As you probably know, I had a very difficult last week. My Grandma Contreras passed away. She was 91 and she was ready for her eternity in heaven. I got to say goodbye to her before I moved to Tanzania, and I feel at peace that she knew my love and adoration for her. I, however, didn’t realize how much missing out on the family bonding would hurt.
I have been in and out of tears for the past week. Things just make me cry. (I know you’re all well aware of this.)
I have so many fond memories of my grandma, some of which I have already shared, but it is impossible to capture her sweet spirit into words. She was such a presence and light in my life. Her name actually means ‘light.’ I know because she and I share our name.
I used to love when my mom would tell me the story of how I was named. I was born a few weeks early. I was a tiny little thing – just over 5 pounds. My dad called my grandma on the phone from the hospital and said, “Mom, what’s your name?” It seems odd that he would have to ask such a question, but everyone called my grandma ‘Helen.’ You’ll see why below.
She told him her name is ‘Elena’ and I was named. I have always loved my name. (i didn’t get her middle name because my dad didn’t think to ask her that, and he didn’t know it. I am Elena Ann. My other grandma’s middle name is Ann. I always tell myself that I was named after *both* of my grandmas.) I love that I am named after such an amazing woman. I love that all through my childhood – it was unique. It has grown in popularity since then and I still love it.
My grandma made me feel like the most special person in the world. She did this for everyone, but you would never know it because you were just too busy feeling like you were the most special. I learned a lot from my grandma, and I hope to continue making her proud and living up to her beautiful name.
I was honored to get to write a remembrance to be read at her funeral. I couldn’t get home to MN as the school year was beginning. I wish I had just done the irresponsible thing and gone home, but at least a part of me was there.
Here is the remembrance that my brother read at her funeral. He did a fantastic job.
Good morning. Many of you know who I am, but for those of you who don’t, I’m Frank Jr. I am one of 18 grandchildren. Thank you for being here today to help us celebrate the life of our grandma.
Elena Belinda Pacheco was grandma’s birth name. Over time, she acquired other names and titles.
Most people called her Helen. Helen is the English version of Elena. When asked, “Grandma, why do you get called Helen and not Elena?” She told us that when she went to school one of her teachers didn’t like the Spanish pronunciation, started calling her Helen and it stayed with her.
In August 1963, she married Joseph Socorro Contreras and she became Helen Contreras.
In March 1946, she gave birth to my Aunt Teddy and she became ‘mom.’ She then gave birth to 7 more children.
In March 1967, my cousin, Jimmy Shields, was born and she became ‘grandma.’ After that, 17 more grandchildren were born.
In December 1991, Christopher Miller was born and she became ‘great-grandma.’
In May 2012, Kaden Miller was born and she became ‘great-great-grandma.’
In addition to all of these names, she was tia, friend, and abuelita. I am sure that each of you has loved her as one -or several- of these names.
She also liked to give people names, nicknames, if you will. Kimbie. Lola. Queen Elizabeth. Angel. The Professor. Little Lamb. Cunta.
Grandma wasn’t the one to give my sister that name. Grandma was the one to tell my sister not to allow anyone to call her out of her name. This is one of many examples of how grandma taught each of us to be proud of who we are and where we come from. Sometimes this was done explicitly, and other times she did it just by being exactly who she was.
Every single one of the grandchildren spent extraordinary amounts of time at Grandpa and Grandma’s home. Some of us lived with them, they took care of many of us while our parents worked, we celebrated holidays and birthdays with them, and countless Saturday nights were giant cousin sleepovers at their home. And we loved it!
Not only did we develop lasting relationships with our grandparents and one another, we learned about our Mexican heritage- especially the food.
Grandma was an amazing cook. There was nothing like walking into her kitchen knowing a hot, fresh tortilla was waiting for you. As my cousin Angie says, “whether there were 2 or 10 of us, you’d never leave her house hungry.” Spending time with her in the kitchen was priceless. We learned how to cook foods, and some of the best conversations and laughter happened around that table. Favorites that many of us cook for our families now are tortillas, enchiladas, sopa, chicken molé, chilé, chorizo and eggs, refried beans, sopapillas and rice pudding. Sorry to make you all hungry. There’ll be food available after the service.
Some of our most vivid memories are the years when every Saturday night our grandparents would head to Las Palmas. Las Palmas was located in West St. Paul – it was a Mexican dance ballroom. Grandma would get all dressed up in her sparkly shirt and red lipstick. And Grandpa would take her out for an evening of dancing. Many of us would be at their house for our weekly sleepover just waiting for them to return with White Castles.
We were always busy at grandma’s house. Whether we were out exploring the neighborhood, playing kickball in the yard or watching Mexican soapies; there was always something to do. And sometimes this meant cleaning. Grandma taught us all how to sweep the floor. You may think this is a small feat, but anybody can sweep tile, wood or linoleum. We can sweep carpet. As my cousin Becky says, “better than any vacuum can do.” We can also turn any set of chairs or stairs into a city bus.
We also created a lot of mischief. My cousin Becky cracked her head open on a lawn chair in the front yard. My cousin Roxanne got her finger chopped off in the back door. My cousin Robbie and my sister Maria broke a porch window (though they both continue to deny their part). My cousin Kim used to sneak out of bed at night to continue playing with Becky and Tony. And Grandma was always there to catch us in the act, bring our finger to the hospital, help us to confess, or comfort us in our time of need.
That’s just who she was.
No matter what the circumstances, she always had her door open to her children and grandchildren. She played games with Aunt Teddy. She cooked favorite foods for her kids on their birthdays. She would calm her kids down after getting their butts whooped by grandpa when they messed up. She always made sure we were warm and cozy. She would fall asleep with you on the couch while patting your hair. She would hold your hand all the way to the store. She would help get us to get ready and out the door for school. She was always there when you needed somebody to talk to or a shoulder to cry on. As my cousin Belinda says, “she’s who held our familia together.”
Let’s not forget, however, that she was a character. She told great stories. As my cousin Robbie says, “It wasn’t just the story. It was the way she told the story.” Her face told it all. She gave you her look when you were in trouble. She scolded you when you needed it. When grandpa brought home a stray dog, Rags, that she didn’t want – grandma gave it away to a boy down the street. She could aim a shoe at you like no other. She was so feisty! There’s the infamous cop car story. There are various versions of this story and if you want to hear it, I recommend you speak to my Uncle Fred.
We will always remember the big things she taught us and we’ll pass them on to our children. But it’ll be the simple things we miss most. Weekend walks. Her advice. Her smile. The way she sparkled when we walked into her room. Her gratitude. Her laughter. Her silliness. Those looks she gave us. The stories she’d tell. We will really miss her.
Thank you so much grandma! Thanks for the legacy you left behind. We know that you’re no longer “just resting [your] eyes.” You are such a part of each one of us. You are so loved. As Psalm 30: 11a says, “You have turned for me my mourning into dancing.” Now, put on those dancing shoes and shine your light down for us.
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