My grandmother and I loved each other deeply, despite our language barrier
The last time I saw my grandmother was mid-January of last year. I had to pass through the kitchen to go to where she spent her last days and nights. I met the bedroom doorway to see her lying down, almost consumed by the blankets covering her. Even from afar I could see how thin and fragile she was. My grandmother was dying.
As my heart was silently breaking, I walked towards my grandmother and knelt beside her. She turned her head to see me — despite her condition, her eyes still shined. She gave me a faint smile as she said my name. I smiled and said hello, while gently grabbing her hand. She gazed deep into my eyes and said, “Siempre te amaré,” which means, “I will always love you.”
I repeated my grandmother’s words as tears welled up in my eyes. In that moment, I realized the inevitable would soon arrive. It was just a matter of time. I couldn’t help but to think that I never shared stories with her — stories of love, heartbreak, embarrassing moments, failures, and successes. I hardly talked to her. But our relationship was unique. We embraced it and made it our own.
All her life, my grandmother spoke Spanish. In the 1950s, she immigrated to the United States from Mexico with my grandfather, and soon thereafter they became permanent residents (many years later she became a U.S. citizen). She never learned how to speak English or come to understand it.
As for me, I don’t know how to speak Spanish. I understand it, mainly because I grew up in a household where Spanish was spoken just as much as English was. I know a couple of words and phrases, but nothing that will help me carry a fluid, lengthy conversation. I tried learning Spanish once — I used a computer program similar to Rosetta Stone. Self-conscious as I was, though, I felt I wasn’t speaking the language right and gave up.
What was placed between my grandmother and I was a language barrier. When she spoke to me, I understood her. But when I tried to talk to her in Spanish, I’d stumble over the words. I’d try again only to switch to English, hoping she’d somehow understand me. My grandmother would keep her eyes on me and listen intently, determined to make sense of what I was saying. As hard as she tried, she couldn’t. She’d end up turning to my parents for a translation.
Not being able to carry a conversation with my grandmother never frustrated me. What made up for it all was her and I showing each other affection in small and big ways. We cared for one another — deeply loved each other — and we always made that known.
My family and I visited my grandmother every weekend. The way my grandmother and I said hello was always the same, but it never got old — I’d walk into the kitchen to find her sitting in her favorite chair and a Mexican soap opera playing on a small TV. We smiled when we saw each other, our hellos overlapping. As I made my way towards her, she’d slowly yet excitedly get up from her chair. Once we were face-to-face, she’d grab my hands and give them a tight squeeze. There was a hug, kisses on the cheek, and then she’d motion for me to sit down. Unless my sisters wanted to go to our favorite room to talk, I stayed in the kitchen with my parents and grandmother. My grandmother and I wouldn’t converse, but I wanted to be where she was.
When we visited her, my grandmother had something for us, and that was homemade food. Delicious, authentic Mexican food. Some days she’d have tamales, meat or chicken rolled in cornmeal then wrapped in a corn husk. What was always sitting on the kitchen table though was a plate of sugar cookies or Mexican desserts. She knew sugar cookies were my favorite, and she’d laugh when I’d hurriedly grab one and devour it in seconds.
There were small yet hearty celebrations on birthdays. My family and I would visit my grandmother on her birthday with a cake in hand. We’d gather around the kitchen table and sing “Happy Birthday.” On my birthday, my grandmother would give me a card with a $20 bill and a handwritten note inside. She wrote her message in Spanish, but not once did that bother me. Her simple gesture meant the world to me, so much so that I kept her cards. As for other special occasions, like graduation parties, she was there, as proud as can be.
Seeing my grandmother, holding her hands, hugging her, taking pictures with her — simply being in her presence — was all it took for me to feel her love and give her my love. I miss her and the moments we had together, but I can still feel our love. Our relationship is something I will always cherish, as silent as it was. But to me, what we had spoke volumes.
Have I ever wondered what it would’ve been like to hold a conversation with my grandmother? Of course. I even got a feel of what it would’ve been like, thanks to a dream I had. My grandmother and I were at her house, sitting in the dining room, chatting away. She tells me, “You need to stop speaking English.” I smiled in my dream and when I woke up. She would totally say that.