When I was a little girl — around four or five — my mother put me in the car and told me we were going to pick up Grandma. We drove to the train station, then stood on the platform and watched the train pull in. A few moments later, a woman emerged from the steps between two cars into the bright, white sun and walked toward us under the shadow of the roof. I squinted. She had espresso skin and round cheeks. She smiled and hugged me closely and I could smell her flowery perfume. I knew her. She came to my birthday parties and sometimes we spoke on the phone, but she wasn’t the person I was expecting to see that day. Puzzled, I looked at my mother. “Where’s grandma?” I asked.
My mother and grandmother realized why I was confused. “This is your other grandma,” my mother said. “Grandma Estella, from New York City. Remember?”
I did remember, but to me, and probably to many four year olds, words were static and assigned. As we begin to put language together, we tend to generalize to the point of ambiguity, ie: anything with fur is a dog. Or we specify to the extreme, ie: the word dog applies only to our dog. The word Grandma, for me, was like this. It was not just a word, but a name. It applied only to my mother’s mother, who lived on New Scotland Avenue, on the second floor of a two-story house that was brick on the bottom and yellow on the top. The woman with oatmeal skin, who shuffled down the hall in Isotoner slippers and spent evenings at the kitchen table pinning rollers into her hair, with a Benson & Hedges Menthol 100 in one hand, smoke curling gracefully around her shiny, red nails. The woman who clapped when I danced and took naps in the afternoon. That was Grandma, and Grandma wasn’t here at the train station.
To avoid any more mix-ups, it was decided that day that Estella should have her own special name. One we could use to refer to her and only her. We decided on Granny. And that’s what she has been to me ever since.
Granny was born in the Dutch West Indies and moved with her family to Puerto Rico as a very young girl, so the language of her childhood was Spanish. Now, she is in her mid-nineties. She lives in a nursing home in the Bronx. The last time I was there, we spoke in her native tongue, our faces inches apart, for most of two hours. She spoke slowly enough for me to run each word through my internal translator and if I didn’t understand, we switched to English. I heard recently from a cousin that she now speaks only Spanish. She is the only one in our family who does, so I know that when she is gone, the Spanish will be gone too.
Language is curious. It connects and divides, describes and differentiates. Words help us understand the world and ourselves. We learn that we are tall or short, that peppers are spicy, that father and dad can be two words for the same person. We learn that falling can represent our bodies hitting the ground unexpectedly or something more abstract, like falling in love, the feeling of our stomach dipping, our hearts opening. We learn that we can play with words, use them to tell stories about our past, use them even to modify our own memories. This post is full of words, none more accurate than Granny. It’s a word that goes beyond language. It’s my name for the woman who planted roses in her backyard and trimmed her garden with plastic spoons. The woman who loved me enough to take the train to Albany and give me a hug. The woman I’m on my way to see right now, to return the favor.
Thanks for reading. This post was a long time coming. Find the musical pairing at www.facebook.com/WGiBF.