I have good memories from my great-grandmother and some of them shaped my identity and understanding of the world. She was as wise as you’d expect from a woman in her 90s. Her life was a testament of motherly love and the strength of women raising children in poverty who work tirelessly to provide for them. The last time I saw her was in 1996; she seemed so fragile sitting on her rocking chair. But she was never fragile, even at her old age.
Her name was Ernestina Encarnación but everyone called her Cocola, a nickname that referred to her black skin and that she carried without shame or anger. For us she was “abuelita Cocola”, and although most of what I remember about her is what others have told me, I have memories from my great-grandmother that happened the last time I saw her, in the form of advice she imparted.
On that day, I remember we all sat on the front porch of her house, my dad, four of my sisters and my little nephew. My father asked how she was and they started talking about relatives, her health and remembering my grandfather who had passed years ago. It was cloudy and I wasn’t paying much attention to part of the conversation at first, just watching my nephew and younger sister play.
Cocola was the embodiment of strength packaged in a petite and slim figure. She worked hand washing clothes and ironing them for different people. Instead of “renting” herself for a family as many around her did, she preferred to be independent and make more money by tending to several clients with their clothes. That meant freedom from mistreatment as often happened (and unfortunately still happens) to domestic workers, but it also meant a lot more work, hours sitting and washing by hand and under the blazing Caribbean sun line drying all the clothes.
I am fortunate to have not only memories from my great-grandmother, but also from both my mother’s mother and my father’s mother, who lived to 95 and 88 respectively. I believe learning about their novel-worthy stories has given me great insight and nurtured my love for writing and telling stories. I feel proud to belong to a line of strong women who endured great challenges, hard work, wars and a time in history in which women had little to none advantages, and despite all of that lived to tell the tales.
I remember my grandma, Mamá Amparo, telling me about how Cocola always draw attention to her when she was with her kids. My grandfather, the son of a Spaniard and her oldest had light skin, and her other 3 kids were black like her. People were always making comments about how it was so bad that the maid was out with the kid, and if she reprimanded him, people will try to scold her. She was feisty, so her answer was always the same and basically sending people to mind their own business as the child was as hers as the others.
Seeing her at her old age in her comfortable home in a nice Santo Domingo neighborhood you wouldn’t imagine the struggles of her life and the poverty she endured until her oldest son, my grandfather, started to do well in life and took care of her. It made the second half of her life easy, she retired from working and got to live in an area that she would have only visit to work in the past. Although these part of her life are not direct memories from my great-grandmother, they are ingrained in my mind like clear images I can see because of hearing them growing up and having the opportunity to meet her in person.
Longevity runs in my family and that has proven to be such a valuable experience because I’ve had access from a very early age to the wisdom of elders who had lived a long life even before I was born. On that day in 1996, as I was on the last year of my teens, she taught me three lessons that have impacted who I am.
3 Lessons & Memories From My Great-Grandmother
- Don’t Let Stress Get You. Cocola remembered the days she was working so hard and for how long. She learned that one shouldn’t stress so much in life, just take things in a calmed manner. She had lived long enough to see no value in an stressful life and advised us to keep that in mind as we enter adulthood.
- Be Yourself. As cliché as this one sounds, it was important advice for a teenager going out in the world to stay true to myself. Now that I’m 40 and I have teenage nieces, I see how important is to continue to reinforce having a strong identity and not changing to please others. My great-grandmother struggle with poverty and racism, and through it all she managed to raise children who became responsible and successful adults.
- Longevity Is Strength. Although she didn’t use those words; through her stories, her life experiences and the fact that she was enjoying a quiet comfortable life, she was a testament of the beauty of getting older. Instead of seeing old age as a threat, I’ve learned through her and my grandmothers that living a long life is a privilege that allows you to enjoy those you love and to dream big dreams and achieve them.
After that visit, I don’t remember if I ever saw her alive again. I wish I had and could tell my kids more of her stories. I’m grateful that I was privileged to meet her and that she was present for so many years of my life.
Did you know your great-grandmother? What was she like?
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