is a special “little corner” in Somos en escrito for short writings: a single poem, a short story, a memoir, flash fiction, and the like.
Autumn (para Abuela)
by Eric Noel Perez
After divorcing my grandfather (for the second time),
my grandmother packed a bag,
scooped up my mother and uncle,
and left Puerto Rico headed for the Bronx.
She touched ground in 1959, and I imagine she was like
the Latina version of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz:
a stranger in a strange world
swept away by a tornado
of failed love, and broken vows,
hoping to find her yellow brick road
somewhere between 144th Street and Willis Avenue.
For herself. For her family.
And eventually, for me.
When she arrived
light posts greeted her instead of palm trees,
parking meters hemmed in the new world
like iron stalks of cold sugar cane,
and for the first time in her life
she encountered the hands of autumn.
They were brisk, multi-colored hands that cracked
as they moved across her unaccustomed skin,
hands filled with more doomsday fire,
more foreboding than she’d ever dreamt
during her hot, San Juan nights.
Her dresses and sleeves grew longer
as the daylight hours shortened,
palomas metamorphosized into garbage picking pigeons,
the deep, dark red of the leaves reminded her
of Caribbean twilight, and childbearing.
When my parents bought a house on Long Island
My father asked, “Doña, que te pasa?”
She said she was going to miss me.
She didn’t know she was coming with us.
She cried even more when he told her.
The suburbs agreed with Abuela more than the city:
less noise, more birds, backyard barbecues and hammock naps.
Every night in summer
the crickets faithfully fingered
their miniscule fiddles,
and though they certainly weren’t coquis singing her to sleep,
she still appreciated their song.
Abuela was my bridge to the past, my culture,
built on girders of Spanish music and Bible verses,
family recipes, and orange fingers
that smelled of onion and Sazón,
a reminder that in spite of the Heavy Metal and Hip Hop I’d adopted,
mine was an inheritance of ocean music.
When I turned 16, she began to change.
It was little things at first, like, she’d forget that
I’d already eaten, and another plate of rice and beans would
magically appear before me.
Important dates began slipping from her memory,
then the ingredients to her favorite dishes
as though bathed in too much Crisco.
Next to go were the names of old friends,
then the lyrics to her favorite boleros
(Daniel Santos must have felt like
a jilted lover).
She started talking to herself often,
answering strange questions
from invisible inquisitors,
even befriending her own reflection in the mirror,
sharing perfume with the unfamiliar face
that smiled sheepishly back at her).
Soon, all the attributes that composed my Abuela
fell from her in deciduous fashion,
stripping her of comprehension, of identity,
By the time the Alzheimer’s was in full season
she stood before us all diminished,
a photo negative of the woman I once knew,
naked as a tree in the heart of November:
limbs gaunt and knotted with age,
her memories scattered helter-skelter
like desiccated leaves around her slippered feet.
We moved her back to Puerto Rico in 1991
so she could die
with the touch of a familiar sun on her face.
Towards the end I hopped on a plane
and went to visit her in the nursing home.
She was sitting in a rocking chair on a veranda
behind a metal gate meant to protect the residents
from wandering off into traffic, into the death filled sea;
her vacant eyes were like hollow conches,
ribbons of light slipped through the iron bars.
She didn’t remember my name.
Abuela sat in silence as I held her frail, bony hand,
the same hand that had rubbed Vicks on my chest
when bronchitis struck with a vengeance,
the same hand that dropped caramelitos into my pockets
and loose change in my open palm
whenever the ice cream man came tolling his bell.
Holding that hand now was like holding an old eagle’s claw.
My mother painted her gray nails, and cried.
I kissed her cheek over and over again, knowing
this time she was the one who would be moving,
and that I couldn’t follow (not yet, anyway).
As I stood to leave, large, warm tears stood in my eyes
as her eyes grew heavy with gloaming stars.
Gradually her lips closed, quietly, slowly,
like the petals of a nocturnal flower.
Not long afterwards we received word Abuela had passed.
It was late April.
Spring was casting its colorful gems to and fro.
At her funeral I cast words of gratitude on her casket
like amapola petals.
October came. My first autumn without her.
The days still shrunk, the sun still cooled,
the wind still stripped the trees.
My mother, in an homage to hearts and healings,
made Abuela’s rice and beans.
They were good. Really good. But something was missing.
The clouds broke upon the cold, blue sky like waves on the Atlantic.
Wherever she was, a piece of me was with her,
and her with me, and I swore to myself that
no matter how much I loved New York
I wouldn’t forget Puerto Rico,
that no matter how much I dug the sound of an electric guitar
I’d hold a space on my heart’s altar for the cuatro.
Today, I have each foot firmly planted in two soils.
I taste life as I paint it, with two palettes,
and though much of the world may want me to choose a flag,
I have no problem straddling the border.
Driving to the supermarket with the radio on
my ears are filled with the clatter of synthesizer drums.
But it doesn’t drown out the timbale beating in my blood.