I always called my grandmother Mommi because that is who she always was to me. The story goes that when the time came for my mom to leave the hospital, my grandmother offered to help, and my mother gave me to her like a blessing wrapped in a blanket.
The exact circumstances are a discussion my mother and I never needed to have. I was always okay with that knowledge because I am from an Afro-Caribbean culture where grandmother’s helping to raise grandchildren was far from rare. What made my situation different is my grandmother Viola was my father’s mother.
Legend has it that my grandmother was born a warrior, found in a field fighting for life after her own mother died giving birth. Yet, no one ever said how she found mother’s milk, knew mother’s love or learned mother’s wit. People called Mommi Red Warrior. Maybe the name came from her skin the color of desert sand, hands often planted on her hips, and afro rippling gently in the wind. Elders said it was the spirits surrounding her like a halo of sunlight.
Mommi fought many more battles in her lifetime. In little moments private and public, she showed me how to be a woman in a world that did not love us back. Often, her kitchen table was filled with women seeking counsel, comfort, and cabaret. She worked on her feet, carried the blues in her hymns, and sometimes sipped a lil brandy to combat the coldness and cruelty of finding her way.
When the sadness of losing her overwhelms, I look in the eyes of my own granddaughters and see Miss Vi’s warrior spirit covering them like a halo of sunlight and wonder what superhero costume she wears in heaven.
My Abuela isn’t your average Abuelita. My beautiful dark-skinned chocolate Mamá next to my pale skin. It started way before I was born. Natividad got a knock on her door by a woman named Petra and she handed over my mother to Natividad and said, “Here this is your husband’s child” and walked away. Petra was a lady of the night and had previous children. She in turn committed suicide when my mom was 3 months old. Natividad in return raised my mom and never had children of her own. How must she have felt knowing she was holding her husband’s child with a chick from the street while she held the house down? She treated my mom as her own. Continued to raise my mom even after her husband died. She never made us feel like we weren’t a part of her. Everrrrr!!!
When my mom and dad decided to come to NYC from Puerto Rico I know it hurt my grandma. Natividad would travel to NYC to visit and occasionally lived out here on and off and showed us unconditional love!!! She would even hit my mom when she would mistreat us or hit us saying “Don’t do that.” My mom wasn’t as affectionate as my grandma towards me or my children and my kid’s other grandma was in their life but they stopped going where they felt they were not celebrated. They stopped coming around and asking and in turn, are now seen as the bad guys.
THANK YOU MAMA NATIIIIII for loving all of us unconditionally. I wish my kids would have gotten to feel your love. I talk to them about you all the time. Thank you for hitting me over the head when you forgot who I was when Dementia took over lol - my last memory of you. I hope you’re looking down and are proud of us- my Queen Natividad Garcia!!!!!
My Abuela’s name is Emma Rosa Baez. She grew up in a small town in Cuba during the 30s. Prior to Castro’s invasive, dictatorship efforts, my Abuela lived on a sugar farm with a beautiful train that passed through. After Castro took power, my Abuela’s sugar farm was seized. Shortly after, she fled from Cuba with my Abuelo to Mexico, with the majority of her family fleeing with her or shortly after. Then, she went to California and then to New York, AND THEN to Florida where she settled.
To this day, my Abuela won’t allow us to go to Cuba and I respect that. The Castro brothers reeked nothing but havoc on the Cuban people, resulting in my Abuela’s dislike for her own culture. My Abuela teaches me all she can about our culture and even gave me an original Cuban recipe book that her father gifted her mother. I treasure her to this day, my sweet Abuela.
