I Named My Daughter After the Woman I Wish She Could Have Met
Something unexpected cracks me open every year: Tonight, it was my daughter, recognizing the name I’d given her because I couldn’t give her the woman herself.
Her real name was Josefina Arellano. After her husband passed away and she was robbed twice in Mexico—the second time, dragged down the street by her purse strap because she refused to let go—my parents finally convinced her to move in with us. Everyone called her Fina, but I called her Ñaña. My brother and sister followed suit. When we were teenagers, we started calling her Nanny instead.
Nanny had started working for my grandparents when my mother was only a year old. She stayed at their house during the week; gave baths and spankings; made now-legendary tortillas; chased quick-footed, loud-mouthed boys around the house; rounded up the kids for meals when they were playing barefoot on the unpaved streets outside; met girlfriends, boyfriends. She met my father when he and my mother were fourteen. His own family lived just across the street. I wonder if, in all the years Nanny lived with us and saw my dad in his crisp suits and ties, he was still that chaparrito, bright-eyed boy in her mind, the only one my mother has ever loved.
On the weekends, Nanny returned to Mexico. She and her husband lived in Nuevo Laredo, the sister city of my hometown. Back before the Zetas strung up journalists and kidnapped ordinary citizens for hundred-dollar ransoms, my mother and her five siblings walked across the bridge to visit Nanny. Her house was two immaculate rooms, an outdoor bathroom shared with the neighbors. She bought the kids glass-bottled Mexican Coke, and I know how much it must have pleased her—a treat purchased with her own money, offered in her own home. I imagine my mom and her siblings gulping it down as they looked around and realized that Nanny existed apart from them.
My mother was always the rule-follower, but she remembers sneaking into Nanny’s room at night, curling close against her until Nanny rose in five o’clock darkness to prepare for the day. Thirty-five years later, my younger sister Amanda would do the same, tracing a serpentine path toward Nanny’s room, lifting the comforter and sheets from the foot of the bed and crawling beneath them toward Nanny. We laugh now at what must have been a startling, absurd interruption from sleep: an invisible rustle, followed by a child sneaking from toes to face. But I doubt if Nanny ever showed surprise.
It took me two years to get pregnant, and when I did, I was convinced I was having a boy. I combed through lists of names a thousand long, closing my eyes and trying to focus on the movement that had just begun inside me. Trying to name a person you’ve never met is like caressing a stranger’s face in the darkness and trying to recognize it in daylight. I knew what I’d want to name my daughter, though: Josefine.
Our best friends always knew who Nanny was to us, but classmates who came over for school projects sometimes referred to her as our housekeeper—our maid. Even now, I cringe, because there were times I didn’t correct them. I didn’t know how to explain her.
Ñaña. Under five feet tall but possessing a stoic, natural authority that commanded respect. Her top layer of gray hair covered stubborn black beneath it; curls that loosened over the course of a year but which, for much of my youth, she re-permed on her annual trips to Mexico. Eyes mostly slate gray, like a newborn’s, but sometimes closer to toffee. Once, in the kitchen doorway, I asked her what color they were. “Déjame ver,” I said, opening my own eyes wide so that she would imitate the gesture. I told her that hers were gray and beautiful, and she smiled. She asked, “Sí?” as though she wanted reassurance but secretly agreed.
There was a gray mole beside her right eyebrow. Her hands were soft and agelessly smooth, with elegant oval nail beds and fingertips the color of plums. Her left shoulder was raised, twisted, several inches above the other in her faded floral housedresses. She wore Velcro high-top Reeboks over her arthritic white-socked feet, and walked carefully, deliberately, working the muscles in her wiry calves. The right calf gave way to the ankle she broke when I was five or six, when she slipped on the wet bathroom floor after bathing my little sister. I remember the strangeness, the wrongness, of seeing her slumped against the wall; it was like seeing a house upended by a hurricane. Nanny broke my frozen panic by calmly telling me to call my mom at work. Meanwhile, Amanda, still a toddler, was saying, “Yo cah-wee, Ñaña. Yo cah-wee”—a toddler’s Spanglish version of I’ll carry you. A line we’ve all repeated to each other over the years on various occasions: Yo cah-wee.
