Danya Lagos

Abuelita


ISSUE 48 | DEAR MOM | JAN 2015

I. Ice Chips

I last saw you through a window in the Tijuana hospital, on your second to last day. You weren’t permitted visitors, but my father, or maybe it was one of his brothers, lifted me up from outside against the grey concrete wall. I peered in, and waved.

<<¡Abuelita! ¿Como estás?>> (Grandma! How are you?) I think I remember saying, with excitement, happy to finally see you after you’d been gone from our house for god knows how long.

I remember you put up a good show for me.

<<¡Estoy muy bién, mijita!>> you must have said. (I am doing very well, little daughter!).

I asked what you were eating, as I saw my grandfather and one of my uncles, or maybe my father, holding a pink plastic hospital bucket for you, and feeding you something out of it. You told me they were ice chips, and made it sound delicious.

<<¡Yo también quiero!”>>(I want some too!) I shouted through the window. I distinctly remember shouting, because you seemed so far and sunken into your bed, which was also far from the window – probably not designed for 10 year olds to say their last goodbyes to their grandmothers as they died of ovarian cancer. You kept eating the ice chips and saying <<¡Mmmmm!>> for me as you bit the ice cubes down into chunks. The rest of the adults, your sons and husband, put up a good show for me too. I remember their voices being cheerful and enthusiastic. <<¡Despídete de tu abuelita, Danya!>> (Say goodbye to your grandma, Danya!”) they said – cheerily. I did – cheerily. You said goodbye to me cheerily. When I got home and asked my parents about how you were doing, they told me you were doing better.

The next day you were dead, Abuelita. I remember crying into a green and peach-colored floral pattern blanket in my parents’ bedroom, feeling betrayed by their definition of “better,” but hoping you were actually doing better.


Illustration by Antonia Stringer

II. Sorry

I am sorry I didn’t go to your funeral, Abuelita. I chose to stay with a cousin from the other side of the family, and played “Backyard Baseball 2001” for hours on end until my parents came home. I’ve continued to use computers to avoid dealing directly with life situations until recently – now I find myself avoiding computers to avoid dealing directly with life situations. Apparently my cousins who went spent part of it rolling down the hills of the cemetery – a completely different approach.

I’m also sorry, for apparently shouting at you when I was 3 or 4, <<¡Yo no soy tu maguey!”>> (I am not your maguey!) When you tried to make a joke with what little English skills you had, saying <<¡Okay, maguey!>> in response to something I said (maguey is the Mexican Spanish word for the agave plant). I know you thought it was funny. I don’t know why I got so upset. I think I thought maguey was an ugly word, or an insult.

I’m also sorry for turning up my nose at the Ice Skater Barbie you brought home one night as one of your last presents to me. I was pretty much over Barbies then, but I should have been a more graceful and grateful recipient.

I’m sorry for making a big fuss about the stench of the vomit coming from the bathroom when your cancer started getting really bad. I remember my mother, your daughter in law, locking the door to help you, and me just huffing back and forth in the hallway wishing it would go away. Maybe I also wished that you would go away.

But each day after day after you died, I wished you had not gone away. I wished you had not gone away when my grandfather packed his car and drove back to Mexicali with his heart broken, telling me “Don’t worry, I’m finally leaving” in accented English after you two lived with us for around a year. I wished you had not gone away while the family tried to get along without you every successive holiday dinner, which just did not taste or feel the same without you.

At some point you faded into the “distant past” for me, amidst the tumult of adolescence and early adulthood, through which I’ve also stopped believing in ghosts and God and family and all of the other gentle superiors who I can no longer count on. Your memory is buried deeper than the rest of these are for me, which is why I think it is all the more haunting and supernatural when thoughts about you come to the surface.

