Calamansi: Snapshots of Imperfection

“Les Vendanges” — Natalie Martell


I got to know my Grandma McCauley through stories, fragments of her life. Where those stories failed, I filled in the blanks with grandmas I’d seen in movies, the sort who would spoil their grandchildren, wear cozy sweaters, and bake delicious treats. I imagined that, were she alive, Grandma McCauley would be the sort of relative I visited during the holidays or got a phone call from on my birthday. When all you have are fragments, it is so easy to craft a beautiful portrait that is likely far from the truth.

While the stories my father told of his mother when I was a child reinforced my belief that Grandma McCauley would have been the cookie-baking sort, the stories changed as I got older. My dad told me about a time when his little brother Leo was four and in the wrong place at the wrong time. Their mother lost her temper, picked up Leo by the collar, and threw him clear across the room. My dad watched Leo smack into the wall and slide to the floor like something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon. This was not the cookie-baking grandmother of my fantasies.

To my knowledge, I met my grandmother once and only once. There exists a photograph of her holding me as an infant. After learning about the abuses her children suffered at her hands, I asked my dad how he’d been able to trust her enough to hold me. He told me that he had forgiven his mother, and then he added that he and my mom had agreed that Grandma McCauley was never to be alone with me or my brother.

Shortly after meeting me, Grandma McCauley returned to where she had retired in Florida. She ran a stop sign one day, and the ensuing car wreck killed her. My dad and his ten siblings reunited for the funeral, and they have not all been together since.

Looking at the photograph of Grandma McCauley holding me, I want her to be the classic grandmother, even though I know she was a terrifying mother, because the moment looks perfect. But, like many perfect-looking photographs, it was a lie.

It’s the perfect moment we want to immortalize, but it’s the imperfect ones we remember.


While Grandma McCauley could never be the grandmother I saw on TV, I did grow up with my mother’s parents. Abuelo and Abuela lived with us from my earliest memories until their deaths when I was nine. Just as I believed Grandma McCauley to be flawless, so I viewed them.

Abuelo was often sick. He and Abuela had moved to the United States after he’d been diagnosed with cancer, and they’d stayed even after he went into remission. He was also afflicted with diabetes, and some days he was so sick that he couldn’t get out of bed. His eighty-year-old bones creaked in unnatural ways, and my abuela often bustled around the house to get things for him. “Concha,” he called her. They had known each other all their lives, and for their fiftieth wedding anniversary, they renewed their vows. I told myself that I wanted what they had. I wanted to grow old and gray with someone important.

I spent many afternoons in their room. Sometimes, I would lie between them on the bed, watching a Lakers’ game or some Spanish telenovela. Other times, they would let me jump up and down on their bed. But my favorite times were when Abuela would let me stand at her dresser and look at all the beautiful gold jewelry she had. I would try on rings and necklaces, hold up earrings to my unpierced ears, and Abuela would smile and watch over me, never once telling me that I couldn’t touch this or that. After her death, my mother and my uncle agreed that I should inherit most of the jewelry I so admired. There is nothing for a fourth grader to do with that much gold jewelry.


When I was eight or nine, my godfather Evan remarried. Her name was Sarah, and after the wedding, they moved to Sammamish, Washington. Sarah had two grown daughters, and Evan had two kids my age: Kyle and Jasmine. The summer I was eleven, going on twelve, I took my first flight alone to visit them for the summer.

I loved their home. It was spacious, so unlike the cramped suburban Los Angeles house I’d known all my life. In the early morning, everything was so still, so peaceful, it felt like time had frozen in one perfect moment.

From what I could tell, they were a happy family. Evan and Sarah were clearly in love, and Kyle and Jasmine had made lots of new friends in the cozy neighborhood. They were the ideal family in the ideal house, living the ideal life.

Years later, I would be sitting with my father at my cousin’s graduation party, and we would somehow come to the subject of my godparents. There, amidst all the noise, my father admitted to me that it scared him how much Sarah reminded him of his dead mother. Poisonous, he called them. Sickly sweet. He continued that Evan reminded him of his father: subdued, passive.