I still have so many questions: Why did her grandmother raise her? Did she have brothers or sisters? I know she was poor; standing at the kitchen sink, she once told me a story of how she had to pin a burlap sack to her bra straps as a dress. “Que vergüenza,” she said. How shameful. They could all see my bra.
What did she do on her annual trips back to Mexico? When she sewed cash into her bra cups, wore a silky blouse and pants, and we took her to the Greyhound station downtown, crying because two weeks seemed like a lifetime without her?
Sometimes, I think about her two-room house in Nuevo Laredo, this glimpse of her other life. I imagine I’m there, sneakers scuffing half-moons into the dirt floor, my throat sparking with fizz.
Fifteen is a special birthday for Mexican girls. Traditionally, it’s celebrated with a quinceañera, which used to signify that the girl had transitioned into a woman of marriageable age and status, ready to assume her responsibilities in the community. Not so anymore, of course, but the milestone still made Nanny cry with joy.
“Gracias a Dios,” she said. She continued in Spanish, “This was all I wanted, to see this day. Now I can go in peace.”
I was unnerved: Nanny never cried. And “I can go in peace”? She was eighty-seven, and though her body had assumed new ridges and angles with the years, her mind was sharp as ever—my mother always said she’d have made a formidable businesswoman if she’d been able to go to school. Eighty-seven wasn’t young; I knew that. But to me, she was permanent.
“No vas a ninguna parte,” I told her. You’re not going anywhere.
I rested my chin on her hair and she squeezed me tightly, her face pressed against my collarbone. The shaking of her shoulders no longer felt exuberant.
“Hey,” I said, gently drawing her away. “You’re going to help me take care of my kids. Okay?”
She laughed, wiping her nose. Her eyes brightened. “Ay, mamí,” she said. “Never will you all let me stop working.”
“As if you could,” I forced myself to tease back. She still awoke at five every morning, handing us foil-wrapped tacos on our way out the door. Dinner was always ready when we got home from tennis practice, just as it had been for my mother and her siblings. Two generations of loving us, but I knew that unless I had children very young, which I didn’t intend to do, she would likely never see them.
“I can’t do it!”
Even as I said it—sobbed it, screamed it—I was ashamed. In a memory my parents often recount, my dad asks toddler-me, “Did you think you could do it?” And I chirp back, “Yeah—I thought I could do it!” The privilege of the loved, the encouraged.
Now I was entering the twenty-first hour of my induced labor. My daughter’s head emerged—just a surreal glimpse in the mirror of shiny dark hair—before retreating behind my pubic bone. An inch-long marathon we’d been trapped in for nearly an hour and a half, until the tail of every exhale unfurled in a scream. My eyes were screwed shut as a vacuum was attached to my baby’s head, momentum kicking the doctor back against her chair when the suction popped off. When I opened my eyes, the room was full of people in scrubs, a palpable waiting. In one ear, my nurse counted fervently, like a prayer: One, two, three, four, five . . . In the other, my husband’s electric urgency: You can do it!
“I can’t!” I sobbed. “I can’t!”
Where do laboring women go for these final pushes, the ones that feel as though we are breaking, bone from bone, our past selves from future? I remember the russet flare of my closed eyelids, knowing she was close by the terrified excitement in my husband’s voice.
Por favor, Nanny, I wailed in my mind. Ayudame!
And then she was on my chest, hot and gray and slick as an oyster, the rawness of her cry slicing through my pain so that now I was laughing, gulping in this new air along with my daughter, my husband kissing me through our tears, telling me I had done it, I haddone it, and both of us gazing at the life we had created together.
In 2008, I was twenty-three and living in Austin. I made as many trips home as possible because Nanny had recently been diagnosed with emphysema. Apparently, she’d been a smoker in the years before us—one more thing I hadn’t known.
In the hospital, the only food she would accept was ice cream—quarter-pints of vanilla Bluebell that I fed her with a plastic spoon. When my dad asked her, “Remember feeding Katie like this?” I had to leave the room so she wouldn’t see me cry.
She reserved her words for the phrases that mattered. One day, she rasped to my dad, “Adolfo. Traéme mis chanclas. Llévame a la casa.” Bring me my sandals. Take me home. We’d all laughed when my parents relayed the story. I imagined her as some forties heroine, hoarsely demanding her Chanel handbag so she could get the hell off the island. But the laughter faded, because we knew what it meant. Like the boy he used to be, my dad obeyed.
