Rosas Para Rosa

My grandmother is dead and everything is worse now.

She is all over my memories. She handled childcare when my mother and father were working, so my earliest memories have more of her in them than they do my parents. Even after my mother became a homemaker instead, my grandmother was never far. She had seven children, but it was my mother who was closest to her, and she usually kept her home near or within ours. She is so everywhere, so everywhen in my memories that even now I struggle to attach things specifically to her, because she was a linchpin in my entire life. I remember sleepovers, visits, Christmases, birthdays, Fridays, total non-events, and everything in between, omnipresent as air. There will not be more.

She loved animals. If my father’s side of the family had Yeyo as a cat-loving aberration in a city-bred lineage that seemed to tolerate pets at best, my mother’s side was agricultural stock that never felt right without animals around. She and my mother told stories about encountering snakes and tropical land crabs on their family farm in Puerto Rico, having a pet falcon trained in falconry, and tending to flocks of chickens. I have no memories of her that do not involve animals in her home. Cats were a constant presence, but she also tried her hand at so many others: goldfish, rabbits, ferrets, zebra finches, parakeets, an enormous Rottweiler named Lady who was probably not a good fit for the small apartment a few miles away from our home in New Jersey she inhabited at the time. I was afraid of that gentle giant of a dog, and her contemporaneous cat Cindy was afraid of me, and the zebra finches laid eggs despite living in a too-small cage, and I don’t remember why she rehomed the ferrets and rabbits, and I inherited her fish-keeping equipment whenever she gave up on keeping aquatic pets alive. Her metal-framed, slate-bottom 20-gallon aquarium, a style long supplanted, became a terrarium I used for lizards. In the shipment from my parents I recently received, there were unfamiliar items that were the leftovers of her last attempt at keeping fish, one last watery bequest. There will not be more.

Her cat lives with my parents now. When they found him, after her passing, he was starved, shrunken from his previous heft into a bony shell of himself. It is only a week later that he started filling out again, so shaken by his loss. Six years ago, he lost his other parent, and then he lost his left eye to glaucoma, and then he lost her, too. I spent a lot of time with him during the funeral visit. He was just as affectionate as I remembered.

A large tuxedo cat in soporific bliss in my arms.
Thank you for keeping my grandparents company, you beautiful one-eyed giant. It’s time for us to take care of you instead.

We all thought we had more time. Her health was, if anything, improving. She had gotten her diabetes under control and become more active, even as her mind was fading and ears failing. None of us thought she would make it to 90, but it didn’t seem like she had yet acquired whatever infirmity would be on her death certificate. I had hoped to see her alive again before this, to make a visit to turn the voice on the other side of five years of phone calls into sight again, and then I got a phone call from my parents and that hope died with her.

She fell. She had a heart attack, and fell, and hit her head, and my parents have to live with what they saw when they finally found out why she wasn’t answering her phone or the door and smashed their way in. On Sunday, I had my usual pleasant phone call with her, less than two weeks after my parents had visited me with a truckload of my memories, and on Monday, the bottom fell out of all our hearts.

Perceptive readers will notice that I got the news firsthand, right away, which is not how it happened with my grandfather. In the six years between, the seas changed, and my grandmother was one of the navigators on that voyage. I keep a mental list of the relatives who made the earliest switch to my new name and pronouns, and my grandparents were among the first. Even when my parents held on to their struggle for years longer, my grandmother called me by my name, called me her granddaughter, and asked whether I’d found a boyfriend yet because the idea that my transition didn’t make me a straight woman didn’t quite compute. Among the things I found in her home when my parents brought me there to claim some of her items as mementoes was a roll of Pride ribbon, in the modern extra-inclusive triangle design, meant for a craft project that never got made. And it seemed, if my deeply religious grandmother, recent convert to an evangelical Baptist church, could accept me, the rest of the family stopped feeling like they had an excuse not to. That was her greatest, most final gift to me: putting deepest lie to the hateful insults my parents had sent my way all those years ago, that my transition killed my grandfather, and then, bringing even the most regressive of her children to heel. I was warmly received at the airport, at my parents’ home, at gatherings of tens of family members, in no small part because of her. And she’s gone now.

A roll of Pride ribbon at my grandmother's sewing station.
She came a long way from accusing my ex of transing me.

