How does one write about a life too magnificent for words? How does one honor a person who so selflessly changed a multitude of lives and lived to meet the fourth generation made possible through her existence? I knew for years the time would come when that precious task would be laid before me. Its gravity was intimidating, but its message is crucial. I brought pen and paper to the lake at Bear Mountain to try to capture some thoughts to share in the pastoral serenity of the setting sun mirrored by the water. As glorious as that environment was it pales in comparison to the place where I know my beloved grandmother, Maria Amengual, shall eternally reside. Please bear with me as I try to harness the comfort in this fact to make it through the rest of this as clearly and tearlessly as possible.
Many of us knew her as Tita, short for Chiquitita, the smallest of the small. Her family placed a ladder in front of their stove in their rural Puerto Rican home so this tiniest of their tribe could prepare and cook food for their household. The gift of a servant's heart was instilled in her from a young age. Most of us have had the pleasure of experiencing this quietly noble trait in the forms of her generosity, nurturing, and mouth-watering cuisine. Even those not fluent in Spanish felt what her secret ingredient was-- the universal language of Love. Don't be fooled by the sofrito, Adobo, or garlic-- it was her genuine sentiment that filled our grateful bellies for so many years at her table. She wasn't satisfied until she'd fed you. It was hard to avoid complying. And whether we knew it or not at the time, our spirits were just as sated as our bodies when we left.
After losing her faculties and moving in with my mother she was no longer allowed to operate any kitchen appliances. A gas stove and a forgetful woman are a dangerous combination. At first she'd be caught trying to boil water for coffee once in awhile, but eventually it set in that those days were done for her. I remember her offering me a cup at my mom's one time, then explaining that she would have to ask someone else to make it since it wasn't a good idea for her to operate equipment fueled by combustibles any longer. The grace of acceptance had set in. Even in her capacity as someone requiring constant care she filled her former role of caretaker. Adaptation-- another of this fine woman's many qualities.
It's no surprise that she excelled in that area. She came from a generation of those forced to cope with hardships that we can't comprehend today. Her husband died tragically in a car accident shortly after their young family's immigration to America. This was a devastating blow to a mother of two sons unfamiliar with her new home's native tongue. New York was a different place from the farm in Puerto Rico to which she'd been accustomed. Unbeknownst to her, the recurring sickness she was experiencing was a side effect of her pregnancy with her third child-- my mother-- who had been conceived earlier in the month prior to the loss of her miraculous father. It would've seemed a complication to most-- one more mouth to feed in an already impossible venture-- but that's not how she saw it. Some people are such survivors that they need an extra challenge to keep their wits about them. My grandmother was one of those individuals. Working in factories, selling food to blue collar men in the neighborhood, and running restaurants were a few of the ways in which she managed to make ends meet for herself and her three children. Government assistance was not in her vocabulary. Milking the system was not on her agenda. She worked hard to provide without Uncle Sam's handouts in this new land of hers. She was here to make a better life for herself and those she loved in the face of adversity, thereby embodying one facet of the American Dream, just as her husband and two brothers did their part as citizens by serving their country in World War II. We are a family of pride for a reason. Those who came before us have walked too tall for us to slouch, even those ancestors who didn't break five feet. Let's never forget that.
But this isn't a day of mourning, it's a celebration for a victory that's been won long ago. There are plenty of sunsets in ninety-two years. Our precious mother won't be here to see another, but the choices we make can honor one setting sun who set an example for all of us to follow. She was stronger than any man I've ever worked beside. Her sacrifices reverberate through the destinies of many in this room. Consider her the personification of unconditional love. The doctors are wrong-- her heart never failed.
Bendicion, Abuela Tita. Te amo siempre.