A breeze. The sun sat high enough to burn my skin, but sitting under the thick branches and leaves of my grandpa’s orange tree protected me. A shade thick enough to withstand the glare of the sun. If I closed my eyes long enough and listened to the breeze rustle the leaves, I could think myself back to the home I lived in years ago where I sat on the swing hanging from the tree near the shed while I listened to the chimes on the deck. Here, I can listen to the neighbor hum as she fixes her garden, listen to the chimes above my head. A new song for the day.
“Sometimes I forget you’re my granddaughter.” I opened my eyes and stared at the clear blue spaces between the leaves. My grandpa’s voice over powers the sound of the chimes hanging above our heads, but I can still hear them. “I watched you grow – helped raise you. I understand that you are, but when people at church ask me about you, because you know I carry a photo of you in my wallet, I have to show them.” His thick accent slows his English, his yous almost settle as jews, the ending of granddaughter shifting from –tah to hard rolled rs, never settling on one. “Sometimes I talk so much about you, they forget you’re my granddaughter and then they ask me, Hey, Elifas, your daughter in college, how is she?”
I smiled. It’s true. The older I’ve gotten the more the people at church forget I’m his granddaughter. When he used to be pastor for the Spanish congregation on the third floor, all of the church members of the building would see me in one of my Sunday dresses with my high pigtails and gap between my two front teeth or in my uniform on Wednesdays with my hair a mess because I’d slept the hour-long drive to church. Now whenever I’m in town and visit him at the church while he helps with the daycare, they think I’m his daughter. Maybe it’s because I stopped going to church for so long that they forgot who I was.
“It’s okay though,” he continued, I could hear the smile in his voice, could almost see the crinkles near his eyes, “I don’t mind.”
“When was the last time you changed the photos in your wallet?” I asked, gripping the wooden armrests of the chair I sat in to pull myself up.
I looked my grandfather in the eyes, his reddish-brown ones dashing towards his pants as he shifts to one side and takes out his wallet. A wallet old enough to tell stories with its aged creases at the binding. He lays the brown leather on the table in front of us in between our cups of coffee.
“This one is one of my favorites.” He points to the photo of me standing in front of a fake tree. It was a free picture day for anyone who dressed down, so I took my uniform shirt off—I had a blue shirt on with a small stain on the hem – and I stood proudly in front of that tree with the gap between my two front teeth showing. I also had a huge knot in my ponytail because I refused to let my mom touch my hair. “You were giving your mom hell that entire week because you wouldn’t let her brush out that knot and if you really look at the picture, you can see the big bump hiding in the tree.” 2
“Mama hates this one,” I laughed, pick up his wallet and shrug. “I’m just lucky I have dark hair.”
I reached over to pick up the wallet. My entire life, my grandpa has overused the things he’s loved the most. Overused the pocket knife his father gave him until the blade fell, now he keeps it safe in his desk drawer and only brings out to talk about the stories he’s made with it. Overused his favorite Bible, the gold-trimmed edges of the pages seem to bleed more of the highlighters he’s used to highlight his favorite verses. The leather on this wallet has aged, become more malleable, found itself more satisfied with the indentions of his cards poking through the back.
I flip the bifold and dig my fingers in the tight space, trying to see what other pictures he has hidden in there. How much did that old accordion wallet compress itself into a bifold? I struggle with getting the pictures out, jerking them slightly. I look up at my grandpa to make sure he doesn’t see me struggling. He takes a sip of his coffee: no cream, two sugars—it used to be four, but he’s diabetic now—and then sets the cup onto its plate before taking a bite of his semita.
A different tradition we have now. Instead of waking up at four in the morning to drink our coffee and dip our semitas into our cups when he would get ready for work, we now sit in his backyard under the orange tree in the summer for an hour.
Two other photos slip out when I finish struggling. I’m surprised. Not that this picture is unexpected, but somehow it almost is. It’s the photo we took at 512, the only house that’s ever felt like home, on Christmas Eve hours before opening presents. I’m in a red dress, my white socks have ruffles on them, and I’m sitting on my grandpa’s knee as he kneels in front of the tree. His red vest matches my grandma’s blouse.
I’ve forgotten what her smile looks like. Two rows of straight white teeth, brown lips curling into a smile. Her eyes, always mischievous. She had been making fun of my uncle when we took this picture. The house was full of family, tables of food, and even more in the kitchen.
“You had come running to the living room, tripping over the wires of the Christmas lights, and sat on me before your mom took the picture.” He laughed, his shoulders moving up and down as his eyes cinched close for a second. When he laughs like this, he reminds me of a little kid. “You were always getting up after hurting yourself even when you looked like you wanted to cry.”
“I remember the time tío Cristian opened the bottom door of the entertainment center while I was doing a cartwheel and I rammed my head right into it,” I said staring at my grandma. She looked so different from how I remembered her, yet still the same.
“And you shoved him before stomping to the couch.” 3
“Culpa mía, no fue. He knew I was coming and he did it on purpose.”
“Well, you did have your hair in your faces so you didn’t know where you were going.” He pointed out before taking a long sip of his coffee. “And then I remember you painting his drumsticks with maroon nail polish under the dinner table.”
I laughed. The look on my uncle’s face when he found them was funny. He had to wait for them to dry so he could use them at drumline practice and my grandma laughed because she had told him to put the drumsticks away; she said it was God’s plan for not listening to his mother. She never told me anything about using her nail polish though.
I don’t know how to ask if he thinks of her. Or, the better question is, do you feel guilty when you realize you haven’t thought about her in a while? I do. A lot has changed since she’s passed; you could say, life goes on—and it does. It’s strange to think about though.
I look up at my grandpa and see that he’s sitting back in his chair. His eyes focused on the leaves of the orange tree. Our old backyard smelled like roses; his new backyard smelled like citrus. He takes the cup back into his hand and sips on the coffee until he’s done. Not much has changed from the picture in my hands, he just looks a little aged.
I move the picture of us three behind and my grandma’s face stares back at mine. A smile, almost a smirk with two large dimples at her cheeks. She’s staring straight at the camera, the cup of wine in her hand lifted at the middle of her chest as if she were about to raise it to the person behind the camera.
Sometimes I wonder how my grandpa’s wife feels about the photos he has of my grandma, the ones of her and his children, of her and me, scattered around the living room, his office. I know he goes to his office and prays every morning at five on the dot, but I wonder if it’s so he’s closer to her. So, he can see her face for a little while before the day starts and she’s not there. I wonder if their bedroom is sanctified of her.
There’s clinking in front of me. My grandpa’s picking up his coffee cup and plate, semita crumbs scattered on it, as he gets up from his chair.
“We should go inside,” he said, both of his hands full as he looks at me. The photo of my grandma in my hands. A small smile and a lift of the shoulder as he points to the door with his cup. “Karen is almost here.”
Nodding, I watched him go. My coffee gone cold, semita half-eaten.
Victoria Gudino is a New Orleans native. When not writing about cultural identity, she uses her free time to work on her film photography. Victoria works as a communications specialist for the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children, and was recently recognized as New Orleans CityBusiness’ Ones to Watch.