I photographed most of her home. I lingered in rooms I had only even been in once or twice before, because the condominium in Miami she most recently inhabited had mostly coincided with my time in Ottawa and then with the long estrangement between me and my family, because they felt so much like her. I claimed some jewelry, at my parents’ suggestion, as well as some of her refrigerator magnets and a statuette of an owl from the DeRosa collection that I had gifted her during one of my first trips back from Ottawa. I don’t think my parents know why I claimed the owl, but I know. I also claimed a chicken. My grandmother collected depictions of hens and especially roosters, whether as jigsaw puzzles, wall art, or statuary, and I claimed one that was on the end table near her television, but I couldn’t bring it with me. My luggage was already full of books and childhood toys that had escaped my parents’ efforts to pack them for their big trip my way a few weeks earlier, and the large statue would not have arrived safely. My parents wrote my name on its underside and set it aside for me. Someday, it will join the two rooster fridge magnets, each shown guarding chicks, that are now on my refrigerator.

A rooster-shaped jigsaw puzzle glued to cardboard and mounted on my grandmother's wall, depicting a pastoral scene.
She did so many things like this.

I didn’t want to leave. Every step made the cruel march of time that much more real, hastening the moment when all that remains is photographs and memories attached to statuary, when her clothes are long donated and whatever knickknacks her relatives did not claim have long migrated to thrift stores, when someone else (probably my brother) has moved into her condominium in her stead, when I pause before dialing her number during my Sunday phone rounds because I know no one will answer, when she is well and truly gone. Even now finding places for everything I brought home, even the things not connected to her, is a slow process, because that finality hangs behind every book finding its site on my shelves and every glued-down jigsaw puzzle in a frame—one of her hobbies—finding a space on my wall. There will be no more gifts.

There will be no more visits to the Rahway River to collect gambusias and snails. There will be no more invitations to “put our feet in the pool,” sitting on its rim and relaxing tired limbs without getting soaked. There will be no more plates of fried spam and scrambled eggs, not even crude imitations of rustic simplicity I could manufacture myself because my guts will not allow it. I will never get to compare her alcapurrias to mine, or see if she thought my coquito recipe was an improvement on hers. She was the last point in my life that truly lived the big-family giant-recipe life that all our traditional recipes assumed and I only learned a few of them before this. I wanted to bring home a jar of ground cumin, utterly ordinary cumin, because it was in her kitchen, but there was no room in the luggage. There is never enough room in the luggage.

Digital painting of my grandmother Rosa Nieves by Jenn St-Onge, showing her smiling wreathed by pink roses.
In memoriam, by Jenn St-Onge.

When I made my unannounced, unwanted-by-others visit to my grandfather’s ceremony, I brought him royal poinciana flowers. They were a testament to the oddball status he cultivated, and a symbol of his homeland, and something I could find in Miami on short notice. For my grandmother, I brought a stalk of the miniature rose I grow in my window, with three flowers. The other constant in her life, alongside the roosters, was the flowers whose name she bore, and my parents placed that motif everywhere in the proceedings that it could fit. To that fragrant chorus I added my own, cultivated on the hydroponic leavings of the aquatic pets she helped start me loving, grown in the city that helped me find myself, brought one last time to one of the people who helped the rest of the family find me. They had been damaged in transit, despite my sincerest efforts, but they were there, and they made it.

I made it, Mima. Te traigo rosas de me jardín. Rosas para Rosa. Quería verte una vez mas antes que esto. Tuvo planes para venir a verte. La vida nunca pasa como queremos. Estoy aquí ahora, con rosas de mi jardín. Llegué. Al fin llegué. Literalmente al fin.

Rosas para Rosa. Roses for Rosa Nieves, beloved grandmother; matriarch of a family whose sheer scale escaped me until my uncles took count and showed us that she had 21 grandchildren, 24 great-grandchildren, and six great-great-grandchildren; benefactor in ways the me of 2014 could scarcely imagine; voice at the other end of weekly phone calls she apparently talked about to the others because none of them were as consistent.

My grandmother is dead and everything is worse now.

But before she died, she made so many things better.

A photo of Rosa Nieves my sister printed, framed, and displayed at her wake. Rosa is an old woman with a halo of graying hair, wearing a Hawaiian shirt.
RIP, Mima.
Rosas Para Rosa