a magician’s love

March 20, 2011

When I was born my abuela wrote a poem for me, announcing the birth of her thirty-third grandchild.  In it, she wrote how her “garden was growing,” that she had flowers in New York, Puerto Rico and with my arrival in Dominican Republic, “a violet was born.”

Juana was my mother’s mother.  By the time I “met” her she was sixty-five-years-old.  But I had a connection with her since the moment I was born.  I am my abuela’s thirty-third grandchild.  I can also tell you with certainty, that I was her favorite.

On my mother’s side of the family, we were forty-six cousins total.  Only twelve of our cousins grew up in Puerto Rico.  The rest of us grew up within a five-mile radius of each other in New York City.

But grandma had her heart set on the little girl she named “tripita.”  That’s right I was my grandmother’s little intestines.  And I think that name was perfect –prophetic almost, since I believe grandma knew I was going to deal with a lot of shit. She also called me “mis otros ojos” and to be her second set of eyes was not only a privilege, it was my honor.

I lived with my grandmother for some time and when I wasn’t living with her, I was being picked up by her at school and I would spend time with her until my mother would pick me up from work.  After school I would sit in front of my grandmothers 12 inch black and white TV and watch cartoons for a couple of hours.  She would say from the kitchen, as she placed a plate on the table, “esto fue lo que trajo el barco” (this is what the ship brought in); a saying that taught me that we should be thankful for whatever we were able to eat that day.

We would eat dinner and afterwards she would ask me to put coconut oil and comb, her long silver and white hair.  I would do this for thirty minutes every day. And we talked about so many things.  My eight-year-old curious mind asked her about everything: from bible inquiries (which she knew so much about) to the dow jones (which she’d always say was for white folks who had money and could afford to put it somewhere, but we need not worry about it because we would never have that much spare change).

She loved music.  Almost everyone in our family either plays an instrument, sings or both.  We always say it was a direct genetic hand-down from my abuela. She wrote Christian songs.  Then she’d have me sing it, and she’d record me on a cassette recorder she had.  And we’d go over it so that I could listen to the parts where I needed to adjust my pitch or soften a note.  She always kept me busy and entertained.

My happiest memory is that for that time I spent with her every day, I felt like I was my grandmother’s favorite part of the day and she was always the favorite part of mine.  And I loved it.

If my grandmother had a doctor’s appointment, I was always scheduled to miss school that day.  I was my grandmother’s other set of eyes.  I had to be present if she needed me.  I was also her interpreter.  So every time the doctor’s needed to inform her about her glaucoma, arthritis, diabetes or high blood pressure, I was the translator.

Every time we would have to go to one of her appointments, I would get my absolute favorite treat:  a Coconut Yoo-Hoo and a Sabrett hot dog with those sweet onions from the New York City hot dog cart.

I also was her reader.  She would have me read the bible to her every day.  And she’d ask questions about what I understood from what I had read.  Something I always appreciated because it allowed me to read in Spanish and not forget my native language.

When I slept over abuela’s house, I would sleep in a cot in the living room.  And from three rooms away… grandma’s snore would keep me up.  But I wasn’t bothered by it because it let me know that she was there.

And I felt safe.  I always did… so long as the scent coconut was in the air.

I grew closer to her with each passing day.  She was always present.  Her life was a gift to all of us who knew her and her love was so sweet.  I always found it amazing that she made this traditional Puerto Rican dessert out of sour milk “dulce de leche cortada.” But it made perfect sense; my abuela could make sweetness out of anything bitter.  That was her magic.

But even magicians can’t figure out death.

We saw death too often growing up (family friends, cousins, uncles, aunts and our grandmother).  It always seemed like we were going to a funeral.  But abuela’s death was more than just the death of her physical body.  It became the “death” of our close knit family as we would know it.

I was pitching for my high school co-ed softball team in a park in the Bronx.  I saw my cousin’s ex-boyfriend walking towards the game and wondered why he was there.  When I came off the field to say hello to him, he very bluntly said, “Your grandmother passed away.”

The world stopped.

At that very moment, everything seemed to be in slow motion.  And flashes of coconut oil, tape recorded sessions, the sound of her voice telling me to come eat, two quarters in my right coat pocket and doctor’s appointments jogged my memory.

Everything I knew became unknown.  Everything that was stable became unstable; and for the first time in my life… I could no longer smell coconut.

