My grandmother was an intelligent woman. She was not learned, but she had that sort of intelligence that the impoverished often gain from growing up too fast. Ma (this was what I called her) had to drop out of school right after “primaria” (elementary school) to help contribute to her family. She married my grandfather when she was fifteen.
Ma and Pa adopted me as an infant and raised me, for better and worse, as their little prince. Ma wasn’t the best at showing affection so she showed her love by spoiling me with food, outfitting me in boutique clothing and saying from time-to-time “Que guapo!” (how handsome!).
I didn’t appreciate ma very much. I held it against her that she wasn’t affectionate and that she didn’t play with me. It hurts to admit but it’s true that my appreciation of her didn’t’ begin until adulthood. I was a highly sensitive boy who needed more touch and affection than my ma could give. I think she would have given it to me if she knew how; if she had received it. Sometimes affection is hard to come by when you grow up in a family that is focused on its physical survival. As a girl ma witnessed domestic violence and suffered corporeal punishments during a time where such things were considered normal. I don’t remember my ma ever hitting me. She felt badly that my biological mother had left me. She knew on some level that my “beating” was my mother’s abandonment (and my biological father’s disinterest) and she couldn’t bear to add to this pain. She told me that she spanked me one time when I was very young and that it ended with her in tears rather than me. She never spanked me again.
Before I came into the picture my pa was a raging alcoholic. Nobody in my family ever talked directly to me about those times–they didn’t want my view of pa to be tainted by the past. Though I think their intention was lovely, I could always feel the melancholy in my ma and dad and somehow knew that it was partly caused by pa. I suppose in retrospect it might have helped to know his sins so that I could make sense of the melancholy world that I inhabited. As I grew older I got just enough information to piece together that my pa often put the family in a difficult situation by drinking and partying their wages away. I believe he was also abusive toward ma when he was drunk. I don’t trust alcohol. I don’t like how it feels to be around someone who is drunk. I never witnessed my grandpa being drunk but I think I inherited this fear from my ma, dad, aunt and uncle. At some point my ma took control and began to manage the money. She had to be hard and strong to keep everything moving along.
In adolescence my narrative of my ma was that she was a cold person. I lacked (as many adolescents do) the wisdom and compassion to realize that my grandma was not cold–she was traumatized by a difficult life. I could never understand it when my dad would tell me that she treated me so well. I get it now: she needed to be “hard” to survive and she was softest with me. Now, this may have not been soft enough for me, but given what she endured it was as soft as she could be. My pa (who I also love very much) got to be the charming, playful parent. My ma wasn’t afforded this luxury.
My narrative of my ma in adulthood is that she loved me very much. Maybe more than any living being on earth. And all of those warm tortillas and lack of spankings and silly boutique clothes and toys–that was her way of showing me that. I no longer think of her as “cold”, I think of her as a badass who did what she needed to do to help us all survive.