Being around Consuelo confuses me sometimes. When I’m with her, I miss my grandma, and have to remind myself that Consuelo is not of my grandmother’s generation. If Grandma were still living, she’d be 117. I think Consuelo is in her late seventies. She’s barely even old enough to have been my mom.
There are little things about Consuelo that make me think of my grandma. She loves to work in her garden, and she walks very slowly. She and I both like to gab, as did my grandma. When we visit, we usually speak Spanish—Consuelo’s first language, my second—and she is very patient with my many mistakes. My grandma enjoyed speaking Spanish with me, too, though hers was rusty and Consuelo’s is not.
I recently asked Consuelo who she’s more similar to, her mother or her father.
“My mother,” she said. “She was quiet, very calm, kind, and caring.” That could have described my grandma, too.
Consuelo lives down the block, and the isolation of the last months has been very hard on her. She lives alone, and since she’s a strict observer of the shelter-in-place restrictions, she stays away from the park that is three doors from her home, with the walking path and the exercise equipment where she used to work out each day.
One thing the social isolation is teaching me is that when there are chances to connect with someone, I should take advantage of them. One morning, my husband called out, “Hey, there goes Consuelo, walking.”
I scrambled for my mask and shoes, and hustled down the street. It wasn’t hard to catch her; her arthritic knee hobbles her greatly. She turned to me when I reached her, her head protected by a large hat and her face covered with a wrap-around scarf. I was reminded of a beekeeper.
“I used to meet so many friends in the neighborhood,” she lamented. “But with my knee now, I can’t walk so much.”
The pandemic has made me realize how little I really know about Consuelo’s life, even though we’re neighbors. Why is that? Why had I never really tried before now to get to know her more?
On the walk that day, I learned that reading and writing aren’t comfortable for her, because she never went to school when she was growing up in Mexico. I felt a little stab inside when she said never. My grandma went as far as eighth grade; over my protestations, Grandma often said that she was “dumb” because she hadn’t completed more. I wondered: did Consuelo ever feel “dumb,” as my grandma had?
Consuelo learned to read and write when she was fifteen.
“We lived in the countryside,” she told me. “I had to work. We did not have money for me to go to school. I lived with my aunt that year, though, and she taught me.”
We continued walking, comfortably trading stories, Consuelo on the sidewalk, and me out in the street. I learned that she’d been widowed at thirty-three, and had come to the U.S. shortly after. She left her two children behind with her mother, and began sending money to them as soon as she got a job here. I stole a peek at her eyes, knowing that I could never imagine the pain of a mother having to leave her children in order to help them. Several of her grandchildren live nearby now, but I knew that nothing could make up for what she’d lost.
Consuelo told me about her cousin in Mexico who had just died from the Corona virus. “Her son died first, and then my cousin died the next week. The family called me last week to tell me.”
“Were you very close?” I asked.
“We talked every week. We were like sisters.”
BOOM. BOOM. The painful information kept coming in steady blows, in sharp contrast to the gentle warmth of the morning sun. I sighed. We kept walking.
Over the next weeks, we occasionally met for walks, and for a few visits in front of the house. Then two weeks ago, we met for an Extrovert Chair dinner from Boulevard Burger. She showed up with four cans of ginger ale to share, and as I chomped my veggie burger and Consuelo nibbled on cold French fries, we began talking politics. I knew it was a safe topic with her; Consuelo had attended the neighborhood party on November 8, 2016, and she’d been as distraught as the rest of us.
“He’s evil,” I fumed. “Pure evil.”
She looked questioningly at me.
“I don’t know that word in Spanish. Um…. He’s awful. Like Hitler.”
Still, the questioning face. As I talked about the Holocaust and Jewish people, I saw a look of growing horror but still no flash of recognition. Then I realized. She hadn’t learned about it at school. She hadn’t gone to school.
So I let “evil” go, and we veered into voting.
“Several of my friends voted for him,” she said, “and I told them they can NEVER say anything about politics to me if they want to stay friends with me. I WILL NOT TOLERATE IT!” There, on my lawn, as she munched her burger with the light evening breeze ruffling her hair, her eyes blazed, pure fire.
“I will never understand how anyone besides rich, white men voted for him,” I said. “Why do you think some Mexican people would have voted for him?”
“Because there are all kinds of people. Every kind of person. It takes all kinds.” She shrugged, resigned.
I told her how I yell and curse at the news on TV every evening. She laughed and nodded, and then said something in Spanish.
“What? What does that mean?”
She made a quick gesture with her hands. I couldn’t tell what she did.
“What was that?”
She smiled, and this time moved more deliberately.
We laughed. We LAUGHED. My grandma never would have flipped the bird.
And then she really got going.
“The Mexican president just visited the White House, and he listened to Trump saying how the Mexican people are SUCH great workers, and how he loves us. Does Trump think we forgot? Do you remember when he said that we are criminals and rapists? What hypocrisy!
“Mexican poverty is bad. In Mexico, the people can never get ahead. The government doesn’t do anything, and people are desperate.”
I pictured Consuelo as a child, working the land in the countryside while children less burdened by poverty attended school each day. I pictured Consuelo as a young mother, desperate and alone after her husband’s sudden death, faced with the prospect of raising two children in crippling poverty, or leaving them behind so she could provide for them from afar.
“Do you know about Goya?” she asked. I shook my head, as yet unfamiliar with the word.
She barely stopped for air.
“All of the Mexican presidents always think that the Mexican people are stupid. All of them. But is this what stupid people do? Goya is a very big company. The man in charge of Goya, he said that Trump is great and wonderful. But we do not agree with Trump. So the Mexican people are saying we will NOT buy Goya things.”
She nodded, though I couldn’t imagine that was the word in Spanish.
“He understands money. The Mexican people are not stupid like the rich people think. So we won’t buy Goya, and then they will understand. Then the rich people will see that we are not stupid.”
Consuelo isn’t stupid, just like my grandma wasn’t dumb.
And so, my education continues. Our backgrounds are completely different, but Consuelo and I revel in learning things about us that are the same. During this pandemic, she and I often say to each other that human beings are social creatures, not meant to be alone. We both hate being cut off. It’s hard on me, but I think it’s much harder for her.
As so much of her life has been. It’s not fair. And I can’t change that.
But we’re going for a walk tomorrow at 9:00, two social creatures, choosing to spend a little time together. That always helps.
I am certain that my grandma would have loved her.