The very earliest memory I have of my maternal grandmother, my Abuelita, is her teaching me the alphabet. I am sitting in a kitchen as she is going through each letter, one by one, on an alphabet set of refrigerator magnets. She then drops one letter, or the letter falls. It falls by the base of the fridge, which has a grid of some sort at the base, and I tell her that the letter “P” fell. She asks me what I just said. I tell her the letter “P” fell. “Ay, abuelita, se cayó la pe,” I say. I can hear myself saying this.
I blame her for my love of letters.
The story goes that my Abuelita saved my life on a couple of occasions. One of them was when a kerosene space heater exploded in my parents’ room. As my dad was trying to put out the fire, grandma grabbed me and ran out the door. Mom was in bed, unable to get up because she’d just have the c-section to deliver me. Years later, as we joked about how grandma didn’t care about anything but me, she said that I should be grateful. I am. (Dad eventually put out the flames and nothing much else happened.)
The other time she saved my life was when we were walking to church. There was a dog barking from under a garage door. There was just enough room for the dog to stick out its muzzle. The dog snarled and barked as we walked by. As any child my age would do, I tried to kick the dog. That didn’t work out so well. The dog bit my foot and started tugging. I freaked out, to say the least. A man who was also walking to the church came running over and started kicking at the dog then hitting it with his Bible. (Talk about the power of God’s word.) The dog let me go and grandma quickly checked me over to make sure I was okay. I was.
There were also the times when she saved me by helping me with a last-minute science fair project, last minute trip to return a book to my high school at graduation, and last minute all-nighter to study for an exam in college. That last time, she stayed up with me all night, making me coffee and chatting with me when I took breaks. As I read my books of science, she read her Bible. I’d go on to pass the exam.
If you haven’t noticed yet, my Abuelita was a woman of great faith. I don’t know when or how she turned to God. I’ve always known her to be Christian. She was very “fervent” in that regard, but she definitely mellowed-out as the years went by. To this day, when I think of a hardship that we went through together, I can hear her whisper-quiet prayers she’d say. That, and she recited Psalm 23 every night before bed. Perhaps the best attribute of her faith was her non-judgmental approach to that of others. She attended my paternal grandparents’ funerals at our hometown Catholic church, and she looked right at home. She also had no problems with my scientific and educational pursuits, displaying her pride for my accomplishments.
Grandma and Grandpa
In fact, Abuelita was the first person I ever drew blood from. I joke that she had the bruise to prove it, even ten years later. I remember that moment very clearly because of how nervous I was that I would hurt her. She came down to the lab where I apprenticed and sat in the chair while I got the supplies ready. Then, with a very shaky hand and at the direction of my instructor, I drew her blood. I even got to test it. Later on, once I was in college to be an honest-to-goodness lab tech, she let me draw her blood to keep practicing. She said I got better each time I took her blood. I think I did.
It was that ability to draw blood that took me away from her once I graduated from college. I took a job in Pennsylvania, and she stayed behind in El Paso. She was there for a few years after I left before being taken to Louisiana by one of my aunts. She was in Lousiana until last month, when my cousins desperately pleaded with my mom and another aunt to take my grandmother. It appeared that they were unable to take care of her, especially with one of my cousins getting married. It seemed to me that my Abuelita got in the way.
Still, they took her places.
The last few months were rough on her. She was unable to walk anymore, and she had other health problems. Still, she was bright and alert when I saw her a few weeks ago when I went to Mexico. (That’s when we took the picture I have atop this blog post.) Last Monday, she fell ill and had to have surgery. She made it past the surgery, but, not much longer after that, she was gone. The woman who stepped in to take care of us — her grandchildren — when our parents couldn’t (or wouldn’t) take care of us is in her final resting place back home in Aldama, Chihuahua.
I have all these stories and so many more of my time with her. Most were fun and endearing. Very, very few were sad or “bad.” And I have a smile on my face when I think of all of them. Today, she would have been 87 years old. And I miss her dearly.
Vaya con Dios, Abuelita. Dele un abrazo bien grande al Todopoderoso de mi parte.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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