I've mentioned before how I don't usually get too personal on this blog, prefering to use other means for those things. Today and tomorrow will be different. Tomorrow because my son Joseph turns 4 and today because my abuelita, Raquel Sastre, passed away this morning.
My abuelita (I have never called her by any other name) was 94 years old. She came from Cuba in the early 1960s, following her husband who had emigrated shortly before and bringing her two younger children, my mother Gladys and uncle Ari. Her older daughter Elena was already married and would emigrate afterward with her husband Fred. She left behind many possessions, much family, and her homeland, never to return.
The Sastres settled at first in New York City, in the Flushing area of Queens. My grandfather secured employment and over time the family prospered, moving to Miami after a few years. From the time that they arrived my grandparents served as an important support for the relatives and friends that followed their exodus from Cuba. Some stayed in their New York apartment. Others were helped in other ways. My grandfather built a deserved reputation as an honest businessman and good judge of character. My grandmother was his constant and faithful companion and support. Together they raised good children and continued to serve as a focal point for the family up to the present day. They were married for 58 years when my grandfather passed away in 1999.
My relationship with my abuelita really developed after my 2 year spanish-speaking mission. When I returned I was fluent in the language and finally able to converse with her in a mature way. We would talk about politics, Cuban history, and baseball. Baseball was one of her favorite pastimes, and she followed the Marlins closely.
When I married I gained a greater appreciation for my grandmother. She welcomed newcomers to the family with openness and acceptance, and it helped my wife feel like part of the family right away (Abuelita was also happy that Lacy spoke Spanish).
When we had our first child Joseph I was able to see that what had driven Abuelita since the death of her husband was her love for family and her joy at seeing new life come into the world. Children loved her and she loved them and had a fantastic memory for birthdates and sent handwritten letters to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I remember the one she sent to my daughter Millie for her 2nd birthday, where she expressed her love and hope that Millie would know that her great-grandmother loved her.
She loved the United States, despite her sadness at never being able to return home to Cuba. She and my grandfather were unfailing supporters of the Republican party, as are most Cubans of their generation. I owe my interest and love for Cuban history to her, as she was always happy to send me information about Cuba, its people, and its proud culture. She sent clothing and other items to Cuba regularly and without fail, never forgetting that the Cuban people continue to suffer under a brutal and oppressive dicatorship, and never allowing her comfortable life in the United States to cloud that fact. This is also a hallmark of her generation, which never forgot the island that they were forced to leave.
I loved to visit her. I would learn whether I had lost or gained weight and whether she liked how I looked, especially if I had any facial hair (Castro ruined beards for her). This is common in Latin culture, where directness and honesty are common, but also common is love and acceptance.
She and my grandfather loved to share with their family, displaying tremendous generosity. We were able to see the world at a young age and enjoy their company and enthusiasm, as well as grow closer as cousins and family.
I see my grandmother in my mother. I hope there is something of her in me. I hope that I can help my kids understand that this country may be the only place on earth where a man, a woman, and two children could come, with virtually nothing, and create a successful life. I will teach them about their Abuelito and Abuelita, who did just that, and who left us a legacy that is rich with meaning and purpose.
I honor my Abuelita. I will honor her memory by continuing to hold sacred a belief in freedom and a deep and constant love for my family. She lived a life to be proud of, and she is now with her beloved Aristides and I look forward to the day when I can see them both again.
(My cousin Aris and I with Abuelito and Abuelita on a trip in 1991)