Gladys was her name, she was my auntie. She was one of my grandmother’s older sisters, but I always called her „tia“. Up until the moment my family and I moved to Germany, she had been a reliable fixture in every important event in our lives. Whatever the event was, whether a birthday party or graduation, it was always my tia and my abuelita together, our dynamic duo. The mala lenguas* had a lot to say about her life and her lack of a husband, but in my eyes, she was the first woman that taught me that it is okay to be alone. She was living proof that you can exist without a man on your side. However, the other family members did not see her as the independent and defiant person she was. My abuelita often felt the urge to take care of her and would often invite Gladys to spend the holidays with her family on the coast. As the only spouse-less person during those days of blissful summer at the beach, she had to sleep with us in the small children’s room. Up in one of the bunk beds, she used to snore louder than a stuffy-nosed pug. My brother and I were more than happy to spend time with her. However, we dreaded the nights, and our sleep was often disturbed by nightmares her snoring caused.
As I became older, an ocean apart from my life in Quito and my auntie’s presence, Gladys and I began to drift apart.
The last time I saw her was at a feast at my grandparents‘ house. My brother and I were visiting our family in Ecuador, and it had been a long night of wearing uncomfortable high-heeled shoes. As I tried to find a place to rest, the party guests rotated towards the table, where my grandmother had served a buffet of her best dishes. That diverse collection of relatives had been my abuelita’s idea. A celebration of our „return“ where we could meet and greet everyone in one go. My great-aunt was sitting alone in the living room with a glass of wine in her left hand. She sat on her own, as always, only her regular cigarette missing in her right hand. I decided to sit next to her.
„Hola mija, sit! Come sit here“ she kindly padded the space of the couch on her right and waved me towards her. As I took my place, I squeezed her shoulder affectionately. She grabbed my hand between her long, strong fingers. „How is everything going with your degree?“ she asked impertinently. I wanted to answer, but she did not let me get a word in.
„You know, you should always concentrate on your studies. That is so important! See, you don’t want to end up like some young girls here, pregnant and with no prospects.“ The right end of her upper lips quivered in disapproval. I tried not to roll my eyes, as I already knew what she was about to tell me. Instead, I politely feigned interest while chewing my food.
„You know, like your cousin Anna. That poor girl! Pregnant! She is going to be a mother, and now she must drop out of college“. She did not bother lowering her voice but quickly looked over her shoulder to check if anyone was listening.
„I don’t want you to end up like that, mija!” She continued after taking a sip of her wine. „You are so intelligent, and look at what you have accomplished — living in Germany and all of that! I am just saying, as your tia, please be careful! You have such a bright future ahead of you. Focus on that y no metas la pata (and don’t mess up)!“ I will never forget her rough voice from years of smoking—the smell of her perfume and the urgency of her warning. Sitting with her wine and gossip, she felt far away from the version I had of her in my head. Still, I wanted to believe that she would not have turned me into the family’s gossip if it would have been me and not Anna, who had dropped out of college because of a pregnancy. Maybe Gladys was only trash-talking my cousin because of the bad blood between her and Anna’s mother. Maybe it was not gossip but she was truly worried about my future. I wanted to believe that she loved me and would support me no matter what. But the doubts crept in, and I could not help but imagine hearing Glady’s voice, turning one of my mishappenings into gossip.
As the years passed, I reduced the contact to my tia. Now and then, I would send „kind greetings“ to her through my mother. Two years after that encounter, to distance myself from that toxic tradition of gossiping about women and their mistakes, I stopped telling Gladys and others in the extended family details of my life. There was already enough information for people to talk about without me funneling the flames. I had been bold enough to bring three different boyfriends from Germany to meet my family, which could only mean I was no longer a virgin. I had already lived with two of the said boyfriends, which could only imply I was a „loose“ woman and was going to end up in hell. Plus, everyone was already keeping tabs on whether my brother and I would finish our college degrees. All in all, it seemed best to stay far away from the drama so as not to test my tia’s loyalty.
Until a year ago, when she was diagnosed with cancer, and a sense of regret replaced anything else I had felt or thought. The only miracle left to hope for was that she would live long enough for me to say goodbye to her. But she did not. My mother was able to secure a plane ticket to be by her side before she passed. Amidst all the sadness, anger, and shame, the only thing that helped was trying to recall what she looked like back then on those long and sunny days by the sea. My mother sent me some pictures she still had of her — one of them, a recent one of her, wearing sunglasses and a big hat. The left side of her lip was slightly crooked while she smiled into the camera. I have the same crooked lip, and as I tried to memorize her smile, I finally realized what we shared was more important than what had kept us apart. I loved her, and sadly I can only hope that despite everything, she knew that.
Today I like recalling details about her to keep her memory alive. I try to remember, putting all regret aside, as I often saw her back then: leaning on the apartment’s veranda where we spent the summers together. Her smoking had always added a rebellious touch to her aura. The way her hugs felt when I was a child, the image of her singing with the earnest demeanor at church with her choir are the things I choose to keep. The rest is gone. As I watch her pictures, I realize that, like me, she was not very photogenic, and I am glad to have one more thing about her to love.
author: Valeria Bajaña Bilbao
illustrations: Stephanie Goldenbaum
Side note: My cousins real name is different but I used the pseudonym Anna to keep her privacy.
*best translated with ‚gossipping tongues‘