Opinion Columns & Blogs

Mima wandered, but never back to her Cuban homeland

Reader columnist Mario Penalver
Reader columnist Mario Penalver Staff photographer

Mima, as her grandchildren traditionally called her, had thin, auburn-colored hair; skin with the texture of wrinkled silk; and light blue eyes that could only hint at the mesmerizing beauty of her Havana youth. For us children, Mima was the perfect grandmother: a pillow and a bed to us, a comfort and a hideaway.

For my parents, she was another center for controversy.

The true reasons we may never know. What we do know is that Mima never really moved much. And we know that her habit of staying in one place was something that riled my mother.

Sometimes Mima would choose as her place the kitchen table. This not only posed a logistical concern for somebody already cooking in an inadequately small kitchen. But from my mother’s perspective, it only seemed to emphasize that — of the two people in the kitchen present at the moment — one was working, and one was not.

Mima also liked to sneak out of the gate and wander. That our beagle was notorious for doing the same did not keep us from noting the comparisons.

One day, left on her own while my parents were at work, Mima managed not only to get out of the gate but to get lost a mile and a half away from the house. Having a memory span that long, she suddenly found herself stuck in a land that might as well have been the backyard of Timbuktu.

Fortunately for her, Puyallup was small. Mima’s rolled r’s and elongated o’s were enough to put her into context. She crossed paths with an astute salesman for the Toyota dealership, and in perhaps the first and only moment when cultural isolation proved useful, she was promptly driven to the medical office of Dr. Ovidio Peñalver, the only Hispanic in Puyallup the salesman knew.

My father was busy trying to pry a 5-year-old-boy from an examination table leg when his secretary popped in with two notable but unrelated pieces of information.

First: Edgar, our pet dog, was being held at the pound after having urinated on the lobby floor of the Puyallup Public Library. Second: Mima, his 82-year old mother, had been picked up at a River Road Toyota dealership and was currently in the waiting room petting her hair and telling her driver how blonde it used to be when she was a stewardess for American Airlines.

For those who do not know my grandmother, Mima was never a stewardess for American Airlines.

“Do you-e speak-e Spanish?” my grandmother asked the man standing at the door. “Es la lengua del mundo. Is language of whole world,” she said, pointing a finger at him.

At that moment, Papi came rushing in from the back room, reaching an arm out to guide his mother from further embarrassment.

Wandering was Mima’s usual activity in later life. But it seems that the older she got, the closer to home she strayed. With no land to own, and only the clothes we bought her on her back, you would have never known she was at one time the wife of a prominent Havana doctor.

I asked her once if she’d return to Cuba, her homeland, but she always said, in an opinion that countered her son’s, “Only after Fidel.”

Fidel never left, and Mima never lived to see her homeland as she remembered it. But when she took her last breath, with a few flickering candles and a palm-sized wood crucifix lying on a prayer-converted coffee table, I think she knew why it was that — despite these deprivations — she was still strangely content. She still had La Familia.

Mario Peñalver has master's degrees in education from Pacific Lutheran University and in humanities from the University of Chicago. A community theater director and actor by night, by day he teaches English at Truman Middle School in Tacoma. He is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. On Twitter at @astramario.