Friday, September 11, 2015

Happy National Grandparents Day, September 13th


In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a proclamation declaring September 13th as National Grandparent’s Day. The purpose of the day was “to help children become aware of strength, information, and guidance” that older people can offer. As writers, we often probe our grandparents’ lives in order to understand our own.  Much of what our parents love, admire, despise, or struggled to understand in their youth comes back to these four people. From them we inherit our culture, our beliefs, our traditions. But to escape the trap of generalizations and Hallmark clichés typical of grandparent-grandchild portrayals, I think it helps to isolate one infinitely particular characteristic of one grandparent and go from there.

El Salvador, 1965. My grandmother standing beside my mother, who was ceremonial queen (reina) of a Red Cross gala

Much of what I remember about Nelly, my maternal grandmother, has to do with a single traumatic event. When she was 12, living in El Salvador in 1935, Nelly contracted the poliomyelitis virus. In the early 20th century, paralytic polio was the world's most feared disease. “La polio” as she called it, was a pandemic that would paralyze or kill over a half a million people around the world in the 1940s decade alone. The consequences of the disease left victims marked for life both physically and psychologically. My grandmother had an atrophied leg, and she hobbled around aided by leg braces, canes, and crutches. The asymmetry in her spine, hips, and knees caused her pain and compromised her mobility her entire life.
Image from Wikimedia Commons of child in a leg brace--credit: "R.W. Lovett"
Not surprisingly, stylish shoes, bright pedicures, ankle bracelets, toe rings--any foot ornamentation--caught and dragged my grandmother’s eyes like a lure cast out from a former life. I vividly remember a day when I was headed to a nightclub in San Salvador in a mini-skirt and pair of high-heel sandals. Abuela Nelly was mesmerized by my stylish footwear and by my “perfect” symmetrical feet because they represented what polio had stolen from her. It dawned on me then that in addition to all her medical challenges, she had never had a chance to enjoy her own body in this way, a luxury most of us take for granted.


Paralytic polio wasn’t the only thing that happened to my grandmother. She lost two siblings while she was still a teenager. Her husband was alcoholic. She had breast cancer, and suffered the tragedy of her son’s early death. But instead of retreating into melancholy, she remained generous and engaged with her community. She became mayor of her hometown of Gotera, was a Red Cross volunteer, and her house was always full of people who loved and depended on her. But as she got older, fear and hypochondria set in. While we had been close during my childhood, I began to emotionally disconnect from my grandmother in my late teens. I found her letters so painfully intense and paranoid that I left dozens of them unopened long past her death. Only recently have I been ready to absorb and appreciate those letters.  Most of all, I find myself humbled by my grandmother’s instinct to transform her pain into service and concern for others. So to celebrate National Grandparents Day and Hispanic Heritage Month, I begin by both writing down memories and deepening my knowledge of the historical circumstances that defined each one of my grandparents’ lives. In the act of joining what can be researched with what is remembered, I am receiving a deeper, far more complex layer of understanding. 

If you are a grandparent, or if you’re lucky enough to still have living grandparents, here are a few links to get you thinking and writing about your connection to one another.

Happy National Grandparents Day,

~~Sandra Rodriguez Barron

Bio: SANDRA RODRIGUEZ BARRON is the author of The Heiress of Water (HarperCollins), which won first place for fiction at the 2007 International Latino Book Awards and was a Borders Original Voices selection. Her second novel, Stay with Me, was a finalist for the 2011 Connecticut Book Award.  She was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in El Salvador, and now lives in Connecticut. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter (@RodriguezBarron) or visit

No comments: