By: Josephina Ferrer
I was remembering Louisa.
I considered Louisa my other “grandma”. She is not my family by blood, but she is family. People would ask me all the time about how we were related. I would then have to explain.
You see she fit into our family so well, or maybe we fit into hers, till people couldn’t separate us. But we weren’t the only ones drawn to her that way. She entered rooms of people and had no trouble flowing through them. She was that connecting piece, the one that bridged the gap between everyone. She made us laugh and feel comfortable. She was social, to say the least.
She was lightning fast about it too. She got to know people in their first meeting. I mean she even knew their family tree within the hour. She knew things before anybody. She was my social mentor in that way and more informative and timely than El Diario La Prensa.
Louisa had that kind of confidence and jovial personality. There was always a gathering, always a party somewhere when she was around. She was always kind and generous even though she lived on a budget and worked tirelessly for everything she had. There was always an invitation and food at her table. And her apartment would never empty out. It was like Grand Central station, with people coming and going.
People liked talking to her because she was truthful. Even when it was hard to hear, she would let you know the truth. But she would always keep things light, laid back and comfortable. You felt good around her.
Part of what made her so exciting to be around where her colorful stories. Colorful is an understatement. Roll on the floor funny is more like it. She was so good at it that she had her audience and herself practically peeing on themselves before she could finish. It was contagious laughing on extraordinary and dangerous levels. People hobbling, clutching their knees together, trying to drag themselves to the bathroom, etc.
And that sneaky smile when she was up to something. I always felt I was going on an adventure with her, whether she was telling me her recollections of growing up in Puerto Rico and Brooklyn or if we were just going on an errand around the neighborhood. It was great fun to grow up around her.
Being spontaneous and energetic had its disadvantages. She was always in a frenzy. Always losing something. Always had a million things to do, at once.
Once, she was bouncing around the apartment talking a mile a minute about not being able to remember where she left those keys. Yes, again. She passed by me about five times. I was sitting at the table with the keys on top of my head. I eventually pointed them out. Then she started babbling again, this time about her coin purse. Organized she was not.
The way she became our “grandma” is simple. My mom and Louisa’s daughter went to school together. My mom spent a lot of time over at their house. My mom even went to live with her for a time when my real grandmother moved to Puerto Rico. And when her own daughter and sons got married and moved away, my mom always stayed close by. In fact, we lived a floor up from her.
We lived in a four-story walk up on Scholes Street right in front of the Williamsburg Houses. We were up on the fourth floor and Louisa, her husband; Orlando and her son lived on the second floor. These were railroad apartments so we had a view of both the front and back of the building. If someone came to visit, they would yell up at your window and you would stick your head out and throw them the “out-the-window” keys so they could enter the building. This was before Inter-com systems.
Louisa would call us to eat by sticking her head out the window and yelling for us to come down. That or she would bang on the pipe. But you had to be careful about that because the neighbor in between used to hit that pipe to tell us to stop jumping around.
Louisa was my date night babysitter. I had a babysitter for the weekdays when my mom worked but every couple of weekends or so I would spend a night at her apartment. We watched movies. I saw E.T. for the first time at her house. When I started to cry as E.T. slowly slipped away in the last part, she assured me that he was going to live. I wondered how she knew. And low and behold E.T. was back at it wobbling around in no time and he didn’t even miss his ride back to outer space. I thought we had willed him to live because Louisa was so positive and that made me positive. I learned about Stephen Spielberg later. What a way to burst a girl’s bubble.
Another time, when I was maybe four years old, maybe less, she left me sitting in the dining room eating and went to use the bathroom. She left the door open just in case. I got thirsty so I went to get some orange juice from the fridge. As I went to close the door a twinge of terror came over me. Like a lightning bolt hit me on the head and zapped me to the core. It was just like that, I remember. I lost it. I dropped the OJ and was screaming bloody murder. I dove into the couch headfirst, between the cushions that were wrapped in plastic. By this time Louisa had jumped off the can and was running through the kitchen trying to hold up her underwear with one hand.
“¡¿Qué Pasó?!, ¡¿Qué Pasó?!” (What happened?! What happened?!)
She was turning me over to see if I was hurt, looking everywhere. I was yelling and pointing at the fridge where there was a puddle of orange juice. They didn’t get it.
“Pero que viste míja?” (But what did you see?), asked Orlando, worried.
“¿Fue un ratón? Díme ¿dónde?” (Was it a mouse? Tell me where?), he kept asking.
Louisa was opening the fridge, looking around it, over and under it all puzzled. Then she opened it again and held her forehead finally understanding.
“Ya sé. Ya sé.” (I know, I know.)
“¿Qué?” Orlando walked over and she pulled out the teeth in a cup that was in the refrigerator door. I dove into the couch cushions again. It was horrifying.
You see her husband, Orlando, had a habit of putting his dentures in the fridge. He would float them in a glass of water. I guess it kept them fresh. But was it ugly. They were just in there bobbing up and down.
They were cracking up. I mean using the table and walls for support and everything. Then my parents came and the party started all over. I still get reminded.
But what really crossed my mind, besides the obviously traumatic site of fake teeth, was that her son had put them there.
You see I always thought Tony was a psycho. I was four, I didn’t know what a psycho was, but I knew he was weird. I didn’t like him. Maybe I didn’t trust him. He had an evil streak and was always watching horror movies, which were almost like comedies to him. I wouldn’t be in the room but I could hear. I could hear screaming coming from the t.v. followed by laughter, him cracking up. WHAT? Even a four year old knows that’s creepy.
Well I thought he put those teeth in there. Louisa told me the teeth were Orlando’s. He even showed me. He took them out, shook’em off and put them in his mouth. I was still not buying it. Needless to say I would hug myself as I passed Tony after that. Didn’t want to lose any body parts.
Tony gave her problems and that is a story in itself. But it’s not mine to tell. Louisa had dealt with issues, that was no secret. She came from what white people would call a “quirky” family. They were nuts.
My family would go to Puerto Rico on vacation. She would shudder at the thought of going. She hated that island. I never understood why till later when I researched the history of the island myself, not the history that they tell the tourists but the real history.
As a child I felt it was a wonderful place. So different from how we were growing up in Brooklyn. But to her it was the setting of all the horrors of her life. She grew up poor. No poor isn’t the word. They had less. They were broke down poor. Never having enough to eat. Living in squalor. You know you are poor when you have to use the latitas de tomate for rolos. Those are the little tomato paste cans. They took off the labels and cleaned them out to use as hair rollers.
Most of her family was uneducated and apparently suffered from some mental malady that made them violent. I can’t make a professional assessment not being a doctor and all. I would make an educated guess and say they suffered from blinding poverty – the kind that stripped you of your dignity and left you shameless. This isn’t really a mental malady. It’s more like being a victim of your circumstances.
She made jokes about her family’s escapades. Which made you roll out laughing but kind of made you sad. But then Puerto Rican’s make everything sound funny. It’s the trademark. The “Don’t take yourself too seriously, it can kill you” way of thinking.
There was the time one of her sisters found out her husband was cheating on her and she kicked him out. Well he went to live with his mistress and in time he had a heart attack and died. During the funeral everybody was there to see the man and pay their respects. You know the standard crying and carrying on about what a good guy he was. The mistress in front throwing herself on the ground saying she wanted to go with him. I’m sure more than one person in the room was asking themselves if she was waiting for an invitation or what. Well, in comes Louisa’s sister, the woman scorned, in her bata, chancletas and rolos (housecoat, sandals and hair rollers) on her head. She had heard the idiot had died and came right over.
Well she walks straight down between all the mourners over to the coffin with Don Juan’s body inside looking all stiff and innocent and grabs the thing from the bottom and heaves it right over. Dead guy rolling on the floor. And she daringly walks out with her fists up in the air like Muhammed Ali.
I love that story. I don’t know why. It really is horrible but it makes me chuckle every time.
Then there was the time she went over to her sister’s apartment building to ask her something or other. She was standing on the sidewalk and yelling up.
“Doraaaaa!” This was before cell phones.
Dora sticks her head out the window with her hand holding up one side of her hair. She was in the process of taking off her rolos.
“¿Qué necesita?” (What do you need?), she screamed back then quickly grabbed her mouth and screamed.
“Hea rayo, ten cuidao!” (Oh junk, be careful!)
Something had fallen out of her mouth. Louisa ducked out of the way as something crashed on the cement and then she yelled back.
“¿Qué rayo é eso?” (What in the world was that?)
“Los diente se me calleron.” (My teeth fell out.) Dora yelled back.
They laughed so hard Dora almost fell out the window. Of course, everybody on the block was laughing, too. They started telling her to buy some teeth that fit and everyone was cracking up all over the place.
Back then if you were on the government health plan, meaning Medicaid, or Mericay, as we called it, it was hard to get quality dental work done. It’s not accurate of me to say was but that is a whole other issue for another time. Apparently they either gave Dora someone else’s teeth or they just measured wrong because they were too big for her mouth and she looked like a donkey with frizzy hair. (Louisa’s description not mine.)
