I have no memory of how I perceived loss before the year my Abuela died, but I clearly, concretely remember how I felt, sitting at the end of the kitchen counter in her kitchen, lonely in a room filled with people. The yellow formica stretched out before my gaze as though it were infinite. I was transfixed by the mottled 70s pattern. It was consistent and predictable, the antithesis of the disconnected spectrum of emotions that wracked my small body. I was ten years old and my everyday was gone.
My Abuela “Annie,” as she was known, was the constant in my life. Before my father was hurt in a car accident, I spent every morning before school in my Abuela’s kitchen, drinking café con leche and eating the best Cuban bread in the universe, from the bakery at which my Abuelo worked. (That’s not hyperbole. It has actually been voted the best many times over the years.) I watched her struggle from place to place because four strokes had taken her entire left side from her. She was determined, and strong, and had adapted. I wish I had understood at ten what an extraordinary achievement that was. You see, I didn’t know it at the time, but she had been left-handed.
Since that day, forty years ago, I have learned a great deal more about her than I could possibly have perceived at ten. But I knew one very important thing, even then, clinging to that counter and sobbing. My life was about to change drastically, and not having her as an anchor was going to make that much harder.
I found myself standing in my kitchen this afternoon, making yuca and mojo, and for a moment, my Abuela returned to my consciousness. I saw her there, standing at the stove, left arm contracted severely, right arm stirring the spanish bean soup I wish I’d learned to make.
“Abuela,” I had said one afternoon, “why did mommy and daddy go to your ami?”
She chuckled, and flashed her perfect smile at me. “Niña, it’s not ‘your ami,’ it’s Miiii ami.”
“Okay, but why did they go to yoooouuuurrrr ami?” I remember clearly that I’d stretched it out, thinking that she hadn’t understood me.
“Aye, niña, it’s a city, named ‘Miami.’ It’s not ‘my’ ami. And they’re visiting friends.”
“Ohhhhhhhhh,” I finally said, as she scooped two ladles full of soup into the blender. Whiiiiirrrrrrrrrrrr, the blender screamed, having only soft foods to pulverize. I watched as she carefully poured the resulting mush into a melamine bowl, and then slowly hobbled over to the table with it.
“Come, sit,” she said. She hobbled back to the counter, pulled a spoon from the drawer and with the same slow drag of her left foot, brought the spoon to the table.
I had no idea at the time what tremendous effort it was for her to do simple things like that, but now, at this moment, standing in my kitchen cooking, I understand that she loved me enough to know that I hated (still hate) the texture of garbanzo beans and she turned that soup into mush because that’s the way I liked it.
I have many memories of my Abuela, but not nearly enough. I relish those moments when she comes back to me because I find myself doing something she did, without realizing that it was from her that I learned it. Her memory, and the memory of my father, made me realize that our people never really leave us. They are in our DNA. They are the warp and weft of our memories. To visit them, we need only do what they taught us, without our even knowing what we’d really learned.