When I was about two or three years old, my grandmother had a swan sculpture that sat neatly on the tabletop above a round, white, lace doily. The bird stood as a quotidian shrine of sorts; one to an animal my grandmother believed was the epitome of beauty, elegance, grace. This swan was not the first shrine, nor would it be the last. Her home, my home, was peppered with their image. Apparently one day, in a fit of childlike mischief, I decided I wanted to break it. As the story goes, I looked my grandmother in the eyes and pushed it off the table while she was warning me not to. No matter how old I got, my grandmother liked to give me a hard time about my roots as a defiant toddler. Those roots persisted into my adulthood, as did her disdain for their existence. In many ways, my defiance was bodily: I was a big “tomboy” of a baby who wreaked havoc too often to be dainty, elegant, graceful.
My grandmother loved to tell us grandkids tales of her femininity, of her youth. My abuelita, Abad, was a glamorous, beautiful, brown, Latina into her old age. She was confident and self-assured. I marveled at her ability to command a room. I loved that about her. She grew up poor in Ponce, Puerto Rico. She moved here and struggled but managed to raise four fantastic women with her husband in Brooklyn, New York. She’d seen a lot of trauma but she always remained mischievous, exuberant, vivacious. She loved herself in a way that I’m still trying to learn. And she did it in a racist, sexist, society that thrives on teaching women, especially women of color, that they are worthless. That was and always will be incredible to me.
Her confidence showed in her appearance. Whether she was going to a doctor’s appointment or a family outing, it was important to her that she was put together. She always wore red lipstick, was meticulous about her short hair, her outfits, her jewelry. She always wore gold. One piece in particular: a long chain that had four different pendants. Three crosses and a small golden swan. Even as she was hit with mounting health problems from rheumatoid arthritis to diabetes to heart attacks, she always made an effort. She may have needed us to help her apply her makeup or put on her shoes but she made sure things were to her liking. She was dainty, elegant, graceful.
In our family, her long, wavy, jet black hair was legendary. It was the measuring stick against which our hair was measured even when it was replaced with a cropped cut that was more gray than black. She may have complimented your hair on a good day, but she’d be quick to remind you how beautiful hers was. We’d roll our eyes, slightly annoyed but thoroughly amused. You always knew it was coming.
My hair was the first place that I went wrong. My eldest cousin had long, sleek, straight hair. The other had long, thick waves. My hair was frizzy, tightly curled and unruly all the way through. The second place I went wrong was my size. Where my cousins’ waists tapered, mine widened. They were petite and I was six feet tall. I never felt beautiful by those standards. I always felt ugly, out of place. Too tall. Too fat. Too puffy. Too much in every way possible. My body never said moderation. It said excess. It said unacceptable. I was constantly met with microaggressions that made that apparent. My grandmother would tell me to try the latest Telemundo diet or a new way to condition my hair that would “calm” it down. How many times can your grandma jokingly tell you that somebody on Caso Cerrado eats cat food to stay thin and laugh that you should try it before you say fuck it? How many times can people be more impressed with your weight loss than your GPA before you stop giving a shit? Somewhere along the way, I learned to make my own standards. I’d never measure up in the ways that they wanted and I knew that. I was a fat, queer, Latinx who never wanted to be “normal.” So why use their measuring sticks? Why not make my own?
If I was going to be fat and frizzy and queer, I’d wear what I wanted anyway. I went from trying to hide myself, my body, to openly daring people to stare. I bought big combat boots with chains that made sure you knew I was coming as I stomped down the street. I never felt more beautiful than with a freshly shaved undercut. I glared at the random people on the subway who gawked at my large, lumpy, six foot tall frame with half its hair missing. I dyed the hair that remained green and blue. I wore lipsticks in shades that my family found unnatural: gray, eggplant, black. My nails were painted a swamp olive glitter more times than not, in a shade that I loved for its name as much as its color: Zombie Zest. I got my septum pierced, even though my mother begged me not to. I was told by her, by my grandmother and by my aunt that I would look like a bull. This didn’t deter me. One day, in the midst of all these changes, a cousin looked at me with the same disdain my grandma often eyed me with and said, “It’s like you’re just trying to be ugly.” Our ideas of beauty were so opposed that I was illegible to her. But I had already learned not to care. My fucked up femme battle armor protected me now.
My grandmother’s frustration flared up with each of these changes. My grandmother wasn’t afraid to tell me when she thought something looked ugly. When I dyed my hair blue and cut it short, she asked my partner why he allowed me to do that. He confusedly said that I could do whatever I want with my body. She replied, “That’s not nice.” She was disturbed. Even HE couldn’t restrain me.
