Originally published November 27, 2016
Trudging up the stairs to my grandmother’s third-floor walkup in Manhattan we finally arrive at our destination, tired and panting from carrying our bags, the stroller, and Haven, our two-year-old daughter. We knock once, and my mother opens the door immediately.
“Hey, everyone. Happy you made it down safe,” she says.
One look at her face tells me that she’d arrived a while ago, and had already been subjected to a slew of the usual arguments, and complaints from my grandmother. It was with great relief she opened the door to allow my little family into the small, stuffy Hell’s Kitchen apartment I’ve known my entire life.
The same photos still hang on the walls: old black and whites of my mother and uncle, my grandmother dressed up in a fancy holiday gown with a bullet bra bodice, my first dance recital, and my brother’s grade school photo. To my right is the kitchen. I see the same kitchen table I’ve always known, and the various jars on the shelves containing crackers, cookies, and pasta. I smile wondering if they’ve ever been replaced in the three decades I’ve been visiting. Nothing in the apartment ever seems to change; it appears frozen in time, and I find it strangely comforting.
My grandmother slowly hobbles down the hallway to greet us.
“Ah, Marisa! So good to see you!” she says in her heavy Spanish accent.
She hugs my husband whose name I know she doesn’t remember, before looking down at her great granddaughter who is starring at her with curiosity.
“What’s her name again?” she asks.
“Haven, her name is Haven,” I tell her.
Though my grandmother has been told my daughter’s name several times, she never seems to retain the information, despite the many times she’s bluntly asked my mother, “Why’d she name her that?”
She squints down at Haven before declaring how beautiful, and smart she seems.
“She reminds me of me,” she says with attitude.
My mother looks over at me and winks. We both know that grandma can’t see very much due to her cataracts, yet has been too stubborn to have her eyes corrected. I feel a bit sad knowing that to her, all of us are potentially just colorful shapes. We walk down the narrow hallway to the living room and sit down. I take a seat near the window so I can see the festival below. Since I was a child, my mother always took me to my grandmother’s during the International Food Festival, and here I am doing the same with my daughter. Continuing this tradition is one I’ve looked forward too; many of my happiest family memories are associated with this once a year event. Once my brother and I became teenagers, we even started bringing friends along, and my grandparents enjoyed the new company. It was always a party of sorts.
My grandparents were never the type to discuss the birds; instead, they talked about the guy arrested for stealing bodies from the hospital across town. They weren’t warm and fuzzy, but they were darn amusing.
I’m abruptly pulled from my short reverie by the familiar sound of arguing in Spanish. Though I don’t understand very much, I know it’s about one of three things: Doctors, confusion over the past, or something silly like whether or not grandma liked the empanada vendor last year.
My husband looks over at me with an amused expression while my daughter stands frozen and wide-eyed at the sound of unfamiliar vocabulary.
After almost ten minutes I hear my mom say very loudly in English,
“No Mom! The Puerto Rican food we bought at the festival last year; remember? You liked that one and said how good it was?!”
My grandmother is the type who will argue about anything: her ability to grow hair with castor oil, whether there is a pen on the floor, why she doesn’t trust health aides to assist her; pretty much everything. She once argued that mom never called her only because she didn’t want to admit that she couldn’t hear the phone any of the three separate times it rang. True to our bloodline, my mother will continue to argue right back to make sure grandma understands reality and the fact that she isn’t fooling anyone. It’s the Puerto Rican stubbornness. I can’t say I don’t have my moments either. I think it gets more watered down every generation. I laugh to myself, thinking my daughter may have a shot at a more laid back temperament.
Back down the stairs, we stomp to enjoy some time at the festival; my mother tagging along to bring back food for grandma and to get a little break from all the tension. Ninth Avenue is fully alive, filled with people, and the ever- lingering smell of exotic foods hanging in the muggy spring heat.
“It’s great you showed up when you did,” she says as we weave our way through the masses, “grandma was just in an arguing mood from the moment I got here.”
I smiled, understanding the love-hate relationship they have. My mother is the kind of person who will do anything she can to help her family, even if they are less than thankful for her assistance. She loves her mother but is aware that she is set in her ways, and has been for a very long time. Grandma was never the motherly type. When I was a child, she wasn’t the sort to visit us often. She was never eager to see her grandchildren the way other grandparents are. She never made milk and cookies for us; in fact, she stopped sending birthday cards long ago. I’ll never forget the time she and my mother had an argument, which resulted in my not seeing my grandmother for three years. Young and confused I’d written her a letter, only to have it go unacknowledged.
Just a few years ago I was at my parent’s house celebrating my birthday when to my surprise, my grandmother had suddenly called. I couldn’t believe she’d remembered my birthday for once; of course, she hadn’t. She was calling to yell at my mother for not calling her back earlier and had no clue it was my birthday at all. Laughing at my naiveté, I shook my head realizing that if she hadn’t changed in the thirty-some-odd years I’ve known her, she wasn’t about to magically change now. No matter how much love is shown toward her, my grandmother has a depressing lack of appreciation for the family she’s been blessed with.
I look at my mom realizing how lucky I am to have someone so loving and caring in my life and wonder what it must have been like growing up with someone who lacked the warm fuzzy gene most moms possess. My grandmother has always put herself first, lacking the caregiving tendencies my mother and I are graciously blessed with. Despite the love I know they have, my mom never has, and will never have the mother/daughter relationship she shares with me. Ever the saint, my mother has continuously proved to be a loving and dutiful daughter, and while to it seems it’s gone unnoticed by grandma herself; I have always admired her persistent dedication.
We’ve learned to love grandma for the person she is, and have an understanding that despite how it may seem at times, she loves us as much as it’s possible for her to love anyone. It’s not the nurturing love one reads about in the storybooks, but it’s what she has to give, and we accept it.
We continue walking around in the baking city heat, visiting multiple vendors until we collect enough food to bring back up to the apartment. My daughter, dazzled by the crowds of people, different smells, and the variety of foods, toys, and clothing was in a very happy mood. I love seeing her experience new things and watching her light up with excitement. Ever the little ball of energy, she practically skips past the kitchen, and down the hall.
With genuine delight I watch as my grandmother laughs louder than I’ve ever seen her laugh at the sight of Haven dancing across the room, clapping her little hands in excitement to the music on the DVD player.
My mother, hearing the commotion steps into the room and joins my daughter in her wild toddler dance, giggling, and stomping to the beat; my grandmother in hysterics. I look at each of their faces, seeing the joy they are all feeling, so grateful for this irreplaceable, rare moment when my grandmother let herself truly enjoy her family. My husband is grinning ear to ear.
I look at the clock and realize it’s nearing the time we need to head back home.
“Hey! We need to be going soon. Let’s get a photo of all the ladies together!”
I hand my husband the camera and sit on the couch with Haven on my lap, next to my mother, and grandmother. As he snaps the photo, I sadly wonder if this will be the last time we are all in the same room together.
I hug and kiss my grandmother goodbye before telling Haven,
“Say goodbye to grandma and great-grandma.”
My daughter shyly waves her hand at them both. She’s too young to realize the happiness she brought with her today.
As we step onto the sidewalk, which is filled with the familiar smoking smell of cooking meat from a nearby tent, I look up, waving at my grandmother’s living room window as I’ve done since I was a child; suddenly struck by the emotion I feel for the woman who’s never been very emotional about me. Turning away I take my daughter’s hand, and with my husband beside me, begin the journey home.