“My Puerto Rican Grandmother” won an “Honorable Mention” in the 2009 GENEii Family History Writing Contest, sponsored by the Southern California Genealogy Society.
In the Puerto Rican culture “la abuela” (grandmother) is a revered and honored position. My “abuela” was no different. Grandma Sarah and Grandpa Carlos migrated from Santurce, Puerto Rico to New York in 1949. Their first residence was a tenement house in the South Bronx. Over the course of several years they would move from the Bronx, to Manhattan’s East Side (Spanish Harlem), and ultimately to the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. With barely a sixth grade education Grandma overcame tremendous odds. She raised three biological children, fostered four, adopted one, and mothered eight grandchildren at various stages. In the Puerto Rican culture, multi-generational homes are the norm, not the exception. Indeed, that was the case at my “abuela’s” house. Grandma turned her little house on 57th Street into a refuge for many throughout the years.
Despite Grandma’s place of honor in my family, most of us have enough memories to keep from romanticizing her. As my uncle rightly surmised at her funeral, “She didn’t walk on water; she made everybody else.”
Grandma was a very strict disciplinarian. Her parenting skills, if questionable then, would be considered criminal today. “El cordon electrico” (the electric cord), or “la cuchara” (the large cooking spoon), were just a couple of her favorite objects that left the kids running for the hills whenever she gave her famous “pela” (beating). If you spent any time at Grandma’s house, you learned quickly what a “bofeta” was. The actual translation of a “bofeta” is a slap. Grandma’s version of the “bofeta” carried with it all the weight of a punch!
Like many immigrants, Grandma believed that a beautiful home was an indication of status. As such, she took great pains to keep her house immaculate. All the kids in the house used to refer to the first floor, which was reserved strictly for company as, “El Museo” (The Museum) because everything in “El Museo” was perfect. The glass tables were impeccably Windexed. The faux grapes, oranges, and bananas in the fruit bowl were always in perfect alignment. The plastic wrap on the lampshades had never been removed – nor would it ever. The thick plastic covering over the couch was always zipped up tightly. In the summertime, your thighs would stick to the plastic so bad that when you got up it made an embarrassing sound.
By today’s standards, Grandma would most certainly be considered obsessive compulsive – especially when it came to housecleaning. She had a love affair with “la limpieza.” In Spanish a “limpieza” is a thorough and deep cleaning. Grandma of course, took the “limpieza” to new heights. A few years after Grandma and Grandpa retired to their homeland, Grandma did such a thorough “limpieza” in her own house that the thought of a dirty street outside her sparking clean house was an absolute offense. She took a bottle of Clorox, a bucket of hot water, and a huge warehouse broom, and proceeded to scrub the streets barefoot. After several hours, she limped home only to discover that her feet were so raw from the chemicals that a neighbor had to drive her to the Emergency Room.
Grandma was a strong advocate for those she loved. In second grade, Grandma convinced my mother that I should be a contestant in one of the community beauty pageants. Why? Well, everybody knows that all Puerto Rican girls between the ages of five and sixteen must be in a pageant. When I didn’t win first place, Grandma caught wind that “politics” were involved. So, she worked the phones to make sure that I was secured a premiere spot on the float for the Puerto Rican Day Parade. And, oh, the Puerto Rican Day Parade! What can I say about the parade? It was a giant party, and call it what you will (a stereotype) but we Puerto Rican’s will look for “cualquier razon” (any old reason) to have a party!
Grandma was an extremely stubborn woman. If she believed something to be true there was no telling her otherwise. My grandfather, who liked to operate outside of his giftings, had a knack for pulling things apart (like household appliances) and then forgetting how to put them back together. Moments before the New York City Black Out of 1977 Grandpa, or “Papi,” as we liked to call him, was downstairs in the boiler room of the basement changing a light bulb. In an unfortunate coincidence for Papi, at around the same time, a lightning bolt struck a circuit breaker in Westchester. That first lightning strike was the beginning of a series of events that led to what would become known as the New York City Blackout of 1977. It left virtually every neighborhood in New York City powerless for almost two days. Despite the fact that the entire household rallied to his defense, for Grandma, the timing was too close to be chalked up as a chance happening. For the rest of her life Grandma would be convinced that Papi had something to do with the City Wide Black Out of 1977.