When I asked my dad if he thought Evan knew what sort of person Sarah was when they got married, my father could give no definite answer. I could tell he hoped Evan hadn’t known, because it feels wrong to think ill of the dead.


My abuelos had five kids: Herman, Ricardo, my mother, Belinda, and Rolf. I never met my namesake, because she died as a child, and Tio Rolf died of leukemia when I was three; I remember almost nothing about him. But some of my earliest memories include Herman and Ricardo. Tio Herman appeared sporadically throughout my childhood; I wouldn’t see him for months, and then he’d ring our doorbell, come inside, make himself a cheese sandwich, kiss my mother’s cheek, give my brother and me a couple of Three Musketeers bars, and leave again. Tio Ricardo’s presence is more consistent. For as long as I can remember, he has been a twenty-minute drive away.

In the last days of my abuelo’s life, both Herman and Ricardo frequented our house. This was when the façade of perfection I had constructed for my abuelos began to crack. Herman and Ricardo had grown up at odds with each other, and my abuelo’s failing health meant that it was time to sort out the estate. My parents weren’t home when Abuelo signed his will, but however he’d split up the inheritance, Herman and Ricardo didn’t like it. They started arguing, shouting, and before I knew it, punches were being thrown. My brother and I hid in my parents’ bedroom, hoping they would stop, and my abuelo just sat at the kitchen table. None of us could overpower my uncles. My brother and I listened as someone’s fist collided with the wall. Later, I would see the gaping hole the fight had left behind, and it would be an ugly reminder for years to come.

The façade was cracking, cracking . . .


Evan Smith was a remarkable man. I have no proof of this; it is simply something that I was told repeatedly after his death. It is what my father told me as he penned his best friend’s eulogy. It is what Sarah told me while wrapped in the thick red blanket I’d watched her crochet over the summer. It is what Kyle and Jasmine told me as we watched their father die. To this day, I’m unsure of what Evan did for a living. I know he loved photography. I know he’d studied medicine. I know he understood enough about the human brain to give my autistic brother a rough diagnosis. I know that he moved a lot. I know that he made a lot of money. He was like a father to me, but the only thing I am sure of is that he was so much more than the empty shell he left behind.

After he died, but while he was still warm, Sarah climbed onto the hospital bed where her husband lay and hugged him close. She took that red blanket and wrapped it around him. “So it smells like him,” she explained.

When we finally left the hospital that night, Sarah went straight to the master bedroom at the top of the stairs. She dragged her feet underneath her body like she was the mythical Atlas carrying the weight of the heavens. The blanket was around her shoulders. Jasmine also went to her room, still crying. My dad made the necessary phone calls to arrange the funeral neither he nor I would be able to attend. Kyle and I went to the computer and watched funny YouTube videos until we were too tired to remember why we were supposed to be sad.


In front of my parents’ house, there were two fruit trees. My abuelo called the golf-ball-sized citrus “calamansi”; there was often a bowl of calamansi on our kitchen counter, and my abuelo would sit at the table, peel one open, and pop the bite-sized sections into his mouth, one by one. Some things are easier to swallow in small doses. While my abuelo loved to pick the fruit, he could not do it alone. The calamansi grew high enough that he needed a ladder, but he did not have the strength to climb. For this task, he recruited me, his young granddaughter who enjoyed climbing on things. I would stand at the top of the ladder while he held it steady and carried a bowl for me to drop the fruit in. However, one day when he asked me to pick the fruit with him, I was too busy playing on the PlayStation 2 that my brother and I had gotten that past Christmas. I said no.

More than ten years later, I would lay in the dark with my friends, and we would tell each other our secrets, from number of attempted suicides to embarrassing schoolyard antics. As a winter storm raged outside, I would whisper to them that if I could go back in time and change one thing, I would put down the video game controller and say yes to my abuelo. That way, when the ladder toppled over, I would be the one to fall off.


I was at a sleepover with the church youth group when my dad called to tell me that Evan had just been readmitted to the hospital. He had recently had surgery, and apparently it hadn’t gone well. I remember the word “gout” and then “aneurysm.” My dad told me that Evan didn’t have much time left, so he was going to fly up to Seattle to be with Evan’s family. He asked me if I wanted to go, too, and I agreed. My dad picked me up from the sleepover with his packed bag and mine, and we drove straight to the airport.

