My grandmother was a spectacular woman, a true warrior who stopped at nothing to keep her family safe and well fed. She was ahead of her time in ways that are easy to admire and hard to explain: she was fierce, a very confident and assertive piece of work that always spoke her mind. When other women her age were looking to get married and raise a family to escape poverty or their particular circumstances in 1950s Puerto Rico, Delia decided to stick to her guns, got a job as a seamstress, moved to New York City not knowing a lick of English to live with her newlywed sister in the Bronx, and adamantly shooed away unwanted and unwelcomed attention. That is until my grandfather earned his way into her well protected, shrewd heart.
Fate stepped in to help my grandfather, the late Don Eladio aka Layo, conquer this wonderful woman, who was attending a wedding of a common friend, amidst fighting a severe cold. All it took was one look and he was smitten. He asked her to dance and she said no, rushing into the ladies’ sitting room, dead set on leaving only after he stopped waiting by the door. A fight broke inside the venue’s facilities, and everyone was told to evacuate. My grandma rushed outside leaving her coat behind. Seizing the opportunity, Layo told her to wait outside as he pushed through the fleeing crowd to impress her, grabbing the garment she’d left behind. He must have laughed when Delia thanked him and went on her way, not even dignifying his gallantry with a phone number.
Lucky for her, grandma’s best friend had mentioned the church they attended on Sundays. When grandpa presented himself at St. Michael’s with flowers, she felt bad for slighting him and offered to meet him at lunch at a local diner. A few months later they sealed their engagement with a kiss during the 1954 New Year’s ball drop in Time’s Square. The rest is history, and very much the foremost reason why I am typing this blog post. Between the two of them they gave their all to raising two daughters and a son, six grandchildren, and got to see the bulk of five great grandkids; a sixth who is on the way will never get to meet them in person but I am sure they’ll share their adventurous and courageous spirit.
My grandmother helped rear me from the moment she knew my mom was pregnant, single and still living at home with her parents. She made sure my mom did what she thought was best and supported her along her desired career path and motherhood journey. When my sister was born, grandma did her best to take care of her too even though menopause and a few crazy events led her intentions astray. She had put every penny into her children’s education and by God did she do whatever it took to help them succeed at everything they set their mind to, even if she didn’t like it. The worst criticism and praise I ever hears came from Grandma Carmen, as we knew her, even though her entire life everyone had called her Delia.
We knew her by her legal name, one she had found out she had when getting documents ready to remarry her husband. According to my records, the family found out they had been celebrating her birthday on the wrong month and date because the person that registered her at birth, not her parents but a neighbor that conveniently went into the city around the time of her arrival, made a mistake a confused her with her older sister, who is, you guessed it, called Carmen! The 9th or 10th kid out of 16 pregnancies, she was security stuck in the middle. Her parents called her Delia, and so did the rest of the clan. I learned to call her that later in life, when I realized mamitita, mami or abuelita weren’t her real names. Who knew, right?
Delia was a strong woman, and the moment all her babies left the nest she got a job taking care of the elderly through a Federal at home program. For decade she fed, washed, nurtured and loved underprivileged adults who didn’t have family or friends that could take them in during their golden years. I learned the value of life, compassion and empathy from her, gifts that made me a resilient and grateful human being. The sweat off her brow and the savings in her little retirement bank account testament that no one will take better care of you than yourself; that you have to make your own dreams happen and ensure your future by putting a little money aside for emergencies and special life events. She uses to give me $20 each Christmas and birthday so I would have enough spending money for college, and as a reward for good grades. I still recall the $500 she made my mom withdraw for my wedding planning because she wanted me to wear something pretty for my big day. I donated the dress to a Cancer society’s bridal fundraising sale just cause I knew that would make her proud.
Born in Comerio, in a hut right by the river, she never imagined living until she was 90 years old, traveling the world one cruise at a time, and much less departing this earth a few weeks before her beloved eldest daughter, my mother, who died of complications of glioblastoma, a rare aggressive form of brain cancer. On December 18th she said farewell, happily reuniting with my grandfather, who had left us 10 years earlier on Dec 12th, a day after their 54th wedding anniversary. My mom, born on their first anniversary date, must be busy catching him up on the latest and greatest family news. We miss them all terribly. Wish the story hadn’t ended so soon in my life but I will do my best to carry on in y’alls absence.
Thank you grandmother for the rice and beans, the pasteles, the Friday lasagnas, the dinosaur nuggets, the Campbell’s chicken noodle soups and the alcapurrias. Thank you for picking us up from school, for the arroz chino, Kentucky Fried Chicken and the hurricane watch stories by candlelight. We are forever grateful for the fundraising opportunities you offered as we agreed to clean your house for a few extra dollars to use on limbers, piragüas, candy, the occasional toy and ice cream. I appreciate the nights you lulled me to sleep, sang to make me smile and held my hand when I got scared in the middle of the night. All I am I owe in great part to you.
I love you abuelita Carmen! Forever and always. RIP. 🕯