Grandma always insisted she was from Madrid. She never spoke about her native Cuba, never told stories about growing up on this long crocodile island. Her name was Maria Elena Delgado. She never learned to drive, she washed dishes with scalding hot water, and her wedding ring had long since grown into her finger, never to budge. She had a temper like a firecracker. She used to say, Jessica, don't tell Sara or Courtney, but you're my favorite grand-daughter. Then she'd watch John and I shoot baskets outside in her driveway. Nearly a month here in this sweltering country and she has been on my mind.
I don't even know where she grew up. When I tell people, in my crumbled Spanish, that mi abuela was from Cuba, their eyes grow wide. Si! Si, they say, your smile, your brown skin, you look like a Cubana! And even though they don't say it, I can tell what they are thinking: Why don't you speak Spanish then? How can you not know where she came from? She is family!
Still, I feel her everywhere.
In the fiery woman screaming at her son on the sidewalk (and there's Grandma, shouting at Grandpa, calling him a criminal! for some minor infraction that was over as quickly as it started)
In the great restless waves off the coast of Baracoa, tossing me just hard enough to make my heart quicken without panic (I can't quite recall her story of the sea, but I know it involved her being dragged out and nearly drowned and she never swam again)
In the generosity of the older women whose homes we stay in (many of whom are named Maria Elena). Just yesterday we received free espresso, ice cream (strawberry of course) and cake.
In the way you know people are just telling you what you want to hear, not because they are liars necessarily, but because in Cuba the truth has acrobatic qualities. We've learned the hard way there is no such thing as a reservation here. (and, again, Grandma, serving us her special home-made soup, though the Campbell's can pokes out of the trash)
Aye Dios Mio! Oh My God! she would exclaim, and now I know why. So many reasons, both good and bad, to take that name in vain here:
M and I swimming beneath a rainforest waterfall, so cool and delicious after a grueling hot hike.
We ride in a 1949 Chevrolet (so many old cars, like I've never ever seen) to a 200 year old colonial house where we get to stay for about 25 dollars.
The incessant Where are you from?--- the hustlers who see dollar signs in our eyes and won't take no for an answer.
The rivers of urine on the streets of Carnaval; the sheer beauty of life in the kids screaming from their 1950s rides as they eat cotton candy at Carnaval.