Wednesday, June 25, 2014

In Memory of My Grandmother on Her Birthday

Usually this blog is about my writing, but today all I want to write about is my grandmother, Guillermina White. She passed away a month ago and it's been tough to think of anything else since. I've heard it said that the unrecorded life is the life that disappears. As far as I know, my grandmother never kept a diary, and the only videos she made were on grainy silent film reels she took during trips to Puerto Rico and New York. Though she was a wonderful woman--the most loving, selfless person I've ever known--it would be easy for her life to disappear, to go unnoticed or forgotten by anyone besides those who knew and adored her. So I've decided to put her story in writing--as much of it as I know, anyway--to give her the immortality of words, the only kind I can give. It might seem long, but if you'd known her, you'd say it wasn't nearly long enough or anything close to what she deserves. Obviously, I have more to say about her than this brief biography. I loved her like crazy, so don't be surprised if my next post is about her as well. But for now, I give you the life and times (a small portion of them, at least) of Guillermina White. *Note: At the writing of this post, I changed the color of my blog to pink, her favorite color.

Guillermina White was born in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico, on June 25, 1924, to Damasa and Guillermo. After Guillermo died, Damasa remarried, and Simon Quinones, an unfailingly good man, became the father in Guillermina's life. She had nine brothers and sisters, though four of her brothers died before she was even born, and one of her sisters died in childbirth when Guillermina was 11 years old. As the oldest of the six siblings who remained, she learned early on how to take care of other people. When her mother was out, she would watch over her brothers and sisters, cook for them, help them with their schoolwork, and clean the house. She also often helped her neighbors take care of their children or do their laundry, just to lend a hand.

Her family was very poor. Having meat with dinner was a luxury, and their home had hardly any furniture in it. They had one nice bench, but it was reserved for company, so she and her brothers and sisters would sit on the floor. They had no indoor plumbing or electricity. To take hot baths they would fill a container with water and warm it in the sun. Since her mother could only afford to buy her one pair of shoes for the entire year, she would walk to school barefoot. When she arrived, she would wash her feet with water from the faucet outside the building then put on her shoes. After classes, she would walk home barefoot again, all so that her shoes would last as long as possible.

When she finished fifth grade, her parents decided that she had learned enough. They felt that reading and writing was all she needed to know, and it was more important that she work to help the family. Reluctantly, she left school and started working. By the time she was seventeen, she was cleaning houses. One day, while cleaning a mirror on a high shelf, she spilled something toxic in her right eye. She would never see well out of it again.

Eventually she moved to Carolina and got married, becoming Guillermina Marquez. She gave birth to two daughters, Milca and Madelin (my mother). Unfortunately, her husband was unfaithful. He fathered children with many other women, which was no secret to Guillermina. In fact, she became so close to one of the children, Juanita, that the child came to think of her as her real mother. But still unwilling to tolerate her husband's infidelity, she decided to leave.

By this time, Guillermina had gone back to school on her own. She graduated from ninth grade and had continued on to high school. But one day a friend of hers called from New York. The friend had recently lost her fiance in a tragic accident and wanted Guillermina to come be with her to help her through it. She even sent her the money for a plane ticket and told her she had a job for her and a place to live. Though she didn't want to leave school again, she couldn't pass up the opportunity. Thinking she might be able to make a better life for herself and her girls, she moved to New York City. For a time, she shared a tiny apartment with her friend, sleeping on a mattress that was placed on the kitchen floor. Even though she didn't speak any English when she first came, she was determined to succeed. She missed her daughters, though, whom she had left behind in Puerto Rico with her mother until she got settled. Her children soon rejoined her in the Bronx.

Madelin and Milca in the Bronx, NY

And it wasn't long before her wayward husband came back into her life, begging her forgiveness and wanting to be a family again. She took him back.

But life with him wasn't perfect. He still had many vices, including drinking. One day one of his friends offered him some homemade alcohol. Warned that it might be too strong, he set out to prove his stamina by drinking it anyway and sharing it with several of his friends. Later that night, he returned home, feeling incredibly sick. Guillermina wanted to call a doctor, but he forbade her, insisting that he would be all right. Having been raised to believe a woman should do what her husband says, she called no one, nursing him herself as best she could. But during the night his illness got worse and worse, and he confessed to her that he thought he might die. Frightened, she called a friend of his who, when he came to the apartment and saw the man's condition, promptly called an ambulance and had him rushed to the hospital. But by then it was too late. Guillermina's husband--and everyone else who'd had any of the liquor--died. It turned out that whoever had made it had mistakenly used a substance that wasn't meant for drinking. So many men perished that the story made it to the local news. At only 32 years old, Guillermina was a widow.

