Aunt Cecilia falls silent and looks at Mom, as if waiting for her to continue. But a few minutes pass and when Mom finally speaks, she seems to have forgotten about the Mariel boatlift and "the crowd."
"You know why we stayed in Cuba so long?" she asks. She then answers herself: "Because, at first, your grandmother had a crush on Castro. She used to tell us, 'See how handsome they are, Fidel and his guerrillas? They look like Jesus and the apostles, with beards and everything.'"
I giggle. Mom doesn't notice and goes on, "I tried to convince her to leave when everyone who was anyone left, but she wouldn't listen to me. To her, I was a failed woman: a wife who had been unable to keep her husband and shouldn't be allowed to have a saying in the family's future."
I sigh and focus on my fingernails. How many times have I heard that story? Skin-deep wounds never stop oozing, even if the one who caused them will be 6 feet under in a matter of hours.
"I don't think that was the reason why we stayed," Aunt Cecilia replies. "It was fear of the unknown, perhaps fear of the factory. See, in 1959, your grandmother had no work experience at all, having always been a housewife -"
Why is she addressing me? It feels as if Aunt Cecilia and Mom needed me as a mediator in their chat.
"She was terrified at the idea of working in a factory, as it had happened to many of her friends when they arrived in Miami," Aunt Cecilia says. "Your mother was fresh out of college with a useless degree, I was a teenager and, on top of that, there you were: a 3-year-old girl with no father around. What a delightful package! That was why she decided to wait and see if Castro shaped up."
"Yes, and if it hadn't been for our relatives, we would still be in Cuba, waiting for Castro to shape up," Mom shrugs. "Thank God for them."
Aunt Cecilia shakes her head.
"Ha! Thank us for working hard to keep the family afloat. Because we didn't sit on a rocking chair to see life pass when we got here. She did, but we didn't have that luxury. We hit the ground running and haven't stopped ever since."
"We took care of her," Mom says. "As soon as we had the means, we paid for everything. But you know what? She didn't appreciate it. Nothing could make her happy. I suspect she always wanted to go back, but was afraid of the family's reaction."
"I, for one, would have never forgiven her," Aunt Cecilia replies. "It wasn't as if we had left anyone behind."
My father, I want to say. We left my dad behind. But he never cared about me; he didn't even write me a letter once or send me a birthday card after he and Mom divorced. I guess we are "a dysfunctional family," as they say here.
"I wouldn't have forgiven her either," Mom says.
They have finally agreed on something. Since agreement (about anything) is unusual for this pair, they clam up.
I excuse myself, walk to the casket and pretend to arrange the flowers. Then I do something I hadn't dared to yet: I look at Grandma for the first time since the funeral home guys brought her in.
It's not a pretty sight. Why did they put so much makeup on her? She only wore Coty Airspun face powder, so old-fashioned that I had to buy it at Walmart because no other store carries it anymore. The deep blue eyeshadow, the mascara and the purple lipstick that bleeds off her mouth look out of place, so much unlike her. Staring at the clownish face that I can't even associate with Grandma, I realize that she is gone. Also gone are her dichos and her issues, her Cuban sayings and all the things she never said. Gone is her smell of cinnamon, burned sugar and faint cigar smoke.
Mom and Aunt Cecilia are whispering again, criticizing their mother and talking about all the ways they were wronged by her. But then, what else is new? There wasn't any love wasted between Grandma and her daughters. Whenever they got together, estrogen-charged daggers crossed the air, stabbing Grandma in Spanish, Spanglish and, as years passed, English. Grandma never learned it, so Mom and Aunt Cecilia had all the advantages when they Anglicized their insults: "Damned old woman, we are so sick and tired of you."
Back in Havana, Grandma was the matriarch, the one who led the family after my grandfather passed away, but here she lost her power. She turned into a poor woman who couldn't wait to get "de sochal secooritee," as she called it, to buy Coty Airspun powder without having to ask her daughters for money. She'd have been better off working in a factory, after all.
The Spanish version of this story can be found here.