I was lucky enough to know a woman who was strong, independent, beautiful and utterly unabashedly unique. She was my Grandmother. She came from Cuba, leaving behind a world of warm nights and even more humid days, a husband and the father of her only child in order to embark on a new life in America – smelly, dirty Manhattan specifically. It was her sister – Tia Juanita – who drew her here. I’m not sure she loved anyone dearer than she loved her sister (one of 15 siblings!).
Grandmom Lopez worked 12-13 hour days in a bra factory in Manhattan not speaking any English, but quickly learned and moved her way up to manager. She never lost her distinct accent. I can hear it ringing softly in my ears. As she was nearing death, she spoke to me more and more consistently only in Spanish – I didn’t correct her because I wanted to pretend like I understood her language, and I loved hearing her speak in it. I would answer her back in English.
She loathed her days in Manhattan, but wanted to create a world where it was possible for her son to flourish (albeit sometimes perhaps made it harder on him than she intended). I have two paintings she picked up during her days there hanging in my living room in London.
Finally, after many years of long, dreary winters, she made her way back to Miami – closer to her home country. Her husband Harry (boyfriend for 40 years before he was able to claim that title) called it death’s waiting room, but she soaked up the beach – walking a mile every morning on the sand until she could no longer. Up until her 80th birthday, she made extra cash by driving “old” people to and from the airport, and painting their nails.
She made my sister and I dresses when we were growing up when she couldn’t afford to buy us ones. When she could afford to buy us ones, she took us to Macy’s where she would use her coupons she had been saving for our trip.
She was a woman full of secrets and mystery – someone I’m not sure anyone fully knew in depth – but was certainly someone I admired. If you know me at all, you know how much of an effect my grandmother had on me – from the red lipstick she demanded I wear before stepping outside of the house, to the arroz con pollo she made unlike anything I ever had before.
Below is an excerpt from my novel where I based a character off this remarkable woman. A light in this world has gone out, but as my friend Kathleen says, heaven is shining even brighter than before.
Every year since I was old enough to fly by myself, I would step out of the Fort Lauderdale terminal looking for the tiny legs, curly dark hair, button down shirt-dress and red lipstick, and there she always was. She would throw her slender olive arms around me and plant a big one on my cheeks, leaving a red smear in the shape of her lips. Her first question was always the same, “Where is yours?”
“Where is my what, Abuela?” I would ask, always knowing the answer before I asked it, but never remembering to apply it before I disembarked from the plane.
“Oh, mi amor.” She shook her head in a disconcerted manner. “Your….” She smacked her lips together, emphasizing the movement with her hands, as if to say, Need I really say what I mean?
To her, going out in public without the tint of red was like taking a walk in the buck, worse than that, taking a walk without her pride. She found power and confidence in that simple application of red aplomb.
“Abuela,” I said, the first time she told me about the red lipstick rule, “I don’t own any red lipstick. Plus, I just don’t think I can really pull it off like you can.” I hoped this would fly with her as a reasonable excuse. After all, I wasn’t the gorgeous Latina woman that she was. I was light-skinned. People assumed my last name was spelt “Cruise” rather than the Hispanic “Cruz,” and no amount of red lipstick would make them think otherwise. I was too white.
It used to confuse me. If I was half Cuban, why didn’t people think I was? Why did everyone tell me I didn’t look Cuban, if it was in my blood? A powerful Jewish woman finally answered my questions in a poem recited on stage with the words: “Impossible. Because you are your people. You just tell them they don’t look. Period.” From that day on, I embraced my mix with open arms prepared to take on anyone who wanted to question my race.
Abuela was prepared anyhow. To her, I was her Cuban granddaughter, and therefore should act like one. She had purchased her favorite Diamond Cosmetics ‘Get Red-E Here I Come’ lipstick with aloe vera just for me. She hustled me into the ladies room, watched me apply the lipstick and nodded at me with approval. I may have looked like a cheap whore, but she was happy. And, how could I have turned down anything that came from her?
She turned me towards her, and said, “Now, there’s my granddaughter. Que bonita! So beautiful. Why don’t you always wear that? You will never find a man unless you put red on your lips.” (Oh, so that was my problem.) If it was good enough for mi abuela, than it was good enough for me.
I went over to my vanity area and got out the tube Grandma Cruz gave me on that 16th year of my life. The Romans may have seen it as the mark of a prostitute, but Queen Cleopatra wore it as a symbol of her heightened importance and sophistication, and Grandma Cruz wore it as a representation of her greatest treasure – her ‘propre amour’, her self-respect. I was going to wear it to paint over my insecurity, for now.