Not one to wallow in unhappiness, she focused on providing for her daughters. She took many jobs over the years to make ends meet. She worked in factories; she cleaned houses; she took care of children; she took in borders. Eventually she accepted a job in the laundry department of the Workman's Circle Nursing Home in the Bronx. It was there that she would meet the love of her life, David White. Hailing from Virginia, David had also been married before and had fathered five children with his ex-wife. A handsome young man who had served in the army during World War II, he was sought after by many of the women who worked with him in the nursing home. He only had eyes for one of them, though: Guillermina. Guillo, as he often called her, didn't speak much English at the time, and he didn't speak a word of Spanish, but somehow they found a way to communicate. Not wanting to keep any secrets from her, David told her everything about his past--the good, the bad, and the sometimes ugly, including his estrangement from his children. As he would later recall, she knew everything there was to know about him, and she accepted him as he was. It was at her insistence that he reestablished a relationship with his daughters and son, something they are grateful for to this day. Guillermina and David fell in love, and in 1967 they got married and she became Guillermina White.

Guillermina with her sister Maria on her wedding day.

Guillermina and David

Madelin in her bridesmaid dress, 15 years old
For years they lived in the Bronx in various apartments, eventually settling on Fish Avenue. They were inseparable. Together they traveled (often to Puerto Rico) and became very active in the Pentecostal church. She eventually became a beloved Sunday School teacher, a role in which she took great pride. She also loved singing in the church and would often sing her favorite hymns around the house. (The one I remember her teaching me went: Right now, right now. Let the savior save your soul right now. Why put off until tomorrow what you can do today? Let the savior save your soul right now.)

Meanwhile, her daughters grew up and had families of their own. Her daughter Milca gave birth to three sons: David, Samuel, and Chino. Shortly after graduating from high school, Madelin married Eliezer Velasquez, a marine who'd grown up in the neighborhood and had just come home from Vietnam. Their wedding was held in Guillermina and David's apartment. In 1971 Madelin and Eli had their first son, also named Eliezer. But in 1975, while Madelin was pregnant with her second child, Milca's son David passed away in a tragic bus accident. It was a painful time for the whole family. So they all looked forward to the birth of Madelin's next child to bring them some solace. Guillermina prayed that it would be a girl since one hadn't been born to the family in many years. But when Madelin fell ill and had complications during childbirth, Guillermina thought it was because God was punishing her for selfishly asking for a girl. She prayed to God, telling Him that she didn't care what sex the baby was as long as it was healthy and her daughter pulled through. She soon found her prayers were answered: Madelin gave birth to a healthy baby girl named Crystal.

My brother, Eli, and me at Grandma's house
Though both of Guillermina's daughters moved away to California for a while, they eventually came back to New York, in part to be close to her. But by the time Guillermina and David were ready to retire, their Bronx neighborhood had taken a turn for the worst. Crime was rampant, drug dealers ruled the streets, and the sound of gunshots was common. For Guillermina, who had never really liked New York anyway, it seemed clear that it was time to leave. And after visiting her goddaughter in Florida and falling in love with the warm weather and scenic surroundings, she quickly decided to move there. 

It wasn't long before they bought their own home in Orlando. It was a modest two-bedroom house with a one-car garage and a small yard in front and in back. But for Guillermina, it was a dream come true. There she enjoyed her retirement, tending to her plants, attending church, reading, and spending time with her husband. Her only regret was that she had moved so far away from the rest of the family.

Guillermina (in tan coat) with her daughter Madelin, granddaughter Crystal,
and great-granddaughter Jasmine; Queens, NY. 
Over time, old age and the loss of her daughter Milca, her grandson Samuel, and her remaining siblings, Maria and Genia, took its toll and she began to suffer from various health problems, depending on her husband to take care of her. The eye that had troubled her since she was a teenager had to be removed and replaced with glass. She developed diabetes. And the woman who'd always taken pride in her sharp mind and great memory found herself dealing with the onset of dementia. But through it all she maintained her positive attitude, her sense of humor, her beautiful smile, and her faith in God. She rejoiced in watching her daughter Madelin go back to college as an adult, gaining the education she'd never gotten to have herself. And she and her husband remained very much in love, behaving more like boyfriend and girlfriend then a married couple of 47 years.

Guillermina and David, celebrating Guillermina's 89th birthday;
Orlando, Florida, June 25, 2013.
On May 19, 2014, at the age of 89, Guillermina White passed away peacefully in her sleep. In addition to her husband, David, who was by her side at the time of her death, she was survived by her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, all of whom loved her dearly. She was laid to rest at Chapel Hill Cemetery in Orlando, but her memory and her legacy of love and kindness live on.

1 comment:

  1. What a lovely testimony to the life of your grandmom. Thanks so much for sharing, Crystal! (And sorry if this posts twice; I'm new to posting on blogs. You're my first!)