Our Beloved Tita

Our beloved Juana Clarisa Vera Birba has been called home. She is technically my “grandmother-in-law,” but from the moment I met her she’s been my abuelita, my Tita.

There are so many things I love about Tita. For example, her quirks – what she called “tiki-tikis.” She was unapologetic about them and turned them into ritual. Ours was the fact that she never learned my name. Every time I’d see her I’d ask: “Tita, como me llamo?”

“Ay, chica, esperate, no me digas,” she’d say, as if it were on the tip of her tongue.

After a while, I’d give her a clue, “Este,” trying to lead her into, “Estefanía.”

“Ay, sí!” she’d say excitedly, as if this was the time she’d remember. One day she exclaimed, “Este, Estee Lauder!” We both laughed at the absurdity of the thought that I’d be named after the cosmetics company Estee Lauder.

Tita would just shrug her shoulders, feeling completely justified that she didn’t know my name because how could she? She had never met anyone else with it. “Fijate, que nunca en mi vida conocí alguien con tu nombre. We should call you Estee Lauder,” she said, convinced the nickname would help her recall although it never did. We laughed about it every time we connected, whether in person or on the phone. It was our ritual.

What she never forgot was my relationship to her grandson—and our ability to have children. As soon as Tommy and I began dating she started asking me when we were going to start a family. Dodging the question I’d ask, “But Tita, don’t you want us to get married first?”

“Married? Pa‘ que?” she’d respond waving her hands in the air. “Just give me a great-grandchild. That’s the most important thing. La cosa más divina.” When I started getting frustrated by her questions, she’d say something like, “Making it will be so much fun! Ay, chica—you should get started tonight!” We’d laugh until we both turned red in the face.

And then there was her devotion to dessert. Once when Tommy and I were visiting her in Miami, a hurricane came through and we couldn’t leave the apartment for two days. The electricity had gone out, including her electric stove. The fridge was filled with lots of food we could have eaten cold, such as lunch meats and salad greens, but she and Tommy went on a sort of hunger strike together – eating only the gallons of ice cream in the freezer. “We have to eat it! We can’t just let it melt!” they exclaimed in unison.

In recent years when she lived in the convalescent home, there were many times she refused to eat. But if we brought her a box of See’s candies, what she called “el chocolate de la viejita,” or some pastries from Porto’s, she’d suddenly regain her appetite and easily finish off the whole box.

They say that gratitude is the elixir to grief. I have come to learn this is true. I am so blessed and thankful to have known Juana Clarisa Vera Birba. I’m sure those of you who knew her feel the same.

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