Until Mara’s conversion to a new religion back when I was eleven years old, we had never been particularly God-fearing nor religious. The weekends had always been entirely my own before then, and while I had been encouraged to be good and pray before going to bed, none of those ideals were ever enforced in our home.
Our home life changed drastically on that fateful day Mara decided to join a church full of weirdoes who took their religion much too seriously. Mara stopped wearing jewelry and makeup. She became a vegetarian, abstained from coffee, tea, sweets, and salt. She then began introducing hell into our home.
The way we fought and quarreled because she wanted me to join her in going to church, the way she criticized my appearance and anti-social tendencies when I began going to High School, and the way she one day hit me across the face because I had dared tell her that her God was a tyrant made me re-think my idea of hell. It was something that was experienced while alive as well as after we died.
It was during that time when Grandma moved in with us. Grandpa, Dad’s father, had passed away and Grandma was in need of healing in her time of grief and nothing seemed more convenient to that end than a change in scenery and surroundings.
At first I had been extremely wary of the woman. My maternal grandmother had not made herself loved and had even terrorized those closer to her until the heavens deemed it proper to relieve humankind from that querulous woman with the bellicose disposition. I suspect even Mara breathed a little easier after her own mother died.
But Grandma Jovita was much, much, different. She had a heart of gold, a honey-sweet temperament and a patient gentleness that I found absolutely irresistible. Her first words to me had been, “There’s mi nieta Antonieta!”
It was the Antonieta that did it. No one else called me by that name, and hearing it from her brought in a rush of memories…
Before they had moved with Auntie Agustina in Dallas, Grandpa and Grandma had lived in the family home in Mexico. We’d gone vacationing there one summer back when I had been a small child, and if my memory is to be relied on, I spent the bulk of my time with her while Mara and Father went on days-long trips to who knows where.
Grandma had aged considerably since then, so we did not take daily walks into the sunshine as we had done when I had been a child. But she was content with sitting in our garden dozing or humming to herself as she embroidered. I practiced my Spanish with her.
“You didn’t bring your guitar with you, grandma?”
“Child, I haven’t played for many years”
“What happened to it?”
“It’s back home.”
“With Auntie Agustina?”
“No. Home.” I saw her eyes take a dreamy, distant look. Did she miss her old home back in Mexico?
“Are you tired, grandma?”
“A little, mijita. But I must keep working on this. It is to be yours when you get married.”
I hooted, “Like that will ever happen!”
“Everyone says that. I used to say it myself. I must have been around your age when I had my first proposal.”
“Fourteen, my dear. But I had my lands, I had my own farm to run. Why would I ever need to marry? Still, a woman always needs a companion and protector, so in the end I married Eustacio who was the poorest of all my suitors, but the one whom I liked best.”
I wanted to know more about it, and would have asked, but looking at her quivering smile and her wistful gray eyes I knew that it was best to change the subject. I did so without realizing that it would make her even sadder.
“Grandma. Do you still believe in God?”
“Even though he made Grandfather sick, and then took him away from you?”
“If it is his will that your grandfather had to go in that way, then who am I to say anything?”
“But Grandpa was good!”
“Your grandpa was good. But who can understand it all? He’d been so healthy and lively even on his last day. He even went to walk the dog and returned with a bag full of oranges. He asked me to peel him some for his breakfast. Suddenly he just collapsed. He didn’t even cry out. It was the dog who began barking like crazy. So they took him to the hospital, but he never woke up.”
I cut in, worried because she had worked herself up to tears, “I’m sorry Grandma. I didn’t mean to—”
“—I don’t know why God had to take him away like that. I—I—just—I wish he’d taken me too.”
Mara came in at that moment to intervene. She gently led Grandma into the house, then came out and gave me an earful.
Later when the sun was going down I sneaked into Grandma’s room. She was still in bed; her eyes were open and she was alert but very quiet.
“What is it, Antonieta? Why are you so far away?” she extended her arm to me and I took her hand, gingerly stroking the soft, age-spotted, paper-like skin on the back of her hand.
“Grandma. I’m sorry” I said, sitting down on the eiderdown cover.
“Sorry? For what?”
“I’m so stupid. I didn’t want to make you cry.”
“You are not stupid.”
“Oh yes I am.” I began to cry, “And wicked too. So wicked and evil. You just don’t know the things I do and the things I think about.”
“No you are not wicked. You are sweet and kind and good. You’re just going through a difficult time. We all go through it.”
“But I don’t believe in God.”
“Oh, mijita. Why?”
I couldn’t answer. I just continued crying. She scooted over a little to give me room, and once I had lain down next to her I just let go and cried and cried. It was a good thing Mara had set a box of tissues next to grandma’s bed, because I made good use of them.
Once I’d grown calmer, grandma spoke, “My little one. I love you very much. No matter what silly or awful things you may do I will always love you and you will always be my beautiful Antonieta. Can you believe me? Now, I am your grandmother. But God is your maker. He is your father, too. And he loves you very much. That’s who he is. He can’t help but love you. Yes—Yes, he does love you mijita. Much more than I can ever love you. Do you understand?”
“And no matter what you’re going through, even when you’re in pain, you can always say the Lord’s Prayer, and he will listen and help you. Do you want to pray with me?”
“Let’s pray together”
“But you can’t kneel”
“My dear, you’ll have to do the kneeling for the both of us.”
I knelt beside the bed and took her hand. And just as she had taught me to back when I was a child, we prayed the Lord’s Prayer.
“Now repeat after me . . . ‘Our Father in heaven,’”
“Our Father in heaven,”
“Hallowed be thy name,”
“Hallowed be thy name . . .”
When we finished praying I once more put my head in her pillow with my hand clasped in hers. In silence we watched the darkness steal in the room. I felt a strange drowsiness come over me, and with my last conscious thought before I succumbed to sleep I prayed to God–Grandma Jovita’s God–to keep my grandma safe and healthy for many years to come.
Part 17 of If You Only Knew