Grandma was an impressive cook. Whether it was the cilantro, garlic, and onions cooking for the “recaíto,” or the “chuletas fritas con tostones” (fried pork chops with fried plantains), or the “bacalao” (dry salted cod fish) the house was always filled with a delicious aroma. No one ever left Grandma’s kitchen without eating something. She would happily serve you a heaping plate of “arroz con gandules” (yellow rice with green pigeon peas) brimming over with portions fit for King Kong. Then, after you left she would criticize you for being too fat.
Grandma and Grandpa loved to pass the time playing dominoes late into the night. I can remember many summer nights watching them eat their “pasta de guayaba” (guava paste) and “queso blanco” (white cheese) over saltine crackers. As they mixed the dominoes on their utility table with their wrinkled hands, I could hear them singing along with the music coming from the Spanish radio station. And, I could almost feel the cool island breeze whenever they sang, “En Mi Viejo San Juan” (In my Old San Juan):
“Me voy (ya me voy)
Pero un día volveré
A buscar mi querer
A soñar otra vez
En mi viejo San Juan.”
Even though Grandma and Grandpa successfully assimilated to the American way, their hearts always longed to return to their beautiful homeland of Puerto Rico. Years later, God would grant them that desire…and much more.
Those close to Grandma knew there was “more to the mortar” than what the world saw. You see, this little old lady carried a burden much larger than her little shoulders could bear. It wasn’t until years later that I would learn just exactly what was behind all her stubborn tendencies. As a young mother, Grandma left the only world she knew behind. She said “goodbye” to the family she loved, and like a loyal wife, followed her husband to New York where the promise of a better future was before her. With no support system, and only a small grasp of the language, Grandma had all the hopes and dreams of any young married woman. All of those dreams quickly turned into a nightmare when my grandfather’s addiction to gambling and women could no longer be kept secret. She felt the sting of rejection. She knew the agony of public humiliation. She suffered the pain of abandonment. Behind all those “bofetas” was a bleeding heart.
One day my grandfather disappeared without a single word or explanation. He simply abandoned my grandmother and his young family. Years later he would appear at her doorstep; a repentant husband, on his knees, begging forgiveness. She took him back almost instantaneously. In Grandma’s mind, he never stopped being her husband. Despite her faith in Christ, Grandma never worked through her ordeal apart from the anger and the bitterness within a biblical framework. Grandma, for all intents and purposes, would hold his moral failures over him. And, Grandpa, though fully repentant, lived under the dark cloud of condemnation for too many years.
In 1988, Grandma and Grandpa sold their house and moved back to Puerto Rico. God granted them the desires of their heart. It was with great joy that they returned to their tropical island paradise. It was there, in Puerto Rico, where the miracle of their union took place. They both repented of their sins and extended and received true biblical forgiveness for the first time ever. They found a church and a community of believers that embraced them. They also came to appreciate how a sovereign God uses all things, including pain and suffering for our good and His glory. Family members in Puerto Rico reported that the two were like newly weds all over again. Their final months were marked by a sweet tenderness that only the amazing grace of God could bring about. God showed himself strong and mighty on behalf of my grandparents – especially my grandmother. He redeemed what was stolen. He restored what was broken. He breathed life and resurrected what was long left for dead.
A few months after Grandpa died, I visited her in Puerto Rico. We sat and talked about her future without Grandpa. With wide eyes, she held up her hand with her wedding ring in full view. Then, with trembling voice, she proudly proclaimed, “I only have one husband. I will never look at another man.” At the time, I wondered how many men were actually fighting to get her attention, but I was overwhelmed by the strength of her conviction.
For all of Grandma’s challenges, she is one of the best things that ever happened to me. The influence this little woman had on my life can never be overstated. I grew up watching her read the Bible into the late hours of the night. I listened as she prayed with fervor. I took comfort as she sang the great hymns of the Church in Spanish with all of her heart. At the time, I didn’t know what she was doing. However, I saw enough to know that Grandma had laid hold of something eternal that I had yet to experience. Many years later, when I came to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, it was evident to me that Grandma’s prayers were being answered. Sadly, Alzheimer’s had already crept in, and I never got to tell her how Jesus saved me. As time went on, Grandma lost her ability to recognize even the closest people to her. Not surprisingly, there was one name that Grandma always did seem to recognize. Jesus. Even when her Alzheimer’s was at its worse, the mere mention of His name would cause her face to light up like a Christmas tree. My grandmother left a wonderful legacy. Grandma was living proof that the foundations of life can crumble, but the loving kindness and faithfulness of an eternal God will always remain.