NEW ESSAY IN HONOR OF MY CUBAN GRANDMOTHER

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After much anticipation Exposition Review is now live! I hope you enjoy my essay, “After Your Great-Grandmother Tita.” Check it out on the literary journal’s site here or below:

Dear Cub,

Your father and I named you while celebrating our one-year wedding anniversary in Hawaii. We immediately agreed that your first name, if you were to be a girl, would be Clarisa, after Bear’s grandmother Juana Clarisa Birba. We would call you Risa for short, which in Spanish means laughter, as you would surely have us in stitches, especially if you were to take after your great-grandmother.

His abuelita, whom we call Tita, believes that having a child is the best thing in the world—“la cosa más divina,” she says. Ever since I stepped foot in old her apartment in Miami, six months after we started dating, she’s been asking me about you. That was over a decade ago now. She still wants to know what we’re waiting for. “¿A qué esperas?” she demands, like a child stomping her foot for a Popsicle on a hot summer day.

Tita was Bear’s primary caretaker for his first five years as his parents had just arrived from Cuba and were hustling to learn English and establish themselves in Los Angeles. Bear is her first grandchild and her influence on him is obvious.  Her love emanates through him when I have a winter cough and he massages Vicks VapoRub on my chest. Or when our puppy Molly has an ear infection and he soaks a cotton ball with medicine and cleans out the gunk every morning and every night.

Tita studied the piano for eight years at a conservatory in Cuba and Bear inherited her love for music. Sometimes he tilts his head and shakes it ever so slightly, serenading me with the island’s number one love song, Beny Moré’s Como Fue, as I’ve seen her do when she reminisces about the good old days.

Sometimes his behavior mimics hers so much I think he’s been possessed—especially when it comes to his devotion to dessert. We were visiting Tita when Hurricane Katrina came through Miami, before its wrath in New Orleans. We couldn’t leave the apartment for two days. The electricity had gone out, including her electric stove. Although the fridge was filled with lots of food we could have eaten cold, such as lunch meats and salad greens, Bear and Tita went on a sort of hunger strike together – devouring only the gallons of vanilla and chocolate ice cream in the freezer. “We have to eat it! We can’t just let it melt!” they exclaimed in unison as if their gluttony would calm the storm.

To this day, your father can consume a whole carton of ice cream in one sitting. Afterward, he holds his stomach and moans on the couch like he’s going to die. “Just like your grandma,” I nag. “When are you going to learn?” Then he disarms me by making me laugh. He leaps up and impersonates what Tita used to do to make him laugh when he was a teenager—she’d cross her eyes, stick out her tongue, gather the bottom of her muumuu and hold it in one hand and frantically move the other hand back-and-forth pretending to be a man masturbating. She’s the only grandmother I know who loves everything about sex, including joking about it whenever possible.

In the early years, when she’d ask me about you, I’d ask, “But, Tita, don’t you want me to get married first?”

“Married? Pa’ que? What for?” she’d say flicking her hand as if shooing away a fly. “Just give me a great-grandchild. That’s the most important thing.” Just when I’d start feeling aggravated by her pestering, she’d say something like, “Making it will be so much fun! Ay, chica. You should get started tonight!” She’d fan herself and giggle, staring at the ceiling. Then she’d probe, “He’s well equipped down there, right? He makes your papaya happy? Nice and juicy?” We’d laugh until we both turned red in the face.

She doesn’t joke as much as she used to as she’s aged quite a bit in the last few years. Bear’s mom and her siblings recently moved her to a convalescent home in La Cañada, about 40 miles away from us. We’d like to see her at least once a month, but sometimes several pass without a visit. It’s hard on your father to see her now. He says she’s a shadow of her old self.

Today, if you asked her, she couldn’t tell you where she lives. But she can recount to you in detail how warm the water felt when she and her late husband Orestes visited Miami on their honeymoon over sixty years ago. She still asks when she’ll get to meet you, Cub, but increasingly asks for Orestes. Bear usually reminds her that he died of cancer more than three decades ago, which shocks and saddens her every time. Sometimes she weeps. Because it kills Bear to see his grandmother cry, he occasionally dodges the question by changing the subject or outright lies, saying that his grandfather went to the store and that he’ll join us shortly.

Tita now dreams of Orestes while awake and asleep, and talks about him as if they have just sat down together to share a meal. My mother says that as people get close to the end, they begin to see loved ones who have already passed on. They stop distinguishing between the living and dead, because the distinction no longer matters. Mom says this happens as the soul prepares to leave the body. They fail to recall day-to-day details and don’t hold onto most of their past. They only remember that which makes their hearts sing. Several years ago, your father and I promised Tita that if you were to ever be born, we would name you after her. This, she has never forgotten.

 


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