My abuelita Vicenta, the woman who raised me, turned 101 on January 6th. She was her mother´s gift from The Three Kings. You see, the 6th is when the children in Spain receive gifts from the Three Magi or Three Wise Men, and people celebrate by eating Roscón de Reyes.
Since she lives in Madrid, Spain and I am in Sarasota, Florida, as usual, I wasn´t able to wish her a happy birthday in person. But the magic of technology allowed me to watch her sing Happy Birthday in English and Spanish, and blow out the candles in one breath. I was so overcome by gratitude and also nostalgia, that it took me an hour to dry up my tears (and blow my nose over and over) so that I could call her on the phone. I didn´t want her to hear me ugly crying.
My grandmother, born in 1917, survived the Civil War in Spain, and worked hard to raise my dad, who immigrated to the U.S. when he was barely 16, to get an education. When she was in her early fifties my parents divorced, and she unexpectedly found herself the caretaker of two little girls, when my sister and I were 5 and 3. I will never forget the moment my dad, my sister and I showed up on her doorstep in Madrid (after flying back from the U.S.) and she received us with open arms, crying out: “¡mis niñas, mis niñas!” (my girls, my girls). That image is forever etched in my memory.
During my childhood, abuelita spent hours and hours telling us family stories, both her own and my grandfather´s. As much as I loved him, he was a crappy husband who cheated on her, but her eyes still lit up when she told us how they met when she was a young girl and how much she had loved him. She talked to us about the war in Spain, about losing friends to bombings, about the poverty after the war, about my dad´s childhood, about life … In the meantime, she would teach us how to knit, crochet, sew, mend, cook … I can do all of those things thanks to her! Every time I sew a button back on or mend a sock (my youngest, 13, can also mend), I think of her.
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I remember the rag dolls she made for us. I also remember how she would try to save money by turning our old tights into underwear and socks. How she´d use a razor blade to cut out the toes of our too-small shoes and make them into sandals. Of course we were mortified when she did that, but now I praise her inventiveness. She bought us clothes that were too big, and took them in. Then she took them out little by little as we grew taller, until there was no other choice but to give them away.
As a kid, I loved to watch her do her nails. She´s always had beautiful hands. As teens, my sister and I would use her makeup, spray on her perfume and wear her clothes. She didn´t like it, and she yelled at us, but she always forgave us. She still does! No matter what, we´re her loves and we know it. I hope she knows just how much we all love and cherish her too.
Every birthday, when she blows out her candles, she wishes for her son, her grandkids and great-grandkids to be healthy and well. And, according to my younger brother, she also wishes for another couple more years on this Earth. She´s not ready to go anytime soon.
Being far from someone who took such good care of you isn´t always easy. I know my dad has a hard time now because he is her primary caregiver. I wish I were closer, but life had other plans for me. Like her, I ended up being geographically far from my family. Nowadays, if I have to choose between sending my teen girls to Spain or going myself, it´s an easy choice – I send them. It´s their turn to know more about their roots, and visit the country where they (and I) were born.
I love the wisdom abuelita imparts at 101 without really noticing. When I told her over the phone life was fine, just the usual problems most people have, she said: “even cockroaches have problems, because people want to kill them.” When, last summer, we told her my eldest daughter is gay, she said: “I knew before any of you all did!” and that was that. She knows who each of us is when we call her on the phone, she remembers things I would easily forget, although I´m only 54. She has a sense of humor and is now content with little.
I know she´s ok when she still curses like a sailor. And yet, she´s mellowed out so much. Today she asked me to call her more often. “Time is running out,” she said. When I hung up the phone, I cried some more. I´m now older than she was when she started taking care of me, and I can feel time speeding up. Yes, I will call more often, even if it means I end up crying more often too.