III. Portal

We had never visited Culiacán, your hometown, until this past December – there isn’t much to see there that one can’t find in any of the other mid-sized Mexican Cities. The drug violence and the mosquitoes are rumored to be a little more intense than other places, but those are just rumors that I wasn’t able to personally verify. We arrived amidst an emotional whirlwind of two recent deaths in the family – one sudden, another more of a relief since it was coming for a long time – but also a 50th wedding anniversary, a continued illness, and the excitement of meeting new relatives - no reunion in a family the size of mine is ever simple. Amidst the confusion, I must have met over 20 cousins I had never met before who all kind of look like you or your sisters in a strange way and tell me that I do too, and we spent the time awkwardly asking each other about what it is we “do,” exchanging advice about what universities to apply to, dancing (who knew I had cousins who all knew to square dance to the Mexican version of “Achy Breaky Heart”!) and going to a minor league baseball game featuring the “Tomateros” (Tomato Growers – names in Mexican minor league baseball are very different from those in the States) of Culiacan vs. the “Naranjeros” (Orange Growers – you get the idea) of Hermosillo.

On Christmas Day, after our relatives took us out to Chinese food, apparently unaware of the cliché, we went to see your childhood house. The streets are still paved with cobblestones, and palm trees probably planted during your childhood jutted proudly out into the sky as the sun was beginning to begin its descent. Attached to the bakery that your parents owned and operated, both your house and the bakery were now part of a school, so parts of the traditionally Mexican house, mostly white, iron, and terra cotta, were now painted a garish but peppy blue and yellow. When we got to the front door of the old house, which leads to the old living room that is now a cafeteria, my great-uncle talked about how he proposed to my great-aunt on the front steps. I remember being very upset by this – I wanted you to be there. I wanted my grandfather to also be there, even though he is also dead now. I wanted to hear about your proposal story too! Beyond this, I also got frustrated because it brought up feelings of wanting not just to see you there in that space, but having missed out on knowing you well enough to have asked you now, in my twenties, about what you would have to say about my ideas about proposals and marriage, so that I at least would know where you were coming from when you lived in this house, and so that I would at least have any form of guidance from someone who lived through and saw what you did.

And amidst this flurry of frustration and engagement with alternative histories of what could have been had you not died of ovarian cancer in 1997, I paused to breathe, and you were there. I kept staring at the door, trying to not look at my uncle, through a gray outline of blurred vision that comes when one is fighting back hot tears. The door painted bright blue now for the school, but the blurred border of gray gave it some sort of aura that seemed to promise that there was motion behind the door and that I would soon be surprised. The outline of your face, with your big, bright eyes nestled into high cheekbones hovering over full lips, and your wavy jet black hair kept neatly short in a grandmotherly way, didn’t exactly flash, but appeared to me to be waiting behind that door, ready to open it and come out and ask what the rest of us were doing outside in your usual kind joking manner. My mother once told me she experienced something similar when she visited the old apartment of her parents, who died when she was 9. She wanted them to come out of that door so badly, and at one point fully believed they would come out of that door. If I sit back and think rationally, I didn’t think you would come out of the door, but you were definitely there, it seemed – maybe not behind that door, but all around.

I tried to regain my composure and tried to shake off the supernatural as we continued to walk around. I would occasionally get spooked by the trees that were planted by your father in the and now stood tall over the rooftops courtyard, now surrounded by classrooms, but chalked that up to sentimentality. We kept touring the house and the school, but when we got to your bedroom, I felt you were around again. But I didn’t interact with you as the elderly, grandmotherly grandmother I knew during childhood. Instead, I interacted briefly with the eighteen year old you, who I could have sworn I saw sitting on her bed by the window, with her hair arranged in the elegant coiffure I remember from the pictures of her youth. This was the eighteen year old you who I never got to meet through your stories, because I was still too young to ask you to tell me stories about the eighteen year old you when you died. This was the eighteen year old you who navigated womanhood in Mexico during the 1950s, who would go on to get married to an agricultural engineer, move to a Northern border state, and devote her life to raising seven rowdy boys. I saw you in your room feeling your cheeks getting flushed, cracking a window to get some air, looking out, waiting for a letter to arrive, anxious with the exciting terror of romance. I saw myself at various windows during my life, when I have waited for a letter, or more likely an email, phone call, or text, to arrive, anxious in many of the same ways, but perhaps entirely different – I wouldn’t know because I didn’t get to ask.

