Here is the memoir I’ve been working on. This is the second to last draft and some things might change between today and tomorrow, but I felt like I needed to put this out there. I’ve been working on my portfolio for my Master’s degree. It’s important to me that I do well on this one, because it is my own words, come to life. I was only going to focus on fictional stories, but after reading one of my blog posts about Nana aloud at an open mic, my advisor said it might be beneficial to work on it. So some of the things said in here might be familiar.
I just want to point out that while most of the story is true, some things are embellished. This took me a while to write, simply because tensions are still kind of high in my family. I do not want to upset or cause any trauma for what I’m about to show you. It is simply how I feel about the situation. Maybe later on I will do another few more edits and put the bare truth out there. I don’t know if I’ve said this about writing before, but you have to think of your audience.
While my mom was very supportive of me writing this, I do feel like some “truths” might not want to be heard. There is always two sides to each coin. It is not my job, as a memoir writer, to put the blame on any one person. Or to villainize (I don’t think that’s really a word, but I’m sure some of my readers will know what I’m trying to convey) anyone. Everyone has their faults and I tried to tell the story of just me and my grandma. So I’m sorry if I didn’t characterize anyone else in the story that well.
So without further ado, here is my memoir to my grandma:
I remember the last time I saw my grandma healthy. It was Christmas day and we were going over to my aunt’s house, in the Marina District, for dinner. When we arrived at my grandma’s house, a tiny blue house in the Sunset District, she wasn’t ready. I remember being happy that I got to be the one to assist her. I was holding her small miniature Toy Poodle, Mara, when my grandma, Nana as I liked to call her, asked me to turn around. When I did, she said, “You remind me of myself so many years ago. All the boys would chase me around back in Macau. Your outfit suits you and you look like you’ve lost some of that chin fat.”
There were many times such as this one where I would wait on Nana, but one moment sticks out in particular. It was just a typical day, nothing special was going on. My mom had invited Nana over for dinner and I was the one to drive her to our house in Pacifica. I remember coming up the stairs, seeing the drawings of my mom and her siblings, and hearing Nana tell Mara to “pipe down.” Mara had somehow thought Nana wasn’t taking her. When I had reached the top of the stairs, I could see Nana in front of the bathroom door mirror. She was wearing her black, red and white striped shirt with black trousers. She was putting on her lipstick and making sure her hair was in place. She had just dyed her hair to a coppery red that week. Nana had the habit of spinning around when she was fixing her hair. Because she was so tiny, it looked like a ballerina from a jewelry box.
This was around the time of my college graduation and Nana was curious as to what I was going to wear. I had already planned a simple pink dress for the occasion, so I was all prepared. Nana, however, had already thought things through. She told me to hold Mara while she went in her room to get something. She came out a few minutes later with a small jewelry box with a butterfly on the lid. When I opened the lid, there were an assortment of pink and red bracelets, exactly like the color of my dress. My eyes threatened to tear up so I gave Nana a huge hug and thanked her for her kindness. Nana was all about accessories. Sometimes she would show me some of her jewelry collection when I would watch her get ready to go out. Nana lived a life I hoped to emulate in the future. She was bold, something I felt, and still feel, I could never be, and her vibrant personality reflected that of her favorite red lipstick.
Nana was an amazing cook. There were times when I was little that I would try to replicate her scrambled eggs. To this day, I still believe she had some magic in her and just made the eggs with her special powers. Food was always something that brought my family together. There were even times when we would have our little inside jokes about food.
There was one time when we went over her house for dinner. This was back when we made it a priority to have dinner with Nana every other week. Nana had made spaghetti and meatballs. When I got upstairs, I kissed Nana on the cheek. The dark brown cabinets and the yellow tiles my favorite part of the house, although my mom had always talked about renovating it for Nana. I looked at the stove, an old relic that was probably from the 50’s and saw the spaghetti cooking in the pot.
“Yay! I love spaghetti!”
“I’m so happy you enjoy it. Can you help me make the garlic bread?”
I washed my hands and grabbed the garlic powder from the fridge.
“Where’s your mom?” Nana asked.
“Oh, she’s parking the car.”
Nana stood next to me, opening a drawer. She pulled out the rice scooper.
“Nana, we’re having spaghetti. You don’t need the rice scooper for that.”
“Yes, well… Cruz needs his rice. So we have rice.”
The truth was that Nana needed the rice. It wouldn’t be a dinner without rice.
In high school, I asked to learn how to make Nana’s amazing Feijoada, a dish made up of cabbage, pig’s feet, beans, beef, and pork.
I was there when we tried to get things straight about the recipe. My aunt kept saying, “So you put in this amount of beans?” And then Nana said, “Yes. Wait, did you write that it needed two things of cabbage?”
“’Things’ of cabbage?”
“You know,” said Nana, “two balls or mugs or scoopfuls.”
