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When I was young, Dad worked full time doing something that involved wearing a suit and Mom worked a part time job as the receptionist at the office of the family’s paediatrician. My older brothers were in school, so while Mom went to work she would leave me with Grandma, a spirited Cuban woman who as far as I could tell was named Abuelita. Even as a toddler I could tell she was a woman worth admiring, always keeping Grandpa in line and singing lullabies in Spanish when I cried. I wish I could remember how the lullabies went; the melody still gets stuck in my head sometimes, but I didn’t know a word of Spanish until many years later and I can’t ask her now. Only when I edged closer to adolescence would I learn about how she had stood up against Castro, walked all over Havana to find where they had imprisoned Grandpa, given away everything her family owned so they could find a new beginning in America. Then, she was just the nice old woman who let me watch Power Rangers, taught me how to play Chinese Checkers, and let me pick raspberries in her backyard.
As a child I was an incredibly picky eater. I was 12 years old before I would eat a cheeseburger, and I still don’t like hot dogs. As for fruit, I liked apples and pears (but only if you shaved off the skin first), oranges, grapefruits (with the sections precut and only with a heavy coat of sugar poured on them), maraschino cherries only, and I’d eat a banana if absolutely forced to do so. The only fruit I would take right off the plant and eat were Abuelita’s raspberries.
My grandparents had several raspberry bushes planted around the side of their small one story home, and when it was the right season, Grandma and I would go out into the yard and she would hold the basket while I picked the small berries. She taught me how to tell which ones were ripe: make sure they’re nice and red with no white on them, but not too squishy because those are overripe. Then she would take the basket inside and wash them, and I’d have a sweet snack while I sat with Grandpa and watched cartoons. In retrospect, it was probably just a gambit to get me to eat something and to keep me occupied until Dad picked me up from a day of professional suit wearing, but to me it was a treat, a reward every year for my patience in letting the plants grow and bloom.
“Are the raspberries ready?” I’d ask every time I would visit.
Grandma would shake her head and say “no, not yet,” or “soon, chiquito,” or “it’s winter, it’ll be a long time” until she’d finally say “yes, put on your shoes” and I’d run out the door as fast as I could.
When I say I would eat Abuelita’s raspberries, I mean only hers. If Mom bought raspberries from the store, I wouldn’t eat them. They tasted different, they weren’t as good. Of course it was all in my mind, and she tricked me by telling me that Grandma had picked them herself, put them in a box and brought them over to the house while I was asleep. I ate them right up.
In the middle of my kindergarten year, Dad left and took all the suitwearing money with him. Two days a week at the doctor’s office wasn’t enough money for Mom to raise all three of us, so she had to get a fulltime job. I didn’t spend as much time at Grandma’s since I was in school, but I would still come by every few weeks and look forward to the raspberries. I was old enough now that Grandma didn’t have to go out with me, she would just give me the basket and send me off to go berry picking, watching me from the small window in the kitchen.
“Soy demasiada vieja,” she would say when I asked her to come with me, “I am too old.”
I still liked to eat the raspberries, but it was less fun without Grandma out there helping me point out the ripe ones and clean them. Sometimes I had to be the one to remind Grandma how to play Chinese Checkers or what time my cartoons were on, although that didn’t strike me as odd. Grandma and Grandpa would get quiet when I told them about all the fun things my brothers and I would do with Dad on the weekends.
Before, when Mom would pick me up, she and Grandma would gossip with each other in Spanish. There would be clicking of tongues and laughter and hugging. Instead there were downcast faces and hushed tones and Grandma would try to give Mom money every once in a while. She would always refuse them, and sometimes they’d fight about it. I asked Mom what the money was for and she told me it was none of my business.
I can’t remember exactly when it was – sometime between when I was five and six, I remember talk of Princess Diana and Monica Lewinsky being the talk of TV – but eventually Grandma took out the raspberry bushes.
“Are the raspberries ready yet, Grandma?” I asked, same as always.
“No, no more raspberries,” Grandma said in her heavy accent, “the plants are gone now, I’m too old to take care of them anymore.”
She was in her 70s at the time, and had suffered a stroke before I was born, but none of that meant anything to me. I didn’t cry or scream or throw any other sort of tantrum because I wasn’t that kind of kid, but for the rest of that season I kept thinking about the raspberries I could be picking and how delicious they were. Mom kept trying to trick me with the store bought raspberries, but now I knew she was lying. I ate them anyway – maybe they did taste the same.
Grandma’s health only went downhill as I got older. By the time I was in middle school, she would ask the same questions over and over, seemingly forgetting the answers you gave her just minutes ago. In my sophomore year of High School she became convinced that my uncle was stealing from her and there was a cat living in the tree in her front yard. Over time, the cat became a woman, then several women, and then several women running a brothel for the neighbourhood men out of the tree.
Mom would come home from work and ask me “Do you want to hear the latest with Grandma?” Regardless of my response, she would tell me about the latest development in Grandma’s delusions, or the goofy slip up she had made in conversation, or the latest frustrating aspect of splitting the work of taking care of her with her two sisters.
