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My parents died when I was young. First, cancer took Mom. Three years later, Dad was killed in a motorbike accident. Mom was Mexican and had no family in the US, so the only one who could take care of me was Amparo, my paternal grandmother.

"In Spanish, Amparo means protection," she explained when I first met her. "My mother told me that my duty in life was to serve people. That's why I went into nursing—to help others the way I hope to help you."

She told me the first story on the day the social worker dropped me off at her house in Shiner, Texas (population: 2,000). She was explaining why she was wearing an apron over her black slacks and a lovely yellow blouse with frilly cuffs.

"It’s a very special garment, child because it has a thousand uses," she said, looking at me with a twinkle in her eyes.

It was enough to make me, a seven-year-old scared half to death by the uncertainty and the long journey from Idaho, feel at home—you know, the kind of cozy home in books about happy families.

"The first and most obvious purpose of the apron is to protect the clothes I'm wearing underneath," she said."But I also use it as a glove when I take baking trays out of the oven. When your dad was little and hurt his knees after falling, I used the hem to wipe his tears and snot. And if someone pops in to visit out of the blue, I can use it as a dusting cloth to clean the table," she continued.

"As you can see, it has pockets where I can bring apples from the orchard and eggs from the chicken coop. But it also works pretty well for..." she paused for effect, "Hiding delicious lollipops!"

And, like a stage magician, she produced the biggest, reddest, and yummiest lollipop in Texas!

Amparo’s only child, my father Daniel, was born when she was nearly forty. So when he passed away at thirty, old age was creeping up on her. Longevity, like madness, is said to run in families, yet no one in our family lived past the age of seventy. Unfortunately, the sand in her life’s hourglass was swiftly draining away as year after year passed, and believing she'd have many more to look after me was pointless.

From early on, she tried to prepare me for the inevitable as gently as possible, knowing it would not disappear by pretending we could get over it like a dose of bitter medicine. We sat under a peach tree with pink and cream petals whirling in a fragrant snowstorm above us. The cinder path cut straight across the garden from the creaky gate and then petered out into a wild tangle of brambles growing out of mounds of lettuce leaves, cabbage stumps, and split pumpkins. Long, waxy tentacles had emerged from the marrow in the vegetable patch and began to climb wooden stalks, soon to explode into clusters of tiny blooms that would turn into pot-bellied vegetables. A grove of jujube trees pushed their way up the hill behind the house, where the ground was hard and treacherous. We only went there in the early fall to collect blackberries for pies and jams, which we stored in glass jars wrapped in white fabric.

I was eight years old and sat on my grandmother's lap while she blew away a stray tendril of my hair that looped around my ear.

"There will come a time, my pet when you will have to take care of yourself. Not yet. I hope it won't be for a while. But it will come," she said, trying to avoid calling death by its dreadful name.

"After I’m gone," she whispered, stroking my cheek.

I sat like an anxious but well-behaved schoolgirl with my arms crossed in my lap.

"Gone? Where would you go without me?"

She let out a big sigh. I could see that she was struggling to keep her thoughts together.

She looked around at nature's bounty and generosity. Hundreds of bright bluebonnets poked up from the grass, each flower like a gem set in a filigree of green. Corn sprouted stems from the blackness of the damp dirt, and bees buzzed back and forth around the scented, nectar-filled peach blossoms.

"Look at the bees, darling. What amazing workers they are! How often do they travel back to the hive? Dozens of times? Hundreds? Who can say? During the spring and summer, they collect honey, feed their young, and take care of the queen. But you won't see them in the yard in the winter. They won't be there when the fruit is ready to be picked."

She paused and returned her gaze to the insects, pottering about like airborne honey drops.

I gave her a tap on the knee to bring her back from her musings.

"Where do they go after the summer?" I leaned forward, following the golden fireballs droning among the flowers.

"Where do they go?"

She pretended to think.

"They go to a place where every bee is a queen and honey, not water, runs in rivers. They go to a place where they do nothing but relax and have fun."

I laughed with delight.

"So... you're going there, too? With the bees?"

Her face lit up as she replied.

"Yes, darling. When I'm no longer with you, I'll go there - to be a queen at last."

Soon after, she came up with the idea of telling stories on long winter nights. She'd always been a great narrator, and back when television was a rare pleasure, stories kept our imaginations alive.

With circles of light and shadow from the stove dancing on the floor and tree branches tapping against the windows, reality faded away, and fantasy entered. Together, we built our own world, where witches wander the marshes and, warriors battle against bloodthirsty invaders, ghosts, ghouls, and goblins lurk in dark, mossy wells, and mermaids and sea devils seduce hapless fishermen to their fate.

At such times, we abandoned the real universe with its sorrows and entered a parallel cosmos, taking on the characteristics of our stories’ protagonists.

Draped in Amparo’s shawl, I fought specters, holding a broomstick in one hand and thrusting it at imaginary figures.

"Beware, for your end is near! My name will live on!" I yelled, collapsing to the floor, mortally wounded.

