When I was six, I found lemongrass for the first time in my Grandma Rose’s garden. I was running around with my brother and noticed the stalky, tall bush near the steps to the house and decided to pull a strand because I was six and wanted to touch everything. It was brittle like straw and tore easily, making a scratching, squeaky sound like grasshopper legs. I noticed something funny about the torn strand and brought it to my nose. Lemon! It smelled like lemons! But it was a bush! What was going on here? I looked at the bush in amazement. I was baffled and enchanted, and saved it in my hand until my parents told us to say goodbye and we got into the car.
Then, we drove to Abuela’s house (though, she did not become “Abuela” until I was older and my Spanish was better). I loved all my grandparents very much, but I had spent the most time with Abuela. Before we moved away, Abuela picked me up from day care each day and stayed with me at my house while my brother was in kindergarten and my parents worked long hours at the hospital. I was the baby of the family at that time and got to have Abuela all to myself. She became the person I brought my treasures to.
Now, though, we lived an hour away and I only saw my grandparents on the weekends (I realize now with gratitude the sacrifice my parents made each week to do this on top of their two-hour-plus long commutes each work day). I tumbled out of the car bursting towards my Grandma Sol and Grandpa Alfonso’s house, where my abuela came to door laughing and opening her arms to me. Abuela always smelled like flowers and she always had on soft clothes and had soft hands that she used to hold my little fingers or stroke my arm or smooth my forever-unruly curly hair. She gave great hugs and gave me a great big one that day.
“Look!” I said, thrusting the lemongrass, the middle now wilting in my sweaty little palms, at Abuela.
“Ohhh,” she said in the sweet voice of wonderment you use with a child, that I now use with kids, “what’s this mijita Linda?”
“I don’t know!” I said, excited, “It’s a bush but it smells like lemons! I found it at Grandma Rose and Grandpa Pete’s house. It’s magic!”
She smelled it and acted as amazed as I felt. She took it from my hands and said, “Oh, I know what this is! It’s lemongrass. We can dry it and it becomes the most delicious tea. Here, I’ll show you.” She took my chubby little hand in her soft one and brought me into the house.
I don’t know if Abuela liked to garden. My Grandma Rose had fruit trees and flowers everywhere, but the most greenery I remember at Abuela’s was prickly crab grass and the giant avocado tree in the back that would gift us delicious fruit throughout the year. Abuela might have handled flowers well, but what she did instead was she turned the aguacates to delicious food. She’d slightly toast up a corn tortilla on the old, rusting gas range, her nails pinching the edges just enough to flip it without getting burned on the open flame, like a magician. I always thought she was magic.
She’d cook the tortilla just right, put in some generous slices of aguacate, add a pinch of sal, and hand it to us in a napkin. We’d sit there in the crowded yellow kitchen at the vinyl table with the birdcage on it, hunched over our palms, devouring the taco de agucate and I would marvel at how Abuela could take an aguacate and a tortilla and a little bit of sal and turn it into one of the best tasting meals I’ve still ever had. It was perfect because she just let everything— the corn of the tortilla, the creamy, rich aguacate, the sal, speak for itself in perfect harmony.
That was Abuela’s magic, her alchemy— she could take things and put them together and make them beautiful and wonderful. Chicken thighs and bitter chocolate and chiles and peanut butter and spices became mole, my papa’s favorite dish. She took plastic toy fun pieces that came in bulk packages she brought to the house and wrapped them with ribbon and cellophane and made them beautiful to sell at the swap meet where she and my grandfather worked for decades. It was only later that I realized that my grandparents may not have much by way of financial wealth, but Abuela worked hard and made things that were plain in parts magic in their wholeness. Food was better and gifts were more beautiful when she put them together.
Now, 26 years after showing my abuela the magical lemon bush, I am 3,000 miles away, sobbing on my table at midnight. My face is down in my arms and I’m weeping because twelve hours earlier I got the text from my mom that says, “We tried to call you. Grandma is gone.”
After seeing the text, the blood drained from my face as I sat down at the table and called my parents. At first, I marveled at how numb I felt, but it was fleeting. As soon as I heard my mom’s voice saying, “Hi, mija,” my body crumpled in on itself.
“What happened?” I choked out.
It was peaceful, they said. My papa came on the line, his voice calm even though he has lost his mother an hour ago. She hadn’t been awake since I spoke to her yesterday. Abuela’s breathing had slowed and Papa noticed so he called everyone in and she slipped away. “It was so peaceful, mija. She just slipped away like going to sleep. It’s okay,” my papa consoled me as I sobbed. “It’s okay.”
But none of it feels okay. Despite everything I have done to try and prepare for this moment, I am not ready for my abuela to be gone.
