Lola Beltrán singing “Cucurrucucu Paloma” back in the day.
That morning I sat in the driver’s seat of my abuelos’ enormous Buick LeSabre, watching my grampa direct my driving from the rear-view mirror as I backed out of the shed. After I turned the car around in their lot, grampa pointed down the drive that leads to the road, wanting me to pull up to the door, so my gramma could get in the back seat and so he could take his time getting in and buckling up. It seems like they age so much more each time I visit. That morning we were on our way to the hospital to visit my Tía B. Just days before, we heard her illness had turned for the worst and almost all mis prim@s, tías y tíos, and her comadres had gathered in northen nuevo méxico to see her.
Tía B was my gramma’s closest sister—the second of thirteen children, she was only a couple years older. My gramma is the third. “I miss you, I missed you!” Tía B had said to Gramma the last time. (Because Gramma and Grampa had been to Alburquerque the week before to celebrate Grampa’s 83rd birthday at el casino bingo with mi papá.) That morning I stood with my gramma and my older prima–her daughter–around the bed, gently rubbing Tía’s leg. She looked at me, and recognized who I was. She started to say something, but the effort hurt her too much. Prima said quietly, “She wants to talk, pero no puede.” I smiled at Tía, but I didn’t speak for fear of bursting into tears, and making my gramma cry too. Afterward, we’d gone for a walk in the park and for frito pies at the local familia joint and for groceries. It had been comforting to be in a place where everyone but the hippies and tourists is familia, or knows our familia from way back. When we got the call, my gramma immediately started calling her herman@s. “Se murió, se murió,” she said over and over, as my grampa and I sat in the living room, listening. “That’s a dirty job, calling all those people,” my grampa said. That’s what I remember most vividly about that day—the sound of Gramma’s voice and the feeling of not wanting to stop hugging her.
The last few days were spent celebrating Tía’s life—velarios, rosarios, comidas, una misa, y más. And yesterday, we all stood around the place where Tía’s ashes would be buried alongside Tío’s, “so they can hold hands” I remember someone saying. The deacon explained to the niñitos the steps that los católicos de nuevo méxico take when mourning the death of a loved one. That she was now una angelita. How we could pray to her along with la virgen. For some reason, I believed him this time (despite my strained relationship with the church over the last couple decades). And I watched mi prima, who’s around my same age, kneel by the grave, taking la tierra in both hands and holding it up to the skies before crumbling it between her fingers and sprinkling it in, trying to hold back the tears and the mocos. I can’t help but think about how I will be in her place soon.
My gramma told many cuentos this week. Here is my favorite.
When Tía first started dating my Tío, my gramma was about 15 years old and my tía was about 17. Tío lived about 5-6 miles away from my great gramma’s house. And since Gramma rode her bicicleta to work at the train station ticket booth in town after school, she would sometimes take Tía to his house first, peddling with my tía holding onto her shoulders from behind, standing on the edges of the wheel’s center—the part that doesn’t spin too. Tío would walk her home before dark, waiting a bit away from the house, and they never told my great gramma where she’d been. (Although I’m sure she must have known—they always seem to know, don’t they?)
Great gramma was very strict. And she made sure that the girls would act like “proper” young ladies. When they went to the bailes, they were not to turn down a dance with any boy who asked. And they would have to sit in a row on a bench alongside the wall. Whoever sat next to Great Gramma, would get a fierce pinch in the arm, if they misbehaved. Gramma said she learned to sit as far away from Great Gramma as possible. “I always sat at the other end of the bench because I learned.”
Shortly after my gramma and grampa were married (after my Grampa returned from WWII), they joined my Tía B and Tío P at the plaza for a baile. Grampa and Tío went to the bar, leaving my Gramma and her sister to themselves. A man asked Gramma to dance, but she said no. “My mom would have given me a good pinch if she knew!” she said. Sooner or later, the boy went up to the mic where the band was singing and announced how my gramma didn’t want to dance with him. And he had the band play “vuela la paloma” to her. Gramma said Tía B had laughed and laughed, and she wouldn’t let her live that one down. “That’s what you get for saying no,” she’d chuckled. “Well, I didn’t want to dance with him. He danced like this!” my gramma told me, demonstrating how badly he danced, grinning as she moved her arms all about. I laughed so hard when she told me the story, trying hard to imagine what Gramma and Tía were like as young mujeres, close amigas y hermanas.
Vuela como la paloma, Tía B. Mil gracias por todo. Y te quiero mucho.