Mama Chelo

Originally published in Grande Dame Literary Journal.

Every morning I’d wake up to the sound of my door opening.“Buenos dias,” she’d say to me every single day. She’d stare at me with her rebozo wrapped almost all the way to her head. She wouldn’t wait for me to say anything back and closed the door. There was no need for any alarm clock or good morning text message because she never failed to wake me up before seven in the morning.

My grandmother was always there, always constant, always scolding somebody. She didn’t care how old you were or what relation you were to her; she was always ready to humble you. Every time she’d come to the States, she’d smile and give me a tight hug with a scent that consisted of garlic cloves and Zote soap. She lived with my grandfather in their house in Tangancicuaro, Michoacan. I loved their home, black rusty metal front doors, blue-tiled linoleum floor, their mid-sized courtyard covered in uneven pavement and the built-in cement washboard where she would wash everyone’s clothes. My grandparents were excessively poor, their home and the clothes on their back were a testament to the times, but it was a humble abode where a family of sixteen would eat tortillas with a piece of queso blanco and a glass of fresh milk. My grandmother would yell at me to stop running around her home as she peeled the skin off garbanzos in her courtyard whenever I visited her home with my parents.

Mama Chelo in her kitchen.

The woman could always make something out of nothing. My mother and I would go with her to the plaza in the early morning where I’d get warm freshly made churros and a sandwich bag full of orange juice. She’d take us with her to run errands around the plaza, buying meat at the carniceria, picking up her medicine prescription, or heading to Nuestra Señora de la Asunción parish to pray (even though I never did). The woman prayed for everyone, the passion in her soft whispers, her eyes closed shut, and the relaxation of her body as she carefully held onto her rosary. She meant every word she prayed to God.

The elder woman was evidently popular as many people came and went to her home, some stayed from sunrise to sunset, some stayed for dinner and even sat in the living room late at night just to talk. The woman married at the young age of fifteen, then soon had her first-born daughter at sixteen. The woman carried fourteen children, seven brothers and seven sisters, some with decades in age difference, some grew up and moved to the States. They lived in a ranch in Changuitiro, Michoacan, a pueblo where there are less than three hundred inhabitants still to this day. They lived off their land and their livestock until they moved to Tangancicuaro in their forever home, that I adored so much. My grandfather had trouble supporting his family after the move. Things got desperate, as they did not have any land or livestock anymore. He started travelling to the States to find any work that was available to him to send money back home. His oldest sons would soon accompany him to support the family economy. Both of my grandparents faced trivial and societal hardships separately. My grandfather’s experience was much different from my grandmother’s, as he was not there to tend physically to his family.

In her living room.

My grandfather, Papa Luis, passed away on February 21st, 2004. I was seven. Stomach cancer. All fourteen of his children were there beside him during his last few days. My grandmother showed no ounce of vulnerability to anyone as she kept busy. She’d wake up earlier than the rest to make breakfast for her guests that were there to grieve for her loss. I stayed back with my father, waiting for my mom to return. A few years went by, and my grandmother had developed a few more wrinkles while I grew taller and had no sense of fashion. She’d still yell at me for running around the house with my cousins as she peeled garbanzos at the dinner table. She was travelling more frequently to the States and stayed with us every few months. She’d take up the guest room with the large window right in the middle of the room that displayed our suburban neighborhood. I was always ecstatic about her arrival; growing up as an only child made me appreciate visitors of all ages. 

Her days with us would consist of waking my parents and I early (even on weekends) for breakfast. She’d comb my hair harshly and give me a tight ponytail that pulled every single baby hair I didn’t know I had. By the afternoon, she’d already finished cleaning and moved on to making dinner. Her cooking couldn’t go without the smoke alarm going off when she’d forgotten a tortilla on the hot griddle. I’d run inside from playing and grab a damp kitchen rag and hit the alarm to stop it. Frijoles with mole de pollo was her favorite dish she enjoyed making at the house. She’d make it every week, pushing me towards wanting a Happy Meal instead. She never missed a single meal and snacks in between. She’d eat with such joy, her right hand always had a warm tortilla and with her left hand she’d nibble on a hot pepper. She ate like every meal would be her last.

I found every way to sleep next to her every night during her stay. Our only way of bonding was through the physical closeness and comfortable silence that arrived in the nighttime. Some more years went by, and it was 2009 before we knew it. I’m a teenager surviving the bullies and attempting to impress the wrong people. My grandmother came and went every other year, her passport passed around and stamped and an attendant pushed her wheelchair to us, like having a step sibling spend the summer with us. She continued to barge through my door early in the morning, which irritated me much more than before.“Buenos días, muchacha.” I flipped over to see her head stick out, all showered and hair combed, ready to begin the day. “Buenos dias,” I said hoarsely, but by then she had already shut the door.

