Hello world! The Daily Chicana is back after a short break due to a minor illness, followed by having to host some out-of-town guests. I’ve missed posting here and am ready to get back to writing!
Today I want to reflect on language and culture, and I’m going to do this by way of a family story. About a month ago, when I started this blog, my mom was back in the town where I grew up in order to help my grandma move into a nursing home. It was an emotional time all around, especially since my mom took on the additional task of sorting through and packing up my grandma’s entire apartment, which was filled with all manner of bric-a-brac collected over the twenty years Grandma had lived there.
One of the things my grandma is known best for is her beautiful crochet work. She can crank out everything from small, intricate lace doilies to large, cozy blankets to snuggle under while watching a movie. In fact, she had just started one of these larger creations when she had the nasty fall that led her to be hospitalized and now have to be moved into the nursing home. Knowing that I’m the only one in the family besides my grandma who knows anything about the fiber arts, my mom asked if I wanted the remaining materials. “I think it would be nice for you to finish it,” she explained. “This way it’s something special that you and Grandma worked on together.” I loved the idea and asked her to please send me the yarn.
In the ensuing weeks, I’d forgotten all about this project until the day I found a package on my doorstep. Inside the box were two Rubbermaid containers filled with Grandma’s crocheted squares and the rest of the yarn for the blanket (pictured above). I lifted off the lid from the first container, and a faint trace of Grandma’s perfume wafted up to my nose. I suddenly found myself choked up. It finally hit me: We have such little time left with Grandma. I mean, I knew intellectually how frail she has become, but because I live so far and don’t get to see her more than once a year, I obviously wasn’t experiencing her decline first-hand. Holding her yarn in my hands and being reminded of her smell made it all so real for me. For a long time, I sat with the yarn, sniffling and thinking about her.
I was also wondering how on earth I’m going to complete the blanket. From what my mom described, Grandma had completed most of the squares and I just had to sew them together. I figured that, as a knitter, I’d be able to handle it. In reality, though, there is only about two feet of completed material, consisting of (a) little squares; (b) squares that have been woven into rectangles; and (c) large multicolored triangles. I have no idea how it’s all supposed to fit together or what the color scheme is. It’s a much bigger task than I realized, as I don’t know what Grandma had envisioned.
In any case, a few days ago I was on the phone with my sister, telling her the story of how emotional I felt when I saw and smelled the yarn. “Grandma’s not gonna be around much longer,” I sadly observed.
“I know,” she said. “I feel weird, though, because I don’t feel emotional about it. I mean, I love Grandma and I don’t want her to be in pain or to have to suffer, but I don’t feel sad like I’m supposed to. I kinda don’t feel anything about it. Is that weird?”
“No, it’s not weird,” I assured her. My sister and I have both lived far apart from our extended family for all of our adult lives and in the intervening years have become very emotionally distanced from them and any family dramas that come up.
She went on to explain, “I think it’s because I don’t really have a relationship with Grandma independent of Mom. Grandma never learned English, and I don’t know Spanish, so Mom always had to be there to translate. I couldn’t ever communicate with Grandma on my own or open up to her without Mom around. And now Grandma and I don’t really know each other.”
Before I could comment on her insight, she continued on to a surprising rant. “And you know, Grandma came here when she was in her thirties. You’d think that she would have made an effort to learn English sometime in the last sixty years! She even became a citizen, but she speaks so little English! And now she’s in the nursing home and scared a lot of the time because she doesn’t understand what the doctors and nurses are saying. But it’s her own fault. I mean, if I ever had to live in another country for some reason, I would do everything I could to learn the language there. Like, if I ever had to live in Mexico, god forbid–”
My sister didn’t get much further than that because right then I burst out laughing so hard that I had tears coming out of my eyes. “What?!” she kept giggling defensively, and when I calmed down enough to talk, I explained, “You are so dramatic! ‘God forbid’ you ever have to live in Mexico? I mean, god forbid there’s a nuclear bomb or an apocalypse. You do realize that there are worse things than having to live in Mexico?”
“Not for me,” she huffed. “That’s how much I hate it!”
We went on to talk about other things, but after we hung up, I found myself thinking about Grandma, the yarn, language and our cultural heritage. I explained last week about the vastly different connection my sister and I feel towards and in how we embody Chican@ culture (and if you thought in that post I was exaggerating about how much she despises Mexico, now you know I’m not making it up).
My sister has long yearned for a stronger relationship with Grandma, but she couldn’t ever speak directly to her because of the language barrier. Now, I’m certainly not one of those people who argues that one must speak Spanish to be a “true” Chican@, but it sure does help to know the language, because speaking Spanish is one way to keep those cultural ties strong. It amazes me that I’m the only one of eleven grandchildren on that side of the family who bothered to learn it (similarly, on my dad’s side, only six of thirty-two grandkids speak Spanish).
For me, working on this crocheted blanket acts as a metaphor for keeping up Mexican culture. My Grandma began the project based on her own knowledge and envisioning a particular pattern. Now I’m continuing that work. And even though I might change it up by knitting instead of crocheting and I’ll certainly end up with a different pattern than what Grandma may have intended, it’s still a colorful blanket created by women from different generations. There’s no right or wrong way to proceed; it will just unfold and change over time, just as Mexican American culture develops in this country. I’m just proud to keep up a tradition that my lovely grandmother started.