La familia

Last week I received an email with a suspicious subject heading from an addressee I did not recognize.

So, I opened it.

The email was entirely in Spanish and every single word was CAPITALIZED. After reading the first two lines, I realized it was from my half-aunt with two arms who currently resides in Cuba.

I continued reading with incredible curiosity. Would there be a hidden message? Some sort of code I would have to crack to figure out if she needed me to send her freeze-dried rice and beans or to get the exact coordinates of her possible raft landing on the sands of Key Biscayne.

Unfortunately, there was none of that. It was the most mundane email ever written, with bits and pieces about her family and her thwarted efforts to come to Miami for a visit.

We're not yelling...We're Cuban.
We’re not yelling, we just don’t know how to take off the caps lock.

For being the first time you talk to someone, it was awfully familial. I almost became indignant about the whole thing until I remembered that this is just the way it is. When your mother is an only child from a divorced marriage, you get weird hyphens and halves for family members: a step-grandfather, a half-aunt, a great-aunt with one arm, a fourth-cousin, a guy you have to call your uncle even though he is not. And when your mother is from Cuba, all of these hyphens and halves get the right to become intimately involved in your life – if you let them.

Which is why I keep them all at arms length. They’ve struggled against communism for 50 + years. I’ve struggled against their meddling for 35 years.

Fight as I may, I always end up losing. All of the halves and hyphens I’ve met, and continue to meet, have this intense instinct to connect with relatives – no matter how distant in blood line. They don’t hesitate in calling me family and immediately asking me why I’m so fat.

They don’t care that I’m clearly different in so very many ways. They can care less about what I do for a living or my opinions on the Pope or socialism. They don’t want to get to know me, because knowing that we carry similar DNA is enough.

So, here I am, replying to an email from a stranger and contemplating whether or not to make a joke about my period being late this month and not having to worry about the possibility of her becoming a half-great-aunt with two arms.

If I could turn back time

Half of people aged 60 and older are online. I read that somewhere when I was trying to figure out why my mother was on Facebook.

As you may recall from previous posts, she is quite a bit of a character. Unfortunately, it does not come across in her online persona, as she insists on being totally demure and subdued. Just the other day she called me in a huff because someone had tagged her in a photo that wasn’t very flattering. So, being the good daughter, I walked her through the process of untagging (and then I kept the photo for myself and posted it across all of my social media networks).

As of late, she’s been using Facebook as a display board for her family photos. Everyday she posts two or three black and white pictures and her dearest 3 friends comment on her youthful beauty or on how much time has passed.

I’ve seen these pictures hundreds of times. My mom was big about show and tell and I didn’t mind being shown and told. I can’t tell you how may hours I spent flipping through crackling albums and boxes of photos – ignoring her every word and making up my own stories and names from the images.

Her latest post, however, was of a photo I had never seen and the catalyst for the most confusing 90 seconds of my life.


First, I spent some time admiring my outfit. I wondered if it was part of my Beethoven stage, as I figured I was right around the age I began taking piano lessons. And then I thought that pattern on the skirt and shirt was clearly the inspiration for Tetris or Galactica. Then my focus shifted to the actual photo. I thought it was very artsy of them to take a black and white photo in the 80’s when color was all the rage.

After about half-a-minute, I noticed my father on the right, who was totally asleep, next to my mother in the polka dots and mustache and I was like boy they look young. And then I recognized the guy standing next to my mom was her father (they have the same mustache), which was weird because I was told I never got to meet him because he died before I was born. But there he was standing next to me and holding my brother…who is almost nine years my elder.

Wait, what?

I felt myself getting dizzy. I remembered that final scene from “The Shinning,” you know with the photo of Jack Nicholson from the past or the future or whatever that was:


Before stepping away from the computer to look for an ax, I read my mom’s post where she explained that it was a photo her half-sister emailed from Cuba. And the little girl in the photo was my mysterious half-an-aunt-with-two-arms that is currently wandering around Cuba. (So, just a quick recap I have a half-aunt in Cuba that I’ve never met and a great-aunt with half-an-arm in the States that won’t leave me alone.)

I kept staring her image in the photo. The resemblance is uncanny.

If this woman and I looked exactly the same at that age, perhaps if I found current photo of her, it would be a good indicator of how I will look when I’m 50. So, I trolled my mother’s Facebook page until I found one. And, well…

There she was, in a bathing suit, and she’s hideous.

Bedtime story

Once upon a time there was a woman with two arms. She used these arms to hug, carry and lift. Until one day, one of her arms went missing. Where did her arm go, you ask? Who cares. Nobody knows. What’s important is that although she missed her arm very much she learned to just use one. And she lived happily ever after. The end.

If I had kids, that’s the story I would tell them when they would inevitably ask about my great-aunt’s missing arm. Unless they’re older. At which point I would say:

You want to know how Tia lost her arm? She got a paper cut and was too busy playing on her PS2 to wash her hands and disinfect the cut. So, she got gangrene all up her arm and the doctors had no other choice, but to cut. What’s gangrene? Look it up.

Eventually, when they’re older, they will ask again. And that’s when I’ll say:

It’s a sad story that you should never talk about or mention in front of her. Why? Because she’s traumatized! She was separated from my grandmother because the communist Cuban government would not let her leave the country. So, she had no other choice but to make a raft out of household items and paddle her way to Miami Beach. Half way across the gulf she was surrounded by a pack of sharks. What? Yes, a pack of sharks. Gulf sharks travel in packs. Do you want to hear this story or not? Where was I? Right. One of the sharks bit down on her oar and yanked it under water. Instinctively she stuck her hand in the water to get it back, but the shark chomped down on her arm. Luckily, a platoon of dolphins were nearby and shooed the sharks away, not before recovering her arm and returning it to her so she could use it to paddle her way to shore.

Years later, I will hear them repeat this atrocity to someone at a family gathering and call them out on it. “That’s not funny,” I’d say. “Don’t make fun of my great aunt. She’s missing an arm!”

Seriously now. My grandmother’s sister arrived from Cuba without an arm. I was young. Young enough to stand under her and look up her half sleeve to see the nub. Young enough to wonder what happened to her arm, but not ask. And when I thought about it again, I was old enough not to care. I guess because she was still able to do everything. Everything. Peel potatoes, put on a bra, swim, annoy the crap out of everyone, be mean. Everything.

Except play guitar. It has always been her dream to join a rock band and wail on a Fender under a bright spotlight.