I don’t think my family knew the core of their being was my grandmother. How could they not know, though? She married my grandfather, they created nine children and raised them all in the same plot of land. Then they set up fences on that plot to give those children their own share to raise their children. Two of them traveled halfway across the world and called every Sunday to check in with the family. A house sprung up, la casa de mi abuelita Lela. She cleaned, she cooked, she took care of the grandchildren. Every Sunday was domingo en la casa de mi abuelita Lela.
I stayed in Mexico for a year when I was eight-years old along with my brother and my sisters. We were under the impression that my aunt was our caretaker, but it was actually our grandmother. She taught us how to wash dishes, she taught us to speak Spanish, she cured our cuts and drained our spider bites. My brother pounded relentlessly on our bedroom door one day, fuming, face flushed, ready to keep pounding on whatever he found once he got in. I can’t remember what we did to make him mad because we made him mad very often. We had a window that looked into the house, towards the patio, and we were looking through the curtain to see how close he was to getting inside. Then my grandmother came at him with a shovel and told him to back off or she’d have to do something she regretted.
She also washed the dishes towards the end of any party even though half the family was scolding her for doing it. She trekked through horrible weather to make sure the animals on the pedasito of farm we owned were fed and their enclosures clean and dry. She got up at five in the morning every Saturday to make flour tortillas and gorditas so that the whole family could eat them for breakfast with authentic Mexican coffee and hot chocolate.
And she had cancer for years. She passed away when I was eleven-years-old and the whole family fell apart. Did they know they were broken before she passed away? Did they know there was resentment woven through those family bonds?
Behind closed doors, this family hated each other. Imagine a rope tied on one end to a wheelbarrow and on the other a bicycle. My grandma would be pushing the wheelbarrow forward, not walking too fast because behind her is the bike carrying the entire family. They are teetering towards the sky, one on top of the other, complaining about the rocky path and who was originally supposed to be on the bike. They are being pulled forward by my grandmother whose forearms are straining from the weight inside the wheelbarrow as well as the lingering weight behind her of the family on the bike. She’s strong enough to keep going, but the rope isn’t. It’s fraying in between her and the family. No one notices it because my grandmother is focused on getting home and the family is arguing with each other.
The rope snaps. My grandmother flies forward, crashing into the wheelbarrow on the shoulder of the road and the family sways comically on the bike. Mi abuelita Lela is too damaged from the fall that she cannot get back up. She has a stunning last view of the family, who are trying to keep themselves on the bike, holding onto each other and shouting out commands to stay upright. It’s what she wants to see. They are there for each other. It’s enough for her to fall back into the wheelbarrow and finally get some rest. The family finally balances on the bike, cheering, proud, a true family. Then they see my grandmother lying in the wheelbarrow, and the whole thing collapses.
Uncles are shouting at nephews and cousins are yelling to aunts because it’s someone’s fault, just not their fault. And they’re still arguing eight years later.
That’s why I don’t think they knew that she was what kept them sane. She was the shovel that kept them from beating each other up, the elastic flour from the tortillas that kept them from ripping apart, the safe place to be in harsh weather. Whose job is it now to keep the family together? Or are all families destined to fall apart like mine, to remain that way forever?