These moments hurt. They contributed to a self hatred that I’ve only been saved from through my defiance, my need to be contrary, to give you the middle finger. I was just as strong willed as she was, and thus, I was a challenge to her ideals, her way of seeing things. She was a challenge to mine. She hated that I didn’t agree with her and wasn’t afraid to tell her. But now, I see that our similarities often got us into more trouble than our differences did. Neither of us knew when to back down. We had strong beliefs that we had trouble compromising on. But in the end, she loved as fiercely as she fought and so did I. My grandmother didn’t always love the decisions I made. But she always accepted me in the end. Perhaps out of frustration or a realization that this was just the way that things were, would be. I loved that. I loved her. Her strength, her stubbornness, her confidence and her humor have constantly inspired me, even as I went in directions that she may not have liked. They guide me, albeit down paths very different than her own. The battle against hating myself (one that I’m still fighting as a person with anxiety disorder, a non-binary femme, a QPOC) has always been aided through the lessons she has taught me, just by being herself, even as her own adherence to patriarchal standards often manifested in well meaning remarks that were ultimately violence against me.
On July 5th, I lost my grandmother. A few weeks before, I’d been asked to participate in a Doctoral Institute in Los Angeles as a rising third year PhD student. Right before I was scheduled to fly out to California, she was admitted to the hospital. She had what we later learned was gangrene, she needed an amputation. I went to visit her and tell her that I loved her before I left. I didn’t want to go but she insisted I did.
She was hurting, huffing in pain, so I made a joke about my septum and how it smelled bad. I told her that there was a name for it: septum stink. She laughed and shook her head in fake disgust. She may have been the most dainty, elegant, feminine person I’d ever known but she couldn’t resist a gross joke. They were her favorite. They were our common ground.
At first, things went well. But by the time that I was heading home, complications of surgery were apparent. She had a kidney infection. She wasn’t doing well. They were going to have to start dialysis. Once I was back, I met my mother at the hospital. Things were worse than I could have imagined. She could barely open her eyes. She did for a minute and saw me. I held her hand as she struggled to breathe. I told her it was okay. That we were there with her. She was in pain. She was swollen. “Her hands don’t look like her hands,” my mother said.
We stood there in shock as a swarm of doctors came in and out, asking us questions that scaled in scariness, ending with whether they should revive her or not in the worst case scenario. They decided that she needed to be in Intensive Care. They pushed us out of her room to ready her for the move. We paced the hallway. When she was finally ready, we followed her towards the elevators. We didn’t want to leave her side but we couldn’t fit in the elevator car. My mother told her we would be right there. She looked straight at us, nodded and waved. That was the last time I would see her conscious.
There are no words to describe the horror of watching somebody you love deteriorate. The cacophony of feelings, thoughts and wishes, swirling, screaming in your head. The desperation. The night before she passed, fireworks rang in the air as we drove home. It was the 4th of July. My aunt had picked my mother and I up from the hospital when our shift ended. I stifled back a panic attack the entire ride home. We sat in silence. When I got home, I exploded. I was hysterical. I was exhausted from the night shifts, the day shifts, the waiting, the worrying, the grief. My partner held me while I sobbed.
I barely slept that night. I woke up to a text around five in the morning the next day. She had passed. My tears were hot. They stung. I cried until my skin was raw, until I was red and tired and numb. I felt relief somewhere in between the sobs. Our nightmare was over. Still, I feel like none of this was real. Like I’ll wake up and find her there, sitting in her chair, watching her shows and offering me some of her leftovers. Weeks ago, I asked my mother to cut my hair. She cut it into a choppy bob, designed to hide the too high side shave I’m growing out. I loved it. My first thought was, “I should go show Ta.” My second thought was, “Oh.”
For some, grandmothers are linked with special occasions. You see them on holidays or when your parents feel like taking you to visit. For me, my grandmother was home. She was routine, ritual, in the most beautiful way. I’ve lived with my parents, my brother and my grandparents since I was born. Twenty-five years. We had gone from her helping to take care of me to me helping to take care of her. There is nothing that can really explain the sick sort of hollowness that I feel, knowing that part of what made my home, my home, is gone.
Never again will I hold her as I help her outside onto her swing in our backyard on a hot summer day. I’d bring her cherries and swat away the bees as she laughed at my terror. Never again will I see her serious face as she threw down serious dance moves to whatever song was playing on the radio, usually merengue. She’d shimmy her shoulders and shuffle her arthritis ridden feet. Never again will I listen to her voice as she dramatically belts out the lyrics to “Besame Mucho,” with such confidence in her performance. She may not be able to hit all the notes but, WOW, did she have stage presence. Never again will I hear her hearty laugh, after she made a mischievous remark or an inappropriate joke. These, and so many other things, are what I remember and what I will miss.
But in the midst of my sorrow, I am reminded of how lucky I was to have her for so long and in the way that I did. This is my first major loss as a twenty-five year old. It is a devastating one but the fact that I’ve lived without loss for so long is absolutely a luxury that is not lost on me. I mourn alongside many others who have lost family to natural causes such as illness as well as unnatural causes normalized by structures of racism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism and ableism. For her, and for them, I fight.
