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Becoming Abuelita

We must claim the families we choose, especially when they go beyond blood.

Allison Green family photo

When I met my partner, Arline, I was 35 and had no children. She was 45 and had three children, with her ex-husband, and five grandchildren. The oldest grandchild was 8 when we met. “Nice to meet you, Gabi,” I said. We were in a kitchen but no food was cooking.

“¿Quieres frijoles?” he asked. “Want beans?” I guess he was trying out my Spanish. Monolingual and white, I didn’t have any.

Seven months into our relationship, Arline and I attended Memito’s birth. Two months later, Serafina’s. Another year and we were speeding to the hospital to greet Leticia.

In the several years before another child was born, I stopped referring to the grandchildren as Arline’s, but I couldn’t quite refer to them as mine. “We have grandchildren,” I could say, but, “This is my granddaughter,” I could not. When some of the parents referred to me, as they did to Arline, as abuelita, “grandma,” I was delighted.

One day Arline commented that 4-year-old Tatiana had her grandmother’s nose. But Tatiana called her paternal grandmother “Nana,” and didn’t know who Arline meant. Tatiana frowned, then turned to me: “I have your nose!”

We become grandmothers when our grandchildren bestow the title. Grandchildren conjure grandmothers; we don’t otherwise exist.   

Four more grandchildren were on their way. My mother shook her head—how did this childless one end up with so many grandchildren? She didn’t have any. She took to calling our black lab her “granddog.” This, Serafina understood. One day at the park, she asked why our dog was so hot. “Because he’s wearing his fur coat,” I said.

“Where did he get it?” she asked.

“He was born with it.”

She squinted at me: “When he was in your tummy?”

Arline had no trouble acknowledging my relationship with the grandchildren, but she wasn’t so keen on taking on the traditional grandmother role herself. She was now enjoying the freedom to spend her time in adult company. In contrast, I was enamored with the little ones and dragged her to all their birthday celebrations.

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I finally realized that my ambivalence about pronouns was not new. There had been a time I slid “he” over “she” to disguise the truth about my relationships with women. Now I was doing something similar with “we” and “my.” So I made the decision to claim these bonds out loud. I practiced: “my granddaughters, my grandchildren, my grandson.” People sometimes look confused when I introduce grandchildren who are clearly too old to be mine biologically, but my confidence gives no room for them to question the legitimacy of our family. My joy and pride in introducing them feels purer now, less encumbered.

A few years ago, at the fifth-grade open house, students stood beside posters from a class project about family trees and ancestry. I leaned into Tatiana’s poster: photos of her mother, a hand-drawn map of Panama, and a diagram of her family. Tatiana had drawn a center circle to represent herself. A vertical line led to her parents and another from her mother to Arline. A horizontal line broken by a slash led from Arline to her ex-husband. On the other side of Arline’s circle, an unbroken line led to me.          


Allison Green wrote this article for What Happy Families Know, the Winter 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. Allison is a writer and community college English teacher in Seattle.

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