Ever meet someone, learn more about her life and become truly amazed at how strong that person is? I have one of those in my life. I met her when I was a kid—we’re cousins. But we come from a dysfunctional tree of family secrets. I was on one branch trying to dive off into the leaves below and run down the hill and away from all of it. She was on a branch on the other side, also planning her escape but more quietly, assuredly –though I’m sure she wouldn’t describe herself that way.
We met again a few years ago–a younger cousin, I used to hang out with her older siblings if I hung out with them at all. Her older sisters weren’t all that bright and we had zero in common except for the Garcia overbite and the evil eye. Her older sisters were cha cha girls–you know the kind—big giant hoop earrings and long hands to grab your hair and jump you to the ground. The girls that barely make it through high school, not because they were too school for school but because they couldn’t read. Her older brother–my favorite cousin–and I used to smoke out at my apartment. He was hot and always had a trail of girls fighting over him. Homegirl fights like throw your stuff on the lawn and out the window sort of fights. But I loved the stories he told and I loved hanging out with him at the time. I never gave much thought to her though. She was younger, quiet, and smack in the middle of seven siblings.
My one recollection of her when I was a kid was a day my aunt had my brother and I over so there were nine of us in the kitchen that was their seventies ‘ formica table and green vinyl booth dining area. My aunt had ordered two pizzas and my brother being pigs and half white were used to scarfing down as much pizza as possible in one sitting. My brother was on his third slice. I was on my first. The pizza was gone in seconds. There was a sniffling cry and one of the cousins informed my aunt that my cousin was crying. She’d reached out for pizza but hadn’t gotten any and it was gone. My aunt’s solution was to yell at her for being slow. I finished my slice, still hungry but feeling terribly guilty for eating. Her siblings didn’t give her anything and she left the table crying softly to herself.
I mentioned this to her. This thing that happened when she was all of seven but she doesn’t remember that particular incident because her whole childhood was those incidents. Now she’s a mother and she makes sure that her three kids always have food. Always. I don’t talk to any of my cousins anymore except for her. I don’t think we think the same about everything but we know that so many of those branches seemed to be grafted from different trees –either that or we are the grafted ones but we know we aren’t like the rest of them. We aren’t cholas, cha chas, we aren’t trying to get by or get away with something and we value education, art, making things with our hands, growing things. To some in our family, that makes us white. There is after all however, more than one kind of Mexican-American, que no?
My cousin is teaching me a lot about family and perseverance. She has two kids with a genetic and protein disorder that makes saving for a rainy day impossible. Every day is a rainy day of medical bills and insurance fights and knowing that her kids could die of stroke and heart attacks at an early age. How does she appear so positive?
To make matters worth the cholas and the cha cha girls can’t be bothered to read up on these things. Her kids’ condition is rare but instead of finding out more, they figure it must be her fault. In earlier centuries they probably burned people at the stake as witches.
So every day my cousin, attempts ways to make ends meet. To make autumn turn into winter and Christmas without her house looking like some Bob Cratchtt A Christmas Carol story. Somehow she will make it through and she and her husband will survive. I’m in awe of them doing so. Faced with the same circumstances, I don’t know that I wouldn’t crack and despair. But she doesn’t. She smiles. She offers to help me, offers to help my grandmother she’s not related to though I know she doesn’t have time. I’m overwhelmed and amazed.
Knowing her story of the last few years has made me not so dismissive of my mother’s side of the family. There is hope. My cousin is here. Perhaps we were meant to be in the same yard, the same tree, the same branch after all.
My cousin makes things. This season she’s making aprons and quilts. Sewing from home is one of the few things she can do and take care of her kids medical issues at the same time. A 9 to 5 job is impossible for her. She’s a damn good seamstress too. Here’s some samples of her stuff:
We all buy some pretty pointless stuff in the fall gearing up for Christmas, proceeds going only to Wal-Mart or some such nonsense. Why not purchase something that might make a difference in a family’s life? And she does damn good work too. At any rate. I’m so grateful and happy to know that despite all my feelings of alienation from my mother’s family, an alienation that my mother felt from the day she was born, it’s good to know that we are not the only ones. That we have my cousin too. In this way–out of the dregs of the old family, we make a new one. The bloodline is in the branches—just pruned a bit.