In Nanny’s room, her bed with the dusky pink quilt had been pushed aside to make space for a hospital bed with raised plastic guardrails. A shiny green package of Depends lay on the small bench by the door. The room smelled antiseptic. No forties starlet, Nanny weighed around seventy pounds, her legs as thin as my arms, hands and feet bulbous with fluids. A mask covered her proud nose, her serious mouth, and a machine helped regulate her breaths. Most unnerving were those mysterious-colored eyes, staring unblinkingly at the ceiling. She hadn’t looked at anyone. Hadn’t spoken, hadn’t slept. My father told me I was the only one who hadn’t said goodbye.
The room was dim when I reached for her swollen hand. “Can you hear me?” I asked her in Spanish. I could hardly speak through the sickening rush of my own heartbeat. Then, weakly, her hand wrapped around mine. I gave a choked laugh. “I knew it,” I said. “I knew you could hear this whole time, you big liar.” Her eyes roved the ceiling. I told her I knew how much she hated this. She’d told my mom at age eighty—fifteen years earlier—to send her back to Mexico, that she’d die there and not be a burden to us. I leaned over and kissed her sharp, dignified cheekbone above the mask, then her forehead. I paused over her ear and, after a hesitation, whispered, “Te veo in mis sueños.” I’ll see you in my dreams.
Her eyes closed.
Her eyes closed—they hadn’t closed in twelve hours. My breath came in short gasps as my vision narrowed to a pinhole. Was she telling me she’d heard me or—
She exhaled a breath that seemed to last a very long time. I thought I saw her spirit leave her; thought I heard it in the rhythmic hiss of that breath. I was terrified, an otherworldly terror, thinking, oh shit, what have I done, I killed her. The breath ended and it was several eternal seconds before she inhaled again, seconds in which I leaned over her, shaking, about to vomit. When she reclaimed life for a little longer, I ran out of the room. My dad was just crossing the hall and I crashed into his arms.
“She heard me,” I said, almost incoherent. “I know she heard me.”
He smiled. “Ay, baby,” he said sadly, and kissed me on the head.
Later, when I finally fell asleep, I dreamt I was back in Nanny’s room. She was exhaling that impossibly long spirit-breath, only this time she didn’t breathe back in.
“Katie.” My mom was touching my shoulder. When I opened my eyes, she pulled back and sat at my feet. Her face was bare and pale, her voice gentle. “She’s gone. Ñaña’s gone.”
“I know,” I said, surprised at how calm and awake I sounded. “I just dreamed it.”
“She came to you.” My mom’s voice lifted, then broke, a question and a statement at once. “I knew she’d come to you.”
I wanted to spend the first anniversary of her death alone, with as much wine as I could drink. But I could hear her disapproving grunt. Instead, I invited friends over and prepared what she would cook: rice, beans, picadillo, tortillas. I knew I would burn the bottom of the rice, my beans would be bland, and the tortillas would crack down the middle. But she would approve of my effort.
I could almost feel her beside me, restraining herself from showing me a better way of chopping onions. When I kneaded the masa for the tortillas, it was her forearms I saw, muscles straining; her hands, dusted in flour. The smell that rose from the masa made me dizzy, and I pinched off a piece, placing it on my tongue.
Every year since then, on the morning of September 6, I’ve sat at the dining table sorting through a bag of pinto beans. Like she did, I throw away the ones that are too small or too dark, too ridged or misshapen. I hunt for little black rocks. When the pads of my fingers are dusted gray, I know I’m doing it right. I drop the good beans into a pot of boiling water and add strips of bacon, tomato, and salt. Then I wait.
This year, my husband held Josefine as I rolled the masa. There was so much I wanted to tell her. So much I want her to know. She watched me with quiet intensity. “One day,” I told her, “if I ever get them right, I’ll teach you.” Steam curled from the pot on the stove, and its warmth on my cheek was her fingers.
Katie Gutierrez lives in San Antonio, Texas, with her husband, one-year-old daughter, and two dogs. Katie has an MFA from Texas State University, and her fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Catapult, Washington Post, Lit Hub, Motherwell, and more. She is working on a novel while her baby naps. Find her on Twitter @katie_gutz.