My grandmother–my Lola–Esther Bustillo died on June 19, 2015. She was 85. This was written for her funeral, June 25.
I had never seen my Lola cry before. And then she was. Not sniffling like you would at a sad movie, but huge, keening sobs, like you might if you were at your mother’s wake, at Rush Funeral Home in Oakdale, Louisiana. She was sobbing and others were helping her to her feet there in front of the casket.
I was about ten years old and as best as I can remember, that was the first funeral I had been to. And seeing Lola break down like that was really heartbreaking.
Years earlier, my cousin Amanda and I used to spend summers with Lola and Lolo. We were about three or four years old and were so far the only grandchildren in the family. Which meant all of the attention and sweets and gifts were lavished on just the two of us. It was awesome (no offence to my siblings). One of the things we’d do was about once a week, Lola would take Amanda and I into the bustling metropolis of downtown Paw Paw, Michigan. The Place So Nice, They Named It Twice. She would run some errands–pick up mail from the post office, drop payments off at the power company–but we would always end those trips at the Paw Paw District Library.
Amanda and I would pick out probably some Berenstein Bears books, some Amelia Bedelia…it’s possible that I loaded up on books about dinosaurs…but the one book we would search for and check out every time without fail was a book called Bony Legs.
Bony Legs was about a witch. She lived in the woods in a cabin that stood on chicken feet. She had iron teeth. She could run really fast, and she ate little girls and boys who dared to wander too close. I’ve gone back and re-read it, it is terrifying. And yet, little Mikey and Manda would go back every time and press this book into Lola’s hands, big, eager smiles on our faces.
And we would drive back to Lola’s…cabin in the woods. Where it often smelled of chicken. And where no one had iron teeth, but I’m sure they took iron supplements and kept their teeth in a glass by their bed.
In the book, a girl named Sasha gets sent out by her aunt to borrow a needle and thread from a neighbor. Of course, she makes a bee-line for the house with the poultry foundation and the child-eating witch. And she has to grease Bony Legs’ creaky gate with butter so she can wander inside. If anyone is familiar with Eastern European folktales, it’s basically a retelling of Baba Yaga.
It took me years to realize that this book should have terrified me. The Baba Yaga story was meant to horrify little kids, to keep them from wandering off into the woods and talking the strangers. But sat there in Lola’s lap, Amanda and I curling into her on the couch, we felt so warm and safe and loved, that no iron-toothed witch could ever catch us.
Amanda and I wandered in the woods. we dealt with scary situations–some complicated births, some long-distance moves. But we were safe, because some part of us was still there, curled up next to Lola–her overwhelming warmth and love forming a sort of bubble against all the bony-legged witches of the world.
I had never seen my Lola cry before and seeing her break down at her mother’s funeral was heart-breaking. Watching her being helped to her feet was the first glimpse I had of a grown-up made vulnerable. She sobbed and shook for her Nanay and as others came to comfort her–putting their arms around this woman who had raised them and holding her up when she could not–I saw the real function of family. It wasn’t just the fun stuff.
Lola loved her family. She loved her kids, she adored her husband, and she LOVED her grandchildren. She was the embodiment of love, with her constant smile and her impulse to spoil her grandchildren at every opportunity. She set an impossibly high standard for grandmothers, and she fulfilled the role so perfectly in my life. She was, and will always be Lola. Every time someone urges me to help myself to more food, that’s Lola. Whenever I’m fighting the urge to buy my son a toy he doesn’t need, that’s Lola. Whenever I sit back at a family gathering and take in all the love and happiness surrounding me, Lola will be there next to me with that great big smile on her face.
I found a copy of Bony-Legs. I’ve kept it in my son’s room. He’s two and a half. I’m waiting to read it to him–him curled on the couch next to me, wide-eyed at the house on chicken-legs and the iron teeth. I need to be sure I can fold him up inside a safe little bubble on my own. Because the best way to honor being loved is to pass that love on. So if I can give even a fraction of the security and warmth and love that Lola imparted to me, I think that is the surest way to keep Lola with us for a long long time.