So, Grandma ran away from home today. Well, technically, she ran away a few days ago but I found out today when Black-Girl-Named-Becky answered Grandma’s phone and told me. (What’s weird about Black-Girl-Named-Becky is that she actually sounds like a black girl named Becky. Like, if there were a sitcom called “Black Girl Named Becky,” she would be that Becky.) She smacks gum in my ear while she tells me nonchalantly that Grandma and her cousin told her they were going to Connecticut and Becky told them not to but they decided to go anyway—but what they actually did was hop a train to Miami instead and now they’re both in the hospital because Grandma didn’t take her medicine for three days and her cousin fell down and couldn’t get up. You said it best: two old birds on the run. Thelma and Louise—The Golden Years. I should’ve known she was going to see you; you’re the only one besides me who gives two shits about her at this point. And I know you don’t wanna hear it but I’m gonna say it anyway: it was her own damn fault and I’m glad you were in Hawaii that day she came calling.
I think of her when I see my 2nd grade school portrait in that red frilly sweater, part of a Christmas care package along with a pair of Lee Jeans. You were with her the day she substituted for Santa. She tried to explain that you were my brother, but with that trademark condescension, as if never-before-mentioned half-siblings that drop out of the sky and onto your doorstep was a common occurrence for every 8-year-old little girl. And you looked just like me (more like me than Astrid, my everyday sister) except older and mustached so I knew it was true but I couldn’t figure out how. Where had you been that whole time? How old were you then—18? 19? Who was your mother? Did you look at me and see yourself, except smaller and chubbier? There’s a photo where we’re lined up from the youngest to oldest: me, you, Dad, and Grandma. Astrid didn’t wanna be in the picture. She didn’t fit; she was the baby doll in someone else’s Matryoshka set. But the four of us—we were a clan, our own tribe. My mother looked at that photo and said with a laugh that all she saw was the devil split into equal parts: Same face, same coloring, same evil.
I remember the “O. P. P.” summer in South Philly: that song blaring unceasingly from speakers across the neighborhood—in English, in Spanish, in Jamaican patios; it wouldn’t die, it would only multiply. Shit graffiti tags along the side of Grandma’s house and Tio Elliott’s Santeria candles all over the place—though the blessings did keep the burglars out. You and Grandpa Teddy used to roll your eyes about it but I kinda believed in the magic too. What other reason could there have been when every other house on the block got hit? Remember when that dude OD’ed in the park across the street? Astrid and I wanted so badly for you to take us to see the dead body. You, growing up in the Bronx, thought we were the dumbest girls on the planet but it never even occurred to us that it was weird. We just assumed that’s what happened in Philly: people keeled over and died in the street, unlike in Atlanta, where people had the decency to die at home.
Grandma was never nice, even then. That final summer in Philly, she informed us that we couldn’t marry anyone darker than our shoes and pointed that statement directly at Astrid, like she couldn’t afford to dip the family pen into even inkier wells. She broke my dinner plate in half because I wouldn’t eat her frijoles negros. “What kind of Puerto Rican are you?” she roared and then made me clean that shit up off the floor. “You been spending too much time with those country niggers,” as if her nappy-headed ass was 100% Castilian. “And what do you think you are, bitch, with your fuckin’ pigeon peas and chicharrón?” I replied. “Go look in a mirror.” We never saw that house again, I still can’t stand frijoles negros, and Astrid would hate her forevermore after that day.
It’s weird. I know it’s a generational thing but the Black versus Latino thing was what always made me so angry about her (well, one of them). Like, she thought she wasn’t just as black as the rest of us. Like, being a morena gave her some kind of super power that erased her stigma, made her white, made her better. I remember a black friend of hers telling us a story about searching for her roots and ending up in the Congo and Grandma actually said, in all earnestness, “I wonder if our family has any African blood?” Astrid thought it was funny/not funny but I wanted to fuckin’ slap her. And now she wants to explore the Motherland. Did you know Grandma asked to go to South Africa with us last winter? She called me and said that since Teddy died, she didn’t have anyone to travel with but she would pay her own way and she would keep up with us, she promised. She wouldn’t be any fuss. I tried to convince Astrid but she wasn’t having it. Not even for a second. If Grandma was coming, she wasn’t. I had to choose. Dad had to be the one to tell the old biddy no.
So now she’s in the hospital. Those three days on the run fucked her up real good. Between the insulin overdoses and not taking her blood pressure pills, it’s a miracle she’s still alive and not in a coma. By the way, she’s pretty pissed at you for going on vacation when you’re supposed to be taking care of her. And I’m kinda pissed, too. I mean, what can I do for her from Brooklyn?
