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ArJewTino

“Latins are tenderly enthusiastic. In Brazil, they throw flowers at you. In Argentina, they throw themselves." -- Marlene Dietrich

Mi abuelita querida

One night while visiting Buenos Aires nearly five years ago, my best friend Blue and I came home from a night of joda to find my 80-year-old abuelita missing.

It was 12:30 a.m. She wasn’t reading the paper or watching Benny Hill reruns on her little TV. She wasn’t watering her jungle of flowers or cooking knishes. Her small, two-bedroom apartment that she had lived in for nearly 30 years was empty. And I started to freak out.

I called my mom in LA.

“Guille’s not here!” I shouted into the phone. “Blue and I came home and she’s missing!”

“What? Wait,” my mom replied, “what time is it there?”

“It’s 12:30 in the morning!”

“Oh, she’s probably out.”

Out? My petite, sweet, widowed grandma? Out? At this time of night? I don’t think so. People MY age go “out”; my abuelita is supposed to be home when it’s dark and night has already started to creep into the next day.

I made some te con leche to calm my nerves, sat down at the kitchen table, and waited up like an anxious parent. At 1 a.m., I heard the keys rattling outside the apartment. The door opened and in walked my abuela, furtively stepping into the kitchen like a teenager sneaking in after prom night.

“Where have you been?” I asked her in Spanish, standing with my hands at my hips. “I was worried.”

She took one look at me, smiled, and in heavily accented English said, “Oh, oh! Busted!”

This, to me, is my grandma. Mi abuelita. Guille (an affectionate nickname her brother gave her when she was a little girl that stuck throughout her life). So full of life, energy, and silliness.

Guille and me, New Year's Eve 2006

When I saw her while visiting Argentina last month, she was still the same, fun grandma who let me stay up late watching TV with her when I was a boy, the same grandma who hugged me when I was sad and scolded me when I was being petulant.

Now 85, she’s smaller in stature and she can’t walk far without her legs feeling like they’re on fire. Walking down Avenida Cabildo one morning, I teased her that if she walked any slower she’d be going backwards. She laughed, squeezed my arm, and gave me a kiss.

On a different morning, we discussed the principle of marriage and family over medialunas.

“When are you going to give me great-grandchildren?”

“I don’t know, Guille, not for several more years.”

“When?”

“Let’s say five years.”

“Five years?” she replied while belting out a mocking laugh. “You think I’ll be around that long?”

“Yes, of course, you’ll only be 90.”

Only 90. I swear, if you knew my abuela, you know she could live to be 120 if she wanted. She’s obstinate and difficult to sway, a trait that has been passed down to my mom, my siblings, and myself. She likes things her way and no one’s going to change that.

“Guille, it’s so hot in here, can I turn on the air conditioner?” I asked her one day as I suffered through a record-breaking Buenos Aires heat wave.

“I don’t have an air conditioner.”

“What? Why not?”

“I don’t believe in it.”

My grandma can be so eccentric sometimes it defies logic. During my visit, she gave me a bag full of underwear Blue had left here accidentally during our last visit. She had washed, folded, and saved his underwear for nearly five years, waiting for the day I would visit to return it.

I asked her why she kept it and didn't just throw the underwear away, and she said, "Why would I throw underwear away?"

Hermano, abuelo, me, Guille, and Hermanita, 1982

A running joke with my grandma during this last visit was that she was constantly drunk. When she told me something irrational like “walk on the floor softer” or “don’t touch my plants”, I would tilt my hand to my mouth and mime the act of drinking. Once, she thought I was just thirsty and brought me water.

When Guille was a child, her parents fled Poland for Argentina, seeking to escape pogroms and anti-Semitism sweeping across Eastern Europe. She grew up in Buenos Aires and lived there her whole life. She was married to my grandpa Meir for 40 years before he died in 1983 of cancer. She smiles when I talk about him and has dozens of framed photos of him around the apartment.

A few years ago, thieves broke into her friend’s apartment while she was playing cards with her friends and stole her wedding ring at gunpoint. She pleaded with them to take anything but the ring, explaining that its only value was purely sentimental. They took it anyway.

“Why don’t you move to the U.S. and live with Mami?” I asked her once. “Argentina is so dangerous.”

“No,” she said. “I grew up here and I’m going to die here.”

No problem, abuela. But I’ll see you when you’re 120.

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