My paternal grandmother killed herself when I was a baby! I was told she adored and loved me very much! She was born in Venezuela, had three children, and bought them to the U.S.A. She brought her children to the United States for a better life but thought her children weren’t headed on the path they were meant to and so one evening my grandmother told my aunt that she was sending her back to Venezuela. She told her daughter if she doesn’t leave she would kill herself! My aunt didn’t want to leave and told her no. Soon after she shot herself! I didn’t understand the depth of the story as a child but realize that now my beautiful grandmother may have been suffering some form of mental illness or depression. I wish I could listen to her tell stories of how she was raised, what she was like as a little girl! I would have loved to listen to stories about my dad as a child and hear the day he was born. I have pictures of my grandmother! She was beautiful and I was named after her! I saw her spirit one day when I was a little girl! I never saw her spirit again but felt her around when I was a teenager! I wish she was still with us and wish she knew my children!
I feel my grandmother’s spirit lift higher the more I find myself. Her unspoken words spoke too much to my spirit. I owe it to her to stand rooted, head lifted, and yes claim my space. She was ignored, shuffled to the side, tongue tied in Mississippi while they called her Cookie. Her Name was Coqui, not Cookie, beautiful Borinquen, thick curly black hair, caramel skin. How many knew who she was? No, it was not Spain that birthed her...La Isla Borinquen, Santurce to be exact. How many knew who she was or celebrated her? Funny how Eggun doesn’t allow you to just move on. The mecla of bloodlines never to be denied in her tight curly mane, her loving smile, where my father received his musical charm and flavorful walk. Not from Spain as they claim and tell me who she was and who I am. Her name was Anna Maria Morales aka Coqui because of the native little frog that sings in the moonlight echoing in her scratchy voice. As I heal myself, her spirit lifts high in the ancestral land. Indigenous...Here I stand pale skin, freckles light. arriving here to find who I am and where I am from and from all who I was birthed...but my Abuela deserves the light and acknowledgment of who she was, not who they said she was- coding her into a space not built for her. Her name is Coqui, not Cookie and I say it loud while she rests high knowing I will love all of that about her as she rests in peace somewhere in Mississippi......
My Abuela Carmen, who passed away during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, wasn’t exactly the friendliest person in the world. Hardened by a poverty-stricken life in El Salvador, my grandma put up with my Abuelo’s countless infidelities (and secret family) and rearing six children on her own. The story goes that in the mid-1970s, shortly before the violence of the civil war broke out, my Abuela left my father and his siblings (my tíos and tías) in the care of her sisters and started walking north. She walked through Guatemala and Mexico with little more than a prayer and lots of luck to her name until she reached Los Angeles, encountering dangerous situations along the way. (Roughly the same distance if you were to walk across the continental United States.) She then sent for her children one by one, helping them escape the violence of the civil war, and brought them to Los Angeles, where I was born.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this growing up. To me, my Abuela Carmen was the master maker of tamales, the repository of our family history; my Abuela who taught me to call the wind with a whistle and told us about the mythical creatures of El Salvador. The one who scolded and sometimes spanked but who could not be argued with; the one that gave us sweats for Christmas and got annoyed when we didn’t wear them as often as she wanted us to. She may have been prickly and distant but she loved us fiercely and unequivocally and accepted me wholeheartedly when I came out to her even when my own father rejected me. This is how I remember her: guarded, remote, perhaps even cold to some, but to me, I always knew where we stood
“He jumped out the back window with a swiftness avoiding the rage of his lover’s husband.” These were the words of my Abuela Cato. Catalina shared many stories with me but this one she repeated over and over. Her dementia took control of her short-term memory yet her wit and humor remained intact. She told this story with little emotion except for a smirk each time I would laugh at her humorous recount.
Saturday night Abuelo tucked his shoes under his lover’s cot. They were easily forgotten when her husband unexpectedly showed up. He told Abuela how he only had enough time to jump out the back window and he was not returning there. My fiesty Abuela said, then I will! After all, he needed those shoes for church.
When she appeared at the house she was told that she had no idea what she was talking about. Abuela pushed her to the side and scooped his shoes out from under the cot. Nothing else was said and Abuela returned with his shoes. She repeated this story with strength and pride; just like she trimmed her grass with her machete.
Years have passed and I recall this story feeling her presence. I remember her words and how she would always say, “ Aye mi’ja no sea tan pendeja y lee el Salmo 91.”
