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  • Writer's pictureJoanna Madloch

Eileen Fernandez

Updated: Apr 21, 2021

Both my grandmothers made me who I am now. I dedicated my dissertation to them. They gave me two of the most important groundings in my life: loving and teaching. This is what stemmed from them.

Teaching comes from my paternal grandmother, Manuela Perez. She came to the US from Cuba through Spain and this is why I called her Abuela de España. Back in Cuba, she was a teacher. Every day she rode a horse to school, and when she was teaching, kids would take care of the horse.

After the entire family immigrated to the US, she took care of me and we ended up teaching each other. She taught me to read and write in Spanish while I, who was the first generation born in the US, taught her to read and write in English. She gave me this very first notion of both teaching and of being a teacher.

Abuela de España came from a large family – she was one of fifteen siblings. She married when she was 29 years old, and according to the standards of that time it was very late. Besides my father, she had 3 more kids, and became a widow shortly after the family arrived to the US.

When I grew up, she had a small bedroom in my parents’ house, where she often stayed. Often, when I was getting ready to go out, she came to my room and just sat there, watching me. Sometimes she asked if I minded this. I never did. We were very close and I chose her as my godmother for confirmation.

She was very ahead of her time. When other members of my family nagged me about not getting married, she was always on my side, dismissing their comments. She kept saying “Don’t worry about them.” I married at 29, exactly as she did.

For special occasions she always wore the same blue chiffon dress. She wears it in so many pictures.

She died of a stroke. She did not know that I defended my dissertation. I know that she would love that I became a teacher. When I received the news about her death, I sat at my computer and wrote a piece about her and I gave this piece to all of her children. I wrote about how Abuela de España was very religious and always prayed for everyone. I wrote that her faith was Herculean. I remember being comforted by the thought that, thanks to her prayers, God was watching over me.

On the other hand, my first experience of being loved comes from my maternal Grandmother, Elia Machado. Naturally, my parents loved me, and we lived with many other members of the family, but the love Abuela Elia gave was like nothing else.

She was the most beautiful woman I have ever known, with red hair and green eyes. I inherited her eyes, and every time someone makes a comment about their unusual color, I think about Abuela Elia.

Not only was she beautiful, but she was also a very colorful person. She loved dancing and could turn anything into a celebration. For example, falling snow was always a big event for her. I have many pictures of both of us playing in the snow. Looking at them makes me relive these moments and I suspect my love of winter’s snow falls stems from these experiences.

Abuela Elia was a seamstress, but this word does not give her talent justice. She was an amazing listener, and this ability made her a genuine artist. People used to come to her house and explain what they wanted. She did not use pre-made patterns or assembly line techniques. Abuela Elia just listened carefully and brought their ideas to life. Sometimes she did not even need them to explain – she just looked at the person and created a perfect outfit for them. People would talk about her dresses for weeks. She did not just make clothes, but instead made people happy through them. Most importantly to me, she also made my clothes. When I grew up, I was very skinny, and everything I wore seemed awkward. Abuela Elia, however, always made something that fit me perfectly. I could ask for anything. I remember, once she made me a complete cowgirl costume. The only parts that came from the store were a hat and boots. She also braided my hair.

However, as a child, I did not know everything about Abuela Elia. For me, she seemed very happy, especially when we were together. Now, when I look back, I can see that there was always a profound sadness about her. Her husband had gambling and alcohol problems. Obviously, they both needed help, but nobody recognized it back then. She died young, when she was still in her 50s. My mother never said this openly, but I know that Abuela Elia never adjusted to her life in the US, feeling displaced, and that in some way, helped to usher in her early death. I strongly believe that she was most “at home” when she spent time with me.

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