“I wrote down one!” I said, while scratching out the amount of cabbage on the page.
“No, what I meant was two for one pot of Feijoada.”
“Okay, so two cabbages.”
When I would add half a bag of beans, she would throw in some more beans after. And the amount of salt she added was not exact to the recipe at hand. Nana had been making this dish for so long that the actual ingredients were just second nature to her.
“Oh and about the pig’s feet…”
It was always a treat to be able to work in the kitchen with Nana. She was always lithe on her feet, so sometimes it would feel like every movement in the kitchen was a dance. Sometimes on a rare sunny day in San Francisco, light would seem to bounce off of her and the light would be reflected in the glass chandelier above the dining room table.
The best memories I have with Nana are all involving food. Even if she was not expecting my mom and I to come over, she would sometimes have enough food for us, with some left over. I used to wake up at the crack of dawn whenever I stayed over her house, just to make sure I laid the table for breakfast. It would always cheer me up just to make her a cup of coffee, because I knew it made her happy. The sounds of her slippered feet on the creaky hardwood floor would sometimes make me do a small dance of victory on the yellow linoleum floors of the kitchen. Plus, I just couldn’t wait to have some of her delicious Oatmeal.
There were hours in class where I would stare at the posters on the wall (most of the classes I had didn’t have windows) and wish I was spending the day with Nana. She always had her routine of breakfast, Tai-Chi, cleaning up the backyard, lunch and her soap operas. Sometimes when I would think about what a happy future would be, I would imagine my grandma sitting in the living room, watching her soap operas.
There’s this line from a musical that goes “Sometimes people leave you, halfway through the wood. Do not let it grieve you. No one leaves for good. You are not alone. No one is alone.” It may be sentimental, but I think this best represents my feelings towards my grandma’s passing. She’s probably here in spirit and we have to live our lives; go through the wood. I guess if you think that our spirit lives on, we will meet each other at the end of our lives.
I remember that call from my mom.
Nana had gone to the hospital a week prior to Christmas. It didn’t feel like a huge deal to me at the time, since I had this hope that everything would be okay. After all, it was only a cold. However, things took a turn for the worse when she responded badly to one of the drugs they were giving her. It was then that I sensed that things would never be the same. Nana had a strict DNR policy and when her heart started failing, we knew that we would eventually have to turn off the machines keeping her alive. It was a long night in the waiting room of the ICU.
Nana had five kids and each one had their own opinion of what they wanted to do. There were arguments that were fairly civil and others where their voices over ran each other’s. My sister and I clung to each other’s hand to avoid voicing our opinions over their arguments. What concerned me at the time was how my mom, the oldest, didn’t seem to be heard.
When we finally got to see Nana, all of my family was in tears. My mom, my sister Amy and I held on to each other and told Nana how much we loved her.
My uncle, standing to the right of Nana’s bed, looked at my sister and I and said, “These are your last words to Nana. This is your last chance to say what you want.”
I looked towards my sister. Both of us unsure of what we needed to say.
“Nana,” I choke out through the tears, “we’re here. I love you. I wish…”
I couldn’t go on. My mom put her arms around me and my sister. It was the first time in years that my sister has let me hug her without squirming.
My uncle said we should say something more, but there was nothing I wanted to say. There was nothing that could bring Nana back to us and I had nothing of importance to say besides “I love you.”
Eventually I took my sister and myself home at two in the morning. My sister ended up going to the beach with her friends while I insisted on going home. I spent an hour curled up on the couch watching TV with my cat and dog cocooned around me. Before I fell asleep, I felt my dog, Timba, rub his nose against my cheek. I awoke an hour later from a call from my mom. When I picked up the phone, all she said was, “It’s time.” The room instantly felt colder and I had to carry my cat around while I picked up my bag, my jacket, and the bracelet Nana had given me that Christmas to go out.
My two sisters, Amy and Marissa, did not want to go to the hospital. While I understood that they didn’t want to be there when they turned off the machines, I felt abandoned by the two people who understood me more than anyone in the world. By the time I got to the hospital, Nana had already passed and I found that I could not shed another tear more. After all the fighting and yelling in the ICU, it was my mother who was to be there at my grandma’s last breath.
I think I took her loss harder than I expected. I suddenly remembered how there was another Christmas or holiday when my grandma had gone to the hospital. After that time, I think I had maybe started to prepare myself for the inevitable. But, perhaps, not well enough. I wanted to be okay, but in the end, I wasn’t. I honestly could not see a life without Nana in it.
On some level, Nana’s passing helped spur me towards studying abroad. She was very proud that I graduated from college and that faith really meant a lot to me.
