My grandmother Paula Cruz was from another time and place. Born in 1908 in Leon, Mexico, she emigrated to the States in 1915 with her family to flee a bloody battle that was brewing in the area, and which eventually wiped out most of the population, thanks to the Mexican Revolution. At age 12, she was living in sleepy Azusa, California, according to the 1920 Census.
Through the years, my grandmother had to fight many things—poverty, a violent husband, the pervasive racism of the times, her own low self-esteem. Among the most revealing fight, though, was the one she waged against the Department of Motor Vehicles.
You see, Nana (we pronounced it Naw-naw) could only barely read and write. Her father had died when she was in third grade, so she and her other 12 siblings were quickly pulled out of school and put to work picking fruit in the fields. Another strike against her was her dyslexia, which in those days went by another name: stupidity.
As an adult, Nana got a job working at the Wilson meat-packing plant in Vernon. I visited her once when I was four. It was an ugly old factory on a nondescript industrial street south of downtown. If you’ve never driven down those streets, you don’t know how ugly an industrial section can be, because it’s still that way. Last year, I got stuck in a freeway traffic jam, exited below downtown, and had to drive through that hell.
As a 4-year-old, I remember visiting her at Wilson. I remember being lifted up onto the receiving dock and walking in. Inside the factory, it was dank and reeked of freshly cut meat. In a room with only high windows, I saw a row of workers, my grandmother among them, rolling sausages with her bare hands. She seemed happy to see me, and gave my tiny face a kiss, then went back to the sausages. It was the job she did for 40 years.
My grandmother and I were very different. Take the war. In 1957, Nana’s third husband died and her war against the DMV began. Suddenly, she had nobody to drive her places and had to obtain her own driver’s license. The written tests were difficult for her from the start. She had to sound out the words phonetically, like a first grader. As the years went by, the tests became increasingly difficult. I don’t blame the DMV. It’s good to have drivers who can read and understand what they’re doing. But it was hell for my grandmother.
My mother would drill my grandmother on practice tests. She enlisted the help of relatives, asking them to save their written driver’s tests so she could coach my grandmother from them. Nana would sit at the dining-room table and try to read the questions, sounding out each word. Every so often, my mother would help her or correct her. Once the question was read aloud, my mother would reason out the answer with Nana.
We were always worried that she wouldn’t pass, that she would lose her driver’s license and be homebound. My mother would drive her to the test and sit nearby, waiting for her. It wasn’t a quick visit. Nana took a long, long time with those tests, sounding out each question and then trying to “think it good,” as she put it. Miraculously, she always passed. To be sure, she earned those passing grades.
Interestingly, Nana took great joy in her cars. In the 1960s, she started buying Camaros, which were a big deal in those days. There was a yellow one, followed a few years later by a green one, followed a few years later by a red one. Nana would drive around town in that hopped-up car and feel young again. We all called her the “hot-rod Nana.” Later, my mother bought a Camaro, too. It was kind of the family car.
In her eighties, it was in one of those Camaros that Nana got into a serious car accident. She was turning left against oncoming traffic and was hit broadside. It was clearly her fault. I was called to her bedside, because, my mother said, she might not make it this time. She had some broken ribs and internal damage.
She was lucky though. She healed up. We all debated whether we should take away her keys. Her eyes and her reaction time were getting worse. But we were also worried about taking away her independence. We worried that without her independence, she might just wither away and die.
“You have to be more careful when you drive,” my mother told her.
“You’re getting older.”
“Do you promise?”
“Yes, of course.”
So we never took away her keys, and neither did the DMV. She drove until two years before the end, increasingly cautious.
My Nana was a throwback to a harsher, more complex time. It was never simple. Without the ability to read or write fluently, much was denied to her. The DMV was a house of horrors. Ingredients lists on canned foods were of no use to her. Electronics were impenetrable and users’ manuals were no help at all. Many movies were puzzles ready to be misinterpreted.
Once, I tried to tell her how she was mispronouncing a particular word.
“It’s spoon,” I said. “Say it. Spoon.”
“No, there’s an n at the end. Like in Nancy. Spoon-nah.”
At my first performance at the Magic Castle, Nana sat in the front row. It was a highbrow show, and my grandmother, who never finished the third grade, misinterpreted one of my jokes. In the middle of the show, I saw her urgently shaking her head and shushing me, thinking that the joke was a humiliation for me in some way, or a vulgarity that she thought I might go to hell for, or something, I don’t really know. It wasn’t.
In many ways, I was like the DMV to her, estranged because of my education and difference. She grew up in poverty and violence. I grew up in middle-class comfort. By the sixth grade, I had already had twice the education that she ever had, and the estrangement worsened. By high school, I was the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, and reading my published articles would have been an ordeal, so she didn’t. By my twenties, I was publishing articles in Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, and Mademoiselle, and we lived in different worlds. I flew in to New York City twice a year to receive assignments from my editors, and was living in a whole different world. Later, I was appearing alone on stages at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, and on television, as well.
When Nana died at age 90 and three months, I was sad, of course. But in some ways, it was also like an ancestor dying in 1722. At the same time, though, it was like my own mother dying. She had babysat me as a child, rocked me in her arms, stroked my face, kissed my forehead. My most vivid memory of her is of my lips touching her wrinkled cheek. I can smell her makeup even now. I can feel those wrinkles on my lips. At family dinners, she would sometimes stand in front of the stove and make corn tortillas by hand. She would wink at me and smile. With her very presence, she reminded me that I wasn’t just a television kid with no past, but that I came from somewhere.