My maternal grandmother turned 70 this May. That’s a pretty big deal to me, as she is in ill health. Diabetes (which she doesn’t manage well) and a host of other minor illnesses and life experiences has left her languid, frail and a bit sad.
I haven’t always gotten along well with my grandmother. As a child, nothing she said made sense to me. She was what my dad called a “space case,” meaning that her head was lost in the clouds; she was permanently distracted. It took me years to appreciate that she was not actually dumb, but just…wounded
Most people do not know that I am part Cuban. My grandmother came from Cuba when she was about 5 years old, her family escaping the newly elected Castro’s dictatorship. The details of her arrival in the United States have been somewhat of a mystery – as I mentioned, she’s a bit distracted. So far as my mother has been able to piece together, once her family made it to Miami, her father abandoned the family. Shortly thereafter, her mother burned to death in a fire that began in the kitchen one morning. This occurred in front of my grandmother, who was about 6 years old at the time. At some point, it was mentioned that her mother started the fire herself. Suicide.
I know little of my grandmother’s adolescence. I know that her father never came forward after the death of her mother. She never heard from him after he left them that day. As an orphan, she was put into the foster care system. I know that she was molested as a child, but I do not know by who. I know that she was raised by a Korean family in foster care, and that when she married my grandfather at the age of 16, she never spoke to a single member of her foster family again. She had four children with my grandfather before he left her for another woman. And I know that while he was married to his third wife, my grandmother gave birth to a n o t h e r child by him. I know that she struggled to raise those five children on her own, with little support from my grandfather.
I also know that she wasn’t lucky in the love department. There was no Mr. Brady rushing in to rescue her and her five children and provide support. Instead, she became a part of the welfare system and worked many odd jobs, struggling to make ends meet and not lose the small home that she had purchased with my grandfather. I also know that her oldest daughter died in a horrific car accident at the age of sixteen. I know that she suffered a series of small mental breakdowns after this happened. I know that my mother and my uncles missed so much school that they failed grades; my grandmother simply couldn’t get out of bed to take them to school, or to force them to go on their own.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this until my early adulthood. I didn’t know until years after I’d stood in her face, yelling at her, telling her that she was a crazy old bat and that I didn’t have to do anything she said. I didn’t know until after the screaming matches, the accusations of alcoholism, of bad parenting, of emotional neglect. I didn’t know until there was a distance so far between us that we barely spoke.
In the past decade, I’ve been working on making amends with my grandmother. She’s been gracious and forgiving, never mentioning the things I said to her in my youth. As each year passes, as I see her coming closer and closer to the end, I hope that she knows I regret it all.