We got the phone call just before 6am and she was already gone. Just like that, 90 years had been archived into the memories and minds of the people she had touched. Now the stories and pictures will have to live on through what we tell and show our future children and grandchildren. Grandma had passed away peacefully in her home.
I had the opportunity to know this woman the final 8 years or so of her life. For my wife she was Grandma Belissa, but Grandma seemed to be the name of choice, whether or not you were family to her; it was the vibe she gave that invited so many people to anoint her “Grandma”.
I think it all started when you visited her home. She was traditional for a 90 year old Costa Rican lady, living in town just a few blocks from the main commercial area, but always kept to her roots. You entered her humble, wood home with a big smooch on the cheek and within a few minutes of sitting down she’d offer some food or a drink. If you refused, her offer would quickly turn into a demand and eventually you’d have to give in. She would not just offer an appetizer, but a meal that would last you a day. Rice, beans, picadillo, pork and tortillas all washed down with a heaping glass of juice. Just when you thought it was over, she would then emerge with a dessert as big as the previous dish. You couldn’t leave her home without a food induced coma. Over the years, I’d have to learn how to go to her home on an empty stomach and covertly sneak food back into the kitchen when she wasn’t looking.
Besides chatting about what the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren were up to, there was always an anecdote to the past and she loved to tell stories. “Abuela” as we called her in Spanish, grew up rough. Her mother died when she was very young and ended up with 20(?) siblings as her father would be widowed three times. She ended up caring for many of her siblings and it’s no wonder that her drink of choice from a young age was Cacique, the local liquor made from fermented sugar cane. Then, before she turned 18, she was married and had set off to live with her husband in Monteverde.
Monteverde, at the time, was the last frontier of Costa Rica. It took three days to get there from San Ramon (which only takes 2 hours today). Settlers would arrive by horse and oxcart, put up a fence and that was then their property. Abuela lived there for years, giving birth at home to all her 10+ children. They raised a variety of farm animals which her husband would sell down in Puntarenas, which was probably a two day trip then. They were considered well off for the time despite all the hardships. She still has children that live in the area and while it has modernized a bit I can still picture how she must have lived every time we’d take her to visit her children in Monteverde.
Eventually, she’d move to San Ramon to be near to medical facilities, but she never lost her toughness. A couple years ago, she had a big health scare and even the doctors thought she was going to meet her maker. That didn’t happen though as she eventually earned the title “Iron Grandma” from the doctors and was able to return home. Previously to that incident, she had hopped all over the Americas between Peru, the Bahamas, and Montana. The first time she left the country was when she was 80 as her husband had passed away and she didn’t have any brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, or fathers to look after anymore. This was like a rebirth for her and she really took advantage of the opportunity. I think she would say her proudest photo is the one of her atop Machu Picchu. She displayed that in the same room that had a photo of her father with no shoes on.
We’re going to miss a lot about Abuela, but her legacy will be a big one. Comparing those two pictures shows just how much the planet has changed in the last 90 years. It’s hard to find people with a mind as sharp as her’s to tell stories about the past. Students used to visit her to complete history projects and one university even gave her an honorary certificate for sharing her experiences.
“Abuela left us.” was the most common reaction coming from friends and family the day she passed. While it is painful now, my memories of her will always be with me. Just like my parents used to tell me about a relative that had passed on before I was born, I will no doubt be telling my children about their great grandma and the changing times she lived through, but I’ll probably leave out the part about taking shots with her until they’re a bit older.