It’s funny how things work out sometimes.

Every year when the anniversary of my grandmother’s death arrived, my mood would shift from the default “Bad” into “Intolerably Bad”. This year was the first time in my life that it sneaked up on me. I generally look at my Facebook’s “On This Day” feature to see what I can poke fun of for the day.

Today I saw a previous post regarding her anniversary which read
Grandmother: 3/22/1926 – 11/2/2005
It still seems like yesterday. Some people live, some people change lives. She meant the world to a lot of people.

herme

A lot of people don’t know that my first 12 or 13 years of life were spent living with my grandmother. We grew up pretty poor – more so than people realized because my father and grandmother didn’t really want people to know how bad things really were. It fluctuated, but it could be pretty bad. I remember one day as a kid waiting for cake for my birthday. Eventually I was sat down and told that there simply was no money to afford anything for my birthday. I was devastated. I never did enjoy birthdays after that. I spent most of my life treating my birthday like a regular day because it just reminds me of poverty and that disappointed little boy without a birthday.

lee

People around me never understood that. The usual response is usually something like “The past is the past. Focus on the present” or similar derivatives. I never could, though at times I faked it because it was easier than to explain yearly. Still, it wasn’t my grandmother’s fault. She grew up poor and gave everything she had to make sure we ate (though not having dinner was something that happened on a rare occasion).

My grandmother spent a lot of her time seated on an open area of her small house “people watching”, as she called it. I told her I called it gossiping because she was really waiting for other ladies in the neighborhood to walk by so they could talk about whatever the gossip was on that day. While she sat outside, my brother and I would often fight to get the prime seat – the one next to my grandmother, which allowed us to lie down and have her caress you and run her fingers through your hair.

Still, she did the best that she could and more often than not we celebrated Christmas. Sure, we had a lot of knock-off band of things, but we didn’t really care. I still don’t. Even now, looking back I realize how much of a giant sacrifice it must have been to buy toys to make 2 boys smile when there was hardly enough for the day-to-day (we also were lucky my mother would buy us groceries). I value things a great deal differently than a lot of people because this.

My grandmother enjoyed sewing and forced me to learn how to sew. She told me that a man should be able to cook and also sew in order to not be useless and have to rely on a woman to do so. I often would help her with cooking. I learned to properly gut fish and chicken early on and can still sew (though I’m so out of practice, last time I did it, the fix didn’t last long). My grandmother did what should could with this, but it wasn’t easy going to school with a home-made backpack. Kids can be brutal. I still remember my gray backpack. It was a well-made, but ugly little thing that I was embarrassed of, but would kill to have as a keepsake.

Eventually life happened and I moved with my mother (my other sole source of admiration and appreciation), but I visited my grandmother all the time, particularly during the holidays. My grandmother had a horrid plastic Christmas tree that shrank year after year as it fell apart until all that was left was the top part – just enough to put on the table as a decoration.

During one of my visits

 

with my then girlfriend, my grandmother told me she didn’t intend to decorate because there really was no need as there were no longer kids in the house and, besides there was no money for that. My girlfriend and I weren’t having it and decided the house needed to be decorated at any expense. We found a Christmas tree on the side of the road and stole lights an ornaments from our respective homes (sorry, Mom!). We came back to my grandmother’s house and set up the tree and lights. It had to be the first time I could remember a live tree in that house. It’s still one of my favorite memories having made her so happy that day.

Don’t get me wrong, we didn’t always see eye to eye. My grandmother used to work for the local tobacco company and was a heavy smoker. She usually sat on that famous chair outside while smoking. My brother and I eventually managed to convince her to stop. She was not thrilled when she realized that I had picked up smoking and for as long as she was alive she chastised me to get me to quit.

She was also tough when she needed to be. As the story goes, my father was a great amateur boxer until my grandmother caught wind of it. Legend has it that she went to the local boxing gym, found him and beat his ass in public “since he wanted to fight so bad”. He never went back. My father was a bit of a dick and on one of the many times he was beating me up my grandmother yelled at him to stop. He didn’t. She whacked him on the forehead with a ladle. I’ll never forget his stunned look of surprise.

dad

My grandmother also didn’t like my aversion to insects. When I would go to the yard and feed the couple of chickens they had, I would scope out the area because here be grasshoppers. This is Panama. They have some huge ass grasshoppers the size of velociraptors. My grandmother would never kill them, but would grab them throw them to another area. I would run. She would shake her head in disappointment. I still can’t do battle with an insect. I give them their space.

