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My Abuela, the Puppet

I have been a fan of metaphor since I learned to read, first in English and then eventually in rusty, copper Spanish. This is not a metaphor. My grandma has become a puppet.


It would be a good metaphor if the circumstances were slightly different. Her body had started to change in the past few years and, though she stayed human, her physique lent itself to a description of her as a marionette. She had clunky, white orthopedic shoes that looked oversized and cartoonish when she took her small, concerted steps. Abuela’s back was permanently hunched over, appearing as if she were being suspended by invisible strings at the shoulders. She lost a lot of weight, and the lack of fat in her face combined with her wrinkled skin made her head look huge like a Muppet’s. But Abuela was still herself then, flesh and bones and dust.


Then she become a puppet and no one knew what to do about it. Papi wouldn’t admit it, but there were signs that her metamorphosis was coming, and it wasn’t just those dreadful orthopedic shoes.


For a long time, Abuela lived in an apartment by herself. Her relationship with my Abuelo had been another precious thing lost to migration, and she’d never bothered to date again. She had her children, who joined her in los Yunai Estais after she’d been cleaning houses, theaters, and embassies for nearly a decade, for nearly minimum wage. But, of course, Papi and his siblings had grown up and left Abuela in that musty-smelling apartment building.


We visited her one afternoon and couldn’t avoid the putrid smell that’d snuck into her home. The whole building smelt of old-person. In less kind words, the carpet and walls smelt of dying. But that morning Abuelita’s apartment did not smell just of dying, but already of death. In the fridge, there were rotten casseroles and the unquestionable stink of not-so-fresh queso fresco. Papi managed to save five slices from the loaf of bread, but everything else went into the trash.


Abuela claimed that she hadn’t smelt the food going bad. Her nose hardly worked anymore, she told us in an attempt to gain our pity. So, we went with her the the supermarket and bought a fridge full of groceries. Two weeks later, they sat in the fridge, largely untouched and mostly spoiled. My grandma had begun to lose weight, but she was still human.


Eventually, Mami convinced Papi to let Abuela move into our home in the suburbs. Abuela said they were being ridiculous, that she was fine in her apartment, that she was happy. But Mami was worried that she’d fall one day, and that no one would be there to help her. The weight loss also worried Mami.


Abuela had a large gut throughout my childhood, the kind that makes you wonder what would happen if you tipped her over and tried rolling her down the street. But by the time she moved into my old bedroom, her gut was gone. If you tipped her over, she’d plop onto the sidewalk like a plank of wood.


There’s a purse that Abuela loves. It’s a knock-off Louis Vuitton that she picked up in MacArthur park a year or so before the rotting fridge fiasco. When she became a puppet, a  version of the bag was stitched to her side, though it was made of felt and with less details than the original. But the purse sticks to her side, even as she lays tossed on the ground when there’s no one to hold up the wooden operating cross.


Before she was a puppet, Abuela swung that purse around and hit Papi straight across the cheek, leaving him with neck pains he’d complain about for weeks. She was accusing him of stealing money from her purse. Papi assured her that, no, he hadn’t taken anything from her, but she continued. She remembered putting a stack of twenty-dollar bills in the small pocket of her purse, and now she couldn’t find them. Papi had stolen them, she yelled, the ungrateful son of his father and then she pulled back her flabby arm and took aim.


In his shock, Abuela made a run for it. She pushed past me, with a strength that her limp marionette arms no longer possess. That the woman who sang me lullabies about baby chicks and coyotes would lay her hands on me without any of the tenderness I was used to nearly brought me to tears. It left me immobile as she opened the front door and ran out into the  rain-soaked neighborhood with her Louis Vuitton fake.


Mami and Papi got into the minivan and went out searching for her. They spotted her through a sprinkled windshield, waiting at the wrong bus stop. Her plan, my parents would tell me after I’d wiped the bags under my ears dry, was to ride the bus back to her apartment. She had forgotten the bus route to get there, though she’d ridden it often for nearly a decade. It’d slipped her mind that she no longer had a lease on that musty pink apartment.


The home we moved Abuela into after the 75-year-old runaway situation didn’t smell of dying. It was sterile, and the hallways of doors where hers stood was fenced off from the rest of the living facility. A brass gate separated those who could remember and those who couldn’t. A nurse would press a four-number code into a small keypad, and the door would open up to let us through.


Abuela lived in the section for people whose memories were turning into small wisps, ready to float away from their temples and into the clouds. Each of the tenants had their own room, but they’d take all their meals in a large, open-floor dining area. The nurses would go knock on Abuela’s door when it was dinner time and she hadn’t arrived to eat. Her mind was a lost cause, but there was no reason her body had to be as well.


