Mi abuelita. My grandmother. She was 90 when she died. You see, she was diagnosed with cancer. My mother and I were the first ones to learn she was going to die from terminal breast cancer. She was going to die because we weren’t going to tell her. We knew that if we did, she would have tried to fight for her life. At the age of 90, she would have wanted to go into chemotherapy and fight. It was in her character to fight. She was a luchadora, a fighter, her whole life. My mother and I didn’t tell her because we wanted her to spend her last days in the comfort of our home. The doctors said she would last only days. Maybe weeks. My grandmother lasted five months with cancer. She lasted five months because her spirit was that of a fighter. Of a true luchadora.
You see, it had always been in my abuela’s nature to fight. She was born in Cuba and was the eldest of 16 siblings. She had told me that she had to be a mother to them when she was only a child herself. As an older sister, she often fought with her siblings over dolls. Dolls were a luxury in her day. She would often tell me this as a reminder to take my Barbies out of my closet where I had forsaken them. As a mother to her siblings, she also had to fight for their survival. One day she told me a story that created a permanent image in my mind of my grandmother, the caretaker. She told me that at the age of 6, she would help her mother cook. She was so tiny, she said, that she would need to stand on a short ladder to reach the stove. That’s the only image I have of my grandmother’s childhood.
My grandmother came from Cuba to Miami with my grandfather and my mother in the 60s. And they left con nada menos un cambio de ropa. With nothing but a change of clothes. Everything they had was left behind. Their family photos were left in the hands of strangers. Her wedding ring was given to one of her sisters. She tried to bring love letters between her and abuelo. In the airport, a man in uniform took them from her. The man in uniform read los versos de sus corazones, the verses of their hearts, and then threw them away in the garbage. Dejamos todo, my nina. We left everything behind. My grandmother often told me this so I would appreciate the possessions I often neglected.
My grandmother’s siblings had become her children. And I could never imagine how it would feel leaving my children behind. Mi pobre abuelita. She was the anchor of her family. Her family of 20 in Cuba, and then her family of 3 en los Estados Unidos.
In los Estados Unidos, the land of opportunidades, She had to continue being a fighter. She sewed for a living. She had a special closet in her house full of Halloween costumes that she would rent during Halloween. She also altered the fine clothes of regular customers. Usually wealthy women who would pay her a couple of dollars for a hem. But she always made enough money to buy new furniture and pay the rent. She even put a down payment towards my car. She charged five dollars for a hem. Could you just imagine how many clients she had? Could you imagine how quickly her hands worked on the sewing machine to earn another dollar?
My mother told me that abuela never grew tired of sewing. When she didn’t have customers, she would make a pillowcase out of the extra silk a client had left behind. Or she would fasten loose buttons on our clothes.
She always emphasized the importance of wearing good clothing. The family must always be dressed decentemente y presentable para visita. That’s what she taught me. She always expected company. She usually didn’t have much company other than her clients who would come and leave without a word.
Even on that unforgettable February when she was on her death bed, she insisted that we’d remove the rather offensive and imprudent backless patient’s gown. She insisted on looking presentable in case we would have visitors. As always, she didn’t have many visitors. Just my uncle, my brother, my mother and father. But as she began to lose her memory, her family became visita. We became strangers, so she nagged her nurses to dress her in her blusa rosada.
Oftentimes, when sitting in some women’s studies courses as an undergrad, my blood would boil when someone would raise their hand to make a degrading comment about the role of motherhood. I remember the ones wo called themselves “feminists” and claimed to be “liberated”. All usually wearing heavy makeup ad exposing their breasts (to emphasize their freedom). They all liked to say something like, “Domesticity! So oppressive!” I have never accepted the rejection of motherhood as a feminist ideal. I cannot think of anyone stronger that my mother and grandmother. They both have held the world on their shoulders as wives and mothers. While I am not a mother yet, I have never felt more empowered in my whole life as I do as a Muslim. And I was never what you’d consider “sheltered”. Gracias a Dios. Al hamd’allah. All Praises be to Allah.
My abuela was a mother. A wife. A seamstress. A cook. She took care of those around her, even stranger, as if they were her children. She took care of her husband in his deathbed; never left his side. She sewed new clothes for her family when there was not the money to buy new ones, because we had to be decente for company. She created feasts every night for dinner. Indeed, she was “domestic” and her “domesticity” stabilized us.
Originally written on February 19th, 2010