When I was a little girl, I spent summer evenings in my maternal grandmother's bed holding Tilín, a little hand-sewn rag doll clown. She had given him to me when I left Puerto Rico for the mainland United States, something to clutch when I missed her. He was green and, at a few years old, soft and worn. I missed my grandmother a lot in those first years away, when the air of the Northeast felt unspeakably cold and I could not yet understand the language coming from people's lips.
In the summers, Tilín would travel back to my grandparents' home with me, and when we were there, the world seemed right again. We had a routine: My grandmother, Mima, would make me a hot chocolate and turn on the air conditioner. As the room cooled and the lights dimmed, I would wrap myself around Mima and listen. Every night she told a different story, but each one gave me a different piece of her life, a sense of who she was and had been.
When I was about 8 years old, she told me about her first vivid memory. She was a toddler, and her mother was dying of tuberculosis. She remembered being kept away from her bedroom and being pushed back as she tried to edge closer, her father and extended relatives carrying her away each time and explaining that she could not approach her mother. This recollection of her mother on a bed, her arm extended toward her, is her worst memory, but it's also bittersweet, as it is the only crisp memory she has of her mamá.
As the years passed, she wove her childhood together for me, making it feel as familiar as my own. As a young girl, Mima accidentally stepped on a baby chick (pollito), killing it. She kicked it into a ravine in a panic so as to not get in trouble. She developed a fear of chickens and avoided pollitos thereafter, her lingering chagrin palpable when I brought some of the chicks my grandfather kept in their yard into the house as pets.
Mima taught me latitude and longitude by showing me how she had once tracked the progress of the Allies and the Nazis on a map. She told me about how, during her school years, children carried newspapers in school so that they wouldn't get their uniforms dirty if they had to lie on the floor during aerial-attack drills.
My favorite stories, though, were about how she became a teacher and earned her master's degree in education (quite the feat in 1950s Puerto Rico) and met my grandfather, the man with the sparkling green eyes. Mima would show me black-and-white pictures of them together, and she let me read the letters Mimo wrote to her from Korea, where he fought as part of the all-Puerto Rican 65th Infantry regiment. I remember drinking warm milk while I listened with rapt attention, delicately thumbing the old photos marked in elegant handwriting. I examined my grandfather's faded draft card, gently handling it, long before I understood that his time in Korea was why he would wake up screaming at night, mistaking the rickety ceiling fan for a helicopter. Mima's stories were about family, but they were also a window into history that no textbook could rival.
Each night before bed, Mima would transform herself, bringing out props and clothing to make her stories come alive. It was a special time that helped us forge a close bond, and the stories painted a picture of a Puerto Rico that no longer exists. As I struggled to adapt to life on the mainland United States, her stories helped me bridge "aquí y allá" (here and there), eventually allowing me to feel at ease in both places.
As I got older and life got harder, her stories gave me solace and strength. I told myself I came from a long line of women who had seen dark times and adversity and come out on the other side, and I steeled myself with the knowledge that I could do the same. Somehow those stories of sadness, silliness and endurance gave me something to hold onto in times of instability, a sense of assurance and calm when things were difficult.
I feel incredibly fortunate to carry the accounts of elders with me, particularly as my grandmother's memory fades. Dementia has now taken a part of who she was, but her story and that of our extended family survives with me and my mother.
The baton has been passed, and now I sometimes find my mother, whom my children have named Baba, snuggled in bed with them, giggling about a story involving hair spray and a candle when she was a teenager. When something goes awry for them, they will be able to look back at their parents and grandparents for quirky stories of things going sideways and, more often than not, righting themselves again. They'll see people whose flaws and virtues mirror their own, hopefully claiming legacies they can learn from and be proud of.
This is especially true of narratives about those we have lost. Since my father-in-law died, my husband and I have made an effort to tell our kids snippets about him, stories about his sports team enthusiasm (go, Dodgers!), and his favorite foods and holidays.
Recently our 7-year-old daughter, who was only 6 months old when my father-in-law died, eagerly slapped butter all over her waffle before reaching for the syrup. When I suggested that perhaps the waffle would like to breathe, she giggled, "I'm just like Grandpa! He liked a little waffle with his butter too!" I smiled, remembering the pat of butter carefully layered over each waffle pocket on my father-in-law's plate. This small detail is meaningful to her and allows her to feel like she knows her grandpa, not because he is a physical presence but because his spirit has been kept alive through words.
I think of my own relatives, past and present. I carry them with me because of the stories I was privy to, the tales someone took the time and care to share with me. I hope that someday my children will pay those stories forward, except then the stories will no longer belong to me, but to them and those who follow.
Lara N. Dotson-Renta is developing a narrative nonfiction memoir that traces the history of Puerto Rico through family narratives.