I didn’t make many wise decisions in the past so the fact that my grandmother emphasized the importance of an education didn’t really sink in. Her goal was always for me to be able to leave her house and live in the U.S., get married, have kids and leave all that behind. My goal was always to do so, but to bring her with me so she wouldn’t have to live that way forever. My biggest regret in life is not having had the ability to do that. She was raised poor and died poor, which will always make me sad. She didn’t see it that way, though. She loved her life and was genuinely happy for any of our successes. I eventually discovered that I could buy groceries for her online from Miami and have them delivered to her from the local grocery store. She would never have to worry about that again.

We did have a brief argument when I found out that she had secretly been storing the groceries at multiple neighbor’s homes. As it turns out, my grandmother’s refrigerator had broken and she didn’t want to ask for help. She also didn’t want to inconvenience a neighbor so she would store small amounts of the food in a couple of places. My mother, a friend of mine and I pooled some funds together and had a new fridge delivered to my grandmother. It’s hard to explain how happy something as small as that can make someone who doesn’t have it. I will always be grateful to my friend for pitching in.

We disagreed on religion as well. She never quite understood why I was not religious as she was Catholic. One day I had a job interview and she told me that even as I wasn’t a believer, she would pray to Jesus for me to get the job. I told her that perhaps if she prayed extra hard Jesus could go to the interview for me so I wouldn’t have to and then I’d be a believer. She was not amused.

Eventually we were able to get my grandmother to ride an airplane for the first time and fly her to Miami. She put up a fight because she didn’t want to use the wheelchair, but by now she had issues walking. I managed to convince her that it wasn’t so much a handicap as it was a luxury to have someone wheel her from one place to the other and not even have to walk. It wasn’t easy. She spent Christmas with us and I remember her being thrilled over a bunch of Bath and Bodyworks stuff we purchased for her. She was also blown away by the size of my TV (we grew up with a tiny black and white one). I had asked her to not bring clothing since we would buy some for her. I knew she had little. I went with her to Walmart to buy cheap clothing for her and realized we had a fight in our hands. She kept looking at the tags, unwilling to allow for the “unnecessary expense”. It was a great feeling once she conceded.

It was the last time I saw her the same way. It’s sad what senile dementia does to someone. She visited once more, but my grandmother was only mentally there sometimes. She required a lot of care and she spent most of the time thinking I was my father. It broke my heart to see her like that, but that wouldn’t be how I’d remember her. I remember I was told she died when I arrived home from work one day. I didn’t cry (though I cried when I found out about her first heart attack). I sat outside my home, much like she had done for so many years, simply thinking. I used to call her often and would rack up my mother’s phone bill until she had to change her phone plan to allow for it.

One day I got a car. Nothing fancy, just a Hyundai Tiburon but what poor kid doesn’t dream of having a sports car? My first thought was that she would be so proud of me. My then wife knew what I was thinking and she told me my grandmother would be proud of me. I cried in my car on the driveway.

Tiburon

My grandmother was a great person. She would quite literally eat less so that you could have more. She would give and never ask for anything. She just loved life and taught me lessons I wasn’t smart enough to see at the time. She endeared herself to any friend of mine she met with her personality and would force you to eat if you visited (those chickens in the back yard must have hated when a visitor came with me because it meant one of their chicken friends had to die). To this day, 11 years later I write this fighting back tears. I am eternally grateful and miss her dearly. There isn’t a success I’ve had that I haven’t thought to myself “I wonder what she would say”. She’s one half of the reason why I try to do the best I can and be the best person I can be (the other half, of course, being my mother).

I have a strange relationship with my past because I hate it even as I embrace what it gave me. Even as I wrap this post up, I realize that I don’t need anything. I’ve gone through a lot in my life but I don’t really have scars to show it so I’m OK. I’m far away from that little house and I’m pretty happy with my life and I realize she would be proud of me. And that’s all I ever wanted to be anyway.

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Comments
  1. You’re the sweetest 💋😘❤

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