While many have noted that the COVID-19 pandemic may be letting the world heal itself, it kept me away from my grandmother as age made its final ravages of her body. It meant that I was not there to hug her one last time or to squeeze those soft hands that used to wrap around my little ones, the skin now wrinkled and papery, as she left our world for another. Now, her body has been burned and only smells of ash, not flowers, and we’ll put it into the ground some day when we can finally come together as a family again.
For now, though, I am alone. After sobbing all day and being consoled by Michael and calls from my family, I have snuck out of bed and into the living room to cry on my own. While I know that Michael would wake up and hold me if I need it, I do not need to be held. I need to write—not just as a tribute, but because I am terrified. Abuela’s love feels clear, but I’m scared the memories that let me know that are not. I remember Christmas a few years ago, wrapping my arms around her while she held me, taking a deep breath of her perfume and thinking, “Don’t forget this smell, this moment, when you are so clearly enveloped in your grandmother’s love.”
But I’ve never had a great sense of smell nor memory. There are so many things I’m scared of forgetting or scared I don’t fully remember. Was the kitchen yellow? Did my grandparents have a bird cage there? Her bedroom in the house was always dark and mysterious, smelling like incense with a messy bathroom attached— right? Or was that something I dreamed?
One of many problems with being far away when someone you love leaves us is that you are stripped of the chance to participate in the collective memory. Later, my father will tell me how they sat on my aunt’s back porch and shared memories of my abuela— funny stories, the food she made, the way she took care of us. I could not be there, though. Instead of reminiscing with my family on my aunt’s porch, I am far away, on an island my abuela never got to see.
I try and blink the tears out of my eyes as I look out the window at the darkened ocean. A small smile crosses my lips for a moment. I think she would have liked to see my view overlooking the beach. “Que bonita,” she might have said, marveling at it all. She might have had some complex feelings, the tension of her sadness that had started when we moved an hour’s drive away to my sojourn across an ocean balanced with the fierce pride she had that I was doing well and living somewhere beautiful. I can still hear the way she would say “Hawai‘i” tinged with a Mexican accent— Hah-WHY-ee. “My granddaughter is visiting all the way from Hah-WHY-ee!” She’d brag to the nurses when I came to visit her in the care home— something I’m horribly ashamed that I didn’t do enough. She’d smile and pet me, her hands forever soft, the skin thinner and thinner as she got older.
Maybe she’d see my view and think I was spoiled. I don’t think she would have minded. Abuela loved to spoil us. She always wanted us to have that little extra or something nice, finding us little trinkets like the little cotton ball chick at Easter that I still own. As a little girl, she’d take me to Hugh’s grocery store even though it was pricier, because she knew the man at the bakery counter would see my big smile and give me a sprinkle cookie, which she knew was my favorite. Abuela even called me “consentida,” without a bit of acid in it. For years and years and years I thought it meant “sweetheart,” just because of the way she said it. She’d give me a tostada with crema or a popsicle, kiss my head and call me “mi consentida linda” before going off and doing something else. Years later, I was sitting in a Spanish classroom at my high school only to learn that “consentida” is not a term of endearment but the word for “spoiled!” I brought it up with her later, and she just shrugged and laughed. I laughed too.
I reach back into the recesses of my mind and try and find my first memory of Abuela. It’s hard to do. We spent a lot of time together in my first childhood home in Monterey Park. If I close my eyes, I can still see her from my seat on the carpet in front of the TV, waiting to eat my snack at the battered wooden coffee table. I’m three or four and I look up at Reading Rainbow or Sesame Street— she always had on PBS because she wanted us to be educated— and if I look just past the TV to the right, there’s Abuela, cutting, slicing, mixing delicious food together. She’d make me egg salad sandwiches with lots of mayonnaise and make just enough to put another scoop in my favorite little bear bowl so I had an extra treat. She’d set it on the table with some Goldfish crackers, make the crackers swim at me a little until I giggled, grab my face, kiss my forehead, and then get back to cooking something else. She made sure we knew that she thought we were special, that we were loved, that she wanted us to have all the best things.
I open my eyes again and write everything I can down— the lemongrass story, the time a few years ago I pushed her in her wheelchair to get caldo together (what did we talk about? Why can’t I remember?), the way she sang the theme song to a cartoon she thought I loved to me, the way she told me, “I love you,” every time I spoke to her, including the last time we spoke.
I write until the knot in my chest swells up so much that remembering hurts. I put my forehead on the table and cover it with my arms as if I could barricade myself from the truth, though I know I can’t. My head bounces on the table as my stomach convulses and I cry so hard I can’t breathe. Abuela is gone. Abuela is gone. Abuela is gone. And maybe the magic is too.
