Grandmothers from what I’ve read and seen radiate authority. Rarer is the projection of assurance. My earliest memory is of a woman six feet tall clopping in impressive heels visiting us on her lunch hour before returning to work at the Health and Rehabilitation Services office two blocks from our Coral Gables apartment. Until she retired at sixty-five, I reckoned with an even rarer situation: my grandmother worked, my mom stayed home. Reared in a Havana family which regarded education as advancement instead of self-development, she attended a vocational institution after high school; she learned English, accounting, basic managerial skills. She met my grandfather at the Royal Bank of Canada’s Havana branch. An uncommon thing in the 1940s and 1950s, here and Cuba, for a husband and wife to each earn the equivalent of a middle class income. To embrace, stubbornly, the values of this self-denying culture — work was the end, not the means — completed her, diminished her too.
Get this: helping establish the Cuban refugee program in the early 1960s, she and her superiors got transferred to the administration of food stamps after Lyndon Baines Johnson made them a permanent fixture. With the help of a staff she supervised she distributed twenty or thirty million dollars, according to her estimates. It was she who called Tallahassee and the feds when the offices needed something.
In his letters Henry James bemoaned how Edith Wharton, whom he loved, would whisk him away from his desk in her motorcar, a whirr of movement, a cloud of gleeful noise — he dubbed her, somewhat in awe, the “Angel of Destruction.” Yolanda Rueda wasn’t that at all. But until the last eight years a sense of duty more numinous than any catechism made her less a human than a gyre. Devoid of self-pity, incapable of introspection, she ministered to her husband, mother, and aunt when health and dementia revealed these people’s own basic vulnerability. If she shared a complaint, maybe it was in the shower or the car, and she likely didn’t let herself finish the thought. She went to Mass because as a kid I insisted on it. Although she had faith and, despite a weird flirtation with evangelism in the late eighties, remained Catholic, she believed in no god before whom she had to waste precious time kneeling. Hers was the generation of Norman Vincent Peale; her idea of good literature was Leon Uris. She believed in her energy, her conviction for Getting Things Done.
It will remain her misfortune that she was admired more than loved. Suspicious of martyrs, she resisted not a bit when the family categorized her as such, to me a quiet soul-death: love is hard when pity comes easy. She was quick to laugh. She wasn’t a cold woman: she was the most warmly impersonal being I’ve ever known. She felt too deeply to show emotions. To act — with money, with drives, with drop-offs — on behalf of family was to demonstrate love; to openly demonstrate that love in the way many of us wanted risked exposing herself to ridicule. She was candid about the many parental beatings endured in her childhood; love could not cohabitate with fear. The death of her beloved younger sister in childbirth not long after the Revolution closed many empathetic possibilities. Better to move than to dwell.
One of those possibilities came in her fifth decade. The weekends my sister and I spent with her and my great-grandmother are my warmest childhood memories: mall afternoons and Pizza Hut dinners, my sister performing Linda Ronstadt-James Ingram’s “Somewhere Out There” and my confining myself to miming the strenuous guitar solo. We drifted apart in high school and college. When I bought a condo and we became approximate neighbors I took to visiting on Sundays, a routine I kept well into 2018 unless I traveled or had an errand. If she wasn’t completing crossword puzzles she’d watch hours of American television. She stopped driving at ninety. She’d call to ask what “kith and kin” meant. About the role of the Minority Whip. About what the ACLU did. We watched the Food Network for hours. She had a crush on Bobby Flay — an “all-American boy,” she’d say in perfect English, an echo, perhaps, of other forestalled possibilities: pen pal Allan Rand, a corporal from Clintonville, Wisconsin killed in the Battle of Luzon.
Watching this vigorous woman reduced in every sense the last week reminded me how a lifetime of preparation triggers no warning bell when the hour of our doom comes. A fog overcame her; the body collapsed. She was the last of her generation. I’ll mourn her, as she would’ve wanted, but to feel sadness at the end of a life lived as she wanted, for better or worse, dishonors her.