My mom sent me some old photographs of my grandmother when she was nineteen. Don’t ask me about the getup- I would not be able to explain it.
My mom’s side of the family are from Cuba, from Oriente. As a kid, I took it for granted that everyone spoke Spanish when we went on vacation to grandma’s house and 80% of the meals my mom cooked were Cuban or latin. My perspective began shifting in high school, where I learned to speak Spanish (I had been able to understand quite a bit of it before, but not speak it).
When I started college, things were thrown into greater relief- the food on campus was nothing like the food at home. Junior year, I had to make a family tree for anthropology. My mom helped me with her side of the family since my Spanish, though pretty good, is not enough to carry me through a complex conversation with my grandmother, who has a tendency to eat syllables.
I learned that some of my great-grandparents on my maternal grandfather’s side were mulatto. Lauriana de los Santos Parra (aka Santos) was born of mulatto parents. When her husband ran off with another woman (a woman who had been abducted and let go because she was “no Spring chicken”), she shot him in the hand. When my grandfather’s eye was almost put out by a boy with a slingshot, she did something that I think is similar to what I have seen once in my own mother. When I was eight, my sister came off the school bus crying. My mom stormed onto the bus, found the kid, and told him in the scariest manner possible, “You keep your hands and your feet to yourself!” I can only imagine how Lauriana behaved.
My grandfather’s father was governor of Oriente. He owned several ranches and he grew coffee. My grandfather was mayor of a town called Artosongo (not sure if that’s the right spelling). For all intents and purposes, he was wealthy. He had one wife before he married my grandmother, mother of a boy. I had no idea this man existed until I was about 13, when he came to visit my grandmother when we were visiting.
My mom says that the marriage between my grandmother and my grandfather was semi-arranged. It was a very formal event, apparently. Anyhow, they had three children: My aunt (Marley), my uncle (Mariano), and my mom. When Castro took over, they fled from Cuba because they had supported Batista. My mom says she had aunts that were slated for execution and grandpa was in some very serious trouble. He tried to route his money through South America, but the men he had entrusted his wealth to stole all of it, leaving him relatively poor when he and his family arrived in the US. My mom was four.
They lived in New Jersey for a bit, and Mariano did not work. He worked as a butcher for a little bit, then he got work as a contractor. I don’t know when they moved, but he finally bought a farm in Miami and that’s where they lived for a long time. As for my grandmother, she taught English to Spanish-speaking children for a little bit.
What I know of their relationship is not too complimentary- my grandfather was not very nice to my grandmother.
Anyhow, he had a stroke when I was younger and they wound up in a condo. He died when I was eleven or twelve and we came back from Germany for the funeral.
I wrote a poem about it last Spring for Creative Writing:
At the wake
we sat with a cousin I had never met before
with drawn-on eyebrows and heavy purple eyeshadow
weighing down her gaze. My siblings fidgeted
on the itchy couch we shared.
I clamped my mouth closed, swallowing yawns, and nodded
when olive-skinned people asked me questions
in a language I didn’t understand.
They let us see him once, but I don’t remember
anything but shadow, flickering candles,
and a waxy statue in the coffin. He looked bigger
than my stroke-crippled grandfather had been.
The only impact of death that I remember
whispered into my life a week earlier and an ocean away.
My mother sat on the threadbare futon for a long time.
The news had stolen the color from her
skin and made her eyes shallow.
Her hand still clutched the phone.
As for my mom’s siblings- my aunt lives in Miami now, and my uncle died well before I was born. From what I gather, he had some emotional problems, said the wrong things to the wrong person/people, and wound up shot while (I think) on a camping trip. Naturally, Mom doesn’t talk about him very much.
My grandmother is the only grandparent I have left. She’s pretty cool- likes cooking and anything to do with cooking. Many of the recipes I know how to make come from her. When I come home and she’s visiting, she’ll watch me cook. One summer, she taught us how to make tamales. Whenever we did it in a manner not to her liking, she would take the corn husks from us and carefully fix our mistakes.
When I was a kid, I would catch anoles in her backyard. Whenever I brought them to her, she would hang them from her earlobes (they liked to pinch when threatened) like earrings.