The following was the norm upon entering my grandmother Andrea’s house during the holidays: run through the flower shop, push the door in a flash, bounce off her pleather couch, fiddle with the giant village display, and head over to the china cabinet to check out her John Glen postcard. Growing up, other than Christmas Eve dinner, we didn’t have many traditions in my house. I know now that traditions are special memories that forever connect us to our family and friends. I distinctively remember coming home from school every day to the aroma of sofrito coming from my mother’s kitchen. It didn’t matter where she had been or how late she was; we could count on a hot plate for lunch after school daily. Her kitchen was comforting, her cooking, a testimony of her upbringing with a mother who spent as much time in the kitchen as she did making her crepe paper flowers.
Andrea’s house was like a train station. Located in the heart of the city, which was perfect for her flower shop, El Trebol, where she sold wreaths for funerals, piñatas and small bouquets. Her flowers, made out of crepe paper, were as popular with local residents in every death event as her family name in a city where the bikes ran as rampant as her three cats in her house.
Every Navidad Andrea would set up a nacimiento or nativity scene of monumental proportions. Her pleather couch would be kicked to the other end of the living room. As a child, I often marveled at the miniature city built in the corner of her living room, made with the most intricate attention to detail: the roads, the houses with tiny chairs, ponds, street lights, miniature people engaging in everyday activities like cooking, moping, kicking the drunk neighbor to the curve. I couldn’t make sense of how a woman with such little patience would set up such a complex work of art. I knew she wasn’t alone in the endeavor. Beatriz, her niece, the sweet, petite and quiet spinster that lived with her, would help her. I used to watch Beatriz skillfully and silently roll the crepe paper around the wire with such speed, her fingers moved like the men fighting in the kung fu movies I used to watch as a child at Don Natti’s Cinema next door to Andrea’s house. I could hear the sound of the paper rolling onto the wire, adhering to it, like the memories of those days spent at Andrea’s house. I asked her the same questions, ate the same food. I tried in vain to beat Beatriz at flower making, and tried to decipher the words on the back of the John Glen postcard stuck against the glass in her china cabinet. I know it started with “Querida tia Andrea…” I couldn’t read the rest, as it was covered by a stack of china. I used to stick my nose on the glass, hoping to get a glimpse of John Glen’s face. In fact, as a small child early on my quest, I used to think he personally sent her the post card.
After her passing, I often wondered what happened to the pieces of her enormous nacimiento, to the leftover crepe paper, to the china cabinet and to the John Glen post card. I wish I could have been there to rescue him from what to others was part of a trash pile, along with the old china, and heck, I would have even taken the cats.