Lorraine Acevedo Franqui

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THROUGH TIME AND SORROW –

It was a clear summer afternoon. The sun spread angry, golden fingers, reaching for cotton-like clouds that escaped from its grasp.  A breeze blew strands of my hair back and forth, inviting leaves into its dance of twirls and turns in the air. It carried the smell of dead flowers and freshly dug, humid earth. It was eerily quiet. I clasped my hands behind me, my eyes to the ground as I kicked pebbles away with my combat boots. Not far from me, the person I love the most in the world was crying softly, kneeling in front of the simple grave with a white marble top belonging to Alejandro Franqui. A bouquet of red roses rested on it, as if forgotten. Tears streamed down the furrows of her face, those lines which the passage of time had carved mercilessly upon her warm skin. My mother stood behind her, reaching to wipe away a furtive tear of her own every now and then.

I looked around the row upon row of graves in the “new” Mayagüez Cemetery; some elegantly covered in marble and emblazoned with praying, delicately-faced angels, while others were marked with a simple and occasionally dented metal sign stating the name and date of death. The great majority were marked with white cement crosses with the name etched across them, the puertorrican equivalent of the style of headstones I had seen in the States. Others were unmarked, just a spot of disturbed earth signaling their existence. Plastic flowers dotted the ground in spots of reds, oranges, purples and pinks where the wind had abandoned them after knocking them from the graves. White mausoleums with Roman columns and gated entryways rose from the center of the site. I imagined caskets stacked upon each other inside with family members in various stages of decomposition. But here, in the outer terrains, closer to the walls, graves like Alejandro’s are nothing but holes in the earth with a lid on top.

I usually love making my way through the mazes of graves, looking at the dates and names and making up stories for those in eternal slumber. But not today. Today I have accompanied my grandmother, Amelia Rivera, to visit my grandfather’s grave on the 20th anniversary of his death.

As I watched my grandmother and mother cry, I somehow felt it was wrong of me to feel nothing. I had never met my grandfather, for he died when I was but a year old. He called me his niña bonita and despaired on the days my mother didn’t bring me to him. But I have also heard of the many times he abandoned my grandmother, the mother of his eleven children, for other women. Then there were the beatings my mother and my uncles and aunts suffered through as children. I don’t know how to feel about him and, quite honestly, I can’t understand the feeling behind my grandmother’s tears and her undying loyalty and love. The kind of love she demonstrates with flowers from mutual respect and consideration, things I don’t believe he ever gave her. I felt angry with him, at my grandmother, even at my mother. Why, after all, was she here, despairing over a man that didn’t value her and who disappeared from her life whenever he felt like it? Why after he forced her to fend for herself and her children, she received him with arms wide open every time he came back?  I thought I wanted to know more about him, discover what made him worthy of my grandmother’s devotion, but then I realized it was not him I don’t know. I don’t know Amelia Rivera.

In the eve of summer of 1959, Amelia Rivera was but eighteen- years old, living in barrio Limón, in Mayagüez, and the trail of memories behind her were of endless hard work and few signs of affection from her family. Since she could walk, she had climbed a mile up and down a slope to a small stream to gather water for her father’s baths.  Her father was the same man who shared his bed with countless lovers and shamelessly fathered illegitimate children. Her mother, a bitter woman and enraged at her inability to stop her beloved husband’s constant betrayals, vented her anger upon her own children. She told Amelia every single day that her hideous appearance would be her downfall and she would never find a husband.

This photograph should’ve been her senior picture but her father had withdrawn her from school when she was nine. Just before she left school, she had passed a test that had placed her two years ahead of her own class. But it was not to be. Still, she kept her dream of becoming a lawyer close to her heart.  It was a dream that would never set foot in the realms of reality but wander the vast worlds of her imagination for the rest of her life.

Still, when her friend, Sonja, had asked her to accompany her to get her senior picture taken, how could Amelia refuse herself such an indulgence? Why couldn’t she imagine for one moment that she was graduating too and soon embarking on a successful future? So she slid the red silk dress she had proudly paid for with what little income she earned as a clerk at a shoe store over her skin and joined her friend at the photographer’s studio.

His name was Antonio. “He looked so handsome,” she said, an almost glazed look in her eyes as they stared at some piece of memory from long ago. The feeling weighed down her words, almost palpable in the air. “He was dressed like Kevin Costner in that movie, The Bodyguard. He looked like him too,” she said shyly.

I listened to her story as I sat on one of her upholstered, creamy-brown sofas in her mustard yellow living room, sipping the third glass of soda she had brought me.

