, we would eat what she made or starve because there was no ordering out or frozen options. Rice, beans, chicken. Rice, soup, bread. Rice, beans, steak. Rice, beans, fish. No matter what, it would always taste delicious. I didn’t like red meat or fish at the time, but when Grandma made it, I ate it. It had a unequivocal flavor, not even my own mother could replicate. At the end of every meal, we would walk our plates to the sink, give her a kiss and say, “Gracias Abuelita.” I usually called her Grandma, but after a meal, this was the tradition. Always kiss the chef!
We would beg to sleep over Grandma’s house. Admittedly, not because we wanted to spend more time with her, but because we wanted to hang out with our cousins. Grandma would put us all to bed around 8 pm. Earlier if she could, but 8 pm, when the sun was still shining through the large windows of her big yellow house on a corner in Queens. We would just about fall asleep when we would hear the tune of Mister Softee, the ice cream truck, coming down the block.
“Ask her if we can get ice cream.”
“Quiero Ice Cream.”
“Ay, La Niña Nancy no hablas Espanol.”
I’m pretty sure the change in the tone of her voice signified that we should all get back to sleep…but I didn’t understand her at all when she yelled. My Spanish was selective. Luckily, Grandpa would intercept and hand us all a dollar so we could all get ice cream. Mister Softee would stop right in front of their house and we’d make our purchases and hang out on the brick porch steps with the white aluminum awning. We’d tell jokes,
Eventually we’d get back to sleep on her plastic covered couches covered with her flowery sheets.
There are a few phrases I could exchange with Grandma, but mostly it was about “Escuela.”
“Te gusta Escuela?”
“Esta bien.” and she might carry on a few minutes with words that I’m sure meant, “Getting an education is important. Make sure you study.”
She’d chuckle again and again saying, “La Niña Nancy no hablas Espanol.”
As she and Grandpa would leave our house, she’d secretly slip me $5, $10, $20 to spend. Actually, I’m sure she meant for me to save it, but I never did.
They both came to visit us where ever we were. In North Carolina, In Hawaii. In Hempstead. In my many apartments/houses. But when Grandpa passed away in 2010, she stopped leaving the house. She was 96 at the time and she’d say over and over, “Everyone is gone. I want to be with them.” or something to that effect.
But she just kept going. She kept cooking, cleaning, and sitting by her window, watching who came in and out of the house.
Until the second week of June, when she started to complain of pain in her stomach. They took her to the hospital and the doctors said there was a tumor. But she’s too old to have surgery. They sent her home with a Hospice nurse and said it could be days, even weeks.
I left Virginia for New York on Thursday, the day they sent her home. I walked into the room and my mom told her it was me. Her only true ailment up until this point was her eyesight.
“La Nina Nancy…” she sang, slowly, and then continued on in Spanish
“She says she’s dying.” my Mom translated.
I held her hand. She was so thin. So tiny.
Everyone left at that moment. Uncle Luis went to get her water. Uncle Santiago went to answer the phone. The kids went off to play.
And she spoke to me. But I couldn’t understand what she was saying. I held her hand and listened. But I had no response. I figured I would find a few words to say to her tomorrow. I said, “I love you.”
And she passed the next day.
We kissed her good-bye before they took her away. “Gracias Abuelita.”
Omar, Stephanie, Lisa and I hugged each other a little bit harder and broke down in each other’s arms. We each took turns trying to console Uncle Luis, who took care of her every day since Grandpa died.
Eventually I made it outside to the backyard and I watched the children play. They didn’t really have any idea what had happened. Most of them won’t remember her at all. But there they were, running up and down the side of the house like we once did. Riding on a little Fisher Price horse on wheels that used to belong to Omar. Kicking the ball out into the street and waiting for a kind stranger to return it as they walked by. Asking for ice cream when the truck came by.
I looked up at the Yellow House my Grandfather bought so many years ago and how so many of us were lucky enough to feel like this is home, thanks to her.
I made a video using all the pictures we could find of her, but we didn’t have many of her younger years. We played it at the funeral home and now the song, “Amor Eterno,” is forever etched in my brain. I would have liked to find photos of her as a young girl, long before any of us came along. But there just aren’t any. Just a headshot of her with my Grandpa, smiling and leaning on each other. I don’t know what year it is from, but they’re both young. There’s the one of them both by the fence that used to surround the house. Another of her by the train when my Mom was very young. Maybe we’ll find more in Ecuador.
Gracias Abuelita for the beautiful home you made, the love you gave us all and the bravery you had for venturing into the unknown in hopes of giving your children the best life possible.
This is Not the End
If there is a reason for everything, then there is a reason why I didn’t go to Abu Dhabi last year. Actually, I think there’s quite a few reasons why. but that’s a post for another day.