Today is the book birthday for Mango, Abuela and Me – my second picture book, so sweetly illustrated by the talented Angela Dominguez. So far, so good. It has earned very nice reviews and mentions, including stars in Booklist and PW. Plus, I got word last week that it has gone into its first reprinting, so I’m thrilled, to say the least.
This time around, I’m delaying the launch a couple of weeks until Sunday, September 13, 2015, 1 PM – 3 PM. That’s when my pal, Gigi Amateau (Two for Joy) and I will do a joint book event at bbgb in Carytown to celebrate our new books and, even more important, National Grandparents Day.
According to USA Today, more than 4.9 million kids in America are being raised by their grandparents, a number that basically doubled since 2000. That wasn’t exactly the case for Gigi and me, but our grandmothers helped raise us just the same, and we love them for it. Our own grandmothers are gone, but Grammy, Abuela Bena and Abuela Fefa continue to make impact on us as women, mothers, and authors.
Benita Metauten was my mother’s mother. She had an eighth grade education and rolled cigars for a living in her family’s small enterprise. She would eventually marry a bicycle salesman, have four children, and find herself in the US. When she arrived from Cuba in 1968 –her nerves in tatters – I wasn’t sure I’d like her. The worried look on her face and the nervous hives that covered her feet frightened me. She became my babysitter after school, though, and our relationship grew. I began to enjoy her strange obsession with Lucha Libre wrestling on TV, as well as the countless stories of her life in Cuba, stories most people wouldn’t tell a five-year-old: grisly hurricane deaths, infidelity scandals in her old town, a man who tied up his daughter when she misbehaved, the day my uncle was sent to prison for trying to leave Cuba illegally. She had no filter, but maybe that’s why I loved her. And more, it was Bena who knew how to cook a proper lechón in our family, and Bena who showed me how to look carefully for rocks in the dry beans and how to use a wine bottle instead of a rolling pin on empanada dough.
Unfortunately, it was also Bena whose anxieties about life in this new country eventually kept my aunts and mother from taking risks on new jobs and better opportunities. If Bena wanted anything in this life at all, it was security and safety, and she would get them at anyone’s expense. She was gentle but she ruled others through her worry and doubt – never a good combination. Over time, her anxieties worsened, so that by the time she was 98 and bedridden, we were all swallowed up in her care. No one could stray far from her bedside without her panicking.
Still, in better times, I enjoyed her. It was this grandmother for whom I bought a small parrot one day at Woolworths. I loved animals, of course, but it was also a little offering to help her feel better about missing Cuba and the beautiful pet parrot she had left behind. That act would be the tiny seed that grew into the manuscript for Mango, Abuela and Me.
Not that the book is all Bena. I had another grandmother, too, whom I fondly recall as the General. Shades of her are in Mango, Abuela and Me, as well. Josefa Medina, known as Fefa, was my father’s mother, and she was another sort of abuela altogether. Sometimes we have grandmothers that we don’t know as well or even ones that make us feel uncomfortable. For a long time, that was Fefa for me.
Fefa was clear-eyed, tough, and unsentimental. But she was undoubtably one of the smartest and most moral women I ever knew. It was fascinating to watch her move through the world. She had only a sixth grade education, but what she lacked in formal schooling, she more than made up for in practical sense, dignity, perseverance, and a sense of duty. Her own life had started out with poverty and family troubles. (She and her siblings were dispersed among far-flung relatives when her father realized he couldn’t feed them. She was married at 14 and a mother of two by age 16, a fact that still pains me when I think about it.) But these hard experiences made her determined to build a stable family. She raised my father, who became a doctor, and my aunt, who went on to become a pharmacist.
Fefa disapproved of my parents’ marriage – sure that it would never work. She even stubbornly boycotted their wedding. But a few years later, she was utterly mortified by their divorce and was heartsick over what it might mean for my sister and me. She responded by insisting on staying involved in our lives. A seamstress in New York’s garment district, she would sew my annual wardrobe and deliver it every June for my birthday – a huge economic relief for my mother. Shorts, dresses, pants suits – each piece was laid out on my bed with pride so that it could be photographed and admired. It was even Fefa who bought me my first bikini at Ohrbachs in New York when I was thirteen. It was a day-glo orange and yellow number – certainly skimpy by her standards. I still remember how her eye twitched in disapproval when I stepped out of the dressing room. She had promised me a bathing suit, though, and Fefa was always good on her word.
Still, in daily interactions, there was nothing soft about my grandmother, and she scared me. She was an iron-fisted woman who demanded things her way. This was not an adult to whom you could confess your hate of tomatoes in your salad, for example. You ate them and shut up. And worse, she didn’t really appreciate my brand of girl. Fefa had antiquated and unshakable ideas about femininity, – a fact that was so suffocating as a kid. I was never allowed to play outside with my cousin Diego and his band of rough boys when I visited, for instance. I’d have to sit on the stoop miserably while they played tag all around me.
But maybe life wears down everyone’s rough edges eventually. This was certainly true for Fefa. Years into my adulthood – after I had become a mother and lived nearby with her great-grandchildren in Florida – Fefa and I finally seemed to soften toward each other. Maybe I had finally started to realize how the harsh events of her life had shaped her. Or maybe she took pity seeing me juggle three little kids and a career. I don’t know the exact catalyst, but there was definitely a change. And while I can’t say I was ever her favorite grandchild, I think in the end she saw that the wild child with knots in her hair and scabby knees had managed to turn out all right after all. When I hold this book, I wonder if maybe she’d even be proud to know that I thought of her and Bena on every page.
All of my books explore family in one way or another. Maybe that’s my life’s work, who knows? The dynamics of people who love each other deeply and sometimes hurt each other anyway is endlessly interesting to me. With Mango, Abuela and Me, I think even the youngest reader can relate to feeling tentative about a grandparent or feeling a divide, whether it’s language that is the obstacle or something else. But I hope families who come to this story also discover the strength to be found when we connect across the generations of our families. That’s what I found out, anyway. We learn our own story by learning the story of all those imperfect people who came before us. We take our place inside the long, unfolding tale of our own people.
Can’t make the official launch event? Signed copies of Mango, Abuela and Me are available starting today at Chop Suey Books at 2913 W Cary Street, RVA. Call Ward and let him know you’d like to have one! 804 422 8066 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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