He tells me to sit still.
It is not hard to do. I am lost in thought, lost in my reasons for being here.
I keep thinking of that woman I never knew. The person in the painting on the wall in the hallway of the house I grew up in. I keeping thinking about what it would have been like to know her, what it would have been like to call her my grandmother.
Or would you have preferred, abuela? Did you speak English? Even that, I do not know. Even that, my father will not say.
He only says, You look just like her.
I test your name out on my lips: Mary. Mary. Mary.
I am AnneMarie, but sometimes people say, AnneMary, and I hate it. But it’s not because of you, grandmother. I mean, abuela.
Did you know your son does not like to speak Spanish? Did you know that one time when he was at a Cuban restaurant – the one he drives thirty minutes out of town to for his favorite rice pudding – did you know that the woman behind the counter spoke to him in Spanish? He was taken aback, and then my mother told her, Yes, he does know Spanish, and my father smacked my mother across the face with his glare. He didn’t speak to my mother for six months after that, not even in English.
He's ashamed of the language on your tongue, abuela. Four children, and he didn’t teach any of us more than just our numbers.
I can see the portrait on the wall; it hangs in my mind on the days people tell me, Really, you're Mexican? The background is forest green, and around your head it is a lighter yellow. I always thought it looked like a halo, and it made me think of those cards we got in church with the saints on them. I used to think you must be a saint to have your picture painted and hung up in our home. You must have been a really incredible woman.
Then I see your eyes. They are almost smiling, unlike your lips. They are almost telling, unlike the large framed circles of your glasses. What were you thinking about when a white man painted your face? Were you happy about how diluted he made your skin look? Did he ask you to roll your r’s for him? To work your tongue for him, like the exotic, animalistic creature you were just because you were not from here? Or did he make you swallow your tongue, tell you to learn English, spit at you after you paid him for his work? I wonder what it must have been like for you, so far from home.
I imagine you were thirsty, sitting here for hours, motionless, in your black blouse. I ask for water, and he brings it to me. He doesn’t know that he’s done this painting before, generations earlier. A woman, out of place, with the same last name.
When I was twenty-seven, my mother told me the first story I’d ever heard about my German grandfather who died when she was fifteen. She’d said, “He was a funny guy, but he was a racist.” And my mother would laugh, brushing it off like the artist lightening the paint with water. Then she would remind me to always check the box that said, “Hispanic” on my applications. With her fair skin and blue eyes, she’d said, “It matters.”
I wonder about those water colors, abuela. I wonder about dilution, blurring colors until you are unsure of which color you started with. I always felt bad, checking those boxes. If something is purple, can we still call it red?
I'm not sure.
For instance, your hair is brown in the painting, but I see redwood tied neatly in a bun. Inside the bun are all those branches, thick and gnarled and carrying cobwebs. I imagine it was long when you let it down, hanging all the way down your back. Mine used to do that when I was younger, before I cut it off and changed my name to something more “white.” It wasn’t my fault my husband had blue eyes. Now, no one knows we are related; there’s no more Spain in my hair or in my name. Mexico still lingers in my eyebrows, but no one says anything about it.
When the artist asks me if I have children, I wonder if he asked you the same thing. How did it feel having babies in a country that isn’t home? You must have known what you were going to do. You must have known that you were going to leave them. I think of those eyes that watched me walk up and down the hallway of my home as I grew from a little girl into a woman. I stared back at them all the time. I looked at those brush-stroked eyes, trying to find myself within the paint, hoping the artist got them wrong. You had to have known what you were going to do; you knew it when he painted this.
On my driver’s license, my eye color says: hazel. But when I look in the mirror, I know that is not true. When I look at the painting of you, I know it even more. There is no amount of minutes that can make them less brown.
Uno, dos, tres... Still brown.
My father tells me, You look just like her. And when I ask him to tell me more, he says, I don’t remember.
Abuela, can you lie if you do not know the answer? Can you be someone you are not if you don’t know who you are?
When my father asks me for my rice pudding recipe, I know he is thinking of you. I know he is imagining your portrait on the wall the way I am imagining it now. He knows how to make rice pudding the way you taught him, but he is making sure I do, too, because that is all we have left of you. When I send him my new recipe, it is dairy-free, and he doesn’t respond. I’ve hit a nerve in him. I’ve hit you.
I know he is hearing you scold him, arroz con leche sin leche? You have failed her. Tú me fallaste.
Abuela, my father wanted to hide the part of him he gave to us, and that is the part of him you gave to him. But what you gave him was a book with no words. It was an empty canvas with a face painted on it.
So, when I tell my father that I am going to get my portrait painted to feel more connected to you, he tells me I am remembering all of it wrong; how cruel is the mind of someone who does not know who they are. He tells me, She is not your grandmother, she was mine.
Abuela, you are somewhere in my past, but I think if we walked past each other on the street, we wouldn't even know it.
When the painting is done, it is like looking at a lie, manifested into faded blue hair – turned blonde – and pale skin. This person cannot make rice pudding. This person cannot speak Spanish. This person should not check that box.
My father always said, You look just like her.
But, abuela, there is too much water in this painting, because when the artist hands me my portrait, I only see me.