A grandmother is a shield. But a mother has to be a sword.
My sister Gisela had already moved out of Portland so it was just me and mom when dad died—five years ago this month. I had my own place back then, but naturally I spent a lot of time at mom’s house when it happened. We would play the piano together or watch Gilmore Girls, but when I would start to cry, she would just sit there watching me for a little bit before standing up and silently excusing herself. She didn’t shut down or stop living or overcompensate with work or drinking, the way people sometimes do. She just wasn’t available.
* * *
Right now I’m sitting masked up at the airport staring at the display that shows all the boarding groups. I’m supposed to fly to Denver to stay with Gisela. I’m in Group E, my seat is in the back of the plane. Is the back where you want to be if the plane crashes? Is the front better? The middle? Flying has always frightened me. Now, with the masks and this virus and those videos of people losing their shit on the plane, I hate it. But that’s not the real reason I don’t want to fly to Denver.
* * *
When I was very little, I met my abuelo. He flew the treacherous Andes routes back when planes were still welded steel and aluminum tubes. Marco was his name and he was pretty young for a grandpa: 48 when I was born—towering over everyone in his photos, youthful, salt and pepper, not yet grey—and only 53 when he died. It was a plane crash that took him away from us and his body was never found so all anyone remembers is abuelo Marco spanking the guitar with his flamenco and dancing tango and salsa right up until the day he left.
Mom said he was “probably dancing in the cockpit as the plane went down.”
When she told me abuelo Marco was gone, mom says that for months I would bury my sister Gisela’s dolls in the backyard. I don’t remember doing it and to this day I have no idea what it means, and don’t want to know. But Gisela forgave me and we grew up and, for a while, we were very close.
* * *
I used to get horribly sick as a little girl visiting family in Colombia. Too much fruit, too much candy, something in the water—probably all three. Mother might hold my hair away from my face while I sicked up into the toilet, but then Gisela would come and sort of relieve her of duty. It was Gisela who would sit beside me on the bed and rub my back, bring me caldo and Cola Roman to settle my stomach.
See, mom’s nurturing instinct always seemed to sort of run out, like hot water in an old house—you just have to wait for it to replenish. But Gisela is a natural born mom. She was 9 and I was 7 when we met our baby cousins. Black-haired blue-eyed beauties they were, and I adored them and cooed over them but I was afraid to hold them. Not my sister. Gisela swaddled the littlest one and rocked him and turned him over in her arms like he was one of her dolls. She gave him a gentle shake and got him giggling; the bigger one was already a toddler but Gisela made faces and covered his eyes with her hands and got him spitting and drooling with laughter.
Years later, when dad passed away, Gisela came to Portland to stay with us and knitted with mom, took me to the movies—and she cooked for us every day, even though cooking bores her to tears. I guess she’s like my abuela in that way.
* * *
My abuela Lucia’s hands are frail—the skin, brittle as dried tobacco leaf, the veins mottled and blue and protruding like mangrove roots. But I remember her picking up the fork and the ceramic bowl full of eggs one morning and beating them with uncanny intensity, her hands sure and strong as a carpenter’s. In the memory, she catches me watching her and from the other side of the breakfast bar, she flashes me a smile laced with mischief and anticipation that makes her look no older than my 7 years.
“Casi listo mi amor.” Almost ready, my love.
I know losing abuelo Marco was agony for her but she never let anyone else bear that. Instead she shielded everyone, comforting her children and grandchildren in their grief: hosting, entertaining, and cooking—slicing the cilantro and avocado, preparing the arepas, and beating the crap out of those eggs.
* * *
Boarding groups A and B light up, circular green lights appearing beside them on the display. Like kids in a classroom hearing the bell for recess, fwuhp everyone stands at once and shuffles over to stand in line. Seats so coveted just moments ago now sit abandoned. There is a disagreement in the line about who got to a certain place first. A flight attendant asks a man toward the back of the line to pull his mask up over his nose. I slide my fingertips under my own mask to give my jaw line and the bridge of my nose a little massage.
Although people always rush to line up, I usually prefer to remain in my seat until well after my group is called, until the line has died down to nothing and I can leisurely walk through the gate, down the gangway, and onto a plane whose passengers are mostly settled. But today I stand up, moments after the other passengers scramble for the line. I walk with handbag and backpack toward the back of the line—and right past it, past Rich’s News, past the Stumptown Coffee toward the one-way exit from the terminals. I can’t do it. I can’t go to Denver.