How I wanted to continue my voyeurism, Abuelita, and continue watching the drama of your adolescence unfold through the window with the bars now painted blue. Maybe not to get advice, as I’ve now navigated young adulthood through trial and error without the guidance that some people get to receive from their grandparents. I just wanted to understand where you came from, since mine has unfolded in a way so different and patently unrecognizable from yours. How I also wanted to go to my other grandmother’s window too, the one who died in 1968, whose kitchen window in Buenos Aires my mother once described in a way that also brought me to chills – the one with the red checkered curtains, and the blaring of Italian musing playing on a record player as she did dishes. How I wanted to have any old lady to talk to who I knew would have a bond to me that would allow her to be candid about their experiences of youth from 40 or 50 years ago, since most of the old ladies I interact with remain guarded and professional, since I am not their grandchild.

Through the rest of the trip I was moody and disturbed. We didn’t return to your house, but other things kept provoking involuntary memory, such as the taste of cookies similar to yours, the tremble and squeaks in my great aunt’s voice that resemble yours, and the thought as I walked through the city that this is the scene of your young adulthood--all steering me back to a place I am ambivalent about returning to, like Proust’s madeleines.

IV. Encounter

Now back in my Chicago apartment, I sit in silence, and exercise whatever imaginative powers I can muster to welcome my abuelita to come in for coffee and pastries, like a literary séance of sorts.

When it finally works, and I’ve managed to bring you back from the dead for an evening, I walk down to get you since the buzzer doesn’t work. You are shivering in your simple but warm coat. You have never experienced cold northern weather in your life.

<> I greet you, with a warm hug and a kiss, as if you’ve simply come in from out of town to visit after a few months of not seeing each other, and haven’t been dead and missing for most of my life.

<<¡Danya, mijita! Te cortaste el pelo! Te vés tanto como tu mama.>> (Danya, my child! You cut your hair! You look so much like your mother!). You say this politely, of course, and you don’t comment on the boyish aspects of my attire. You just kind of smile and come in.

<<¡Ay, que frio hace! ¡Que tremenda eres, Danya! No sé como se puede vivir aquí!” (It’s so cold! You are crazy, Danya. I don’t know how people can live here.) I nod and laugh and take your bags and walk with you up the stairs. For some reason I wasn’t allowed to pick you up from the airport – having survived ovarian cancer and outlived my grandfather, I guess you’ve become more independent.

We come in to where I live – I’ve scrubbed every corner of the place, removed the bottles of alcohol, boxes of saltines, and butts of joints that are regularly strewn throughout the living room, arranged the furniture in a presentable fashion, and told my roommates to kindly not be around so that my grandmother doesn’t find out I live with three guys who I am not related to. I can’t entirely be honest with you, so we play these little games of hide and seek, but I imagine that in our long-lasting grandmother-grandchild relationship that survived my teenage years, we’ve worked out an sort of arrangement mirroring a combination of “don’t ask don’t tell” and “broken windows” policies by which I keep you from seeing the cracked windows of my life and you are okay helping me in times of genuine crisis and need. You walk in, look around, and say “Wow!” in English – you’ve apparently been working on it again. You compliment the apartment, and I guide you to the table before you begin to ask more questions about it or sit in the wrong chair (around 1/4 of the chairs in the apartment are due to break at any moment) or take a peak inside the closet, where around sixty things of varying degrees of weight and illicitness promise to come crashing down if the door is opened.