My godfather died on December 10, 2006. It was the winter following the summer I’d spent in Sammamish, and I was twelve years old. Upon my return to school, my favorite teacher, Ms. Aldapa, asked me if I was okay. It reminded me of when I’d been in the fourth grade, and I went to school seven hours after my abuelo died. Mrs. Sawyer pulled me aside as all the other kids ran out to recess, and she very gently asked me if I was okay.

Both times, I found that I couldn’t answer anything but “Yes.”


When the ladder toppled over, sending my abuelo and the bowl of calamansi crashing to the ground, Abuelo broke his arm. There was a lot of screaming and crying that day. My mother held Abuelo while waiting for the paramedics to arrive; his frail body was on her lap in the armchair by the front door. I stood before them in shame as my mom yelled at me that this was my fault, that if I had only gone with him to pick the calamansi, he wouldn’t have fallen. The memory is as fresh as a watermelon cracked open in June, cracked like the bone of my abuelo’s arm. It was clear: I should have been the one at the top of the ladder, and I should have been the one to fall.

After breaking his arm, my abuelo slowly lost the rest of his functions. He could not move without experiencing pain. He could not dress himself. His kidneys went bad, requiring him to go to dialysis twice a week. Everyone whispered that he would not make it much longer. My mother’s childhood friend, who was my abuelo’s goddaughter, came all the way from Ecuador to pay her respects, and Tio Ricardo slept on the couch for weeks as we all waited for Abuelo to die.

In the end, Abuelo refused dialysis. My parents confided in me years later that the doctor, knowing this would be a painful end, gave my father and my uncle enough morphine to not only numb the pain, but stop my abuelo’s heart, California’s own crude, secret euthanasia. Only after Abuelo had taken his last breath did my father dispose of the unused drug. My abuelo died early in the morning, December 15, 2003. I had been sleeping on my parents’ bedroom floor, and I woke to the sound of my mother crying, telling me in tears that he was gone.


After I’d returned from that summer in Sammamish, I’d evidently had such a good time that my parents made plans with Evan and Sarah to visit for Christmas. Evan’s death did not change these plans, but rather gave us further reason to go. Sarah was still mourning when we arrived, and she needed help sorting through the endless stacks of papers in Evan’s cluttered office. There was no will; Sarah was left with everything.

On Christmas night, I stood at the window and watched the snow fall. I wanted with all my heart to feel excited, but all I could feel was alone. The big house had lost its splendor. All I could see around every corner were ghosts.


The days following my abuelo’s death went quickly. He had asked to be cremated and for his ashes to be spread in the ocean in Manta, Ecuador, his home. We received his remains in a navy blue box, and we hoped we’d be able to fulfill his wish soon.

With the new year came celebration. Even though we were a family in mourning, we were still a family, so we found reason to gather together and smile. During a party at my tia’s house, we took what felt like hundreds of pictures. In one series of photos, Abuela sat in a chair, surrounded by various generations of her offspring. Her children, her grandchildren, even her two great-grandchildren, one of whom was only a few months old. Abuela sat in that chair, holding up my little cousin, looking happier than I’d seen her in a long time.

Because my parents didn’t want my abuela to be alone, we rearranged the rooms in our house so that I could share with her, but this arrangement was short-lived. Two months and two days after my abuelo’s death, my abuela had an aortic aneurysm while taking an afternoon nap. I heard my mom scream from across the house, and I rushed over. I could do nothing but watch as my mother pressed compressions into Abuela’s heart, watch as the paramedics wheeled her out of the house. They cut open her shirt, and the neighbors all stared at my wrinkled, bare-chested abuela as she was loaded into the back of the ambulance. After a long night at the hospital, my mother told me that Abuela couldn’t live without Abuelo, and so she’d died of a broken heart.


I was fourteen when I went back to Washington and spent another summer in Sammamish. It was not the same without Evan there. Tensions were thick, and I often hid upstairs when Jasmine and Sarah had a shouting match, as they did most every night. Kyle was not there for half of my stay; Sarah had kicked him out. Once, when Kyle was back and Sarah and Jasmine were tearing each other to pieces downstairs, I crept into Kyle’s room, and he told me how he had lit a field on fire earlier that year.

