Vessels: Grandma

Continued from Tuesday, November 9 post.

This is the second in a series of posts featuring excerpts from my manuscript, Vessels: A Memoir of Borders. Tuesday’s post was for Grandpa. Today is for Grandma China.


Grandma's Table, Michelle Otero

Until my grandma died, I believed Grandpa was the only one in this house with faith or devotion: no meat on Fridays, weekly mass, dancing the matachines as a boy in Laredo. Even now he holds our hands before each meal, glancing from Heaven to plate to Heaven as he mouths silent blessings for the food we take turns preparing. For as long as I can remember, the top of his pressboard dresser has been an altar, the throw rug in front of it a kneeler where he begins and ends the day in almost silent prayer.

His children and grandchildren bring him santos and images of the blessed mother from the places we have visited or lived. The mahogany, almost feminine cross from Belize, Our Lady of Guadalupe from the Basílica in Mexico City, the Divine Child of Prague.

Each year his communion of saints grows.

A paper cup filled with sacred earth blessed on the grounds of Santuario de Chimayo spills onto blue-eyed Mary and Joseph. A white ceramic crucifix, split in half as if by lightning, lies flat on the dresser. I like that Jesus is broken, more like us, more a suffering saint of Mexican churches than perfect child of the Holy Couple next to him. Mexicans like their saints bloody, man-sized, lying dead in glass cases in cathedral grottos. They like their Cristos with gnarled feet and human hair, lashes on their backs, and if the statues weep real tears or even blood, all the better.

Nuestra Señora watches over them from her oval matting on the dresser corner. She is Guadalupe, Catholic incarnation of the Aztec goddess Tonantzín, the woman who led Mexican Indians to Christ’s body and blood. Her hair is down and covered with a blue rebozo, the stars in the fabric recalling the final flickers in the sky’s transition from night to dawn. Her hands are together, the palms slightly opened toward her, in prayer. An oval brooch with a black cross in the center rests in the cup of her breastbone. She is surrounded by the sun’s rays. The smile on her face is tender and barely perceptible. She stands barefooted on a crescent moon.

I visited her shrine in Mexico City when I was twenty-four, stepping on the moving sidewalk beneath her image again and again just to be close to her. I walked in her courtyard amongst indigenous boys selling rainbows of chicle from cardboard boxes shoelaced around their necks, past portly men offering to photograph me seated atop a plastic donkey before a primary-colored sunset background. No extra charge to wear the sombrero. Signs draped along the gold-tipped black fence warned in Spanish not to patronize the courtyard vendors. They’re not officially sanctioned by the church. I pictured myself as Jesus, dumping over the tables, shouting, “You’ve turned my mother’s house into a den of thieves.”

But I wanted my own Guadalupe to come home with me to New Mexico, where I was raised, and where I had returned after college and a volunteer program in Belize. I bought three Guadalupes from a makeshift stand beneath a blue tarp, one for me, one for my mom, and one as a backup gift for a believing relative or friend.

On Grandpa’s shrine, Grandma’s laminated obituary leans against a clear plastic bottle of holy water from El Santuario. Gifts for my grandma were spirits. We brought her Belizean rum, pisco from Peru, Mexican tequila, six packs of Lone Star beer. The rum bottle sits almost full beneath the kitchen sink next to the fifth of Jack Daniel’s we’ve nearly emptied in the days since she died.

I could fake an intuition that my grandmother and I shared a faith, pretend I knew about the pocket prayer book she carried in a plastic baggie in her purse. The binding had come undone, the pages loosened and mixed in with sugar packets, the prayer card from her mother’s funeral, her Sunland Park Casino Winners Club ID, and credit cards for every department store in the Las Cruces mall. My grandma attended church sporadically. She didn’t like the new priest or the one before him, but that wasn’t why she stayed home some Saturday evenings when my grandpa went to Spanish mass. I know she prayed, not like my grandpa at an altar, but lying down in bed, before she went to sleep. She told me this after her lung was removed and she was recovering at home with a portable oxygen tank she would wheel from room to room.

“I used to stay up for hours,” she said, “worrying and praying for all of you. What if your auntie has to work on a flight that crashes? What if some kid at your mama’s school goes crazy and takes a gun? And when you were gone, I worried that you would get raped.”

She said this between puffs on the oxygen mask, taking breaths the way she would drag on a cigarette when I was a little girl.

“I couldn’t sleep. I would be up all night. And then finally I just told God, ‘You take care of them—everyone, my whole family.’”

Our spiritual link is something I only began understanding the night she died when my mom, my aunt and I emptied the contents of her black purse. The baggie was her wallet, and as my mom and her sister wondered aloud at all the credit and debt my grandma had accumulated in her life, I reassembled the pocket prayer book within its black cloth binding. We never knew she carried prayers. My mom said, “She had a quiet faith.”

Nothing about her was quiet.

I used to have dreams in which the Blessed Mother spoke to me. In one, she sat across from me at my grandma’s kitchen table. You have such a depth of spirituality you will never find a spiritual home on earth, she said. Don’t try to fit into a building or religion. Carry your faith with you.

I would like to say I saw a faith in my Grandma China that others failed to notice, that I heard the prayers she whispered into her pillow at night. But the icon was a backup, something I would give to Grandpa when I found more appropriate gift for my grandma. I never did. Her birthday came. I thought she would be disappointed about the santo. She wouldn’t like it. She would ask what I got for Grandpa.

She unwrapped it, pulled it from the brown paper covering, held it in front of her with both hands, as though admiring an expensive piece of jewelry.

“A santito. Mi’ja. Thank you.”

And when I hugged her, I heard her suck in her breath, pulling tears back into her like a hiccup, like sucking through a straw. “No one ever brings me santitos. They give them to your grandpa. All I ever get is alcohol.”

Tuesday, November 16 features The Ancestors.

And check back Friday morning for a short post on El Otro Lado’s November 13 Storytelling Event at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, 7:00 PM.

Published in: on November 11, 2010 at 11:06 am  Leave a Comment  

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