Mi = My
Nina = Godmother
I’m intimidated to write about my Nina Chuy. She was a singular person and I’m an average writer. I hope I can do her justice…
We all called her “Nina” even though she was my grandmother’s godmother and not ours. Everyone loved her except my grandfather who, in retrospect, had a fearful respect for her.
Imagine an older Mexican woman who was both frail and stronger than steel, always old but never getting older. Continually dressed in a long black dress as though she was perpetually in mourning. She was a devout Catholic who prayed five hours a day. Though I am not a fan of religion, I realize now that hers was an authentic spirituality.
When I think of her I imagine a kind face. I remember how she advocated for me to receive more attention from my father and grandparents. I remember feeling like I was her preferred person–the apple of her eye amidst a childhood in which I felt largely invisible. But I also remember that to the world (and especially to my grandfather) she displayed a perpetual scowl.
My grandfather was an alcoholic. My memories of him are mostly from his sober years. Nobody ever talked about what he was like when he drank but I’m certain my Nina’s resentment came from a time when she had to protect the family from his drunken behavior.
There were stories about my Nina that, whether accurate or not, made her a legend. One story is that in order to put my grandfather in his place she accepted his challenge to a drinking contest despite not being a drinker herself. They sat down at the table and knocked back shots of something or other until my grandfather passed out. My Nina stood up from the table completely unshaken, walked back to her room and resumed praying. Whether or not this story is true it added to her mythology. What is clear is that a woman born in Mexico in the late 1800’s feared no man. She was my role model for a strong woman and so to be loved by her helped me enjoy the strength of women.
My Nina was endlessly patient with me. She would sit near me as I played video games or as I listened to Kiss records (I’m debating whether or not to share that I put on full concerts with me playing the tennis racket…woops–too late). She kept a very lonely child company. I felt safe near her. I somehow believed that this frail old woman could ward off all evils. A part of me still believes that was true.
My Nina wanted to die in her hometown, San Juan De Los Lagos–a dusty old pueblo in which the only nice building was a church. She moved away in about 1986 when I was fifteen. It hurt but I don’t remember sharing with anyone how much I missed her.
In 1991 I spent the summer in Leon, Guanajuato. I spent it mostly going out with my cousins and drinking. I remember enjoying all the female attention I was receiving. I felt like a rockstar–it was intoxicating. My grandmother insisted we drive to San Juan to see my Nina who was on her deathbed. I didn’t want to go. I was afraid to see my immortal protector in her very mortal dying state. I was afraid to face death when I felt like I was peaking as a handsome young man.
I walked into her bedroom and saw her lying there in her bed. She looked like a pile of powdery bones barely covered over by tissue paper skin. She began to gasp my name and reach out to me. I held her once strong hand in mine and proceeded to fall into uncontrollable sobs. I ran out crying and refused to go back into the room.
My Nina died a few days later. Extended family members said she was holding on to see me and let go after she did.
I wish I had been able to bravely sit by her side but the twenty-year-old me wasn’t strong enough. I have forgiven myself but it doesn’t change the fact that my Nina Chuy is gone.
This morning I called my dad to ask him if we had any photos of her. He said “probably, but not many–she didn’t like to be photographed”. I smiled and thought to myself, “of course she didn’t!”