First Movement: When I Die…

First movement: brisk and lively. The first movement of a symphony usually has a structure called sonata form.

My heaven will be when as a little girl stealing sips of Cafe Bustelo with my crazy, loud, and loving Puerto Rican family at my Grandma Carmen’s dining table.

For many children when the school year ended for the summer,  their parents packed the suitcase and loaded the car or put them on planes to head South to visit their grandparents.  It was their parents way of keeping them connected to familial roots.  Or, was it so they could have a break?  I digress.

As a result of The Great Migration many black people fled the South to escape Jim Crow and for better job opportunities.  Calendario Sanchez and his wife Ana moved their family to New York City as part of the Puerto Rican migration in the early 20th Century  for better opportunities for their families.  We crossed the friendly skies, and spent my summers on the farm called New York City, Parkchester and El Barrio, to be exact.  The walking trails similar to the “The Andy Griffith Show” were replaced with MTA 6 train tracks. IMG_1481

My Grandma Carmen, her three sisters (Yolanda, Ligia, and Abi), and their first cousin (Ceci) entertained a little girl for two months.  I think they liked my visit because they could have Carvel ice cream several times a week.

The days were spent watching ABC soap operas, and visiting at least three stores for a deal on toilet paper or cold cuts.  Titi Ceci and Grandma did 80s style text messaging with no less than five calls a day before Noon.  Phone rings:

“Carmen, Key has toilet tissue on sale.” Or, “Ceci, C-Town has cold cuts for $.99/lb!” 

To this day I have no idea how they knew this without the internet.

Titi Yolanda was a quirky woman with sophistication that was bigger than her 5 foot frame.  She always sent me books and news articles about the world, and always wanted me to understand where I came from and what I am made of.  She and I took trips to museums and cultural festivals at an early age.  I guess you could say, my relationship with my nephew Elijah is modeled after our relationship.

My grandmother and her sisters were forces of nature.  They were women that stood tall, taught me how to be a woman to own her worth, and they didn’t take shit off anyone.  I mean, ANYONE!

As I got older, my favorite memories from my childhood were the salted bagels from Zarro’s Bakery, cups of Cafe Bustelo from the well-seasoned mesh sieve, and Salem cigarettes.  During my visits to New York City, Sunday evenings were filled with family at her dining room table with an Entenmann’s pound cake.

IMG_4192When I went to college, my grandmother and I spoke every Saturday morning.  We talked about school, books, love, and becoming a young woman. Titi Yolanda and I always took a day to visit a museum, the Museum of Natural History was our favorite. Or, a cultural performance with that deepened my appreciation for the arts.

When she was diagnosed with her 2nd occurrence of cancer of Thanksgiving my first year of graduate school, we spent that weekend asking questions about my family and hearing the stories about loss and love that get tucked away because life happens.  Maybe she knew it would be her last Thanksgiving.  The way she told each story as I was no longer her little granddaughter with pigtails, but a young woman that was firmly a Sanchez woman.

In the early part of August in 2003, her cancer had progressed.  We spent hours talking, reading, and staring out the window.  Perhaps deep down we both knew that she would never see Apt 2F on McGraw Ave again.

One day the lights went off in the hospital, we would later find out that it was the great blackout that impacted most of the eastern United States.  That evening I slept on the window sill in her hospital room, and the full moon shined bright.  She said with such quiet amazement “Do you know, I have never seen the sunset?”

Two days later, I headed back to school in DC.  As I left her hospital room, the last words I ever heard her say was “I will never forget what you’ve done for me.  I love you.”

Grandma Carmen passed away a week later.  

My Titi Yolanda passed away in 2012.  (She was just my Titi…it wasn’t until her passing that I learned more of her story. She did the work. A Supreme Court justice was influenced by her.)  



These women and our summers together showed me that through life’s joys and pains, there is nothing that a strong tribe can’t celebrate harder than you or fix, even if it’s a shoulder the cry on.  From them I learned:

  • You always make time for a good cup or bottle of your favorite beverage with the people that make space for you.
  • Love and show compassion to your fellow man.  Your legacy lives on long after you leave this Earth.

I am honored to be their legacy.  I pray that I am making them proud.

“Heaven can be found in the most unlikely corners.”
― Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven


2 thoughts on “First Movement: When I Die…

  1. Lauren, this is so beautiful! You surely got her strength and her grace. You capture your grandma’s spirit so well, I feel like I know her. Your tribute to her is gorgeous, and so perfectly “human”.


  2. Yes, you’ve made them all so very proud! I love this piece. I still have fond memories of your grandmother. They are looking down at you and beaming with joy!


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