Yany was ten years old when her Cuban grandma, Abuela Fifi, began taking her to the cemetery. An only child with working parents, Yany spent a lot of time doing “old people” things like going to the doctor and running errands. But by far, Yany’s favorite outing with her grandma was their monthly trip to the cemetery.
Yes, the cemetery.
Yany didn’t understand why grandma would drive to the burial ground office to deliver a check once a month. They would engage in this brief transaction and then be on their way.
Then came the best part:
Yany would beg Abuela Fifi to drive around the plots. Moving at a snail’s pace, Abuela Fifi would lower the windows as Yany read the names on the tombstones and created elaborate stories about the peoples lives.
“Oh look, that’s Maria Victoria! She was a beautiful singer, and she loved to wear polkadot dresses.” Yany would proclaim. Grandma would smile and move on to the next plot. “Fernando! Fernando was a grouch. You know he didn’t even like talking to his neighbors.”
Plot after plot, Yany and grandma visited real people and told stories of their pretend lives. Children are like that. They don’t need much to spark their creativity. They can make believe, tell stories, create drama and humor, conflict and triumph – and do it effortlessly. They don’t care if it makes sense or not; it’s just fun.
One day, Abuela Fifi encountered a situation that got her thinking. Her granddaughter loved the cemetery. She willingly accompanied her month after month, but she knew nothing about the reality of why they were going. Abuela was a powerful woman who believed in telling children the truth about life. Though she loved to indulge Yany, she also wanted to prepare, educate, and guide her. So on the next trip to the cemetery, she decided to have a very honest and bold conversation about what this all meant.
“Yany, do you know why we come here and why I write a check and hand it to the gentleman at the desk?” she asked gently.
“No.” Yany shrugged, eager to get to storytime.
“Well, the reason I write a check is because I am paying for my funeral arrangements. You see, I am going to die one day and the tombs we drive around looking at… there will be one for me.” Yany’s eyes opened wide. Abuela put her arm around her and said “You don’t have to be scared. Death is part of life. We all die. And though this is the place I’ve chosen for my body to rest, I will not be here.
“Where will you be?” Yany asked.
Oh, I will be with God, and in your heart and mind. I will always be with you, even though you won’t be able to see me anymore.”
Abuela Fifi was inspired even though Yany was nervous. They were sitting on a couch in the lobby of the funeral home and surrounding them were different rooms where viewings were being held. Abuela Fifi stood up and grabbed Yany’s hand. “You see that room? There is a coffin in there with a person who has died in it. Walk on over and look inside. You should see what a dead person looks like so you are never afraid of death. Go on.” Yany looked into the room and saw lots of people dressed in black gathered together. “Abuela, I don’t want to go in there.”
Abuela smiled, “Come on, Yany, you have nothing to be afraid of, go on in. You can do it.”
“But Abuela, I’m not scared; I’m embarrassed. I’m wearing a bright yellow dress!”
Even at ten, Yany could sense that she wasn’t dressed appropriately. “Oh, that doesn’t matter. Go ahead, Yany. It’ll just take a minute.” Yany hesitated, but she walked up to the coffin in her bright yellow dress, peeked inside, counted to ten, and ran back to her grandmother.
Abuela waited for her with open arms, “There. It’s done. You’ve seen a dead person. You no longer have to be afraid. The day I die, you will remember this moment and you will know it is only my body in that casket and not my soul. And don’t come visit me at my tombstone when I die because I won’t be there. Make sure you visit me while I’m still alive! Now let’s go drive around the cemetery so you can tell me all about the different people.”
Now you may be thinking that Abuela Fifi was insane. You could be judging her for exposing a ten year old to such morbid realities, or comparing her to how your grandma would’ve handled the situation. Regardless of how you feel about what Abuela Fifi did, Yany learned a lot from this experience.
She became aware at a young age that life is fleeting and temporary, and therefore you must embrace it.
Through the stories she told abut the names on the tombstones, she learned to value her imagination. As adults, too many of us lose our ability to make believe and be creative. Ironically, adulthood is when we need creativity the most. Try making up creative stories about real people. You may find a storyteller lives deep within you. Use that gift.
She learned that in life you have to be pragmatic. There is no use in sugar-coating things or hiding truths, even with kids. Knowledge gives you the power to make informed decisions, think for yourself, and overcome obstacles with courage.
She learned the importance of confronting life with humor. This story offers just one example of Abuela Fifi’s wackiness. The old lady is simply funny. Funny makes life easier and lighter. It makes hard things easier to swallow. When Abuela Fifi is no longer here, Yany will laugh whenever she retells her grandma’s stories, and, let’s face it, there’s no better way to remember someone than with a smile.
Lastly, Yany learned to shine. There will be times in life when you will not be dressed appropriately, you won’t fit in with the crowd, or you will be the only one standing up for something you believe in. There will be times when you’ll look like a fool and want the Earth to swallow you. You may feel like you’re wearing a bright yellow dress at a funeral. You’ll be afraid. You’ll be embarrassed. But you’ll get through it.
And then there will be times of tragedy and of grief – maybe in your circle, or your community, or the world. Times when it will feel like you’re navigating in black seas. During those times, I want you to think of that same bright yellow dress. I want you to wear it. I want you to be the light that shines in the darkness, like Yani did that day. It takes courage and confidence to wear yellow when everyone around you is wearing black. Like Abuela Fifi would say “Go on little one, there is nothing to be afraid of.”
(Abuela Fifi’s tombstone has long been paid for, but she is still alive and probably reading this blog post laughing at how crazy she was back then. Yany visits her often and is thankful for all the time she’s had with her.)