In the first part: During her grandmother’s funeral, the narrator wonders what her family life was like in Cuba and listens to her mother and aunt talk about it. In the second part, the narrator listens to her mother and aunt discuss the reasons why they didn’t leave Cuba until the ‘80s, as well as their first years in Miami, Florida. She sees her grandmother’s role change from matriarch to an old lady dependent on her relatives. In the third part, Grandma shows up in spirit to argue with her daughters, who are unaware of her presence. Someone makes Cuban-style coffee, but the narrator’s mother and aunt complain it tastes “like cardboard.”
While Mom and Aunt Cecilia talk, Grandma comes back from the kitchen and plants herself right in the middle of our group. She has removed the funeral makeup and wears only a thin layer of her favorite Coty Airspun powder. The persistent smell of cinnamon, burned sugar and faint cigar smoke still follows her around like a fragrant aura.
She intentionally steps on Mom’s toes and elbows Aunt Cecilia. Aunt’s cup of “cardboard coffee” falls to the floor and explodes into tiny blue and white pieces over the green linoleum floor. Everybody looks at us.
“Pobrecita,” someone says. “It’s always hard to lose a mother, no matter how old she was.”
There is an approving murmur from the bingo ladies. If they just knew!
Aunt Cecilia and Mom don’t say a word, just stare at each other. They don’t have vision powers, as far as I know, but when ghosts decide to make their presence felt, it’s difficult to ignore them. Trust me on that one.
Aunt Cecilia brings a striped dish cloth and starts wiping the coffee off the floor. Mom picks up the cup’s broken pieces.
“I went to work for that Coconut Grove rich family in November 1980,” Grandma tells them. Even in death, her memory is quite sharp. “I cleaned their house, took their children to school and cooked for them. Now that I think of it, I did the same I had done all my life in Cuba for you guys, only that here I was paid for it. That’s how you two had the time to learn English and get decent jobs. Thanks to me! So don’t go around saying that you took care of me since day one, desgraciadas!”
This version of the story is new to me. I always thought that Grandma had been totally dependent on her daughters until it was time for her to collect her Social Security. I don’t know who is telling the truth. I don’t know if it matters anymore.
Three guys in black come in. They are from Rivero Funeral Home. Their faces show the requisite empathetic expression of those who deal with death on a daily basis – for a paycheck.
People stand up. Conversations die down. It’s time to take the casket to La Ermita de la Caridad, the church where the funeral Mass will be celebrated in an hour. Grandma wasn’t a churchgoer, but this is the right thing to do, Mom and Aunt Cecilia determined.
The bingo ladies put their untouched demitasses on a table. One begins to say the Hail Mary in Spanish.
Uncle Lewis and the three funeral home guys lift the casket. Mom trails behind, a handkerchief over her eyes. Is she crying now? Aunt Cecilia trudges after her.
I don’t move. I keep watching the eerie figure in the polka-dotted muumuu and wonder if she will follow the mourners to La Ermita de la Caridad. But she enthusiastically gives the finger to the pallbearers and goes back to the kitchen, where dark drops of coffee are still leaking from the teta.
I go after her.
“Aren’t you going with us?” I ask in a low voice.
She flips the bird once more, her little middle finger cutting the air heavy with cigar smoke.
“I don’t have a thing to do there,” she answers. “Besides, funeral Masses are too depressing, even if they are your own – particularly if they are your own. Don’t you think?”
I consider it for a moment.
“Maybe not,” I whisper. “They may say nice things about you.”
“Who is going to say them? A priest who didn’t even know me? Ah, cut the crap!”
I take a chair and wait while Grandma serves herself a cup of cardboard coffee.
“I wish they could have heard what you just said,” I tell her. “That was a different story, the kind you never wanted to share with me before.”
Grandma sips her coffee.
“It doesn’t taste like cardboard,” she pronounces, disregarding my comment. “What if it was a little old? These girls got spoiled here. I won’t miss them!”
“A little bit.”
Her legs begin to dissolve in the air.
“Wait!” I hold out my hands. “I wanted to find out – I have so many questions! Where are you going, Grandma?”
“To Cuba, m’ija. Where else? And this is my last trip, I swear.”
With that, she is gone. Mom pokes her head inside the kitchen and says something about being late for the funeral.
“Aren’t you coming?” she asks.
“Why not?” she replies, exasperated. “What’s wrong with you? I thought you loved your grandma!”
More than you did, I want to answer. Instead, I go to the bedroom and slam the door, ignoring Mom’s pleas that come through the walls made of paper and saliva. Alone with the absence of Grandma’s ghost, I attempt to conjure her smell of cinnamon, burned sugar and faint cigar smoke.
This is the last of a four-part series. The Spanish version of this story can be found here.