A funeral was an odd place to meet the love of her life, some might say. It wasn’t any less of a surprise to Amelia herself, to feel those very first stirrings for a man, a thousand butterflies spreading colorful wings and taking flight in the pit of her stomach at the very sight of him. And all that took place in a tiny chapel in some little barrio up in the mountains of Mayagüez called El Limón.

Her father had ordered her to attend to the funeral of one of his cousins. Amelia attired her small frame in a deep blue dress, one of the nicest pieces of her modest wardrobe and invited her only friend, Sonja, to accompany her. They had to walk about a mile to get to the small, wooden church. When they arrived, the service had started and they quietly made their way to one of the deteriorated pews in the back.

The service ended. The double doors opened and the pallbearers carried the casket out to the cemetery. As she followed the procession out, young deep brown eyes met experienced hazel ones. Sonja pointed at the man clad in a cream suit, standing tall and square-shouldered, and placed a claim on him Amelia wasn’t about to cross or ignore, regardless of the manic thumping of her heart against her ribcage. A strayed stare and a furtive smile that brought color to Amelia’s cheekbones did nothing to diminish Sonja’s determination, who seemed oblivious as to the place where the man’s interest was obviously directed.

Once the service was over, the man approached the young pair and asked for their relation to the deceased. The three talked until the sun began the march to its resting place, allowing the moon to reign upon the sky. It was then he offered them a ride home. Amelia knew how her father would react if she arrived home in a man’s car, so she gently turned him down, but Sonja insisted and she so she felt she had no other option than to accept Antonio’s kindness.

He asked Amelia to sit in front, much to Sonja’s chagrin. Amelia directed him to leave her some distance from her house, but before she stepped from the car, Antonio asked her full name. Coyly, she told him before closing the door and walking to her house in a daze.

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It wasn’t long before the name she had given away was proclaimed over the radio, in a song dedication. Some time later, the sounds of a mariachi serenade drifted into the window of her humble room, as if the wind desired to deliver it to her in person. She didn’t dare to go to the window and peer through the shadows for the face of the person she knew who accompanied the musicians. But knowing he was there was enough to send her heart racing.

Soon enough, flowers arrived at her door, which her mother immediately threw away. It was all like a dream, that someone had set his eyes upon her, even over her pretty, green-eyed, outspoken friend, Sonja. With a smile upon her thin, pink lips and a newfound shine in her eyes, a few months later, Amelia took the man’s hand and, at nineteen, promised to love him for eternity as his wife.

Six years into her marriage, Amelia had six children to answer for, to care and provide for. Six years into her marriage, the Antonio she thought she knew was gone. She pretended not to notice the days he came home late or the days when he didn’t come home at all. She simply saved her smiles for the days his steps echoed throughout the house and his frame filled a doorway bearing flowers or a new LP record with songs that told of their love. But then, for two long years, he disappeared completely.

She never told anyone, not of her sorrows nor her pain, not of her anger nor frustration nor worries. She simply plastered a smile upon her lips and disguised the dullness of her eyes and did whatever she could to keep her children alive. Even in the impoverished conditions in which they lived on Ramos Antonini Street in Mayagüez, Amelia made sure her children never went to bed hungry. She sewed balls and baseball gloves at a company and collected coffee beans in harvest season. She worked in a retail store and helped a neighbor with what little experience she had to sew clothes on commission. And then one day, Antonio was back. Without demanding any explanation, she welcomed him. Two more boys, and he left. Two more years and he returned. Two more boys, and he left once again. This time, he left for five years.

Her children grew up and finally grasped their mother’s reality. One of her daughters refused to ever entertain the idea of forgiving Antonio or Amelia for allowing him back again after the lies, the infidelities, the children he fathered outside of the family, the abandonment and the impudence with which he returned with. It wasn’t about the beatings he would sometimes subject his children to or the lack of affection, it was because he was neither a father nor a husband. Amelia never said a word, not to refute or agree with her daughter’s words or for anything else regarding Antonio.

I had remembered at one of our family gatherings where the subject came up and the question was once again raised as to why Amelia let him come back time after time. One of my uncles defended Amelia, “Don’t you realize why? She welcomed him back not because of him or even herself but because of you, because of us.”

Later my mother confirmed my uncle’s statement. When my grandfather came back, they ate better and had better clothes and things were simply better.

I have also overheard it said that grandma simply loved him too much, more than she loved anything else. It might sound silly, but it had never occurred to me that Abuelita, as I call her, could love anything more than she loved me and the rest of her family. The thought outraged me to the point of anger. After the betrayals and abandonment, after the neglect and the inconsideration? I simply couldn’t get it through my head that my grandma, the feisty, caring, loving, humble, kind, amazing Abuelita, still felt like she owed that man something.

Five years later, he came back, and this time, he stayed.