It was famously difficult for you to let anyone else do anything in the kitchen, always insisting on helping out and eventually taking over any preparation of food, but I imagine that I’ve done most of the work ahead of time, and that I insist that you just sit and relax. I’ve prepared your famous “Arab Date Cheesecake” (recipe provided by the author in the next section), and I make you some coffee, demonstrating how I make it in my silly little aeropress, like I used to show you how I built some sort of LEGO creation or how I did math problems when I was younger. You nod and act amused, as you did then, and thank me for the cup of coffee. Never one to arrive without presents, you reach into your bag and unwrap a bottle of cajeta, my favorite Mexican goat milk caramel, and I go nuts with excitement and gratitude.

Throughout the conversation, you eat like a bird, as you usually did, only taking dainty little bites and sips here and there. Back then you did it because one of your seven sons was inevitably asking you to go back and get seconds of something, or because one of your grandchildren was causing a fuss and required your attention, but now you’re just in the habit of it and you don’t have the stomach for the large, hulking portions that I got to learn to take.

Even though this interaction, as I’ve designed it, is imagined as though you remained alive and continued to be my grandmother long after you didn’t, really, I imagine that I would get to ask you some tough questions that I’ve always had about your life as it happened, and that you would be able to answer them. Not with any sense of urgency, but with an ability to reflect on things calmly and with no need for either of us to be anywhere for the rest of the day. It is difficult for me, and seems even unfair for me to even pretend to write your answers to my questions, so I will only describe their general impressions on me. My séance, my rules.

“When did you get diagnosed with ovarian cancer?”

I imagine you got this diagnosis some amount of time before you let any of your children know. I imagine my grandfather knew, but that the two of you sat on it for a while. Why? I can’t explain it. You just seemed to be so self-sacrificing that I can’t imagine you wanting to worry any of your sons with this information. In the videos we have of you, you start uncharacteristically crying when my youngest uncle wishes you a Happy New Year. I cry every time the video gets to that part, even though I only started watching it again recently. You probably knew then, and it looks like he didn’t.

“What was it like to get that diagnosis?”

I imagine that it really upset you, but mostly because so many people depended on you – mostly adult men like my grandfather and some of my uncles. Depended on you for emotional support and emotional labor, and also for basic housework and cooking. You really spent your life facilitating their lives, and I can’t even imagine you having some project of your own you wanted to get done that was doomed by this news, which is really depressing to me, and maybe I am being unfair. Were there projects of yours outside of your husband and children that you wanted to get done, but didn’t?

“How did it change your relationship to my grandfather?” I imagine my grandfather was a lot more optimistic about your odds than you were, because he needed them to be that way. That must have been difficult. I imagine that you placed a whole deal of trust in my grandfather, and that you had very few other options, but received a lot of support from your sisters and other relatives. I imagine there were moments when my grandfather must have overreached his say in matters of your health, but that he meant well and was full of genuine love and concern for you.

“What was the conversation like with my grandfather and parents when you agreed with my parents to make this as easy and possible for me and my sister?”

At some point in your illness, the two of you started visiting every weekend, and staying with us. As a child who grew up with you living three hours away and only seeing you periodically, your now weekly visits were a dream come true. You and my grandfather would come home from treatment every Friday night with Mexican pastries, you both did a great job at hiding that your frequent visits were because of the chemo appointments.

“Am I going to get cancer too? Will it at least wait until I am a grandparent and have to hide it from grandchildren of my own?”

I know this is the most unfair question. You can’t answer it. I imagine you and I would sit in silence and change the topic.

V. Recipe

Abuelita Alma Rosa’s “Pastel Árabe” (Arab Date Cheesecake)

This recipe makes two pies.

Ingredients:
2 Graham cracker pie shells
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1 block cream cheese
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup pecans (some variations include pine nuts or pistachios, but pecans are preferable)
1 cup of pitted and chopped dates

  • Blend sweetened condensed milk, cream cheese, eggs, and vanilla extract.
  • Add pecans and dates.
  • Place mixture on pie shell and bake at 350º for 25 minutes

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