I don’t think my sister will understand if I bail on the trip. I know my mom won’t: she sprung for the tickets and despises wasted money. But more than that, she can’t stand emotional frailty. She likes to talk about how Colombia made her strong like my abuela, how she indulges me too much and how I need to learn to become tougher. She won’t kick me out of her house yet because of what I’m dealing with, getting furloughed and then dumped earlier this year. I think she’s secretly glad to have me there because she hates being alone in the house.
And, there are the breakfasts: during the pandemic I mastered the art of making omelettes. Really, they’re exceptional, and I would never say something like that about myself.
I make it as far as the airport bathroom, where I stand looking in the mirror. No one else is in here so I’ve stolen a moment to slide my mask down and spritz my face, taking care to avoid my own gaze. The rosewater and lavender tonic is refreshing but does nothing to help me avoid thinking about the real reason I’m afraid to go to Denver.
* * *
When Gisela got pregnant, she and her husband kept it to themselves for two weeks into the second trimester. But me she told early—way early. I knew two months in, even before mom. On the video chat Gisela pressed and pressed her lips together, the way she did when she broke the news about getting into UW Med School, and when she told us she was engaged. Pressed them together like she was afraid the news would burst out of her the very moment she opened her mouth. And it did: after some pleasantries, I could tell she was getting desperate to share, and no sooner did I say, “Gigi, do you have something—” than my sister let the news fly:
“I don’t wanna jinx it but I have to tell you, I’m losing my mind not telling you, see, we just got back from our fourth prenatal exam and everything is looking OK, there are some concerns we want to keep an eye on but so far it looks like… baby town!”
That was last spring, three months into the pandemic and mom and I immediately began planning trips out there. “Are planes super-spreaders?” “Will the Toyota make it through the passes?”
But Gisela miscarried. She told us on the phone; no video. I broke down, wept in front of mom until she blushed and abruptly proposed that we “try talking again in the morning.” Alone in my room I kept picturing the blood, weaving it into a living nightmare. Mom said we still needed to go see Gigi, to be there for her—but I couldn’t do it. I stayed back and let mom go out to Denver alone. Worse, I was unreachable while mom was gone. Gigi’s the one who miscarried, but for two weeks I didn’t text her or take her calls. I have no excuse or explanation for it. I apologized of course when mom came back, apologized to them both but to this day I have no idea why I couldn’t go out there when Gisela needed me.
* * *
Someone has entered the restroom so I slide my mask over my mouth and nose. Then I unbind and retie my hair. Finally I meet my own eyes in the mirror.
Gisela is pregnant again, into her third trimester and it looks really good this time around—hence the Denver trip. But how can I go? When she needed me before, I didn’t show up. I let her down and I don’t know what to do about that—I can never take that back. And now I’m afraid I’m going to make it worse because I just don’t see how I can go out there and face her.
Why am I like this?
My phone buzzes in my purse and I dig it out. It’s mom.
“You should be boarding the plane by now, Jan Karla. Was it delayed? The internet says it’s on time.”
I swallow and say nothing.
“How can I look her in the eye, mom?”
There is a long silence.
I had asked mom if we could fly together—begged actually—but she said it was impossible: “work.” She plans to join me in Denver at Gisela‘s place in two weeks.
I’m about to hang up and call a car when her voice fills the silence. “Listen to me Jan Karla: when you get there, you just give her a hug. Don’t say anything heavy. If she wants you to admire her belly, admire her belly. Then, get settled in and go to sleep. She has a very comfortable guestroom. Then, tomorrow when you wake up, you make her the best omelette of your entire life. Just start there. The rest will take care of itself.”
* * *
I know why grandmothers have, for millennia, cooked for their families in difficult times. A grandmother is a shield. But a mother has to be a sword, and only now that Gisela might really have some little ones coming can our mother smelt herself down from a blade to a shelter. I understand it now, as I stare at myself in this splotchy airport mirror.
Blinking hard I turn away and exit the lavatory. I can see the display for my flight: all boarding groups have green lights beside them now. I just want to leave, to go home, but I think of how Gisela hasn’t gotten to try my omelettes yet, and I think of our grandmother Lucia’s frail hands beating the crap out of those eggs and I think maybe I can just go and cook for my sister and see where that takes us.