On Tuesday my gradmother, Maria Elena Villegas, passed away. She was 80 years old. I want to share some things I remember about her life...
She was one of sixteen children. That's right, sixteen. I've heard the family joke around that it was so crowded in their house, some of the kids had to sleep in the bathtub and other strange places. I'm not sure if this is a true-joke or a lie-joke.
She was sixteen and already engaged when she met my grandfather Ernesto. Ernesto met her exactly twice before telling her to leave her fiancee and marry him instead.
When she was in her late 20's my grandfather passed away leaving her a widow with eight children. That's right, eight. In an effort to remarry, she would make some of the younger kids hide whenever a suitor came to visit. She figured it would be much easier to rope a man in with say, three or four kids, instead of eight. The youngest, my uncle Pedro, would often come crawling out of hiding and the other kids would have to chase after him. This would totally foil my grandma's plans. She never remarried.
My grandma babysat for me when I was a little girl. She was extremely vain. I never saw her without her "face on" which always included firey, red lips. Her hair was always completely in place too. We would walk around Jackson Heights together, but not till after she made me promise to call her tia (aunt) in front of other people. I usually forgot and called her abuelita anyway. She never really got over me embarrassing her like that and brought it up often "Remember when you were little and used to call me grandma in front of people?!"
Sadly, I did not inherit her cleavage. Come to think of it, both my grandmas had bras that looked like giant salad bowls to me. Something happened to the family line.
My parents who were both vegetarians forbid her to feed me meat. As soon as my parents would leave I would beg my grandma for steak. She'd always give me some and make me swear I wouldn't tell. This was usually the first thing I would tell my mother as soon as she walked in the door. Mom and grandma would fight and the very next day I would beg for meat again. I would promise her that this time I really wouldn't tell. As soon as I saw my mom I would not only tell her about the meat, but go into crazy details about how my grandma cut it up into tiny pieces for me and how she cooked it and so forth. This cycle repeated daily, so I'm not really sure why I say I was raised vegetarian come to think of it.
She wore so much make up that a few summers ago my stepfather was worried she would make the pool multi-colored when they went swimming.
My grandma was a journalist and poet. She had a deep, throaty voice, sometimes when she answered the phone people thought she was a man. She had red hair. She liked her vodka. She had a very dark sense of humor. She was sharp and elegant. She was a big flirt. She painted pictures of birds and houses. She kind of reminded me of Lucille Ball.