Dear Grandma Marta,
I am sorry that I just now am writing this letter. I should have said these words months ago. Of the things you taught me to be good at in life, communication wasn’t one I picked up on. I chose to write about this experience with you because it is the most difficult time I’ve had talking to someone that should be so easy to talk to. I should be able to pick up the phone, fearlessly, and give you all of the updates on my life. I’d love to do that, but where I struggle is when I don’t get updates on your life. I don’t feel like I get to know you. I know it’s up to me now to make sure we talk, and I’m sorry I wasted so much time.
As I was writing, I learned that I can be stubborn. I had everything I needed to talk to you, except myself. I always tried to blame it on my “poor Spanish skills”, but you of all people know that I love to speak Spanish. I loved to talk to you in Spanish so I could get better. It really wasn’t the Spanish, it was my fear of disappointment. I didn’t want to hang up feeling worse than I did before speaking to you. I didn’t think it could get worse. However, every time I blew off your calls I felt more guilty and missed you more.
I had trouble writing the parts where I talked about emotion. I didn’t grow up talking about my feelings a lot, so putting them in words was hard. I knew you were on the other line, just hoping and praying I’d talk to you. I knew you wanted to talk to me too, so don’t worry. I know things are hard for you, but just know they’re hard for us too. You should see my father’s expression after phone calls with you. I can tell he’s upset, but it’s just because he misses you. When you do answer him on the phone, his face lights up. We all just want you to be happy, and it’s hard for us when we feel like you aren’t happy.
As I close out this letter, I just wanted you to know that I’ll remember the little things for you. Our relationship has always been and will always be so important to me. I remember all the details. I remember how you dance and how you laugh and how to make your favorite dishes. If a lot of time ever goes by without me getting in touch with you, know I’m probably really busy. Life is crazy right now, but I’ll never let months go by without you hearing from me. I wish you the best and can’t wait to hear from you soon.
All of my love,
La Sopa con Aguacates
My Grandma Marta and I have had a close relationship my whole life. I can remember standing countless hours in the kitchen with our hair pulled back and flour straight on the counter while she taught me to prepare empanadas, sancocho, and other tasty Colombian foods. She always told me, “Espere, Espere,” when I would get impatient waiting for the food to be ready. I always wanted to take the food out of the oven before it was ready because they were quite simply my favorite dishes.
It was always a treat when Grandma Marta came to visit. She lived in Louisiana but visited often. Every trip she came bearing a new surprise. My sister and I particularly adored the beads. She would bring us beads from Colombia, and we would pile multiple beaded necklaces around our necks until we were practically weighed down. Grandma Marta always had gum, especially the kind with the sugar that my mom didn’t let us chew. She would hand us the Juicy Fruit clandestinely and we would pop it in our mouths quickly. Grandma Marta was the luckiest woman I knew. Her little 5 foot even stature was just close enough to the ground to find little treasures in places no one else did. She found multiple $20 bills in stores that had fallen behind cracks, and she was always the first one to be dancing when we would go to cafes with live music. I was always embarrassed, but in her deep Colombian accent she would tell me, “Do not be afraid!” She would take my hand and take my sister’s hand and lead us to dance with her like they do in Colombia.
I was certain that my relationship with Grandma Marta would always be like this. You never think that something is going to change, but when you least expect it to, everything changes.
Grandma Marta began to fall sick during my high school years. No one knew what was wrong, but she would fall into spurts of confusion and frustration. Eventually, it was time for her to see a doctor about her newfound troubles. After physical exams, laboratory tests, and careful observations of Grandma Marta’s behaviors, it was concluded that she was struggling from a form of dementia.
“Senile Dementia” is a term that I never believed. Grandma Marta wasn’t old. She was only 70 years old and so spunky. She was the Grandma Marta that outdanced all the young Latina women at the cafe. She was the Grandma Marta that could tell a story and have everyone in the room in tears from laughing. However, I quickly noticed changes in her day to day conversations and behaviors. She would quickly become troubled, and you could tell that she was struggling with making a point or remembering how to speak. Along with these struggles, Grandma Marta’s English started to become noticeably broken. English was her second language, but at this point she couldn’t remember even the most basic of words. Grandma Marta’s five siblings that were still living in Colombia had her move in with them, so they could care for her. Grandma Marta’s husband and her had separated, and she absolutely couldn’t be alone. I remember thinking, “I don’t know when I will see her again.” I didn’t want to be right, but I was.
I haven’t seen her since she left. Phone calls became our only way of communication. But, for the first time in my life, conversation with Grandma Marta wasn’t easy. I didn’t recognize the frail, wavering voice on the other side of the phone. My father would talk to his sweet mother in Spanish and then hand the phone over to me, telling me to speak to my grandmother. I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish in my house, and I wasn’t fully comfortable using the language. However, Spanish was all that I had left with Grandma Marta; English was no longer an option. I remember our first phone call distinctly. I picked up the phone with all my premonitions aside. I wanted to talk to my Grandma Marta.
