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  • Writer's pictureJulie Cali

Dos Personas: a look at the grandmothers who raised me

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

When I was twenty years old, long brown hair, still doe-eyed and untouched by the world, I went to New York for the summer to take care of my paternal abuelita, Cristina Mercedes. A Salvadoran immigrant in her 90s, she had shuffled along haphazardly for years and finally caved in to getting a hip replacement.

Two decades later, still with the same long brown hair, but otherwise weathered by the weight of motherhood and life experience, I took care of my maternal grandmother, Margarita Rogers, a daughter of American patriots, who after years of fierce independence had to admit some level of personal defeat and accept help. I came to realize the sources of the two halves of me, aesthetically and culturally contrasting, but similar in their strength and perseverance. Each of them a part of me that makes me unique, and yet each with strengths and character that connects us to other women across the world.

Two halves of the same whole. Juggling motherhood and adulthood under the constraints of a world continually moving around them. One a seemingly passive protagonist in her story, laboring quietly among her country and people, but actively pushing her children forward to fly out of the nest she crafted with such care. One an active protagonist pushing boundaries with her two children in tow, marching, and advocating. Both sending their offspring to walk among greatness along a path they helped pave.

Pictures of me resemble both of them at different times in their lives. Two versions of one person.

Abuelita Menche

Ninety years old, five feet tall, back arched slightly, brown tanned skin, long black hair streaked with grey wound into a bun on the top of her head, secured with a classic black hair comb. Her dimples beamed when she smiled. Her teeth lined with silver in places. I never understood how or when that came to be. She had remained in El Salvador up until her eighties, even though eight of her nine children lived in the States. She resisted leaving the land she loved, and the soil that had raised her. Even with a green card, she always wanted to go home. Her hip started giving way slowly at first, an occasional buckling, until finally it didn’t seem to work at all. The pain became too much and she agreed to the procedure. She had been nervous she’d never walk again. After the operation, the first thing she did was pull up the sheet from the bottom of the bed, and wiggle her toes.

I can imagine her, slicking the front of her hair with Vaseline, her fingers bent, her skin thin and stretched in some places, but somehow taut in others. She had been born in El Salvador in 1910 to a history I’m still unsure of. Four sisters who lived. Others who didn’t. She had given birth to nine children, spacing them every two years, delivering them in the same house she would raise them in, and that she would eventually die in. She lived through World Wars and Civil Wars. She never said I love you. It wasn’t her way. She only spoke in Spanish. I only spoke in English. But we had our own rhythm, our own language. So many things were said without being spoken. Emotions conveyed with a nod, or a smile. Hers lit up the room. And even though we spoke different tongues, I understood what needed to be understood.

“Las personas que saben dos idiomas son dos personas,” she’d say. A person who knows two languages is two people. Advice I still regret not taking. Maybe then I’d be one whole instead of two ill-fitting halves.

“Cada casimiento, debe tener un feo y un bonito,” she’d say. Every marriage should have a pretty and an ugly. There needed to be balance. That’s probably why my parents’ marriage failed, their union crumbling under the weight of their equal beauty.

“Sacan tus papeles,” she’d say, when I told her I was engaged to be married at twenty. Get your diploma. “Si, abuelita,” I said, making sure to set the wedding date two months after I would graduate with my BA from Duke University.

Her faith so strong. I can still recall her standing in the cool morning air, holding her nightgown up with her left hand, and giving me the sign of the cross with the other. The signal de cruz she’d say, her fingers gliding across my forehead, up and down, then left to right. Her blessing always keeping us safe. And it did.

She never asked for anything for herself, but even then, weak from surgery, I’d find her tucking away “ositos” y “jugettes” for her grandchildren in El Salvador. She’d bring them when she returned, she said. “You guys have everything here. They have nothing there. Los pobres,” she’d tell me. Something I’m even cognizant of now. What it means to be them, and what it means to be us.

She never minded that we took care of her. That was the way. She had taken care of her own mother, who I met at 108 years old, frail, thin, wrists the size of quarters, voice faint and whispy. They say she smoked cigars every day of her life. But she ate food grown in her own garden, and chickens for dinner that she had just fed that morning. My father brought his children to El Salvador, traveling thousands of miles with three small children just to meet his grandmother out of respect, a culture of paternalism so engrained.

