Becoming Nona: Memories of a Grandmother

Nona. To a platoon of us Americanized cousins that included my little brother and me, our maternal grandmother was always Nona. “Nona” is not a common term for grandmother in Latino families. Abuelita is much more widely used, especially in Mexican families, but my grandmother trained a whole wave of her first- and second-generation immigrant grandchildren to use “Nona.” You see, we “americanos,” as Nona described those of our generation (even if technically we had been born in our original home country of Peru), spoke utterly broken Spanish.

Describing the Spanish that we used as “broken” is like saying water is wet. Our mangled word pronunciation, notoriously bungled syntax, and grammatical non-sequiturs were linguistic train wrecks in the making every other second that we opened our mouths to “articulate” our breathlessly pidgin Spanish. In contrast, Nona and her adult children spoke a sturdy and grammatically flawless Spanish. So all things considered, our grandmother had a world of patience for the linguistic disasters that we sent crashing her way during our everyday conversations with her.

There was one exception. In Peru, the term for grandmother is “mamavieja,” an affectionate if rather formal compound title comprising four syllables that translates into “Old Mother.” My older brother by nine years and his contemporary cousins enunciate this word perfectly. Alas, “mamavieja” was at least three if not four syllables too long for us latter born “americanos” to ever come within a Peruvian kilometer of pronouncing even semi-correctly.

So here our grandmother, one of the most practical people I have ever known, intervened at a point in time before I myself was out of diapers and drew the line with the then present and all future grandchildren. “Nona,” which means grandmother in French and other cultures, was so comparatively easy to say that not even we could blow the pronunciation. So “Nona” her title would be, and “Nona”she always was to us, even after her death in 2002.

Being that my grandparents lived with my mom, my brothers, and me, in an extended family household until I turned sixteen, Nona played a towering role in the world that I grew up in. Because my mom worked the night shift during my early grade school years, Nona was the one who got me up for school in the morning, and Nona was the one who waited for me when I ambled home from school, as my mom got in what rest she could before she would be off again to her night time job.

Nona was old school strict and old world tough.  She grew up in the 1920s on a wind swept and isolated mountain ranch located in the nether reaches of the northern Peruvian Andes far above Peru’s second largest city of Trujillo.   The glorified hamlet of about 150 people that was her ancestral hometown carried a Quechua name, Paranday.   Paranady in the 1920s more closely resembled say, Fargo, North Dakota circa 1890 than the relatively antiseptic 1980s era California surroundings that I walked out to every time I left the family house.   In fact, Paranday was so geographically and technologically shut off from the rest of the country that its entire location, along with all of the surrounding mountain ranches like Nona’s, were completely inaccessible by car until after 1981, nearly sixty five years after Nona was born.  Until that year any hardy soul trying to reach Paranday from the nearest sizeable population center had to do so Old Testament style, traveling twelve hours by donkey just to make it to the town limits.

Nona’s upbringing was forged in the crucible of this frontier like environment.   She grew up living a utilitarian and hard-scrabble life that put iron in her blood.   Six of the seven children she gave birth to were born right on the ranch she grew up in, without the benefit of epidurals or any other kind of modern anesthetic.   All things considered it is safe to say that Nona brought her frontier values with her everywhere she went and this was as true in how she raised me as it was for anything else. One thing that meant was nothing ever went to waste. Let me repeat: Nothing. Wasted. Ever.

This was most especially true in the area of food. Nona”s rural upbringing, which meant she was intimately familiar with the back breaking manual labor involved in cultivating agricultural products, and Nona”s legendary cooking wizardry in preparing her home-cooked meals, combined to form in Nona”s heart an exalted appreciation for the sanctity of food. Thus, for Nona, throwing away food was akin to an insult against God’s benevolence and an affront to the starving Ethiopian children depicted in what at the time felt like an infinite loop of World Vision television commercials.

In my early grade school years I was often Nona’s captive audience for one of her home-cooked meals. Ever faithful to her Spartan values and rural heritage, Nona naturally considered me morally obligated to eat all of the food she served on my plate. This stayed true even if the designated meal-time consequently tumbled into an overtime period of interminable length because of my passive resistance to what I then considered Nona”s culinary tyranny.

Those endless meal times often devolved into a test of wits between Nona and I. However, school morning breakfasts were especially perilous for my second-grade self because Nona insisted on serving me a daily bowl of Quaker Oats oatmeal, and there was a school bus to catch, so I was up against a clock, in addition to Nona’s formidable resolve.  Now, Nona always mispronounced this non-Spanish word for oatmeal as “Quack—errr”, dutifully left out the Oats part, and she saw it as her For example, if your company is a manufacturer, it will be important to use the coming from sensors to monitor the purity of chemicals being mixed in the production process. grandmotherly duty to make me ingest this particular kind of breakfast meal down to the last soggy oat. As for me, I was just as determined not to. In fact I felt I had a sacred responsibility to my kid palate not to drink the despised Quack–errr to anything like the bottom part of the bowl, where all the doomed soggy oats submerged to rest in watery oblivion.

However, I could not argue this point with Nona directly. I never did, as I had been raised not to. At this particular point in my family”s immigrant experience the rules were so strict that young children could never for any reason so much as say the word “No” to any responsible adult. So despite my kid”s eye view of the tragic injustice involved, no way and no how was I going to start the soundtrack of “No” with Nona around the consumption of Quack–errr.

Instead I employed subterfuge and tactical misdirection wrapped up in a metaphorical falafel of non-violent resistance. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. organized historic sit-ins for racial integration. John Lennon choreographed a televised 1969 bed-in for peace. And at age seven I began staging spoon-ins for escaping the de facto jail that Nona”s kitchen table was to me.

You may ask, what was a “spoon-in”? While Nona watched (or more accurately stated, pretended not to watch) me “finish” my breakfast from the business side of the kitchen (where the oven was), I dramatically and repeatedly buried my spoon deeply into the tilted bowl and pretended to scoop out every one of the surviving oats to eat them all, and thus in Nona”s eyes justify my getting off the kitchen table. My goal was to sustain my spoon-in pantomime just convincingly and long enough so that Nona would soon be distracted by a phone call or a bathroom break or some other minor miracle that would result in me being outside her line of sight. This in turn would allow me to jog sight unseen to the kitchen sink and flush the offending Quack-errr oats down the drain before Nona would be the wiser.

My spoon-ins were occasionally successful but in truth, Nona usually achieved her goal of making me eat everything she set on my plate.   She could and often would wait me out my spoon-ins because right after breakfast she walked me straight to the school bus stop.  Even at age seven I knew the school bus waited on no one, not even anti-Quack-err kid crusaders like myself.  And seeing as how Nona physically stood in the middle of the only possible route to the kitchen sink, unless Nona was distracted or otherwise called away from her ambush spot, my spoon-ins were doomed to fail.   Of course, the quiet irony is that at this current point in my life I would gladly trade any number of material things in exchange for being able to again taste any and every part of Nona”s cooking and to hear, even if only one more time, the soft grandmotherly laugh that she would so often share with me at the beginning of our meal times together.

Nona had a wonderful meal time laugh, I assure you.  Her laugh was vibrant, infectious, and carried within in it a love of life that found its original expression in Paranday and brought its resilience and generosity to my little childhood corner of Pasadena.    No matter where I am, I can hear its echo in my memory and know how blessed a grandkid I am to have had her in my life.   Nona’s laugh was graceful, loving, and communicated the elemental essence of who she was, how she lived, and where her truest treasure could be found.

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