Nonna. Babushka. Grams. Oma. Yia Yia. Bibi.
I never had a grandmother.
Sure, each of my parents were borne from their mothers, so genetically speaking, I have two grandmothers in my lineage. But I never had someone that I related to as my grandma.
My dad’s mother was taken away and put into a mental institution when he was eight years old. This was in the sixties, when those who struggled with mental illness were hauled off and hidden from society. In the beginning, she was allowed to come home on the weekends to see her kids, but eventually, she was tucked away and forgotten until her death in 2007. My dad didn’t even get so much as a phone call when she passed.
My mom’s mother chose a life as a free spirit instead of motherhood. She often abandoned her three children to run off with her flavor of the month for a time and would come back and collect the girls when she felt like settling down for a moment. My mom decided she’d had enough at the age of 12 and stayed with her grandparents from that point on. My grandmother was a void in my life until I was about 8 years old, when she moved from the east coast to our small town in Arizona with my two cousins in tow. She died about a year later and my cousins moved in with us until we could reunite them with my aunt. The official cause was a heart attack, but what really killed her was the fact that diabetes and alcoholism just don’t mix.
I always envied my friends who had deep and meaningful relationships with their grandmothers. The Nanas that taught them how to sew while they shared stories from the war. The Bombas who would sit and go through old photographs, passing on a piece of the past to future generations. The Amá Sání who would help a girl learn the intricacies of beading a bracelet. The Abuelas who would pass down a tamale recipe that had been perfected over generations.
I wanted an Abuela.
I ached to learn more about my roots–not because closest thing I have to Hispanic blood is Portuguese, but that’s because that’s what Abuelas do. They teach their kin about where they come from and share stories and recipes. I wanted to sidle up next to her, my tiny legs boosted by a dining room chair, while I watched her wrinkled fingers work through a ball of tortilla dough, kneading until it became smooth and supple. I would help her roll each one out, and she would say, “thinner, míja.”
I wanted to hear her stories of how she met mí Abuelo, and how maybe it wasn’t love at first sight, but they grew to love each other over the years. I would watch her stir a pot of red chile, deeply inhaling the aromas and adding a little more seasoning to highlight the flavor. She would mumble something in Spanish and reach for the spice rack. She might have been adding more cumin, but I was certain she was sprinkling in a little extra love.
We would shuck corn together as the air filled with the scent of pork roasting in the oven. With every yank of a husk, she would tell me tales of being a little girl in Mexico. She would share funny stories and heartbreaking anecdotes. I would drink every sentence in, thirsty for every colorful detail of my family history—even the ugly ones.
I would memorize every story she told me, one after the other, so I could savor them the way I savored her empañadas. I would hold every detail of every word so I could savor it, just like the flavors in my mouth. Her stories and her recipes would be catalogued in my brain so that I too, could pass them along to my children and grandchildren when the time came.
Our relationship would be forged in the kitchen, where she would share pieces of herself, one recipe at a time, while I helped and watched and listened. I would hang on every word, even after Abuelo would come in and say, “that’s not exactly how it happened,” before embracing her in a warm hug and delivering a soft kiss to her lips.These memories would bring me to tears as we said goodbye to her and laid her body to rest. Mí Abuela would continue to show up every time I was in the kitchen, cooking through the recipes she taught me, she would be whispering over my shoulder, “a little more salt, míja.”