I remember clearly the day she chased me around her house with a frying pan waving wildly in the air and a homicidal snarl fixed on her lips. I have no doubt that she would have bashed me in the head had she caught me, and I might have been dead right there at the ripe old age of seventeen. I can see it now; a white chalk outline on her worn gold carpet, blood spatter on the aqua-colored walls.
And as the police were questioning her, she wouldn’t be crying hysterically or berating herself for losing her temper. No, she would secretly be checking to make sure that the plastic on her beloved satin couches had protected them from blood stains and wondering who in the world was going to clean up the awful mess. She hated cleaning. What was my crime? I had called her “senile”.
That was my Mima, my grandmother on my father’s side. She was a red-haired Irish fireball with a heart of gold, a vivid imagination, and a fearless zest for life. She did everything in a big way and asked questions later. She never met a stranger, and if you called her at 3am with a problem, she would get up and talk to you for two hours without complaining. But with that crazy red hair came a quick and furious temper. And I, being a pain in the ass teenager, used to delight in getting a rise out of her. It was a kind of sport. But we loved each other beyond words; we were a team, she and I.
Mima had her own stealthy way of getting back at me. She used to embarrass me in public settings, loudly and with gusto. Living in Miami, she had picked up just enough Spanish to be dangerous. We loved eating out, and she would often turn to unsuspecting Cuban diners when she overheard snippets of their conversation.
“Hi. I can’t help but notice that you’re speaking Spanish. I speak Spanish.” They would look at her kindly and patiently, probably thinking that she was senile, and wait for her mangled Spanglish. Oh, but they had no idea what at treat they were in for! She would offer up a phrase, and their mouths would hang open, unsure if they should be insulted or just move to another table. She had just told them in Spanish, “A monkey in silk clothing is still a monkey.” Yep, that was my Mima.
And then there were the times I thought for sure she would get us killed. I remember riding the city bus with her to downtown Miami for a shopping trip. Now, if you’ve never been on a public bus in a major city, it’s an eye-opening experience. You will find all walks of humanity there, some of them quite scary. When I had to ride the bus to the University, there were regulars. There was the aging hooker just getting off the night shift in her black leather mini-skirt, her bright red lipstick smeared up one side of her face. And across the aisle from her sat the homeless man, his ulcerated leg held together with masking tape.
The morning Mima and I rode the bus, it was very crowded. We walked to the back, where there was a group of young gang members with their legs spread over several seats, eating fried chicken. I was prepared to stand and mind my own business, but oh no, Mima would have none of that. “Well, I’m just going to ask them to move. They don’t need to be taking up all that room. And why on earth would they be eating fried chicken on the bus?” And was this whispered quietly in my ear? Of course not. It was at her usual 500 decibel volume, and the boys turned to see what this old lady was yammering about.
“Oh God, we’re going to die!” I thought. The leader of the group spoke up, “You got a problem, lady?” Here we go. She jumped right in, unafraid, “Why yes, young man, I do have a problem. You should know better than to make an old woman stand. Don’t you have any home training? And you’re going to get grease all over this bus with your chicken and ruin someone’s clothes.”
I made the sign of the cross as tears came to my eyes. I just wanted a new purse, and now I was going to die on a city bus. I think the boy was stunned into silence for a moment; he just stared at her. But, of course, he couldn’t let an old woman make a fool out of him. “Lady, you need a big glass of shut the hell up!” He turned to his friends, satisfied that he had redeemed himself, and they all had a good laugh.
Mima was relentless. “Well, that may be, son, but think of what your mother would say if she saw you acting like this. Do you think she’d be proud? I’m sure there’s a good boy in there somewhere. Now why don’t you scoot over so my granddaughter and I can sit down?”
He muttered some choice expletives under his breath to save face with the group. And, then, I’ll be damned if he didn’t draw his legs up begrudgingly to make room for us. She pulled a handkerchief out of her purse to wipe the grease off the seat, just to make one last point. And then she sat down as if she owned the place and it was just natural for her to be scolding gang members on a bus.
Mima was a fighter. She survived breast cancer, adult onset diabetes, gangrene of the gall bladder and a host of other calamities, big and small. She frequently told the story of having only one dress to wear during the Depression, which she dutifully washed every night until the thread gave out. She was proud that she had refused offers of charity and stood on her own two feet.
She never lost that fierce independence and faith, even when a group of Voodoo practitioners moved in next door and broke into her house. Realizing that they were no match for this feisty old lady, they finally settled down, asking only that they be able to perform their rituals in the privacy of her overgrown back yard. Horrified, I begged her to call the police, but she only smiled. “What the hell, it’s kind of interesting watching them back there. I just wish they wouldn’t leave the chicken heads for me to clean up.”
Through this whole breast cancer ordeal, I’ve often thought of my “Mima”. When she got cancer, she stubbornly refused chemotherapy, and I know that she never once thought about taking vitamins or how her diet contributed to her disease. Instead, she lived, plain and simple. She ate dessert whenever she pleased and relished every bite like a child. She spent every dime she got on new dresses and trips to China and whatever else made her happy. And her infectious enthusiasm made people happy. She was 88 when she died.
Sometimes, when I’m struggling with yet another impossible decision, I look hopefully toward Heaven and wait for her to give me a sign, anything. But all I hear, in broken Spanish, is her other favorite saying, “In a closed mouth, no flies will enter.”