It is usually never a good thing when you get a telephone call at five in the morning. So when the phone rang at that time and I started to answer the phone my wife instructed me not to answer the phone. When I asked her why she said “ it is my mother and I know if she is calling me at this time it can only be one thing and I don’t want to know.” She said this referring to her ailing grandmother, who raised her as my grandparents raised me, in her mind there was no doubt that the phone call was meant to give her the news of her grandmothers death.
I decided to pick up the phone anyway and hand it to her and it was her brother who was calling to tell her that her fears had come true.
Her grandmother was born in a rural area of Puerto Rico and was the oldest daughter out of eleven kids. At about the age of eight she began caring for several of her younger siblings and never went any farther in school and never had a childhood. She would work hard taking care of her younger brothers and sisters, and the sick elderly people in the family, until she got married in her early-twenties and moved to Bayamon (a suburb of San Juan) like hundreds of thousands of rural Boricuas who came to the city for the promise of jobs and a better life. Just like in America, when millions of southern blacks flooded the Northern cities in the early and mid 20th century, the rural peasants soon found that they had left sub-standard housing and backbreaking work in the country for life in a dangerous, crowded and noisy urban ghetto.
Living in Bayamon she gave birth to 4 kids, and raised one other, and she didn’t move to New York until she was in her late fifties and never learned English. Like so many other older Latinos in America my wife’s grandparents went to Spanish-speaking churches, watched Spanish TV, and while their bodies were in Brooklyn their hearts were in Puerto Rico. As a child my wife had to translate for her grandparents to the bill collectors and the doctors, telephone companies, and utility companies. They didn’t get out much, and that was part of the problem with their health, because they lived in the Albany Projects in Crown Heights Brooklyn and were terrified to go out at night and only nominally confident to go out in the daytime.
The Grandmother would sit in her small apartment and watch Spanish TV and read the Bible with five locks on the door and hear the gunshots, drug feuds, police sirens, loud music, and lovers quarrels and that was all the America she ever got to see. Well, not all the America; she did have a front row seat to the infamous Crown Heights Riot between African-Americans and Hasidic Jews. But, for old people like her, who have no money and live in bad neighborhoods the last days are usually harsh unless you have family that will help you out and that is only so good. My mother-in-law did help her towards the end; but she moved from one projects to another (from bad to worse) and lost the ability to walk because she never walked (use it or lose it) and she just slowly died away.
In her last days, before she lost consciousness, she found solace in reading the Bible and religious tracts. Like a growing number of people in Latin America she had rejected the Catholic Church and become a born-again Christian (Pentecostal) and she will be buried besides her husband, a tough but gentle old-school Puerto Rican man, in New Jersey ( in New York even the commute to the cemetery is long).