How do I live without my abuela? I never got to show her my wedding dress. I never got to tell her how much I loved her cooking. I never got to ask her the millions of questions I have now. Why didn’t I call her more? There were so many times I thought about it, but felt it would make me too sad and miss her too much. I feel so stupid now, realizing how in my fear of missing her I lost chances to talk to her at all. I knew the end would come some day. I remember the first time I noticed that Abuela was, indeed, getting much older. Sometime in my mid-twenties after I came home from Hawai‘i to see her, I got up to hug her and realized she had shrunk down. Oh, no, I thought to myself then, it’s starting to happen. There’s a moment where we all realize that the people we love are getting older, are not promised to us forever. But still, we think there’s time. There’s always time, always a next time.
I wish I had more time.
I stumble from the table to the couch and cry hard into a pillow, my glasses falling off in the process. Everything is blurrier than it already was with the darkness and my swollen eyes. I close them tight, trying to remember Abuela’s voice, see her face, remember the way it felt when she held me. I’m so scared it will fade away.
Ya, mija, I hear her voice in my head say, soothing me.
“But you’re gone,” I say back, weeping quietly into the empty air. “I wasn’t ready for you to be gone.”
I’m right here with you, she replies. I remember the way she smoothed my hair, still unruly as it was as a child. I always told you I’ll always be with you.
I blink my eyes as they adjust to the darkness and see, for a moment, Abuela in her red sweater in our kitchen in Monterey Park.
My little hands holding scissors as Abuela teaches me to use the edge to curl ribbon.
Abuela standing under the shade of the swap meet tent, bargaining with customers and throwing us smiles in between. “Are you okay, mija?” She asks as she walks by quickly, smoothing my hair and giving me a kiss.
Easter, Abuela is handing me a styrofoam glass of milk because I ate chili paste thinking it was salsa. She wipes my crying eyes. “It’s okay, mijita.”
I am thirteen and in my first play, Fiddler on the Roof. I look out at the audience, knowing that my dad helped Abuela make the hour-long trek and she’s out there somewhere. I smile big for her.
Abuela greeting me with a big hug at a kiss at one of countless family parties, asking me how I am. I am fifteen, seventeen, nineteen.
Abuela’s 80th birthday. I am twenty-four. We take her to a big Mexican restaurant and she puts on a sombrero as the mariachi band sings “Las Mañanitas.” We all laugh and laugh.
Seeing Abuela for the first time after moving to Hawai‘i, she pulls my chair closer to her. “Tell me, mija,” she smiles at me, “tell me about your new home.”
I am twenty-six, weeping on the phone because Abuelo has died. My Abuela has lost her husband, but still, it’s her consoling me as I cry because I didn’t get to say goodbye.
Visiting Abuela in the care home, bringing her Tommy burgers with my papa so we could all eat lunch together. She gossiped about the other people there and told me stories about my grandfather.
“I have something to tell you,” I smile big, Michael’s hand in mine, at a paleta shop last July. “Estamos comprometidos!” I see her face break into a big, big smile. She always smiled big whenever she saw me.
The second to last time I saw Abeula alive, on FaceTime. We greet each other, and then she asks when we’re having babies. I laugh. “Vamos a tratar en dos meses!”
She smiles. “I can’t wait,” she says happily.
I close my eyes, crying hard again as I remember all these things. Then, I remember the conversation I had with my aunt hours earlier. Even though she has also lost her mother, I was the sobbing one she consoled. “She loved you so much, mija,” she insisted. “And she knew you loved her. She heard you say it. She knew what was going on. She knew it was you. I was right there.” She says it with a fierce sense of conviction, needing me to know that my abuela loved me.
Later, my parents did the same, both reminding me that her love would not leave. “Your grandmother will be right there when you get married, when you have kids. She’s right here with us, mija,” my dad insisted soothingly as I cried and cried into the phone. “You, Christina Elizabeth Torres-Estrada, are never alone,” he told me, each name a reminder of the large family I am connected to.
I remember these conversations and my breathing slows down. See, mija? I hear her voice. I’m not gone.
Abuela’s magic was putting things together and making them beautiful. I see now that this gift extends to our family too. No matter how far I move away or how long I’ve let it be since I see or speak to my family, they consistently welcome me back with open arms. There are times where I’ve been scared they’ll scoff at my distance or the fact that I don’t come home more or call more often. They never do. Each time, it is open arms, hugs, laughter. Even now as I am thousands of miles away, they hold me their hearts as we collectively mourn the woman who raised us all and whose love still connects us now.
As lonely as mourning feels, each time I cry it is not only with sadness but in awe at just how much my abuela loved me, loved all of us. Yes, the food, the sound of her voice, the feel of her hand in mine are important memories, but they are only parts of a bigger truth. “Her family was her masterpiece,” Michael said, while I cried and remembered my her.
And it was true. We were her deepest joy, her great work, her showstopper. Abuela’s magic cannot leave, because she left it in each of us. We no longer have Abuela with us, but her love is magic enough.