After her operation, I woke with my abuelita at night, putting her on a standing potty by her bed, waiting patiently with my sleepy eyes. On my childhood visits to El Salvador, as I laid awake staring at the ceiling watching bats fly through the rafters of the house where my father was born, I would hear her get up from the adjacent bed and pull a chamber pot out from under her bed to relieve herself. Three children later, running nightly to the bathroom on multiple occasions, I sometimes wish I could be so practical.

I gave her sponge baths, washing her body with warm, wet cloths and a touch of Cetaphil soap, running it along the aged twists and folds, taking special care along her veins, which sometimes seemed opaque, and other parts I won’t describe to protect her modesty. A switching of roles, from child to caretaker, from caretaker to invalid. So intimate yet so comfortable. She never seemed shy or self-conscious. After I finished, I’d slip a white chemise over her head, that cinched under her breasts, and a house dress. The same I’d seen her wear my whole life. Thin brown stockings pulled up to her knees. Black loafers. That’s how she looks in every memory I have.

I fed her fresh food, soups with hearty vegetables, dishes my cousins and aunts prepared and dropped off. Taking care of her was a family effort. My aunts popped in daily to check on her. My father called all the time. I took her blood sugar before each meal. I tried to restrict her love of carrots and potatoes, only to be reminded by my cousin that she was ninety years old, let her eat what she wanted. So, I would, but then she’d be upset when her “azucar” was too high, and worry. I’d cut cucumbers with salt and lime to help her decompress. She never felt old. She never said she was ready to go. She wiggled her toes. She wanted to walk. And she would.

What was it like for her then? Nine children. Back-to-back. What was it like to be a woman in El Salvador in the 1930s? The 1940s? So many questions unanswered. She was aged by the time I met her. Strong. Tough. Fuerte. I never knew her any other way, but as the abuelita she had come to be. Was she once a girl with hopes, dreams and ambitions? Sacan tus papeles she’d say. Was that because you weren’t able to get yours? My father says he and his brothers all slept in one room, and he woke with the chickens to head to the fields. He worked eight to ten hours a day. He never went past the third grade. But they had land to farm and food to eat. They were lucky. And they had each other. What did she think when her children left? One by one. To travel so far. To never return home. To build their lives and families in a new country.

When the civil war came to El Salvador, she weathered it there without her children, only coming once a year to the States. She preferred her home. She always said she was so lucky to live so long and never lose a child, until she did. And then she lost another. And another. What did she think when my father came to her? It’s my only comfort that they are with each other.

We buried her on a crisp morning in El Salvador. She was 98, and passed peacefully after a stroke. Twenty-two of us boarded flights to mourn her. None of us cared that she was 98 and had lived a long life. We were angry and bitter. We thought she was immortal. It was a pain I had never felt before until I buried my own father years later. She was loved. Respected. Revered. Our own Ursula Iguaran Buendia. Her soul still half of mine.

Grandma Sandy

I’d always known her as Grandma Sandy, but I forget there were so many different versions of her before there was a me. Before our cheap dates of fish sandwiches, small Diet Cokes, and apple pies that vanished so quickly no crumb unfinished, “gone with the wind,” she’d say, she was a young girl in the depression whose parents and brothers called “sister,” who had blonde hair and blue eyes, and a strawberry birthmark on her face. Margherita Gude. Named after a dancer her mother had liked. She was a teenager who helped in the war effort, who organized dances and took out sailors to tour New York City, and changed her name to Sandy.

What was it like to be her? Daughter. Sister. Wife. Mother. Pioneer. Grandma.

She got married like society dictated, only to divorce shortly after her second child was born. He was abusive and an alcoholic. A grandfather I never knew. She was better off. A single mother on her own in the 1950s. How brave she was. She tried to buy a car on her own only to be told to come back with her husband or her father. My grandmother a pioneer. A career woman. A nurse just like her own mother. Times were not always easy. The heat would be turned off, and she’d have to sleep on the floor of the kitchen with her two young children using the gas oven for warmth. How did she manage it all? A career. Being a single mother. Girl Scout leader. Handyman. Every day an adventure. Balloon rides for birthdays. Cross country trips. The memories she made for her children.

