Too soon. If you had left yesterday, I would still say it. Too soon. But it’s been 20 years since you passed away.
Today is your birthday.
I wasn’t ready for you to go. None of us were. But the hard part–and it was achingly, stabbing-pain hard–was that by the time you died you were already gone. Alzheimer’s had stolen your memory, your thoughts and your good sense, leaving you vacantly confused and angry. The light in you snuffed out.
Never to see your grandchildren grow up. How you loved them all. They called you “Abuela,” remember?
How you cried when you heard I was to have a girl! I could hear your voice break as I told you the news. Qué emocionante, you said.
You rejoiced for me. Now, you said, I’d know what it meant to raise a daughter of my own, to teach, inspire and mold into a strong, smart woman. You were right, Mama, and I thought you’d be part of her life, too. I wanted you to tell her the countless family stories you’d told me about your life in Caracas. All those beautiful, captivating stories that I remember wanting to hear again and again. It was her turn to hear them.
I remember how I wouldn’t want you to leave me when I took my afternoon naps. I was three or four and I’d say, stay with me, Mama, don’t leave. And you’d let me play with your jewelry. My favorite was the glass-beaded necklace, which when I’d hold it up to the light, I could see a rainbow of colors that took my breath away.
I remember going with you to your beauty school and sitting in a salon chair as I watched you learn how to cut, style, and perm hair. It’s where you took me that time to get a haircut and I ended up with a pixie cut. Everyone said I looked like a boy, and you bought me an Archie comic book to make me feel better.
I remember the house dresses you’d wear, especially the one with all the signs of the times printed on it–Make Love, Not War, Everything’s Groovy, Give Peace a Chance and Life’s a Blast. We called it your “hippie” dress and it made us laugh, especially when you wore it well into the 80s.
I remember the scent of vanilla that stayed with you. You’d bring back from your trips to Venezuela amber bottles of vanilla so you could bake cakes and cookies for us with real, flavorful vanilla, not the cheap kind other families would buy at the grocery store. This was the real McCoy. Then, you’d cover my face with kisses and I’d wrap my small body around you, feeling the warmth of your return.
Mama, I loved you so and wanted to hold you forever!
I’d draw pictures for you and write, “Love and kisses for Mama” across the top. Drawings of little girls with their mothers, smiling at each other, in fields of colorful flowers.
I’m sorry I said those things to you in high school. It was my hateful period when I felt lonely and lost, like I had no one. But you were there, always there, and when I went off to college you’d write me every week long letters from home and folded carefully in the envelope were clippings from Newsday of stories you knew I’d find interesting.
You took care of me after my first child was born. The emergency Cesarian had taken it’s toll on me and so you helped bathe and feed me, so I could save my energy to care for my son.
A boy. A grandson for you. I remember how you didn’t want me to call him Joshua at first, because you were having trouble pronouncing it and because you had never heard the name before. But then, as I was awaking from surgery, you said it was okay. That your sister, Yoly, told you the Spanish pronunciation, Josue. Besides, you’d also just seen the film, “South Pacific,” and it was directed by Joshua Logan, so now you knew the name. Call him, Joshua, you said.
I remember you, Mama. I can still breathe you and feel your worn hands. I can see the toe that you stubbed as a child, the nail never growing in right after that. I can taste your bread pudding, and run my fingers along the fabric of the many dresses you sewed for me. I remember your furrowed brow and the worry lines above your nose, as you scraped money together, just so I could have piano lessons.
Most of all I remember reading to you. I shared with you whatever I was reading for school and would read aloud while you scrubbed the kitchen cleaned and darned my father’s socks. Together we cried over “A Lantern in her Hand,” about the pioneer woman who sacrificed everything for her family, much as you did for us. We cried too, over “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” when Francine’s father died from alcoholism. Poor Francine, we said, when it looked like she’d have to quit school to help support her family.
The last time you visited me, was right after I moved to San Diego. My little girl was just six months old. You traveled across country, taking two planes to get here, with your mother’s large porcelain vase in your lap. The vase was the only possession you had left from your own childhood and you carried it all the way here, for fear it might break if you packed it, so that I could have it.
I remember that vase from my own childhood, and every curlicue in its design, Mama. Growing up, it had always been filled with pussy willows. Now it sits in my living room, and I’ve filled it with pussy willows. Your mother handed it down to you, and you to me. It was the last, most precious gift you gave me.
For on that trip I sensed something was wrong. It’s when you started to leave us, your memory drifting away, like the scent of your morning coffee. I didn’t know then how little time we had left. That the one thing I dreaded most was just around the bend. Within a year your memory would be gone. A distant memory, if you will. Within three, we’d be at your graveside, watching as they lowered your casket into the ground. Losing you was the hardest thing I’ve had to bear so far, Mama.
I chose a beautiful red dress for you to wear that I found in your closet, still with its tag on. It had a white Peter Pan collar. Who knows when you bought it or why you’d never worn it. Perhaps, the hippie dress would’ve been more appropriate, as you’d worn it so many times in life. Perhaps, it might’ve given us a laugh, but it was long gone.
Don’t go, Mama, I whispered. Open your eyes once more, and stay a little longer. I have so much to tell you. So much.
More than anything, I remember you, Mama. I always will.