When I was a six-year-old child, it was the eighties. I sometimes stayed overnight with my Grandma Virginia in the South Bronx. My Grandma Virginia only spoke English when she talked to people like me, people who can’t speak Spanish. I remember walking with my little, gray-haired grandmother one cold and blustery New York morning. Her native tongue was one of many languages I could hear while exiting the subway with her. Icy wind sliced through buildings and blew through my grandmother’s gray, curly hair.
I remember my grandmother cupping my mittened hand inside her jacket pocket as we headed to her tenement building. My Puerto Rican grandmother, she was an occasional cleaning lady, as a child she washed her clothes in a creek, as a grown woman she washed her clothes in a New York City basement laundromat, and throughout her lifetime, washed not only her own clothes, but also the homes of people who hired her. As we walked, a subway train rumbled overhead.
I skipped ahead of my grandmother, who lagged behind. I turned to see the holdup. Crouched on the concrete, my grandmother knelt down. She was holding a large blue and red bag of potato chips. She looked up at me and grinned.
“Do you see this?”
I nodded. She was holding a bag of Ruffles© Potato Chips.
She marveled, “No one has opened this bag. What did I tell you?”
“God always provides for his children.”
I gave her a funny look.
“This is beautiful.” She added, “God has blessed us.”
Of course, God was everywhere. She said this often. My grandmother heard God bowling when it thundered and crying when it rained. God was on rooftops, in the sky, in her veins. Jesus, too. God was in the thanks we gave for dinner, in the purpose we gave our lives. Initially, I thought she had only discovered a discarded bag of chips, but I relented my doubt because who doesn’t want to feel wonder? My grandmother’s fervor was contagious. I smiled at the thought of God leaving those chips for me.
I skipped alongside my grandmother as we headed to her tenement apartment. We hiked up four flights of stairs (because the elevator smelled like urine), and she unlocked five deadbolts to get inside her home, protection from the city. I jumped up excitedly, ready to present our bounty. My mother’s seventeen-year-old sister, Inger, was inside the apartment. Inger was slender with fair skin and red, curly hair. My grandmother pushed the heavy door open, while holding that bag of perfectly sealed Ruffles© potato chips.
She said to Inger in Spanish, something along the lines of, “Mira. Can you believe we found these on the sidewalk?”
Inger glared at her. My grandmother laughed and said, “Gracias a Dios. Es una bendicíon.” In English, thank you God. This is a blessing.
Inger pushed back a red curl and said, “There is no such thing as a blessed bag of chips.”
“No, this is beautiful.”
“Some sicko probably poisoned them.”
I was offended by the way Inger talked about Our Chips.
My grandmother said, “No. How can they be poisoned if they have never been opened?”
“Ma! Don’t you watch the news? People poison things and reseal them all the time. You never eat something you find on the street.”
I could see Inger’s point. I remember my mother saying, “Don’t eat things from the floor.” It made sense the chips were not safe, but I wanted them to be from God. Every day is infinitely magical when God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit protect you and leave you presents on the street. My grandmother looked small as my aunt grabbed the bag of chips from my grandmother’s hands. Inger turned to me and said, “Don’t you eat those chips either. They’re garbage.” She threw the Ruffles© in the trash can and said to my grandmother, “You can’t trust everyone.”
Looking back, I admire my grandmother for squinting for a glimpse of God. My grandmother’s magical thinking allowed her to unearth divine nature from beneath subway tracks and pillars of concrete. But in the moment, I felt angry and duped. My aunt didn’t see God in the chips. I no longer saw God in the chips either.
My grandmother wanted to be an instrument of God. Fear and faith made her this way: fear of God, fear of the devil, fear of falling from grace. Fear begets peace when one is forced to submit. Under the thumb of my grandmother’s own fierce and self-imposed religiosity, she was relentless in her pursuit of joy. My grandmother’s joy came from her imagination, from the stories she told herself.
There is another story that is the same: same as unlocking five deadbolts, finding God, cleaning other people’s homes, smelling piss in an elevator, and discovering magical potato chips. My mother’s mother’s mother told the story before I was born, my great-grandmother Emilianna. When Emilianna was a child growing up in Puerto Rico, her father once stalked her mother as she hid from him in a sugar cane field. He wanted to get a hold of her. Who knows why. What would he do when he found her? He may not have had a clue, but Emilianna watched her father hunt her mother with a sugar cane machete. The machete had a wide blade for lobbing down tall stalks. For ease of use, he could use two hands to chop down an especially thick stalk. He searched for her.
Emilianna’s mother ducked into the rustling fields, crouched down beneath green leaves and towering stalks as her husband slashed through the air. This was a different kind of harvest. What would it yield? For starters, a violence that ripples forward, imprinting the family’s skin, as we search for love and divinity in rocks, dirt, concrete, or an open field. Maybe night was falling as she crouched close to the ground. Maybe the sky was turning pink. Maybe God was in the rich soil, in the electric sky. Maybe God was in the soft clouds, the salty air, the stories my great-grandmother told, so much beauty, so much beauty in the world she felt her heart might burst.
About Jennifer Jordán Schaller
Jennifer Jordán Schaller is a writer and teacher from Albuquerque. She is currently working on a creative nonfiction manuscript, and she blogs about her writing and publishing process at jenniferjordanschaller.com.