My coach told me I could leave and I told him I couldn’t.  I wanted to pitch.  I wanted to finish the game.  There was no reason to leave.  Grandma was already dead.  Getting to her quicker would only speed up the inevitable truth.  So I finished the game.  Packed up my glove and cleats and headed to my aunt’s house.

Everybody was at my aunt’s house; the same aunt where we celebrated so many holidays together.  Except this time there was no laughter, no stories to share, no games to play… just a sadness that took over our spirits and left us wondering, what would be of us without grandma?

On May 3rd, 1993, just ten days short of my 15th birthday, Juana Rivera Bristol would leave our world and the planning for her funeral began.

Grandma had buried three of her eleven children and eight were left to deal with the pain of losing an amazing mother and preparing for her funeral.  Every day after that was busy and long.  Our parents were up early and in to bed late (I always wondered if they even slept during that entire time).  Most of the family is of the Pentecostal religion, the rest are Catholic.  In New York City, the wake was in my uncle’s church for two days.  Everybody knew my grandmother.  People came from all walks of life to pay respects to the woman who taught me how to live humbly and happily, even in the midst of chaos.

One by one, hundreds of people walked up to the casket.  I have always thought that when people look into the casket and they see the body, every thought must run through their head about that person; all the good and bad memorize must resurface.  As my aunts, uncles and my mother went up, I wondered about their thoughts.  I wondered about their childhoods, the headaches and the frustration they gave grandma and the happy times; the milestones and the setbacks; the laughter and the tears.

I watched the grandkids go up.  Grandma was fortunate enough to meet and know all of her 46 grandkids; from the oldest to the youngest they looked in.  We took turns standing at guard, two family members on each side of the coffin for thirty minutes.  We stood there and watched as many soaked in tears tried to cope with her departure.

And then… I walked over to grandma. I looked in.  I had looked in to quite a few coffins prior to this one.  But this was the one that left me numb.  It wasn’t grandma.  It didn’t look like her, there was no coconut in the air and I wasn’t crying.  I just looked in.  I just looked in and immediately thought, “Grandma was the soul of this family; she was the reason we were always together.”

It was in that moment that I immediately realized that our family, as it was, would never be again.

That night we slept over at my uncle’s church.  A little after midnight, my aunt’s closed the casket.  I don’t think any of the adults slept that night.  I was sleeping by 3am.  That morning at 6am, everybody was awake, coffee was brewing and I said, “Grandma, that’s the first time I sleep with you and you don’t snore.”  The family laughed.  We always seem to find a little humor even sad situations.

That day was longer than the day before.  Service after service; prayer after prayer; a long line of individuals visiting and every hour seemed an eternity.  That evening they would close the casket and I would never see grandma again.  All her children boarded a plane to Puerto Rico, with grandma’s casket on board.  She always dreamed of returning back to her island and living in a little house the rest of her days.  That never happened.  But her children wanted her body to rest where she wanted to live.  And so it was.

In Puerto Rico, they had another two-day wake.  And hundreds more came to pay their respects.  But everyone who was at the burial said nothing was sadder than the moment the casket was lowered.  They say my aunts, uncles and my mother wept like children, except this time their mother could not dry their tears.

After they came back to New York City nothing was ever the same.  Little by little the family moved away.  We went from a 5-mile radius to hundreds of miles away.  People moved to Ohio, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.  And then… we didn’t keep in touch anymore.

The holidays still go on at my aunt’s house, but the hallways are empty and the rooms are quiet.  The thirty-four best friends that were, had been forced to separate; and we were left with memories that would remain with us forever and serve as solace for the rough days ahead.

Grandma’s death was the end of a time of innocence.  It was a coming of age unlike any other; it was a coming of reality –a reality that taught us that life is fragile and in the end all we have is the magic of love in our memories and laughter.

~Sarahí Yajaira, 2011 ©

2 Responses to “a magician’s love”

  1. 3B Says:

    You were blessed with her. I never had a grandmother or a grandfather or cousins…the loss is so hard, but I know you feel blessed and thankful to have had her.

  2. Journi Says:

    wow. This was an amazing account of your beloved magician and how your family shifted. I do wonder how all of this made you feel…I was searching for the emotion you felt throughout the piece about it all. Beautiful writing…per usual

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