At the beginning of every school year I like to my students about my grandma. I teach 6th grade “gifted” Language Arts, that means I teach a specialized group of kids who are above their grade level in reading, writing, creativity and critical thinking. Basically I teach kids who read well.
When we are first getting to know each other, before all the academic stuff happens, I tell my students a story about how I struggled with reading when I was young, because I did not have a lot of exposure to literature based on my family’s background, thus giving me a bit of a late start on literacy. When my students learn that my grandma never learned to read, they are in disbelief.
I tell them this story for several reasons- one, that you can do anything if you are determined, and two, don’t take literacy and education for granted. As much as this pandemic is showing us the value of public education and the importance of equity, we will never have perfect access to educating our children. I want my students to appreciate the gift of reading and the value of hard work. This is because my grandma taught me what matters most in this side of the world.
As I was taking a trip down memory lane, I kept thinking about the legacy my grandmother left. It’s actually quite ironic with a bit of surprise and a big dose of humility. These stories and memories of her bring me to a place of gratitude and in a lot ways gave me a new perspective on life.
You see, my grandma was poor in the eyes of the world. She did not seek success in the way the world does- with grasping and hoarding. If my grandma ever had “dreams” for herself, I will never know. Did she dream about becoming a doctor or actress? Did she want to pursue a business endeavor that would make her rich? I honestly don’t know. All I saw and knew about her life was nothing but giving of herself and loving her family. Right or wrong, she loved and accepted everyone, and that is no exaggeration.
In a world that values and is obsessed with materialism and status, my grandma didn’t seem to worry too much about having a house that represented Martha Stewart’s expectations, in fact, when you walked into her house all you would see from wall to wall were pictures of her family and Jesus (and some of those Jesus pictures were pretty scary too, especially to a little girl, just saying). No abstract art, or R.C Gorman paintings, because to her the masterpieces in her life were the people she created; the world she painted on the canvas of her heart, was her faith and her family. She didn’t care if you thought her house looked tacky or maybe a little obnoxious, her pride for her family and faith shone brighter than any Georgia O’Keeffe painting. That’s right family, we are way more valuable than a flower painting! Who would have thought that every time we entered her house, we were entering a museum of the finest pieces of art in our history!
This is why her legacy is so ironic and humbling. Growing up, I always thought I was deprived because of how poor we were. I learned to become jealous of my peers because they always seemed to have more- the name brand clothes, the latest technology- and by that I mean CD players and game consoles like Nintendo- they would go on vacations and they always seem to possess some sort of cool gadget we couldn’t afford to have, and I would end up feeling left out. It’s interesting now, looking back, that I use to believe I was not only deprived of material stuff, but deprived of a “normal” family.
It’s easy to look at others and think they are better off than you. In fact, I bet they would be shocked and surprised to find out how happy you think they are (Oooo that is Twitter worthy right there, except I don’t tweet). We all want to have a family that looks like or resembles the Norman Rockwell paintings, where everyone gets along, everyone is happy and well fed. Instead we belong to families whose flaws are questionable and some who are just down right scary. Some families are truly broken. Others are just trying to survive, and then there are families who are so fucked up, it’s funny.
Grandma was never the person to try and be what she wasn’t, and she never tried to force her will on her family. At least from my perspective. Whenever I was in my grandma’s presence, I NEVER felt bad about myself. I don’t know exactly how she did it, but her love seemed to overcome any negative emotions that usually surface when dealing with family members or other people in general. In other words, she never held it against me if I stayed away too long. She never gave me a dig about not calling enough, or try to repay me if I didn’t meet some expectation. It didn’t matter to her what you did or how you treated her or others, she just loved you. She never made you feel bad for being human.
All of this had me thinking about how her life was just “different” than that of the average person. And then I realized something divine. My grandma was not an ordinary average person, she was in fact a courageous Angel. Even though the average eye would only see a woman, a poor woman with no education, a woman who might be considered “non-essential” in our society, would miss the true sight of someone who was a direct messenger of the divine, because Angels are divine beings who tell us about God.
How ironic and humbling that even though my grandma never read the Bible, or studied theology or mouthed off about her opinions and beliefs, her life directly represented what it means to love as Jesus loved. No agendas, no getting even, no guilt trips and no grudges. Instead, she gave love, hospitality, forgiveness, grace, and joy.
What surprised me the most these last few days of grieving is how much I realized what an Angel my grandma was to my sisters and me, and to the whole family. To think I was deprived when all along I was protected, cherished, valued and how fortunate I was to have such an Angel in my life. How could anyone be deprived when you have such valuable treasures right in front you?
The old adage rings true- “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.” Even more so, the expression, “Heaven has gained an Angel” could not be more true. Ofelia was always an Angel, she is just in a different form now, and so her spirit lives on in us now- to those who she called family.