I would ask Louisa to tell that story all the time, you know, after I got over my trauma about the fake teeth floating around in her fridge.
By the time I was born she was already in her fifties. Although she wasn’t slowing down I could tell that sometimes she longed for a quieter life. She had lived in Brooklyn since she was a teenager and was growing tired of the hectic life of the city. She had always worked long, hard hours and kept everything going at home too. Plus she was diabetic and Orlando had real bad asthma. They started to think about moving to Seattle where her daughter lived. I knew it was better for them. But I did not want them to go.
It was the end of an era. Everyone felt her leaving. There are people that have a unifying effect on a community. They provide a place of security where you aren’t judged and you can be yourself and have fun. She created that and it was hard to replicate.
Yes she had her faults. But she never dwelled much on the faults of others and took things for what they were. You weren’t defined by your errors. I think we can show her the same courtesy. I think we can show each other that courtesy.
She left when I was thirteen. It worried me because I was at the beginning of my teenage years and they were already taking chunks out of me. I was growing more and more of what the child psychologist call self-aware. I hated so many things about myself and was giving myself some nasty mental beatings. And there were individuals whom I will not name who were unknowingly or knowingly egging on the voices in my head. These individuals should have been looking into their own shortcomings. Being a teenager is bad enough without someone beating you over the head about it.
At least I was aware of my faults. I had no clue what to do with them but I always tried to go head to head, wrestling around and keeping them in check. Well mostly. There was that time I got in trouble for writing something disrespectful but true and funny about our social studies teacher on the chalkboard, but that is a story for another time. He was an idiot. It was totally wrong and immature of me but my older self doesn’t beat up my younger self about it.
So I guess my mom recognized my gloomy mood and on a call to Louisa one day (she was already living in Seattle) she passes me the phone and we have a chat about what was going on. That helped a lot with my anxiety because she made light of it and told me it wasn’t a reflection on who I really was and so on. Later I got a letter from her. We used to exchange letters on a regular basis. I kept a lot of them.
In it she quoted this Bible text that I have worn thin in my head to this day. It is what I always refer to when I feel incapable or inadequate. It was 1 Samuel 16:7. It reads, “But Jehovah said to Samuel: “Do not pay attention to his appearance and how tall he is, for I have rejected him. For the way man sees is not the way God sees, because mere man sees what appears to the eyes, but Jehovah sees into the heart.”
With time I lost touch with her. Life kept us both busy and the letters became less and less frequent. She would come to visit around the time my mom was taking care of Louisa’s mother, Cuki. Cuki was very old and living in the Williamsburg Houses.
By this time Cuki couldn’t get around by herself and the government gave her home attendants first during the day only and then during the night. Tony was living with her. At first he would help out by keeping an eye on her during the night but his social life was more important than taking care of her and eventually my mom’s involvement became more and more frequent.
During the last years of Cuki’s life my mom was the acting caretaker in place of her own kids who lived in Puerto Rico and other parts of the country. She would look after her during gaps in the home attendants schedules, bathing her and keeping the house in order, making sure she was as comfortable as possible and paying her bills. When Cuki died my mom made the arrangements. She had meticulously kept tabs on Cuki’s savings account, making sure that in the event of her death, the funeral would be covered. Louisa appreciated this but she wasn’t able to come to the funeral for health reasons.
Since then I haven’t heard from her. I really don’t even know if she lives in the same place. Postcards I sent years ago were never responded to. Whatever may be holding her back from connecting with us, I just want her to know that we don’t judge because no one ever knows the whole story of what is in our hearts and why we choose what we choose in life. She taught me that.
She taught me about separating our and other people’s dumb actions from who they really where and not judging. Yes, talking about our stupid actions was allowed but judging was not. Especially if what we did was roll over funny. After all, if we took life or ourselves too seriously it could kill us. And she taught me about hospitality and how important it was to others to have safe place to hang out and be themselves.
More than anything she taught me about defiance and perseverance in the face of obstacles, confidence, resilience, the power of the positive and how to put a fun spin on any story no matter how heavy the subject matter. All qualities that have helped me immensely through time.
So thank you Louisa, wherever you may be.
Josephina Ferrer was born and raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to Puerto Rican parents. She currently lives as a New Yorker in exile in Houston, Texas where she continues to write as blogger Almost Josephina and studies photography. Her book of poetry, Para Cuando Te Pierdas, is available on Lulu.com. What Louisa Taught Me is a tribute to her mentor and “grandma”, a funny lady, Louisa Calderón.