More than two years had passed since I had set foot in my parent’s home. I had not walked on the shores of Northern California, my childhood companion, in over two years. I had not eaten a scrumptious burrito from the combo restaurant-gas station in the little town of Pescadero, had not even hugged my grandmother hello during all of that time. Just back from Peru, I had a billion plans, but my heart wasn’t in it. Sure, I was excited to see people who I had only heard through a crackling Peruvian brick-phone for so long, but there was a sadness inside of me, through it all, that I went on ignoring. I was grieving the life that I had known abroad and felt almost guilty for it, especially with many new adventures coming my way.
And then, the world stopped spinning, or so it seemed, and everyone began to hold their breath as the gravity of COVID19 began to spread further into their lives.
I arrived on my grandmother’s doorstep two days before the shelter-in-place order was put into effect here in California. Already wary of sharing germs, my grandmother and I did not hug even after spending so long apart.
From one day to the next, physical distance was not enough. A routine quickly formed of cleaning each and every door knob and light switch twice a day, occupying separate parts of the house, and limiting access to the outside world to short walks for fresh air.
As I have stayed connected to social media, I see so many reactions of frustration to people being stuck at home.
What did I get with my isolation? The stories of my 84 year-old grandmother.
“The banana boat had to turn back,” my grandmother tells me. She can’t remember if it was for actual bananas or pineapples or another product. With a Colombian father and an American mother, my grandmother grew up accustomed to these long boat rides between the two countries, the trips taking at least two weeks as they meandered down the coastline, stopping for passengers and produce along the way.
She remembers the time (one of her earliest memories) at four years of age, when a US Navy ship crashed into their steamboat, her mother gathering her from the cabin and slipping a life vest on as the passengers waited on deck to see if the damage was enough to sink the boat.
She remembers the journey through the Panama Canal, seeing all the faces on shore, waving as the boat continued chugging along.
She tells me how she contracted diphtheria, the only cure at the time being horse-serum – how years after she would always have to disclose this fact to her doctors for fear of an allergic reaction.
“I met Alvaro (my grandfather) at a revolutionary meeting,” she says – the Revolución Cristiana, an attempt to tackle the separation and corruption of the class system in Colombia at the time.
She remembers all her cars: her 1947 Packard that had a hole in the floor. “A trap for boyfriends,” she giggles. Her Daihatsu that ran on diesel, perfect during the gasoline shortages in the late 80s, and all her other colorful, clunky machines in between.
If I had not been “trapped”, I would have been running out for my next coffee or happy-hour at the bar, not hearing wildly feverish yet true tales of adventure.
If I had not been “trapped” at home, would I have thought to ask her more questions? Would we have delved into her life as a college student at Cal? Her piano performance that made the news in Colombia? What it meant to start her life over here in the states, so late in life?
I would never have thought to ask her:
“Do you ever miss it?”
Does she miss that kind of life from which magical realism was born, where a surprise is always around the corner?
“Of course,” is her reply,
“Every day was an adventure.”
Some days would be dangerous, some exciting, the best part was the unexpected.
I feel more connected to my grandmother than I have ever felt before. What I lived through in Peru, is what she grew up with in Colombia: the unpredictability, the chaos, the intense beauty of life that only comes from ever present tragedy and hardship waiting on the sidelines.
In hearing her stories, I am selfishly preserving my own memories of the past two years. As we take our fifteen-minute walk, rambling beneath the underpass and back, I find the power in me not to close the chapter that was my life in Peru. I am slowly taking the steps to honor my memories, rather than run from them. Listening to my grandmother, I discover the thru line of all my experiences: me. Well, me, and the people who have loved me, cared for me, laughed with me, cried for me.
COVID19 is a serious threat. I worry every day if my presence in this house poses more of a risk to my grandmother’s health than my absence would. I recognize the privilege of having a place to stay, with food and connections to the outside world, basic needs that many are struggling to attain during this pandemic. In this moment, where no one knows what comes next, I find myself looking for the small joys and moments of peace: the quiet of being in my grandmother’s home.
In my isolation, I have been given the chance to turn back to human connection at its truest form: the passing of stories from one generation to the next.