My mother would take her to the doctor more frequently and watched her more attentively at home. We cut her cooking privileges down to a minimum with supervision only as she developed the habit of leaving the stove on after making her meal. I was lost in the adolescent world, paying little to no attention to my grandmother. She remained stoic as I asked her questions about herself or asked if she wanted to do something with me. Feeling neglected and bored, I stopped trying.

The older woman rejected the reality that she was getting older. She’d groan and hiss when her adult children wouldn’t let her do things for herself. Left unamused and without much to do, the woman would grab the phone and start dialing. She called several people a day, asking them how they were. She’d share with them how sick she was (when she wasn’t) or how she wanted to return to her home so badly and nobody would take her back to Mexico. She longed for her home more than anything. She missed her things, her space, her sanctuary where no one would dictate what she did.

It’s 2015, and I was enjoying my last year of high school; inept, egotistical, and in pursuit of hedonist behavior. She was in the background. I’d come home in the evenings from wherever I was and engaged mostly with my parents, ignoring her presence. My grandmother would sit at the head of the dining table every day, even then the density of my head blocked her. My mother scolded me for my behavior. She wanted me to acknowledge her, talk to her. She was my grandmother, not wall decor. The older lady never said anything to me about it, and we carried on living under the same roof disconnected from each other.

As I entered my twenties, I was starting my journey of getting a better sense of who I was. Writing turned out to be a passion (who knew?). I read up on Franz Kafka and Jean Paul Sartre and I watched films encapsulating bleak emotions and heavy nihilism. My inflated ego still desired to find my full identity. Living at home was truly becoming exasperating for a kid who wanted to carry the world on her back. I had many teachable moments, unsure where to go academically, issues at work, and relationship uncertainty. Eventually, I decided to go and venture out on my own, so I packed my things and rented out a room with my best friends from high school. I was thankful that my grandmother was living with my parents for most of the year. My mother was occupied and distracted enough to not think about me while I prepared for my new chapter in life away from my parent’s home.

You notice the little things, trees grow bigger, fields of grass where you used to run covered in pavement and townhouses, and your grandmother starts to lose her ability to walk. She’d walk around our neighborhood block almost every day until years went by and she could hardly make it to the living room. She stopped asking for the house phone and woke up later than noon even though she always told me that sleeping late was for the weak. She got lost in her conversations, sharing memories and stories that integrated places and people that did not exist in the time of her infancy or just weren’t possible. She began asking for a little girl that needed to be walked back home, but she never had a name. Every evening when the sun would set, she’d grow worried that this nameless little girl wasn’t home. My mother never mentioned the thought of a care home, as things were progressively getting worse.

The elder stopped eating and spent most of her day in bed, resting. She continued to ask for the lost little girl frequently to where all her visitors were aware and went along with it to soothe her worry. She’d groan and yell in desperation as that little girl wasn’t there with her. My mom would tell her the girl was at home with her parents, but it was never good enough for the older woman. We never discovered who the girl was, could’ve been herself, someone from her past life or any of her seven daughters, for all we knew.

We were in the midst of the pandemic and lockdown and I sat in my mother’s dining room with her and an end-of-life packet. I sat there with much thought. The older woman’s life was ending, and I couldn’t think of a meaningful memory with her. She never congratulated me on anything. I didn’t have any stories to tell, and I didn’t really know what the woman liked to do in life. It upset me she never gave me affection or attention. It upset me about how we just never connected. So much time we spent together and I couldn’t name a favorite memory of her. We went over the packet with such dread as it asked us what we wanted to do after she passed; cremated or buried, what funeral home we would like for her, where would she like to spend her final days, what to do on her last day of living. We finished filling in my grandmother’s last wishes and concerns, signed and notarized. Time was the only thing that was left.

My mother called friends and family to let them know the elder was getting worse. Hospice delivered a hospital bed to provide more comfort for her instead of her regular bed, and a nurse came to visit regularly. The extra weight of being in a pandemic made it brutal mainly on my mother as relatives entered her home all day every day with their masks on, six feet apart. Some stayed in the car to limit the contact as much as possible, while many wanted to give their final goodbyes to the matriarch of the family.

It’s October 2020, and I get a call from my mom. She told me that grandmother has told her to call everyone because she wants to bless everyone one more time. We all gathered at my parents’ house, respecting COVID-19 regulations as much as we could. She had a hospice nurse there at all times. The nurses would change shifts every eight hours. She was awake and full of life that day. For a second, it seemed as if she was finally getting better. Maybe tomorrow she’d get out of bed and eat at the dining table even though she was still pale, hair dishevelled, lips cracked. She calmly said her husband and daughter were calling her the night before, telling her it’s time to go home. There was a pause when she said this because her husband and her daughter passed away. For the past few months, she couldn’t recall who I was, but as I sat next to her that day, she knew it was me. I still craved to know about her, so I took this opportunity and asked her if she liked any music. She pondered hard about it and said she wasn’t really a fan of music. She was a bit “bitter” when she was younger, she said. She lifted her right arm to give me a final blessing, and I left the room to give her space. I spent the night at my parent’s home that day, as did the nurse and one of my uncles. All of us in the house knew that at any moment she could stop breathing, and I was going to be there for my mother when it happened. Midnight came around and I sent everyone in the house to bed, especially my mother to get some much needed rest. She suffered a lot that night. The agony of the transition wouldn’t let her rest and she could do nothing but cry and wallow in pain throughout the whole night. It was difficult to hear her suffer. Her agonizing gasps will live inside me forever. Eventually, she could fall asleep for a few hours before the sun rose again, and we all sat back down in a restless manner. I went home for a couple hours until I got another call later that night.