Eventually Grandpa got to the point that he couldn’t drive anymore. His mind was still sharp as a tack, but he was 90 years old and couldn’t handle the stress of being behind the wheel. He handled the loss of his license surprisingly well, but Grandma was furious that he was planning on signing the car over to my brother. While my brother took Grandpa to the DMV, I kept Grandma company. I hadn’t spent much time alone with her for almost ten years, now I was much taller and her mind was much farther gone and the concept of playing Chinese Checkers or watching Power Rangers was entirely out of the question. In recent years she had made me uncomfortable, never sure if I was talking to the brave woman who escaped a Communist regime, the sweet old woman who picked raspberries with me, or a woman lost in her own mind who had no idea who she was, much less me. Time spent with Grandma had mostly been consumed by silence and the occasional exchanges in Spanish, which I had started studying in school in order to better communicate with her and Grandpa. So, when my brother and Grandpa left for the DMV, the last thing I expected was for Grandma to start talking to me in English.
“Where are they going?”
“The DMV, Grandma, to take care of the car.”
“El coche out there?” She pointed to the Ford Taurus in the driveway. “Yeah, that one.”
“I cannot believing they are get rid of that car,” I had forgotten how broken her English was. “You know, I driving that car for fifteen years in Chicago to and from my work, and I never make like this to no one.”
She poked me on the arm, clearly blanking on the phrase ‘got into an accident’. I knew for a fact she was talking about a different car from forty years prior that she drove in Chicago, and that she never ‘made like this’ to anybody because she would come home from work at three in the morning and there wasn’t anybody else on the road to hit. Still, she was semi-lucid and speaking English and hell if was going to stop her. She went on to question Pedro’s (Grandpa’s) nerve to get rid of that car without even consulting her.
This went on to how Pedro always leaves the house so dirty, to how my Aunt Judy’s kids make a mess of the place, and eventually somehow found its way to the story of how she had come to America. She never stopped talking, I just sat and listened and nodded.
“So what does my husband doing? He tell the people ‘If you want the bananas, you can have the bananas’, and he throwing them into the street,” she made a decisive sweep of the hand like she was batting a small nuisance off the table, “pero la policia de Castro fue en la calle, y los plátanos se pegan.”
Just like that she switched to Spanish, the “English” light in her brain turning off again and bringing her back to her native tongue. Thanks to the combined efforts of my intermediate skill with Spanish and my understanding of the story from being told by Mom many times, I was able to keep up, but it wasn’t the same. She continued to talk for the rest of the hour and a half that we were together until Grandpa returned and my brother and I left. That was the last real conversation I had with Abuelita, even if I didn’t say a single word. Not long after that she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Dementia (to the surprise of nobody) and with Grandpa lacking a license, Grandma would call Mom at all hours of the day and night asking for a ride to the grocery store for things she already had.
When I was eighteen, Grandma fell in the middle of the night and fractured her hip. After that she moved into the assisted living facility attached to the hospital, and eventually Grandpa went with her. She needed a wheelchair, only able to walk short distances very slowly and with heavy assistance. Grandpa became very protective of her after that, nervous of all the strange people who staffed this new place where they were living. There was something strange about seeing Grandma sitting quietly at the dinner table while Grandpa engaged in a heated discussion with Mom when I was so used to things being the other way around.
Grandpa died in my second year of college. He fell and bruised a rib, and his body just decided that 92 years was enough and slowed down until it stopped. It was a good death, quietly in his sleep at a nice hospice care centre surrounded by his family. At his funeral, Mom and her older sister, Aunt Lillie, propped Grandma’s wheelchair in front of the open casket and talked to her. I sat in the front row of chairs and watched, not listening to the family friend gabbing next to me.
“Ma,” Mom said, “¿reconoces quien es eso?” Do you recognise who this is?
“¿Qué?” Grandma stuttered out. It was honestly a surprise at this point that she responded when spoken to.
“Ma,” Lillie continued, trying to help her understand, “¿entiendes porque estamos aqui?” Do you understand why we’re here?
“¿Alguien se murió?” Did somebody die?
“Yes, Ma,” Mom jumped back in, “su esposo. Estamos en la funeral por su esposo.” We’re at your husband’s funeral.
“Peter?” Good, I thought, at least she still remembers his name, “Pedro no es muerto. ¿Donde está?” Peter isn’t dead, where is he?
I quietly excused myself from the conversation I wasn’t listening to and walked over to put an arm around Mom’s shoulder.
“At least she remembers who he is,” she said, and she left the room, presumably so nobody would see her cry.
With Grandpa gone and Aunt Lillie retired, Grandma moved up to Wisconsin so Lillie could take care of her and take some of the stress off Mom. That Thanksgiving I saw Grandma for the first time since she had moved to the new nursing home. While Mom and Lillie scrambled around the kitchen making dinner, I sat at a table with Grandma, who stared vacantly with her one good eye.
I was always aware of it, but sitting with her then showed the true reality of how far she had gone. Before she would tell goofy stories or ask the same questions over and over, but now she didn’t do any of that. She just stared. Sitting in her wheelchair, wrapped up in a blanket, her nose bright red and her eyes barely open.
It was hard to tell what was going on in her head, where she thought she was or what year it was in her mind. Was she aware of how completely lost she was, or had her brain degraded to the point that such self awareness was beyond her? Somewhere inside the recesses of her brain was the Abuelita I knew and loved trapped, banging on the glass and hoping to escape, or was she long dead, lost to the decay of this disease? I wanted to talk to her about the raspberries, see if she remembered leading me around the yard and holding the basket while I plucked ripe berries from the bush.
I wanted to talk to her about how sweet they tasted, how much I loved spending that time with her, how it was one of my earliest memories. Then I realised I don’t know the Spanish word for raspberry.