We were in Kindergarten when we met. Our backyards almost touched, kittycorner. My parents raised chickens, and her grandparents raised cockatiels in a backyard aviary. I thought she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen, and I spent the next five years trying to grow my hair as long and hers. It’s amazing how accurate the impressions of childhood can be…
We grew up together, drifting in and out of each other’s orbits, sometimes drawing in tight, other times facing other directions, but our doors were always open, and our families loved their extra daughters as much as they loved each of us.
She and her just-barely younger sister lived with their grandparents, and it was in the dim, delicious-smelling kitchen of Nana that I really learned to cook. Nana always had a pot of beans simmering on the stove, and if we were lucky, she’d make homemade tortillas from scratch. She always called me mija, and was just as likely to chastise me as my own mother if I stepped out of line. During middle and high school, I think I slept as many nights at their home as I did at mine.
Nana loved her girls to the ends of the world and back, and she kept close tabs on us. She would indulge us in harmless things, and yell in Spanish when we ordered yet another pizza near midnight. We spent hours at the tiny table pushed against the kitchen wall, summer-time legs sticking to the flowered vinyl of the chairs, trying to stifle girlish laughter because Tata was asleep in his big chair in the living room, drapes pulled to shield the room from the late afternoon California sun.
Tata was a big man, and while he didn’t say much, when he spoke, you stopped and you listened. He loved Nana, and as long as we didn’t make her mad, he remained still. If he cracked is eye at you, you were in trouble. He worked hard, early hours, and was often home by afternoon. He would do anything for his girls- including driving us around in the middle of the night because Nana caught us sneaking out to go toilet paper a house, and they cared more that we were safe, even if we insisted on being stupid. That was a meta-theme for our teenage years.
I loved them so much.
I was leaving church the Sunday I got the call that Nana had died. Our lives had diverged years before, mine to Washington, my friends to Arizona and then back to California again, but the bond was never broken. Standing in the parking lot, my chest heaved as the waves of loss rolled over me. I sat in the car for a long time before I drove home that day.
Yesterday, I received word that Tata, who had gone in for a minor concern, had instead decided it was time to go meet Nana. My eyes welled with tears, and it was bittersweet, because I know how much he missed her. I hope she was there waiting for him.
My kids have grown up hearing stories about Nana and Tata- Jeffrey knows certain recipes are from my childhood, and sometimes when I am telling a tale, he will interrupt me, asking “Is this about your California Nana, or about my Washington Nana?” He knows when he gets a bird-brained teenage idea, he’s safer coming to me than he ever will be sneaking out.
Nana and Tata are part of the weft and weave of my life, and I don’t know if they ever knew how much they meant to me, or how much I loved them; I hope so.
Family means so much more than just the people to whom we share bloodlines. Nana and Tata probably never imagined the little girl they welcomed into their home nearly four decades ago would be changed by them, and would be sharing their stories and influence with her own children. I am indebted and grateful with all of my heart that I was privileged to be their mija.