I was in bed watching Hell’s Kitchen with my partner. My phone rang, and I glanced at the caller ID. I stopped smiling and laughing when I saw it was my father. My mom would always be the one that always calls, so at that moment I knew why he was calling. I drove to my parents’ home in sweatpants and a hoodie. The car ride there was silent and I could not think. A lot of the family was already there, but I could not see or hear them as I entered my parent’s home. She’s been there all my life. We didn’t have an affectionate bond, but she was there. I was afraid, unsure of what to expect; I’ve never seen a lifeless body, let alone her body without her. And there she was, pale and motionless, no more suffering or wincing. Her expression was neutral. She had finally arrived home. Throughout the weeks prior, I’d think about the end-of-life care packet to see in which stage we were on. Finally, we were on the final pages of the stapled forms. The coroners arrived, and I helped them fill out their forms before they took her. I left the room and went to my parent’s room, away from everyone there. I had no desire to see her taken away against her will. My whole life she was always there at home, and when she would leave, she would always come back. I knew she would not be coming back this time.

I couldn’t cry. Everyone’s face was red and wet. Silence took over a house full of Garcias. This was the first time I saw my entire family in this state. I was too young to see them during Papa Luis’s final days. It was midnight and everyone had left except for my parents, my aunt who was staying with us and I. Silence continued to give us a hug while we processed what just happened. She was gone, leaving the physical world to embark on a new journey without us. I needed to feel something, some kind of pain or grief. I went to her room alone. Her bedlight was on, she’d leave it on throughout the night as she’d sleep soundly. She passed away in the room we once shared when I was a child, when I would ask if I could sleep next to her and she’d nod and recite her nightly prayers. I was heartbroken that I only found that memory the most comforting. It wasn’t that she would tell me she loved me or things we’d do together, it’s how we got to sleep together with our backs facing each other. I resented her for so long, like a relative that always got her way, always in some sort of competition, like a distant mother that did not like me. I blamed myself for not trying hard enough. Out of all our family members, my family and I had the most time with her and I didn’t cherish it, and now she was too late.

The following day, I took my aunts to the funeral home to finish the arrangements for the funeral. The flowers, the design on the paper program, open or closed casket, music choice. The funeral took place a few days after. Many had come to the funeral but unfortunately had limited time to be there as staff regulated pandemic restrictions to people that were stopping by. I visited my parent’s home a few days after; they were slowly getting back into their lives. My aunt returned home to Mexico and my parents went back to work. I went to my grandmother’s room. They had removed the medical bed, emptied the drawers, and the smell of her had dissipated. Some of her coats and shoes remained in the closet, and her jewelry box was full of rings, bracelets, and other trinkets. I saw a gold chain bracelet that I remembered she’d wear on her left wrist. With my mother’s permission, I clasped it onto my left wrist and took a deep breath. I cried in front of my mother. “What’s wrong?” she asked worriedly. “Why didn’t she love me?” I asked without thinking. I wasn’t comfortable being vulnerable like that, but I felt the heaviness of that question in my throat. “She did. She loved you as much as she could.” She had so many stories and so much wisdom that I never got the chance to experience. She was a beautiful woman full of life, her hands full of love. She’d craft amazing things with little to nothing. She fought poverty endlessly with her bare hands while she carried her fourteen children on her back. She was unstoppable, a nurturing woman always putting others before herself. Always. She’d make sure I had brushed my hair, and that food was prepared, despite the missing connection I yearned for, she was everything a grandmother could be and I wear her gold plated bracelet with love and pride, hoping that resilience passed onto me. She loved me, she loved me with what she knew was love, and I have made peace with that.

The day I took care of her before she passed away, bright early morning before I headed home, I opened her bedroom door. She opened her eyes and looked at me, restless.Time had stopped for this moment. The nurses dissolved in the background while both of our eyes were searching for reassurance that we were going to be okay. She was very much alive, present as we gazed at each other at this moment. I felt that this was the last time we would ever share a moment. Our gazes were soft, much different from most of our interactions. For the first time in our lives, I had beaten her to it.

“Buenos dias,” I said to Mama Chelo.

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