She actually thought I could drive her home from the hospital and had one of the nurses call me yesterday while I was at work. I did not appreciate the tone of that nurse-bitch, acting like I was negligent or something for not knowing what was going on. She had the nerve to tell me that the drive from Atlanta really wasn’t that bad, like just because I have a 404-areacode, I was still living there. Like I was fucked up for not coming, even though they’re not even in the same damn state. “Bitch,” I said to her, “have you ever driven from Atlanta to Miami? Didn’t think so. But you know what? I have and that shit takes at least 12 hours, not to mention that I live in Brooklyn now and don’t have a car anyway. So no, I can’t make it down there.” I hung up feeling indignant and self-righteous. But dammit if being smug didn’t make me feel like shit, knowing that Grandma’s sitting in that room, alone, begging for my help and I can’t do a thing about it.
And why, Vaughn? Why do I feel so compelled to help? She’s a miserable hag who’s never said a kind word about anyone unless she was trying to fuck them over somehow. At first I thought it was the whole golden rule, humanitarian blah blah that I’d been jedi-mind-tricked into believing. But it goes deeper than that. Somehow, her failure at life is becoming mine. If I neglect her, I’m turning into her; I’m inheriting that which I swore to never be.
Honestly, I never quite understood your relationship. You seem to be the only one who never lets it affect you—her racism, her rancor, her unmitigated anger. You said that after Teddy died Grandma got worse because he wasn’t there to absorb all her causticity. I responded that, like Jesus, he’d sacrificed for her sins. And we laughed. And then tears ran down your face like a nosebleed: sudden, overflowing, eyes fit to burst. Our Grand Teddy. Gone. Astrid wondered aloud why God always takes the best ones and leaves the assholes here with us. I thought it was because he didn’t wanna deal with their shit anymore than we did. And you said God didn’t like ugly but you were referring to us instead of Grandma. But seriously, why did Teddy do it? How did he do it? How did he stay so sweet and gentle? Why did he use himself as a buffer for Grandma’s spite? Was that his price of admission to Heaven?
I don’t believe in the After Life. I always found it hokey and unfair that all you had to do was repent your sins and you got to chill on God’s Island for eternity and act like you never did anything wrong. What about getting what you actually deserved? If you’d spent your whole life crushing people’s dreams, stealing their happiness, mocking their pain, shouldn’t you spend eternity being tattooed with all the nasty words you’d called others? Instead of slurping on ambrosia and playing catch up with Joan of Arc? That little caveat at the end—right before your last breath—seems like a cheap trick God plays against the Devil in order to win more souls. But whatever. Teddy deserved better in death than what he got in life, so for his sake, I hope he at least gets to play stickball with Coltrane or something.
I guess what I really want to know is why we’re doing all this—the calls, the visits, the caretaking. Why are we so devoted to this particular cause? I must admit that I find our sudden alliance strange. You and I barely know each other now. In fact, we never really have. In 25 years, I can’t think of one real conversation we’ve ever had that wasn’t about her. So what does that say about us? About Grandma? About family? Are we just a couple of dopes too sentimental to realize that we’re fighting a losing battle? That she’s a bad egg that will never turn into gold?
I have that picture of Grandma as a small child next to my bed, framed with a picture of me around the same age. We could be twins. I see her face now and I know exactly what I will look like when I’m 89 years old. It’s weird to see yourself in the future. Is that my legacy? Old, unwanted, loved but not liked, taken care of out of principle and not tenderness? Is this my penance, dealing with the mess of Grandma’s life, trying to make peace with her so that I can be absolved, not in the after life, but here and now?
Writer, researcher, and activist, Nico Rosario’s work meets at the intersections of creative arts, politics, culture, and education, with a focus on youth and subcultures. Nico was drawn to these interests primarily through his undergraduate work as a Riggio Writing and Democracy Fellow at The New School for Public Engagement, which accented the concept of the “writer in the world” – a role that, for me, includes intellectual engagement and critical analysis of both my community and the world at large. Nico recently completed an MA in Education in Arts and Cultural Settings at King’s College London, where he wrote extensively on gender, race, and ethnicity within educational paradigms as well as a dissertation on the history of stigma in dance music culture. He has presented work at the EMP Pop Conference in Seattle, the International Hip Hop Studies conference at the University of Cambridge, and the Keep It Simple, Make It Fast conference at the University of Porto and my work has been published in 12th Street, The Inquisitive Eater, Goldfish, and Ink (forthcoming). Nico is currently completing his first novel, which he began as postgraduate in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London.