It’s bitterly funny how everyone is smiling in this photo. How well we hide the truth and present to the world our invented reality. In the seconds where the flash blinds us and then disappears, no one is smiling anymore.

The last of Amelia’s sons was born the year Antonio came home for good. Three years after that, Antonio suffered a brain hemorrhage that paralyzed the entire left side of his body and condemned him to a wheelchair. Amelia remained by his side without complaint.

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He died in the summer of 1990. She never remarried, never loved another man, never welcomed anyone into her home, never saw anyone in the same way she saw him.

 “Why?” I asked her. She looked at me from the sofa across the room and smiled kindly, “I will never stop thanking him, mi nena, because he gave me my sons and daughters, and thanks to him I have the most beautiful grandkids in the world.”

Then she hugged me and placing a kiss upon my head, she told me there was nothing in the world she loved more than me.

Despite how I now understood how my grandmother’s motives for survival played into the scenario, I knew in my heart that those tears back in the cemetery were shed out of true, incorruptible, unbreakable love, if such a thing ever existed. Antonio gave Amelia a chance she never thought would exist for her, not after years of her own family beating her down. For whatever amount of time or whatever quantity or quality, he loved her, showed her love and made her believe that she was something worthwhile, something worth wanting and having. She became strong on her own because of him. She fought for her children because of him. He was her first love, and, not to justify it, but I once read that no girl should be held accountable for her first love, and regardless of what happened next, she always saw him and will see him that way, despite the irrevocable state of death or the ghosts of the past.

That is not enough for me. Maybe it is because I am a modern woman born in times where choice is not given but a right from birth,

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maybe because the future that awaits for me holds more than the path to becoming a housewife and mother, subject to my husband, maybe because my life is a hell of a lot more than just a hunt for everlasting love with the perfect husband. Heck, I think this might just be the reason why I am so averse to the idea of marriage because, despite the wonderful marriage my parents have, I have seen that this is the exception, not the rule. Maybe I’m a cynic and I don’t believe a life should be driven by love, but maybe for her it was. Maybe for my grandmother, what Antonio gave her was enough and I don’t have to understand it, I just have to accept it.

She turned around and patted my head after handing me these photos on a Saturday afternoon. Dying, golden rays seeped through the glass of the window and turned everything red. Harry Potter played on her TV and Joyce, grandma’s demonic black and orange cat, sat on the couch, licking its paws and shooting threatening stares my way with yellow-green eyes. Abuelita wrapped her arms around me as I announced that I have to leave to do some schoolwork at home. As she kissed my cheek and asked me for the fiftieth time if I’m sure I don’t want to eat something, I realized I’m not angry anymore. Not at him or at my grandmother, not at anyone. Right now, I’m just happy she is my grandmother.

 

 

9 Comments

  1. WHAT A WONDERFUL STORY. GRANDMA WAS A TROOPER.

  2. A beautiful and well written piece!

  3. Hola Lorraine, I loved, loved, loved, your recount of the story, the incidents, the details.. It kept me at the edge of my seat, wanting to know the outcome, but not wanting the story to end.
    I could see all details in my head, the Barrio Limón, the funeral, el limber de caminar una milla al salir de allí… Me encantó tu sinceridad. Gracias!!

  4. Hermoso! I just had to read it, each paragraph. This is so honest, and sincere. Wow!

  5. Lorraine,

    This is a wonderful piece. Not only you get Amelia you get all of us. Keep it up.

  6. This made me cry!

  7. Lorraine tengo que hacer un summary para mi clase de ingles con uno de los memoirs que estan aqui hiba a escoger este pq vi tu nombre pero es muy laaargo chica hahaha pero ya se de que trata que cool

  8. AUNQUE NO SE INGLES,PUDE APRECIAR LAS FOTOS , Y VER FOTOS DE MI AMADO ABUELO CON AMELIA Y SUS HIJOS,QUE SON MIS TIOS ,FUE EMOTIVO ,RECORDAR ES VIVIR.NO CONOCI A SUS PARIENTES Y ME HUBIESE GUSTADO CONOCER LOS HERMANOS DE MI ABUELO, OJALA LA PUBLICACION LA TRADUSCAN AL ESPANOL,PARA PODER LEEERLA Y PODER DAR MI OPINION,DE AMELIA PUEDO DECIR QUE COMO SER HUMANO ,MADRE EJEMPLAR SIII Y ESPOSA ,INIGUALABLE,LA AMO ES MI ABUELA Y TODO MI AMOR HACIA ELLA SE LO HA GANADO ,ELLA SABE COSECHAR AMOR.ELLA ES UN EJEMPLO A SEGUIR,DICHOSOS LA QUE LA CONOCEMOS Y SOMOS PARTE DE ELLA.

  9. Great work!

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