“Hola Grandma Marta, ¡es Gabriela! ¿Cómo estas?” I asked her cheerfully.
No response. I double checked to make sure the call didn’t cut out. I fearfully looked to my dad for answers.
“You have to just keep talking, she isn’t well today. Talk to her, and she might answer,” my father said solemnly.
I tried again with my first greeting and still, no response. I began to scramble for something to talk about, anything to talk about. However, nothing was coming to me. I didn’t feel like I was on the phone with my Grandma Marta, rather a stranger. I heard my great aunts in the background encouraging her. They said, “¡Habla, habla con ella es Gabriela!” Then I heard it. A very meek voice on the other end of the line greeted me, almost sounding like a question.
“Hola? Gabriela? Te quiero mucho.” She answered me, sounding like she was in tears. I heard a break in her voice, and it formed a lump in my throat I couldn’t swallow.
This was all that I got for that conversation. It means “I love you a lot,” and it was heartbreaking. I knew my Grandma Marta was in there somewhere, but that didn’t feel like her. Grandma Marta was full of life, Grandma Marta always facilitated the conversations while I listened to her ramble on. Grandma Marta was never sad. I handed the phone back to my father and walked away.
Our subsequent conversations followed this same pattern. She would tell me she loved and missed me, and it always sounded like she was crying. I didn’t know if she was crying or if her voice was really that weak. If I was feeling optimistic, I would tell her how school was and try to tell her about my personal romantic life, because she would always ask me about my love life growing up. I felt like I owed it to her to tell her. All I ever got was a few muttered words. Then, the conversation was over. I began to make myself busy during the calls, and I hated myself for it. I told my father that I couldn’t speak enough Spanish to carry a conversation, but that was false. If I wanted to, I could’ve, but I chose to be apathetic.
After my dad would hang up, I always regretted my failure to communicate. But to me, it wasn’t communication! It only hurt and never helped. I loved my Grandma Marta, but I was selfish. I didn’t let her hear my voice because I couldn’t handle it, because I didn’t want to face it. Months dragged on but our relationship, or lack thereof, remained static.
It wasn’t until after my friend’s grandmother’s recent passing that I decided to stop living in the fear of what emotions will be inflicted upon me during a phone call with my grandmother. My friend was heartbroken, and I experienced an epiphany that made me change my course of action. My grandmother was still alive, she was still very much here, and I had been wasting precious time because I couldn’t face my own emotions. I finally did something that I never would’ve done months before: I called my Grandma Marta on my own.
My Aunt Consuela answered me. I told her to please put Grandma Marta on the phone. She called my sweet grandmother over and told her that I wanted to talk to her. I didn’t hold back. I talked about the fact that I was starting college very soon and was excited to take Spanish classes, so I could come visit. I told my grandmother that the place we used to go dance got new owners and they’re very friendly and I took my boyfriend there to show him one of my favorite places. I told her I still make her favorite dishes, but they don’t taste as good because my mom doesn’t like me to use as much salt as she liked. My Spanish was rough, but I know it was comprehensible.
Still, I didn’t get an answer. This time, I did something different. I waited patiently, like Grandma Marta always instructed me to do in the kitchen. I waited for an answer. It was ironic, Grandma Marta always told me “Espere, Espere,” and now more than ever it was so important that I wait. Finally, I heard it.
“Aguacates. El sancocho es mejor con aguacates.”
She was trying to tell me that the sancocho tasted better with avocados. A flood of memories rolled in like a tidal wave. It was the ingredient I always omitted because my distaste for them, but she was stubborn and insisted they be added. It wasn’t essential, but it was a topper that my Grandma Marta believed in religiously. Everything was better with avocados. I remember her saying that. It brought tears to my eyes when I heard her say that, but then, I laughed. I told her I knew, and that I will make sure to put them in my next batch. Then, Grandma Marta said, “I miss love Gabriela.” My heart stopped for a moment. Grandma Marta spoke English to me. I told her I loved her too, and then said goodbye. I felt an amalgam of emotions. I was overcome with sadness, pure joy, but more importantly, regret.
That was my first conversation I’d had with Grandma Marta in 5 months. I regretted so much, and it took the death of my friend’s grandmother to open my eyes. I wasted so much time. All it took was two sentences to remind me why I need to talk to my Grandma Marta. She needs me more than ever, and I had been neglecting to talk to her. I promised myself that I would never let so much time go by again. I’ve kept that promise, and I’m lucky enough to still speak with my Grandma Marta today. Some days, she doesn’t speak, but that’s ok. We pass time together and share in the silence. I know she understands, and I understand her. I am done living in a current state of nostalgia, wishing things were how they were when I was little. I have come to accept Grandma Marta for how she is now, and the memory of her healthy days live on in my heart.