Como te puedo pagar todo lo que haces por mí? Todo lo feliz que soy, todo éste grande amor. Solamente con mi vida, ten mi vida, te la doy. Pero no me dejes nunca, nunca, nunca. Te lo pido por favor.
How can I repay everything you do for me? All this happiness, all this love, only with my life, take my life I give it to you. But do not leave me ever, I ask you please.
– Juan Gabriel “Te Lo Pido Por Favor”
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“You are going to spoil them,” my mom said every time, half jokingly and somewhat honest, but my grandma didn’t care. My cousins, brothers, and I never had breakfast in bed in our own homes, but this wasn’t home, this was heaven.
Even today my greatest weaknesses are sunny-side up eggs with fried beans and sliced weenie, and how can I forget the chocolate powdered milk. When we wouldn’t finish our beans our grandma insisted we should eat them for if not they would become “sad.” I always wondered why the beans would become sad, since I thought they would prefer not to be eaten; her trick somehow worked all the time, and we would finish our plates. For hours then, we would watch Recess and the playground adventures of T.J. Detweiler with his red baseball cap and his cool gang, or learn about integrity from Hey Arnold! since he always did the right thing. We would sleep in the fuzziest and warmest blankets, which comes as no surprise since they were hand made by her. I remember all of us kids sleeping in the floor. Not until later did I realize that, because she did not have enough beds in her house, while we slept in a mattress on the floor, my grandma slept for the night on a wood bed stand. She never said a thing, so that all six of us could stay with her for the night.
The times when I was the only one staying, and there was nothing to do and no one around but abuela using her white sewing machine, I would walk around the house and become curious about everything I saw. She had three birds: a large green parrot, a medium grey finch, and a small yellow canary. I always pictured myself as the canary, since I was the youngest of my three brothers. There were only two bedrooms, the kitchen, and a living space. The living space displayed portraits of my grandma at a younger age and of my grandfather who I never met. The kitchen had objects which somehow were all cow themed! Ceramic cows, cow mantels, cow kitchen magnets, you name it. In the back of the kitchen I would see a set of cups that each had twelve raisins in them. These were the extra grapes abuela laid out every New Year for my grandfather, so that wherever his soul may rest he could have his twelve wishes as per tradition. Outside there was a small yard with a pine tree and green artificial grass that went from the small gate entrance to the door. There was also a set of white washed metal tables where my grandma used to sit and watch us play, a dried-up fountain, and in the background, a grey street and a yellow sky.
When afternoon came, we had to wake up from what seemed a dream and go back home. For a moment I was not with my “strict” parents or in nun school, I was in a warm paradise of grandma’s love and good food. The walk back home was only five minutes, and I would skip and jump happily on my way on the cracking sidewalks of Mexico. It was usually sunny, and dogs would bark as we passed the houses in the block. Abuela would come with us and stay for a while in our home to talk with my mom and enjoy some coffee, and for us kids regular life would continue.
I think about the time when my grandma started living with us. I remember the move; we had so many people help her put things into the trucks. Fooling around moving items kept me busy and excited, enough that I didn’t even think about what was going on. When I found out my grandma and I would be sharing the same room, I could not have been more excited. I did not mind sleeping on our red air mattress so that she could use my bed. I could just hope that every single day was as perfect as those in her house had been.
Most days were as great as I had hoped. Granted, we did not have breakfast in bed anymore, but we would have huevos estrellados with frijoles and weenie before school. Some nights were hard for her. I would wake up in the middle of the night to find her crying and all I could do was hug her, tell her that I love her, and listen. She was crying because my uncle was kidnapped, and she gave her house as part of the ransom, but he was still not found.
I only once dreamt of my uncle coming back. I saw him through the front door window waiting outside of our fence ringing the bell. I cannot recall if he was impatient and urging me to let him come inside, or if he stood peacefully. I wonder how many times abuela has had the same dream. She is always looking out on the street. Some mornings she shouted at me to hurry up so that we could laugh and catch a glimpse of the brown dog that always sneaked under our neighbor’s gate. Other days she pointed out from our window and told me stories about the different people passing by who she had been seeing her whole life: a man she knew since he was a kid, an older lady who has seen selling goods for twenty years, and so she would continue detailing about the different characters in the block. She told me when she noticed someone was no longer seen outside, mostly due to age. Abuela is always looking out the window, and after having that dream I understood it probably started out of hopes of my uncle coming back.
It took her a while to become comfortable with living in our house. After having her own place for decades, she now felt uninvited and as a stranger. I reminded her in our room that she should feel as if this was completely hers and that I was a guest. What really started giving her a sense of belonging and distraction were her “babies,” that is our four Chihuahuas.
Every Sunday or so, grandma visits her sister. Whenever my grandma is not around, even though there could be five of us in our home, the house feels empty. It is very hard to notice when the grass grows because it just happens. The years went by, somehow I became taller than her, then I started driving her for grocery shopping, and later I left for college. I reserved the last sentences of my graduation speech for her, “Abuela te quiero mucho, gracias por todo.”
The last time I visited home was during Christmas. In a blink, it was time to go back to MIT. I was dropped off at the airport by my parents, brothers, and my grandma. As I headed to the entrance I kept looking back, for I did not want to waste any second of seeing her. I walked facing backwards and I waved and waved and looked back at her, until the corner of the wall did not allow me make eye contact anymore. It only took me a few steps, while rolling my luggage, to realize I was by myself again. It was a feeling of epiphany that made me understand I was unaccompanied, and self-dependent, and almost made me want to cry.
I still feel her love when I call her, send her photographs in the mail, or wear her knit scarfs in the moments of cold. During our phone calls we talk about simple things: the weather, our dogs, or about my brothers; they are trivial topics but make meaningful conversations. I joke with her that she is spoiling the dogs; I then think back to the breakfasts in bed and laugh at how hypocritical I must sound. Sometimes when I call her it turns out that we are both doing laundry at the same time, and that makes her quite happy. I like doing laundry and cooking, but despite my attempts I can never get that same smell or have the beans taste just right. I think you develop a relationship with someone based on how they make you feel, and she has made me feel at home. Home is where her warm food is, where I can play with my dogs, and where I can read or browse all day without any worries or responsibilities. One day she will be gone, for time passes and it never forgives, and I want to keep these emotions every step of the way.
I remember those nights with my cousins and our inside jokes and games in the street. The jokes continue to this day as we message daily in a Messenger group chat in which we bash on each other, but always with a laugh. I remember those days when I would watch TV for hours and get lost in the adventures of a world very different from mine. I remember that house, small but filled with decorations that today seem from a different epoch and in which I could lose myself in thought. I remember the sad times, but they are blurred by the continuous memories of warm hugs and food. Oh do I remember those Saturdays in which life was worry free.