Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Storyteller

I've had two mother figures in my life: my mother and my maternal grandmother. These women helped shaped me. I owe them my very existence. Less dramatically, I owe them my sense of humor, my love of a good story, my gift of gab, my love of babies, and my penchant for cooking. Most relevant to this blog, I owe them my love of soap opera. 

It was my beloved Abuela who first sat me down next to her to watch All My Children, Somerset, and a whole line-up of daytime drama. To me, these little tv dramas were just continuations of the great story-telling tradition of the women I loved so much, the women I fairly worshipped. And that's what we do when we're children. We worship the one or two adults who nurture us and seem to have the ability to make everything in the world work out just fine.  And when we worship, we emulate. I tell stories because I was raised by two women who told stories, and told them well. I love words and laughter because I was raised by two women who were smart and quick and had a healthy respect for the written word. This is a true story:

My grandmother grew up in a small town in Puerto Rico,  during a time when few boys went to school beyond third or fourth grade. Most girls didn't go to school, at all. My grandfather was forced to leave school after the fourth grade. My grandmother, a bright child, whose parents nurtured her talents, stayed until the 8th grade. Unheard of at the time for most boys. A complete anomaly for a girl. When, in 1990, my dear, sweet, funny, feisty grandmother left this world, I learned something extraordinary from some old-timers who made the long trek to Brooklyn to pay their respects. During the 1930s many Puerto Ricans headed to NYC, they told me. It was common for a man to make the trip first, leaving wife and children on the island for a year or more, as he settled in. These men, so far from home, would write long letters. Sadly, the wives they'd left behind could not read. The only woman in the village who could read was my grandmother. Women would line up around her little house, and wait their turn. Wait their turn to have my grandmother read them their long letters. Wait their turn for my grandmother to take their dictation and write, in her beautiful penmanship, letters back to their far-away husbands. She didn't charge money for this service. It was an act of friendship. Of being neighborly. Of love. And it was certainly a sacrifice: my grandmother was not a woman of leisure, but a mother of 9. Yes. Nine children. She had nine children, and the river and a rock in place of a washing machine, but she took the time to read aloud every neighbor's mail, and to sit down and write responses. 

I love it that my grandmother never told me about this. It is maybe the one story she chose not to tell. 

She must have read some great stories in those letters. She must have written some great letters back. I have no doubt that she made those letters her own, and embellished as she wrote responses. 

Since the day she left this world, not a day has passed when I haven't thought about this amazing woman, this great storyteller. I've never stopped missing her. Thank you, Abuela, for making me love stories. For showing me that great stories are often found in unlikely places. 

(The baby in the photo is my grandmother, Celina Pacheco, of Guayanilla, PR.)


Blithedale said...

Your story brought tears to my eyes. My grandmother, an immigrant from Portugal who taught herself to read and write in English, did the same for the women and men of her community.

Our stories are universal, aren't they?

Snapper said...

Yes, there are so many stories like this one. I'm so glad someone thought to tell me about this. If they hadn't, it would have been lost forever.