I have no doubt that her faith kept her going and her machete kept her safe. I am grateful for those summers spent by my Abuela’s side listening to her stories but mostly experiencing her unconditional love.
There I was, 14 years old, relentlessly trying to blow dry my unruly hair amid the most dramatic tropical climate I’d ever experienced. My grandmother and I were attending a party that night, and I desperately wanted my hair to be straight. One minute the sun was glaring and the next? torrential downpour, accompanied by thunder and lighting.
Mother nature did what she wanted when she wanted. I heard my grandmother calling for me. She called me multiple times with eagerness. I stuck my head out of the bathroom door into the hallway with my hair a frizzy mess. My eyes met hers at that moment. I can still remember her smile, and her eyes filled with excitement. She practically dragged me outside that day, in the pouring rain. My hands struggled to keep the minimal cover I had to shield my hair. The pipes from the roof of the house were expelling heavy rain. I was confused. Why am I outside in the rain? It wasn’t long until I got my answer.
My grandmother stood underneath the pipe, letting the rain soak her hair and her clothes. All I could think was- no no no! Before I could protest, my grandmother placed me under the downspout. Thoughts quickly ran through my head as the heavy rain splashed on the top of my head. My hair! I will look crazy after this, for sure! After taking a breather, I had the chance to look at my grandmother with her sister. She was laughing and practically dancing in the rain with childlike energy. Her happiness made me smile and filled me with unspeakable joy. My hair didn’t matter at the moment. Nothing did. All that mattered was what was happening right then and there and rather fight it, I joined in.
She never learned to read or write, yet she was the wisest woman I know. She told her doctor that she was a "bruta". When he asked her to read an eye chart she responded, "Ahora el bruto es usted porque acabo de decirle que yo no se leer!" She never worked outside of her home, but she was the CEO of her domain.
She was mild-mannered yet ferocious and fearless when it came to protecting her family. She abandoned her beloved homeland and came to establish roots and grow her family in New York City. There were magical moments when I would catch her dancing with her broom in the kitchen or drawing in her eyebrows and putting on her lipstick and "colorete". To this day I can clearly see her tying a knot in her stockings and then tucking it neatly behind her knees. She was humble yet proud of her beloved Puerto Rico and near the end when Alzheimer's was stealing her from me, she would keep telling me she wanted to go home to Portorro.
At the age of 92, she asked me to let her go and allow her to join her husband and the 3 children who had pre-deceased her. It was probably the only un-self act of my life.
I’m trying to reconstitute your scent
but only clips of your habits come to mind
Scenes that may cause recoil on first retelling
that were so familiar they’d become essential
accompanied by operatic voices whose words
were more meaningful when little understood
I miss you
The unconditional love that contrasted
with requirements too steep to be met
by a wee babe handled like a rag doll
in another’s hands who still thought
she was playing house
Even as her brutish bullying achieved
its intended effects forcing you to leave
the comfort of a warm room to console
you maintained your even keel
I wish you were still here to see me stout
to answer my barrage of questions
so many whys now meet with silent ends
but I know yours was mostly a rough road
though you hung on as long as you were able
You were my bedrock
A foundation I didn’t realize was such a refuge
Our relationship was simple and pure and
I was privileged to know the best version of you
an alchemist who transfigured pain into love
More than a decade ago, my lively great-grandmother, who we adoringly called Mamaguela, said “Mija, coje este pañuelo para que te acuerdes de mi cuando me muera.” I caressed the mildly colorful silk headscarf and thanked her for it. The pañuelo was important but didn’t become treasured memorabilia until she transitioned four years ago. I still hear her loving message when I wrap my hair into a pineapple. I feel as though I carry her love, legacy, and prayers on my head.