My grandmother was overjoyed. With each romp, she shed years and wrinkles. She was no longer an old woman with a burden of woes hanging over her but a fairy godmother, her bejeweled wand casting a magic spell that turned my cotton dress into a gossamer gown and clad my feet in silver slippers instead of my plastic JCPenney sandals.

I listened with rapt attention to Amparo's stories, filing them away for later enjoyment. They were a welcome relief from the monotony of everyday life, no matter how brief, and allowed me to live a hundred lives, all more exciting than mine. I knew them by heart, and whenever Amparo stumbled on a word, I pushed her back on track.

"Pocahontas was a young woman! Years younger than you," I chimed in with the tactless innocence of a child.

"Yes, sweetheart. Years younger! But time doesn’t measure hours, minutes, or years. Time measures human vanity. For the young and beautiful, it’s kind, but for the old and ugly, like me, it’s cruel!" She broke out laughing, bouncing her head in delight.

At times, the evenings became more subdued. I would lapse into melancholy, and questions about my past would inevitably come. I remembered Dad, but my mother’s face was always in darkness.

"Tell me everything you know about her," I implored.

Amparo sat by the fire with one of my dresses or stockings to mend, and while her hands were never idle, she spun yet another tale in which my mother morphed into a remarkable being, emerging from her narrative more beautiful than the imaginary heroines of her fables, with magical powers equal only to Merlin's and the goodness of the Virgin herself.

"Your mother..." she said as she neatly tucked away the sock she was darning and relaxed in her chair.

"Your mother was a good woman, and believe me, there is no better compliment a mother-in-law can pay her son's wife. She wasn't Hollywood-star pretty, but she had a dazzling soul. Your father- and I must credit him with considerable good sense- discovered it. He found a vibrant butterfly in the slightly dark cocoon. That was Dolores."

The summer I turned sixteen was a scorcher. The world appeared on the verge of exploding; the air trembled and seemed to thicken by the hour. Cornflowers drooped in defeat, while the Texas star hibiscus, usually blood-red, turned a burnt, sickly brown.

My grandmother was always exhausted. Her previously limitless energy had dwindled, her eyes no longer sparkled, and she was having difficulty getting around. She was fading away without a complaint or fuss. Although she tried to walk, the pain in her chest, which gradually took over the rest of her body, defeated her efforts after a few faltering steps. I watched her with misgivings and remembered the stories about the Land Where We Both Would Be Queens and where Amparo would eventually go one day. It looked like it would be sooner rather than later.

The storytelling ended abruptly because of her hacking cough. She was utterly helpless and relied on my support. The illness suddenly reversed roles: I was now caring for her, feeding her chicken broth, and changing her sweat-soaked sheets. Although she remained a calm, good-natured person on the inside, her outward look changed as if her body had outlived its usefulness and was winding down, much like a broken-down machine. She had lost weight; her skin was stretched on the bones like discarded clothing on a rack; her eyes sank deep into her head, and the smiling lines around her mouth burrowed into the folds of slack flesh. Every day, she became more ethereal, a mere shadow of her former self, more and more resembling the ghostly heroines of her legends.

"When the rain comes, you'll feel better," I assured her.

But we both knew that she would never see rain again. She was ready to give up life, with all its joys and sorrows.

Throughout the summer, the skies remained clear. Amparo's condition deteriorated from the oppressive heat. Her body had given up the fight against death, and she was gradually going off like a spark from a wet flint.

A week into autumn, she got up for the last time. Acting on instinct like the wind-up dolls that, once set in motion, can walk unaided, she washed, combed her gray hair, and fastened it into thin plaits with ribbons. She put on her famous apron with pockets that used to hold the yummiest lollipops in the world, then lay down and patiently awaited death.

I found her an hour later. Death didn’t catch her unprepared or scared. Her face was serene, full of hope for the journey ahead, and strangely unlined, as though the last moments mysteriously transported her back to the years of beauty and youth. Her lips were fixed in a smile. It seemed she had already seen the Land Where All of Us Would Be Queens and liked it very much.

I approached the bed and touched her shoulder. She was motionless, with no regular breathing or sudden twitching of muscles.

"Don't leave me alone... Please, don’t leave me alone." My tears flowed in bursts and squalls.

The bereavement was intense. It wasn't pain yet, just perplexity—cold and as long as an icicle stuck in my belly.

I cried for hours that day. I sobbed for the sips of knowledge I'd been allowed to drink from Amparo's wisdom. For the evenings of magic when the world became beautiful. I cried for her kindness, for her gentle rebuke when I deserved it, and for her far more frequent encouragement. But most of all, I cried because she had left without saying goodbye, leaving me alone.

But I didn’t cry for long because I realized she had left me something- an heirloom more valuable than money, jewels, and land. It was only a matter of opening one of the compartments where I kept the stories she told me to be with her again. The story about the apron. Or the one about the bees. Or the one about the Land Where All of Us Would Be Queens.

And I promised myself I would write them down and share Amparo’s magic. That is exactly what I am doing now, forty years later.

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16 May, 2024
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