There was a day, back in April 2015, four months after, when I was really depressed about Nana’s passing. My mom and her siblings were fighting over the sale of Nana’s house and also about the inheritance. When I’m really sad, sometimes I like to go through my things and clean out some stuff. I found a lot of missing jewelry that had been given to me from relatives and other miscellaneous things such as a twenty-dollar bill. The most important thing that I found was the card Nana gave me for my college graduation. I remember clearly when she handed it to me. My mom had told me not to accept the money she gave me since Nana really needed the money. Although after her passing, we realized that she may not have been so strapped for cash. The card read, “To my dearest granddaughter Jillian. Hoping, wishing you a very bright future. Love you very much as always, Nana and Balbino Cruz.” On the front of the card was the picture of a hummingbird and some flowers. I’ve kept that card close to me ever since.
Growing up, I loved hearing anything about where my grandma came from. She was born in Mexico, but moved to Macau and then moved to the United States. I always fantasized about what it would have been like for her to start life in another country.
In the summer of 2015, I went on a trip to Macau. I went with a group of people from all around the world who were also Macanese. The Macanese is anyone descended from those people living in Macau when it was under Portuguese rule. It was an eye opening experience to be in a country that Nana and my mother had lived in. There were plenty of places and experiences that made me think of Nana, but one moment in particular sticks in my memory. The second to last night of the trip, I had an experience that changed my entire perspective on death.
When I was packing for the trip, I had only known to bring one formal outfit. But while I was on the trip, I learned that we had to have two. I heard there was a Forever 21 store that was open till midnight near the Ruins of St. Paul, which is this front of a church that was burned down. After we came back from dinner, I set off. However, I had left my phone in my hotel room, as the battery had died.
The trek was calming. It was humid and I felt as if there was a blanket of water being pressed against me. The journey was all uphill and the cobbled streets were only faintly illuminated by the street lamps. Using mostly my memory, and the scattered street signs pointing the way, I was able to find the ruins. Nana always said that I had an impeccable sense of direction.
Halfway through the walk, I felt as if I was being watched. Every now and then I would see other people walking up or down the streets. I tried to look confident, so that no one would take me for a foreigner. As I neared the ruins, I felt that watchful eye increase its stare. When I reached the ruins, I took a second to make sure I was alone. The town square in front of the ruins were faintly lit up by street lamps. As I looked towards the ruins of the church, I felt it. The presence that I felt halfway through the walk. A light was shining in back of the church, making the ruin of the church stand out in the landscape of the city. While I know there is a logical explanation for the light, I believe that it was definitely Nana looking over me, making sure I was safe in this foreign land.
When Nana was young, her role model was her mom. Back then in Macau, in order to get water, people would have to walk to the local watering hole. It cost extra money to have a pipe come directly to one’s house. A local gang had monopolized on this habitual routine of ordinary life, having the women pay to get water. When Nana’s mom heard of this, she immediately went down to the watering hole, Nana in tow. Nana said she looked like “a fiery rage of a woman,” storming down to vanquish evil. Because Nana’s mom was part European, the gangs did not mess with her, out of fear of causing trouble for relations between the Portuguese and the Chinese, and immediately disbanded their monopoly on the watering hole. Nana was a fierce lady herself, having touched the lives of many people she came in contact with.
Our first Christmas without Nana didn’t feel like Christmas. Relationships were still strained by this time and with the second big holiday without Nana upon us, no one truly felt in the holiday spirit. Because I had been away in Wales for a few months and was only back for the break, most of the conversation was steered towards what it was like in another country and what my future plans were. Every now and then, however, the conversation would go towards what we would have done if Nana was still alive. The big thing, for me at least, was that we forgot to make rice.
When I came home from break, one thing that I didn’t realize before I left was that one of my uncles kept some of the food from Nana’s freezer. Before Nana passed, I had begged her to make Feijoada. Every time I planned to make it with her, something always came up. Sometimes people have a bigger impact on your life than what you think. And you really can’t see it until it’s too late. I kept telling myself that there was more time, but in reality, we didn’t. I wish I could have made it with her one more time, because I know she was looking forward to making it with me before the holidays started. The ingredients for Feijoada still lie in our refrigerator, waiting to be cooked.
That last time I saw my Nana, we smiled, we laughed, we hugged, we danced around the bedroom. “Soon,” she had said. “soon, we will make Feijoada together. Just you and me!”
I hoped you liked it. Feel free to comment below on your thoughts. I wanted to post a poem I wrote in class about Nana. I was going to add it to my memoir, but I don’t think it fits. So here it is. It is untitled as of yet.
Her red auburn hair
Matted in sweat
From years of taking
Care of 5 children.
The tubes connecting her
Are only physical reincarnations
Of our love
Once used to smooth
Unruly curls and fix dinner
Now cling to life.
She died before the heart monitor went off.
My mother clutching
Her weathered hand.
Hours of fighting
All come down to
My mother goes home
To her three children
And teaches them
What it really
Means to be a