She migrated to the United States in the 1960’s and worked for many years in a factory before retiring back home to the Dominican Republic. This job allowed her to also bring in her daughter- my grandmother, and a couple of her grandchildren as well. Although my mother didn’t work in the factory with her siblings, she did “inherit” Mamaguela’s first apartment in Washington Heights. The same place where I came into my own since the age of five. Where I had my two sons and lived until I became a homeowner in 2017. The same building where my mother still resides.
Every time I traveled to the Island, I ensured I visited her on the first floor of her and my grandmother’s, two-story house. She and I would talk about life and the family back home while rocking back and forth in her mecedoras, whilst surrounded by her many stray dogs and cats. What a blessing to have had a relationship with my Maternal Matriarch. What an honor to still have a piece of her to wear as a demonstration of my love, gratitude, and connection to her.
Three generations later, I reap the benefits of the seeds she planted.
I remember the aroma
from Abuela Lola’s cooking.
during early afternoons
when soft breezes
began to cool down
another sun-drenched day.
Her kitchen was a sea of shadows- the air- a greeting.
Meetings between herbs, spices, salt pork, and manteca
embedded on the wooden walls.
I always stood by the kitchen door,
watching her and waiting for a taste.
And as my mouth watered,
she would scoop a piece of salt pork
nice and crispy-salty-
a piece of heaven.
She would blow on it
for a second or two,
and then offered it to me
for behaving like a well-mannered boy.
her dark African skin glistening,
brushing her long Taino hair
from her sweltering forehead.
While taking a sip of a cold beer,
she winked at me
as she brought down
a large sharp knife
to open a can of tomato sauce.
The grease sizzling.
The spiced smoke twirling upwards
like sacrificing incense
to the cooking gods.
Oh, the sweet memories
of Abuela Lola’s cooking
inside her tiny dark kitchen,
that taught me about love
in the aroma of her cooking,
and the small bites of salted pork.
she guarded us as we grew too big for foot tubs and bubbles in the bathwater we never knew she would disappear become iconic as Eleanor Roosevelt or Mary McCloud Bethune but she did
and it would not happen any other way failing out in our eyesight like fog around the Smoky Mountains going back forty holy ghost years; life was always constant
she held her own like the palm tree across the street we would watch grow for incipiency we grew within her borders like oranges she protects outside her window from a freeze
she followed her husband from the migrant trails of Georgia, from the civil rights clay of Bainbridge in search of deliverance and forgiveness we follow her back through a hundred city limits
and fifty no name cities not designated by map we follow her back to the cemetery plot she cleans with her own hands, she was teaching me
she is speaking again
and yet to some this may not qualify
as historical or political and whimsical
or witty but it is the foundation upon which I stand.
They thought I was reading and not paying any attention, for the most part I wasn’t, but they were talking about my Abuelita and I had to listen. They were saying how she would look through abuelito’s things every time he returned from the Dominican Republic. How she would carefully search through his maleta looking for clues. One adult asked, why didn’t she go with him? My mom said it was because she loved NYC, the adult said maybe she was told to stay behind. They said Abuelita would open all the mail that came to her house, even if it didn’t have her name on it. One day she opened a letter that was for my grandfather, my mother said she cried and wouldn’t speak to anyone for days. The adult gasped asking, “¿Y que decia”? It was from a woman in Santo Domingo, informing him she was pregnant. I heard “Todos los hombres son iguales” and “Eso le pasa por estar buscando.” I was a kid, but I knew neither of those statements were ok.
My grandfather had a record store in St. Thomas that my mother and and her siblings worked in after school and on weekends. One day a woman came in with her sister with such laughter and personality that my mother never forgot her. Years later, when my mother came up to the states for college she met my father. And when he brought her home to meet his mother, it was that same vivacious woman from the record store.
This shows how unforgettable my grandmother Adele was and my memories of her are just as vibrant whether we were shelling peas while she watched her stories, eating maduros at the vecinas table while they joked about coming over on banana boats, her asking me to pour her a drink from her the various amber sets that shone next to her botanica of plants or snuggled in her bed watching gangster movies while Jesus portrait looked on from behind us.