Every visit gave us a clue that we ignored, opting for silence the way Papi had taught Mami and Mami had taught me. One day, Papi asked her how she used to make Christmas tamales. Being the man’s man that he is, he’d never stepped in the kitchen to actually make the dish. But he knew the steps well enough to know that his mother had forgotten them completely.


A professor had assigned an oral history project, so I’d decided to interview Abuela about the war and the way it had affected her migration. She began telling me the story, and the most graphic of details were sharp and clear. She recounted how an army soldier took a machete to a pregnant woman’s stomach because they feared that her baby was a communist. She told me that the guerilleros befriended her favorite cow and three days later murdered it for the meat.


When I prompted her to tell me her immigration story, she’d have to correct herself. Papi, who was sitting just few feet away, eventually led her along, reminding her that she’d gone to Puerto Rico before moving to Miami. He’d stayed in El Salvador for the first two year she’d been in San Juan, he told her, the hurt reverberating in his voice.


Soon she didn’t know our names. She called us all “mijo” or “mija.” Eventually, she opted to simply use “linda,” regardless of the gender of the person she was speaking to. Slowly, we became nearly strangers to us. My grandmother treated us the way she’d treat the mail man or a friend’s relative she was meeting for the first time. There was a sense of trust, but nothing more.


In the months before her metamorphosis, she often repeated a single phrase, over and over. He jaw falling unhinged, then rising again, and then down again. It wasn’t a coherent phrase either, but rather a string of muffled noise. Now, I’m realizing that maybe Abuela was speaking a clandestine language puppets speak when a ventriloquist isn’t pulling at their lips.


Though Abuela was human on all of those trips, I pretended that she wasn’t. Like the other people in this caged home for the forgetful, she’d lost her stories. I’d smile a hollow smile at them, tell Abuela that I loved her even though I knew she didn’t recognize me, and then slink away to a corner of the room.


When she became a puppet, my resentment for her grew. Papi and Mami refused to bury her. She’s not dead, they’d insist, pointing to the place where fish-wire strings met her joints. Mami grabbed my hand and pressed it against Abuela’s skin. The new texture of felt was kinder than the soggy, old leather Abuela’s skin used to feel like, but I still pulled my hand away quickly.


Abuela the Puppet hung in my parent’s home for years. Not wanting to be disrespectful, she watched over us from a hook in our living room–hovering as we watched TV, ate dinner, got into loud arguments. Abuela was the only one who saw when when I snuck a man into the house when I was visiting one Christmas break.


Most days she just hung there, but one weekend, when I was visiting in my few free days from graduate school, she began to sing. Her voice was stronger and clearer than it had been for years before her transformation.


“Ay, ay, ay, ay, canta, y no llores. Porque cantando se alegran, cielito lindo los corazones.”


It was my favorite song as a little girl, so I knew she was singing it just for me. My parents stared at me with a concerned look when I told them. When I tugged at Abuela’s strings and moved her mouth up and down my hands, trying to prove to my parents what I’d heard, she didn’t budge. My grandmother remained limp and unmoving. My father placed a wrinkled hand on my shoulder and told me that it might be a sign that I had that memory-denigrating termite Abuela suffered from for so long. It usually skipped a generation.


Mami and Papi died a year-and-a-half apart, leaving me to deal with my grandmother. I hated her. I hated her so much for taking so much space for so long, for forgetting my name, for making a fool of me with her lullaby. I hated her for the termites she’d left in my brain, and for all the pain she was going to put my children through. At church serves, a very seldom occurrence in those days, I’d prayed for death. God, diosito lindo, please don’t make me a puppet.


Online, I found a company that stored family members in Abuela’s condition indefinitely. They’d bought out an old lot of storage units and repurposed them to accommodate rows and rows of human-sized puppets. Most of the puppets were of people who’d formerly fled countries ravaged by wars funded in part by the United States, so when I dropped Abuela off they placed her in the unit marked CENTRAL AMERICA, with the other shrunken caramel grandmothers displaced from the isthmus. As the door to the storage unit closed, Abuela’s jaw twitched. No sound came out. The shell of a woman disappeared into the dark, silent once more.


Ruben Reyes, Jr.

Ruben Reyes Jr. is the son of two Salvadoran immigrants and is a senior at Harvard College where he studies History & Literature. He has published editorial pieces in The Harvard Crimson and Poynter and poems in the seasonal La Horchata Zine.