by Susana Kuehne
When I walked into Abuela’s house on weekends, I remember her greeting me with a big hug and smile—so excited I had come to see her even if she had already seen me the week before.
Babies playing in the background and a loud telenovela on the small screen created the aura that nothing could go wrong while you were at Abuela’s. With six puppies in her backyard, a chicken, and some storage she was holding for a random cousin, it felt like I was in another world. If I were sick, she would make an aloe remedy that didn’t taste great but was one-hundred percent effective in chasing away a cough or runny nose.
Abuela could walk around in a bata and hair rollers and still exude confidence. Everyone made time to listen; her actions commanded the attention of everyone in the room. It’s easy now to see why her seven kids worshipped her (commitments to their work, spouses, and other responsibilities be damned).
I constantly wondered why my dad was obsessed with visiting. Indeed he had better things to do, and it was boring to be stuffed in a house without air conditioning or Internet. I had friends to IM, for Christ’s sake. Even after his divorce from my mother, Dad piled us all in his car and drove us to the neighborhood's edge, where Abuela lived. Her home was only minutes away from our little pink house with the broken chain fence. It was a blessing for Dad and a curse for Mom. She knew it would end in trouble, and I hated that no one cared how she felt.
Of course, Mom disapproved. “That’s the woman who your father always chose over me. The one who let his mistresses meet him there so that I wouldn’t know. She doesn’t respect me at all. I don’t want you there.” It was challenging to go against my mother’s wishes. She should be number one in my father’s life, right? How could a mother break apart someone’s marriage if her role in raising her child was over? Inevitably, tias and older cousins labeled my mom as a maniac who was being ridiculous. Then again, when a Dominican matriarch stands before you, the best you can offer is loyalty. No one could do wrong to Abuela, lest they have her seven children confront the said perpetrator.
I remember many arguments where I upset my dad by disobeying him and refusing to physically get out of the car once he was parked in front of Abuela’s flowers on the beaten-down lawn. But sometimes, I gave in, he was my father, after all, and I could never win the battle between right and wrong when it came to his relationship with my Ecuadorian mother. She, like Abuela, also carried a magnetic aura that no one could escape—even if they tried.
Eventually, I turned eighteen. If I visited Abuela against Mom’s will, she could no longer run to the courthouse and give the judge an earful about why she thought it wasn’t in the best interest of my siblings and me.
I watched my dad’s face light up with laughter and merriment each time he added another tally to the notebook. Whether it was for his team or the opposing side, Dad and his siblings could keep the stress of their lives (i.e., overdue bills, marital woes, and their kids’ rebellion) at arms’ length once they were gathered around the domino table. This sacred communion left everyone feeling at ease when they left Abuela’s house.
While some of her children visited daily, others came only when they needed money or wanted her to babysit a grandchild. She didn’t mind and didn’t reproach you for having “forgotten” her during the week. No, Abuela knew her value, and she stood in it proudly, knowing that someone would come to see her every day, and it didn’t matter who it was. But Dad was the one who came with a purpose. He would pull out his checkbook, line her bills across the old wooden table and adjust the glasses on his nose to begin calculating her finances. The burden of an elder child in Hispanic cultures is no joke, but my father never complained. Everything was paid on time; she always had food, and though she didn’t drive, someone was always available to bring her groceries or taxi her to and from appointments and church.
Ah, la Iglesia. I suspected religion to be the glue between all the siblings in that house.
Though I loved her, I disagreed with her opinions on things she wanted us to accept as gold. Her beliefs were old-fashioned and judgmental. My opinion never mattered, though.
I heard stories from my mother, but Dad never told us to be grateful because others had less. To stop complaining because it could be worse. Instead, he led by example, and to this day, I still find comfort in talking to him about something that’s seemingly going to end my world. Then at the other end of the phone line, he says, “It will be okay,” I believe him.
Abuela would do the same. She was rarely angry and although she had also survived a difficult life. Her womanhood began in exile from her folks when she refused to marry the man her father handpicked for her. This boldness to choose in her love life back in the 1920s spoke loudly of the type of woman she would be. It, therefore, came as a surprise to me how forceful she was with the grandchildren; she tried to impose on us whenever we wanted to make our own choices, and I didn’t like that.
Abuela was weary of everything that did not support her Jehovah's Witness theology. The Bible interpreted in a way that if you even wear the wrong clothes or think about a secular song, you’ll be shunned. If male and female cousins wanted to spend a day at the beach, she called it a sin. That extremism didn’t sit well with my cousins and me, who were already dissatisfied with answering to our parents and their hawk-eye view. “Leave us alone,” we’d protest, “We aren’t sinners; this is just how the world is now.” You’re too old to understand, and your beliefs are antiquated. That was what we thought but never said aloud.
Though I disagreed with her values, I grew to form my own type of bond with Abuela. My eyes and hair resembled hers, and she loved me. Looking at her black and white photo, stately in every way, mounted in the hallways at all the apartments she had before buying the humble one-story on Sun Vista Way made me wonder: What other secrets do you hold?
After Abuela’s passing, the dynamic has only shifted mildly. People still gather at her home regularly and meet for tostones and their dose of the weekly gossip. Abuela’s adult kids, and now adult grandchildren, still have a penchant for the feeling they craved each time they entered her casita—the place she turned into a shelter for them for over twenty years. It speaks volumes to feel how alive Abuela’s spirit remains among us all.
As a Dominican woman, do I do things the same way? No, and I’m not sure that I could. My beliefs are different; I want my kids to understand the value of their strength and individuality without fear that they’re disappointing me. What I yearned for in my future was not the things my grandparents thought about in their youth.
Unfortunately, the reality of my upbringing was only tangentially affected the traditions of my culture, but a lot did stick with me, including the language. White teachers raised me alongside middle-class friends in cushy, suburban houses. My sons are half-German and learning phrases in Spanish along the way, fascinated by bachata and increasingly more curious about what it means to be Hispanic. Even with two little ones and another baby on the way, one thing is clear. I may not be a Dominican matriarch in the same sense my Abuela ruled her household with a fierce grip over how people dressed, spoke, and behaved, but I’m still a Dominican mother.
I realize now that a mother's role is never complete. It’s not easy to control a whole family, let alone an entire generation of people with their kids and problems. You can’t tie a nice bow on that responsibility and shoo it away at their eighteenth birthday. Instead, you brace yourself for what’s to come in the next stage of their life and how you can be there as their pillar of support.
And yet I still know nothing about how to obtain that otherworldly power Abuela still has over her devoted family.
Susana Kuehne is a program manager, swimmer, writer and mother who earned her undergraduate mechanical engineering at the University of Rochester and her masters from Virginia Tech. Half Dominican and half Ecuadorian, she is grateful for the opportunities her parents' sacrifices have afforded her and is actively trying to find ways to relate to those around her through her personal essays and fiction novels. You can find her work online at Scary Mommy, Her View From Home, The Patent Watchdog, the Women's Fiction Writers Association, the International Thriller Writers Big Thrill Magazine, and more.