My Puerto Rican Skin

My beloved grandmother passed away in 1980. I was 18 and too selfish to be emotionally present. She spent the last year of her life in and out of hospitals, but all I remember from that time were trips to the beach. Even during her wake, I was more of an observer and less a participant. Fast forward to November 20 of this year, and the trip to Puerto Rico for my mother’s passing. I was not going to make the same mistake again.

For the first time ever, I agreed to stay at my mother’s house, albeit without her in it. I wanted … needed … to fully embrace my Puerto Rican skin and immerse myself in her world. And I traveled alone; I didn’t want this experience diluted by any part of the life I’d worked hard to create post-ghetto. Sadly, my trips to Puerto Rico are now numbered, and I had to experience it directly and unfiltered, just as I imagined my mother did.

Which meant sleeping in 100-degree weather without air conditioning or bug screens on the window. Which meant cars driving by slowly at 7:00 a.m. blaring sales promotions from local stores — Llamen Ahora! — with salsa music as a back drop. Which meant renditions of Silent Night sung en espanol and arranged with a salsa beat. Which meant frequent road-side stops for a cervecita fria y una alcapurria (Google it). And which meant the warmth and motherly nature of Puerto Rican women – I’ve known it all my life.

The wake was a see-saw of contrasts, and totally exhausting. Imagine a somber discussion about my mom being completely lucid til the end, deciding herself against intubation and directing her husband to sign the papers — “but do it over there, not here.” Follow that with an observation about her fake boobs — “They’re much bigger than the ones she had removed, and have you noticed that one of them is sliding down her side?” Then imagine the tiny funeral parlor filling with the smell of fry oil once the attendant begins to cook up some empanadas for the crowd. Then imagine what it’s like to hold someone close while their entire body trembles violently with unspeakable grief.

The funeral parlor was open from 8:00 a.m. until 11:00 p.m., and yes, I was there for all of it. So many townsfolk came to pay their respects. So many knew and appreciated her joy of life. So many stories about her generous nature. So many smiles recalling her predictably unpredictable nature. So much laughter at her inability to remain still.

For better or worse, we share more of those qualities than I care to admit. I am me because of this woman. When my time comes, I hope to have touched so many lives. Here are some photos of her world, direct and unfiltered. All of it is incredibly real.

Like she was. Like I hope I am.

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