I am reminded that she was an incredible woman who had a huge hand in my being the person who I am. I see just how much of her fiery, feisty spirit I do have. And I’ll continue to try and use that spirit for good.
She taught me that generosity was incredibly important. No matter how little she may have had at any point, she was always doing what she could to help others. Whether that be with money, food, time or energy, she gave everything that she had. This lesson is one that I cherish and that has guided me to the work that I do, one that has informed my friendships, my love, my commitments. My grandmother and mother have both instilled in me a generosity, a compassion that I am truly grateful for, as it often seems that they are the components most lacking in a world full of injustices that I’m dedicated to trying to help fix.
But she also taught me that having fun is a necessary component of life. In the midst of all of her illness, her pain, her trauma, she loved to laugh, to live. She had attitude for days and everywhere she went, people were enamored by her. She was charming, magnetic. She walked around like a little queen and expected to be treated as such. That confidence, that joy for living and adventure is one that I aim to emulate. Even as I struggle against my own anxiety disorder, I vow to try and be as fearless, as adventurous and as shameless in my own glory as she was. In a world so full of so many structures designed to harm people like me and those that I love, this is a survival mechanism that is necessary. May she guide me in my travels to seek joy in the face of fear.
I often called her my Granny Smith Apple. What started as a pun, turned out to be the perfect name to describe her. She was the perfect combination of sweet and sour. She may have hurt me with a rough remark or poked my chichos or asked questions that pissed me off but she always made sure that I knew she loved me deep down, with her actions. She may have voiced her displeasure but right after, she’d go back to asking me about school, my partner, my day. She’d listen to me talk about my work even when she didn’t really understand it or particularly care about it. She cared about me and that was enough to warrant a little of her time. She might have made comments about my weight but she’d offer me all of her food in a heartbeat when she knew I was hungry. She always did.
She called me Piloto. Pilot. A masculine verb in Spanish, a language where binaries are foundational, fundamental. Binaries that Latinx people like myself fight against daily. Still, that masculine verb, that nickname, honored parts of me that I at first didn’t even know were there, that I was drawn to but always feared. I am a non-binary femme learning to dip their toes into the butch that they were warned to guard against for fear of ugly, for fear of queer. Perhaps my hair does frizz, my arms do jiggle. Perhaps my features, my movements, have never, will never be dainty, delicate. I am hard femme meets soft butch. I am made to survive. Built to last. I withstand weathering. Like she did. She is somewhere. Believing that helps. I am somewhere. I’m still figuring out where that somewhere is. Where do I live on this in between? Will I travel along it, shifting, shaking, sprinting, swinging, singing, swaying hips? With every fucked up DIY dye, every chop of the scissor or buzz of the razor, every workout that makes me feel ready to fight a racist, every day without a binge or without wanting self-harm, every crop top when a deep part screams out in fear, with every button down and bowtie made to perfectly offset my lipstick, I’m meeting myself. I’m doing it with a fierceness that I didn’t have before.
Last week, I spent time with a dear friend: Bee. Her brilliance, her warmth, her balance were healing as I’ve been struggling through this loss. She spoke about how our ancestors were rubbing oils into their skin, draping themselves in gold and objects of ornamentation. We had spent the day perusing such objects at the Museum of Natural History. Gauged earrings. Necklaces. Bracelets. Septum rings. Gold. Silver. Ritual objects. Masks and other such forms of divine dress. My grandmother was one such ancestor: one of many that I honor. She shaped my queer non-binary femme identity without even knowing it. Sometimes through opposition, sometimes through acceptance. While I mourn the loss of my grandmother, I know that I still have many role models, many rocks to turn to. Mother. Brother. Aunts. Cousins. Friends. It is because of her that I have all this, and because of her mother and the many women before them both. I’m honored to have known her, to carry parts of her and all of my ancestors with me.
Today, I’m wearing her golden swan pendant around my neck as I type this. My mother found it in her jewelry box on a chain that also carried those three small gold crosses. When she mentioned it to me, my eyes welled up. Memories surged back. My mother saw my face and cried with me. She had lost her mother. She was still mine. One day I will mourn her like she mourned my grandmother. One day, somebody will mourn me the same. This is the terrible, beautiful, cycle of things. We’re always in the in between. Until we’re in the beyond. I don’t know that I’ll ever meet her there. If there’s any there to meet her in at all. I know that, for now, I’m here. Muddling along. Missing her, barely making it but still, muddling along.
Abad. Abuelita. Granny Smith Apple. Tata. I carry you with me always. In this pendant. In my mind. In my blood. I carry you inside this strange, big, queer, body. Perhaps we’ll both make peace with it someday.