From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul

Antonio Farias

El Niño Bendito de la Grandmom

“Calmarse, calmarse,” my brother Matthew whispers to his dinner plate as he rocks back and forth, dropping his fork to clutch at his ear.

Mama stands and spoons more green beans onto his plate before she heads to the kitchen.

“Come ahora, Matty. Eat your supper, Baby.”

Daddy leans over to put the fork back in Matty’s hand, giving him a reassuring pat on his back. I watch Matty push his food around before he manages to fork some meatloaf into his mouth. He rocks slower now, stopping to look around the room briefly as Mama sits back down and hands him a warm dinner roll from the basket in her hand.

Something about Mama’s simple gesture, seeing her bring Matty food, reminds me of being little and wondering about my older brother and his funny tics. Convinced that Matty was seeing or hearing something special the rest of us weren’t allowed to experience, I used to follow my older brother’s wandering eyes, determined to see the invisible mysteries that always seemed to take his attention away from the everyday.

Mama’s own mother, Grandmama María, always gentle with Matty and understanding of his funny ways, explained autism to me after my first day of kindergarten. Some of the older boys had teased Matty on the bus, calling him names and sucking their thumbs as they pointed at him. I asked Grandmama María why the boys did that to him, why they treated my brother like he was stupid, un tonto.

Grandmama explained in her warm, liquid accent how Matty’s specialness made him a child of God, our family’s own niño bendito, able to see all of the angels and saints that surround and watch over us every day.

“Calmarse,” she used to whisper to Matty at night when nightmares would haunt him, making him squirm and wriggle until his bed became a prison. Smoothing his sheets and stroking his forehead with her rough but cool hands, she would sing to Matty softly, holding him in a gentle hug that sent all the nighttime demons away.

“You are special, una muchacha inteligente, Gloria,” Grandmama would say to me as I got older and began to bring home report cards with As and Bs.

“Your gifts are your own. Use them to take you to great places, to take you closer to God and what you want from life. Someday, Matty may need you, his little sister. As long as you are strong, you will be strong enough for both of you. Nuestro Dios sabe esto. I know this as well. “

Grandmama always sent me off to school with these warm thoughts, speaking slowly so I would understand her slang-style Spanish, patiently unveiling the precious bit of wisdom until it was mine to keep. Her words felt rich and valuable, like the beautiful shells she kept on her shelf, brought back with her from the warm Puerto Rican tides near her home of Santurce.

Refusing to talk much about the life of poverty she had left behind in Puerto Rico, Grandmama María would instead share stories about the amazing colors the sky used to take against the sand on warm, sensual nights when she was a child. Though many parts of her history were a secret to us, we all knew that in 1939, while living with a distant cousin in the Bronx, María had, on instinct, marched into the busiest-looking building she saw when she left the apartment that morning. By the end of the day, María had gotten a job making bras for thirty-five cents an hour.

Grandmama’s stories, her special flavor of Latina wisdom and her profound love for life, made her sudden heart attack and passing last year more difficult than my family thought possible. Mama wasn’t able to stop crying for a week, and Papa walked around the house quietly, looking up often as if expecting to see María sitting at the table or by the window doing her cross-stitch.

Although twenty years old, Matty was excused from the funeral, both Mama and Papa believing that the trauma would confuse and overload him. I still wish he had been there with me, holding my hand, being my big brother. We could have said good-bye to Grandmama María together. I think he would have liked that.

Doctors say that autistics often repeat words they’ve once heard, that phrases get trapped in their psyche, to be repeated randomly throughout a lifetime. These days, when Matty repeats Grandmama María’s words, when he chants her phrase of tenderness—calmarse, calmarse—consoling himself from things only he can see, maybe, as others say, he is only repeating what he’s heard. Perhaps he’s confirming modern medical theory by parroting phrases that got stuck and now continue to spin in a mind that holds its own secrets.

But I believe he is doing other things: Like speaking to Grandmama María.

Hoping to feel her cool hands on his forehead again. Asking her to smooth his twisted sheets.

Remembering our angelic Grandmama María as only
a niño bendito can.

Spreading her love.

Sylvia M. DeSantis

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