And then there’s the mark she made for the world. She marched for NOW to advocate for womens’ rights. How young she was. Fighting for equality for others, an equality that she had been denied. She had come from a long line of patriots. Her ancestors setting foot on this soil before the country was even formed, fleeing religious persecution. Sons of Liberty. Her mother was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, but she told me she didn’t like going to the meetings. She wasn’t a conformist. No dresses or social constructs could confine her. A trail blazer. A unique voice ever present in my life. I met her at a time when she was still effervescent. Doing triathlons. She drove us to birthday parties, and picked me up from school the time I had the flu and couldn’t walk.

When I was awkward and felt out of place at eight years old, she told me I had a smile that lit up the world and no one had a smile like me. And I believed her. I never had self-doubt because I had her pushing me forward. Always encouraging. Never criticizing. Every child needs someone like her. That voice in their head telling them yes instead of no. She stood with me when I graduated high school as the valedictorian. And then at Duke Law. She held each of my newborns. There’s not an important moment in my life where she wasn’t by my side.

Nothing could hold her back until one day we looked up and she was in her 90s. Her vision gone. Her hearing fading. Her mind still running marathons even though her body couldn’t. She still lived on her own, refusing to concede. I admired that about her. Independence is a hard habit to break. She watched her world narrow year by year, her home and belongings, truncating from a three-bedroom house, to a one-bedroom apartment, and eventually to one room. We got her help from an agency whose mission was to keep seniors at home. They came two hours a day to help her stay in her place. But time eventually came for her independence, and she required more help than she wanted. We took care of her the best that we could. My mother took her in during the pandemic to keep her safe, even taking leave from her job. She couldn’t leave her in a nursing home. But Grandma Sandy wasn’t scared. She reminded me that things like this have happened before, they just had not happened to us. Life is not linear, and you need to weather the storm, she said. My mom cooked her favorite meals, brushed her hair, changed her sheets, woke with her at night when she screamed for help.

And suddenly her mind slowly started leaving us.

Sometimes she was confused and hallucinated. That was hard for my mother. There were days when she didn’t realize she was trying to help. Then one day she reached for my mother after dinner and said, “Linda, no one has taken care of me the way you do. I will never forget the care you took of me during this part of my life.” They were words my mother needed to hear. A love that needed to be expressed.

There were days when I wasn’t sure what it was like for her. Her mind going in and out. I sat beside her holding her hand, listening to stories she’d tell of her youth. She’d mix up the past and the present, but I didn’t correct her. I always tried to be conscious of her dignity if I helped her dress or groom. When we ate together, I’d want to wipe her chin but I didn’t, knowing she’d be self-conscious. It was just her and me anyway. She never judged me. And I will never judge her. But it’s hard to watch someone so strong mentally unravel. She didn’t deserve that. I waited for the moments when she was lucid.

One day before she passed, I was standing in the sunlight and I went to say goodbye, and she took my hand and said she could see me, which she hadn’t been able to do in years. I asked her if I looked young and beautiful joking, and she took my hand in both of hers and said, “You have a beautiful soul. You are beautiful inside and out, and it means so much to me that you sit with me and hold my hand.” I will carry that with me always. She thought I sat with her for her, but I selfishly sat with her for me.

Because I loved her, and she always loved me.

The time I spent with her was a privilege. There are times she’d tell a story and I’d finish her sentence and she was surprised I remembered. I remember every detail, every story, every second of her life that she shared with me. I remember her grandmother Lil Mama once told her when she was afraid that God was always with her and that he would protect her, and then she wasn’t scared anymore. I always wonder what she was scared of? The Depression? The War? What wasn’t there to be scared of? How was I not there for her then? To hold her close and to keep her safe like all those days she did for me. But she didn’t need anyone. She was unstoppable.

When she died, she worried that she’d be forgotten. And that one day she’d be just be an old lady in my pictures. But that time will never come. I will always speak her name. My children will know her face and her achievements. My daughter will stand tall with her history as her spine.

Even with her heart failing, she still fought. She never conceded. Staying in it until the very end. This my Grandma Sandy and abuelita had in common. The fight. Born two worlds apart. Their lives running perpendicular, but both fighting to free their offspring from the same yolk. Both carrying a generation of women on their shoulders.

I write with them both by my side. Remembering always the two sides of my one coin. Growing up as two halves, I sometimes didn’t felt disconnected. One foot in two ponds. But now I realize both of them are what made me whole. Their laughs. Their smiles. Their love.

1 Comment

Amanda Solimando
Amanda Solimando
Oct 25, 2023

What a beautiful tribute to two amazing women!!

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