In November, just a few months later, Sarah called my dad, and she asked him to take Kyle. In the year Kyle lived with us, he spent a lot of time with my dad. At first, I thought the both of them saw a little of Evan in each other, and that was why they bonded so well. Then my dad confided in me that things were worse than I’d realized: Kyle had been facing neglect and abuse from Sarah. It had been subtle at first, when Evan had been alive, but in the three years since my godfather’s death, the situation had deteriorated. My dad told me that he would fight to keep Kyle away from Sarah.

I would like to say I struggled to believe the accusations against my godmother, whom I loved and who had always supported me, but I immediately knew it was true. And I wondered how Evan, who had had such a gentle spirit, who had always been full of laughter, could have married a wicked stepmother.


As I got older, my mom fed me the dirty family secrets in bite-sized doses:

“Your abuelo once whipped me with the garden hose in front of my friends when I broke curfew.”

“Your Tio Herman was not your abuela’s. That’s why he won’t talk to us anymore.”

“Abuelo didn’t come to our wedding.”

“The first time your father met Herman, your tio was in jail.”

“Once, when he was at dialysis, your abuelo tried to get Ricardo to set him up with one of the nurses.”

“I ended one of Tio Ricardo’s marriages when I told her he was having an affair.”

“Abuelo had an affair with a younger woman. She was eighteen, and she couldn’t take care of Herman after he was born. Abuela took him in and raised him like he was her own son, even though she knew.”

“One Christmas, Abuelo didn’t come home. Your abuela called everywhere looking for him, thinking he was working late or getting drinks. She found out he was with another woman.”

“Herman is suing Ricardo and me. He thinks we cheated him out of his inheritance.”

“Mija, I loved my parents. I miss them every day.”


Kyle calls my family from where he’s been living in Idaho right before he turns eighteen to tell us that he’s joining the Army. When she turns eighteen, Jasmine has to find a new home, because Sarah kicks her out. Sarah surprises us with a visit the Christmas I am nineteen. My dad avoids her; my mom smiles politely. I sit with her on the couch and catch up because, despite everything, I still want to love my godmother. She tells me that Kyle came to see her recently, and she gave him Evan’s beloved watch and his wedding ring. She tells me that she is proud of the man her son has grown into. I don’t tell her that she doesn’t deserve to call Kyle her son.


I wish I had gone to pick the calamansi with my abuelo the last time he asked me to. I don’t know if it’s because some small part of me believes that if I had fallen off of that ladder instead, I would have saved my abuelos, or at the very least postponed their deaths. Or maybe I simply wish that I had one more good memory of my abuelo to counter the ugly truths I’ve learned, a piece of evidence that I could wave around like a flag, saying, “My abuelo was a good man! He might have been unfaithful and cheated and hurt the people who loved him, but he was a good man!”

But I don’t know that he was a good man. I can’t say whether he was or wasn’t, even if now I remember my abuela as one of the strongest women I’ve ever known, even if I didn’t know it until years after her death. Just as some of my abuelo’s disloyal inclinations have trickled down through the generations, I hope that my abuela’s strength is inherent.

I will never know my abuelos as well as I would like to. I will never know any of these dead, gone people, even though they affected my life and the lives of those around me, for better and worse. We want to venerate the dead for simply being dead, but that doesn’t mean we should. When they’re gone, we are only left with fragments of who they were and snapshots of their lives. Fragments can’t make up a person, and these snapshots can’t make up a life.


The calamansi trees have been chopped down. All that remains of my abuelo is a box of ashes buried in the ground next to my abuela’s decaying body, while a handful did finally make it into the ocean of his homeland. Though it has been more than a decade since my abuela’s death, I still remember the priest sprinkling holy water on her casket at her funeral mass like it was a week ago. Evan’s grave was unearthed and moved across thousands of miles because his loved ones can’t let go. When I visit Sarah’s new, childless home in Orem, Utah, I spot the crocheted red blanket folded on the ottoman in the living room.

We want to immortalize the perfect moments, but it’s the imperfect ones we need to remember.