My grandmother’s name is Magdalena, but I never heard anyone call her that. To my grandfather, she was always Elena. So when it came time to pick my daughter’s middle name, I gave her the name Elena, not Magdalena, to honor my grandma.
Last Sunday morning my grandma died of covid.
I’m not going to tell that story. Most of you have never met my grandma, and I refuse to let her ending define her. Instead I will say this about her:
Grandma Elena moved to the US from Mexico shortly after marrying my grandfather. Great Grandma thought that if she married her wandering son to a good village girl, he would leave the US (where he was a citizen) and raise his family in Mexico. Turns out he was a good enough son to marry the woman his mother picked out, but not good enough to stay in their village. Instead, he moved his new wife back to California, where they raised six children.
My grandpa told me this story when I was 13. To hear him tell it, he and grandma took two weeks to get to know each other before they agreed to marry. Looking back, I wonder if Grandma sized up Grandpa and decided he was worth taking a chance on. She always struck me as the more deliberate of the two.
I can’t imagine what it’s like to marry a man and move to a country where you don’t speak the language. I always thought it must have taken a great deal of fortitude and resourcefulness. My father says she ran their house like a captain, feeding and bathing the children–my aunts and uncles–in an assembly line. My grandpa was the head of the family, but to paraphrase a quote from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, she was definitely the neck, who could turn the head whichever way she wanted.
All I know is that she could cook anything. Growing up we ate menudo, buenuelos, and choritzo sausage that she made from scratch. When I went vegetarian, she was the one who tried to figure out how to make vegetarian tamales. She brought the ingredients to my mother’s house, and we spent all day, just the two of us, learning out how to make masa preparada taste good without lard.
I learned three things that day. First, Crisco is magical. Second, never make tamales with fewer than 10 people. Third, grandma really wanted me to know how to make our traditional foods, even if I didn’t follow a traditional diet. She gave me a tortilla press before I moved to New York. With that and my newfound tamale knowledge, I was set loose to spread Mexican meals wherever I wandered.
My daughter bears her great grandma’s name. I hope that she carries the same fortitude and resourcefulness inside of her. I will use strong words if she tries to marry a man after two weeks of dating. Some day I will teach her to make tamales and tortillas. And then I will let her wander. It’s what grandma would have wanted.