My daughter, Mythili, has come home from school for two days with tears streaming down her face. She has locked herself in her room, needing a while to adjust to what the afternoon, and its homely comforts, could offer her. Yesterday she cried because she wasn’t returning the homework due, and her teacher stood outside of the school and told me that she needed to bring it, and that she didn’t seem particularly happy at the school, though he’d seen her sisters adjusting quite well. Today, it was his insistence on her using cursive for writing out her numbers, a form of writing that is foreign to her. Kind of like the language that is foreign to her.
We are in Spain. I have picked up my family and moved in the opposite direction of progress, to a country with a 20% unemployment rate and a government that can’t decide what to do with itself. Mythili, like me, is struggling with understanding all that is asked of her, and just like I couldn’t get the phone line installed when I wanted, she didn’t know when to turn in her homework.
These moments that I have omitted from my Facebook posts, that I have mostly kept quiet, these are the moments that I think about my grandmother’s story. She told it to me more than once, a bright line from Heaven shining down on her faith, her childhood, her way of looking at this world.
There are so many things that I could write about my grandmother. It could begin with the two weeks we used to spend with her every summer, where she’d take us to the beach (we all had to carry a chair and a towel, to take turns holding handles of the cooler), to the bargain shops to pick out new outfits for school, to church where she would pray and introduce us to her priest, to the small pond in Bethany where we swam and played on the playground. Those visits were the highlight of my childhood summers, and as an adult, when I planned visits, she still did everything in her power to make it special, calling me a week in advance to ask what meal she should prepare, asking me what show in New York we should go see, driving across states to visit Bob or Willow.
But it is the childhood stories, the ones she told me on long road trips or train rides, that I will remember most distinctly. To this day, I cannot allow my children to carry a spoon, a stick, a straw, or anything in their mouths as they walk around, for pure fear of what might happen to them as my grandmother reiterated many times the tragic loss of her twenty-one-month-old baby sister, who died from an infection in her throat after tripping with a lollipop stick in her mouth. The time when she went with her father, at age nine, to go look for an apartment across town because her mother was so heartbroken over losing her baby that she couldn’t live there any more. I can still hear my grandmother’s voice: “I looked out the window of the apartment down below. There was an empty lot. And a little boy was taking his car and making tracks in the dirt. He looked up for just a moment and waved at me… that was the first time I saw your grandfather.”
The story that stands out the most for me I have replayed in my mind many times over the past five months. In a period of two days, I found out that I was accepted into a teaching program in Spain, that my grandmother was entering hospice care, and that I would have to quit the job that I loved so much rather than taking a leave of absence.
I kept thinking about my grandmother’s childhood journey, and the one of her mother before her, coming to a country she’d never seen. My grandmother told me that when she came back to the United States at age eight, even though she’d been born in America, she only spoke Italian. She had much difficulty understanding English in school. All the kids at school picked on her and called her a guinea. She talked about how her father, “in his broken English,” went down to the school and told the teachers that they needed to help her, but that no one would help her.
At her wit’s end, she went to church. She knelt on a pew and prayed to God to help her, to help her learn English so that she could be a part of her new country, so that she could be educated. She prayed and cried, and soon a nice Irish woman came over to her and asked her what was wrong. She tried to explain, and the woman took her in, helped her learn English, introduced her to the man that she would one day marry. “And I knew,” she told me, “I knew that God had heard me, and that God was looking out for me.”
I will never forget those words and what the story meant to my grandmother. Her experiences, her stories, have trickled down four generations, and I feel my family living a life very similar to hers now. All along this arduous journey of sacrifice I have made to bring my family to Spain and fulfill a lifelong dream, I have thought about what my grandmother would have told me to do. And what my grandmother’s parents did; the risks they took.
So when I see my daughter step into her room and cry because she is so frustrated, because she doesn’t quite fit in, because everyone in her class knows her name though she knows none of theirs (“Why do they know your name?” “Because they talk about me all the time since I’m American,” she replies), I think about my grandmother. I think about her story, about her struggles growing up in the Depression, and then moving on to a better life, raising the four children she loved so much, doting on the seven grandchildren whose visits she cherished.
I will always remember our visits. The memories will dance like a filmstrip through my mind, sweet and melodic. But it is her words, her stories, that will trickle down and make me, and all the generations her soul has touched, the people that we were meant to be.