Photographic Memories

In 1999, two awe-struck Cuban immigrants stepped off of a plane in Miami, Florida to discover a world they never could’ve imagined. A few years later, they managed to bring some family to the US; eventually, my parents started a family of their own. 

I was born in Tampa, Florida as the oldest daughter of my parents and lived in a predominantly Latino neighborhood until I was eight years old. The loud whizz of cars speeding by, voices of neighbors on their patios, and loud reggaeton blasting from teenagers’ stereos would filter in through the windows of my house and eventually became the sounds of my childhood. I grew up eating Cuban food like arroz amarillo, tostones, and sopa. The house was always full of guests—usually the friends of my parents and my extended family. My childhood was largely defined by living in an intergenerational household, as my grandmother Niria lived with us. 

Niria was unlike any other person I have known. She and her five siblings were raised by their single father in a small Cuban town called Yaguajay. As the eldest sibling, she practically raised her younger siblings. She never had the opportunity to attend school, so she was mostly illiterate. Despite this, she was still incredibly witty and resourceful. Her childhood was marked by intense struggles with poverty and food insecurity, and, at age 18, she had her first child. She gave birth to three more kids after, including my mother, and raised them all as a single mother. In the ’50s and ’60s, it was practically unheard of for an unmarried older woman to make a living for herself in Cuba, but my grandmother did it. She was an incredible businesswoman, selling cigars, canned tomato sauce, toothpaste, and anything else she could acquire in bulk in order for her children to be clothed, fed, and taken care of.

In 2000, she left her small town and emigrated to the US to help my parents. Shortly after arriving, she began working as a nanny for a young family with a baby. Niria always had a way with children, perhaps because of her upbringing. When my parents finally decided to have children, she was more than ready to play the role of the doting grandmother; that is exactly what she did, and, in the process, she became my first best friend. 

My mom returned to work a few weeks after having me, so Niria became my second mother in my infancy and youth. I called her “Mami” and called my mother “Mama”. When my mother would scold me, I’d run and hide behind Mami’s skirt. When I’d fall and scrape my knees, Mami would always pick me up. When I was sick with a cold, Mami was always ready to heal me with a dozen home remedies (Vick’s VapoRub was her favorite). She was always my protector.

Mami was the one who taught me to speak my mother tongue, Spanish. She taught me how to sew, even though I soon forgot everything she taught me about her precious Singer sewing machine. I learned the importance of food as a vehicle for comfort by watching her cook. She was the only one who was allowed in the kitchen during meal times, and I vividly remember watching her whirl around in her green apron. My mother and I would joke that she was like a tornado—messily whizzing around from one end of the kitchen to the other, leaving a trail of open cabinets, scattered spice bottles, and dirty pans behind her. 

Mami was fundamental to my upbringing as a stable, calming presence that balanced out the chaos of life. As she aged, however, the roles reversed. She developed Alzheimer’s when I was in high school, and slowly that wretched disease stole her away from me. My mother was her primary caregiver, but all of us would help out. I vigilantly watched to make sure she didn’t leave a pan unattended on the stove, helped her pick her outfits out, and reminded her of who she was as she slowly forgot. No matter how much I reminded her, these efforts were fruitless. She became a shell of the woman she once was. Towards the end of her life, Mami no longer recognized me and would ask me where the niña was: where did Emara go?

She passed away on November 21, 2019. It was two years ago, but it still feels like it happened yesterday. Months went by after she passed before any of my family dared to go into her room. Mami cared tremendously about her personal possessions; she’d never let any of us borrow or touch her things. Growing up without material goods, Mami had a deep appreciation for everything she acquired after migrating to the US. 

My mother was the one who built up the courage to empty Mami’s old room, so she was the one who decided what to do with her possessions. Most of her clothes were saved to bring to relatives in Cuba so that they could get use out of them. My mother and I picked through the pieces of her clothes that we each wanted, and the rest of them were donated. Her prized Singer sewing machine was stored in a hallway closet. The room’s furniture was gifted to one of my cousins who had recently bought a house. Within a few days, Mami’s possessions, which took a lifetime to accumulate, were gone. 

It was comforting to know her items would gain a new life in the possession of strangers, friends, and relatives, but, at the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder how Mami would feel to see her precious things moved from their home. She was proud of everything that she had accumulated over the years, including hundreds of photographs of her first years in the US, of all my family trips back to Cuba, and of my youth. These photographs became an archive of the person I once knew, a bittersweet reminder of how life was before she slowly forgot herself. There are many photos of her dressing me up in cute costumes, helping me take my first steps, and celebrating all of my “firsts” with me. Every single holiday and special moment is commemorated in those photos.

My favorite photo of all of them is one where she and I are both looking at the camera with cheesy grins on our faces. Mami is wearing a colorful checkered shirt, straight from the ’70s, and her classic round wireframe glasses. I’m wearing a blue and red t-shirt, red shorts, and white patent shoes. I think I like it so much because you can tell that she was my best friend, the only person that knew me better than myself. That photo, an immortalization of our collective joy, will always remind me of who she was before Alzheimer’s. 

Years later, after her passing, I now own that checkered shirt and many of her other colorful clothing. Clothes were always a way for her to express herself, and she was well known for always presenting herself as put together. Even when she had Alzheimer’s, we made sure she continued to preserve her dignity and sense of self through her clothing. Her care for personal style definitely transferred to me, though I’ll never be able to rock that checkered shirt even half as well as she did. 

When I wear her clothes and see those photographs, I remember the woman who I loved so dearly, not the shell of who she was when she left us. The photographs she took weren’t enough to prevent her from forgetting, but they are enough for me. Her person and story live on, as far as I’m concerned, in those photos and the memories they hold. Those archival memories take on a new life every time I go through them. They may only be snapshots of small moments in her life, but they are emblematic of the person I choose to remember everyday.