Every autumn, monarch butterflies make a miracle, traveling more than 2,000 miles from Canada, across the United States, and into the Oyamel Fir Forests of Central Mexico. For six months, they make their home in this area, gathering together on trees to sleep and turning their wings inside out so they look like they’re part of the branches. It’s only when someone moves or makes a sound that they startle and flutter off, becoming a huge mass of flittering orange in the middle of the forest. The Indigenous Purépecha people in Michoacán believe that these bright red-orange butterflies carry the souls of our ancestors inside them, spirits who are with us in life and after, elders and matriarchs just like my grandmother Alicia.
From birth, several women in my family had a hand in raising me, many of them, like the monarch butterfly, migrants themselves. It wasn’t just my parents who cared for me and watched me grow. My Tía Gloria picked me up after school when my mother couldn’t, careful not to pinch my skin with the seat belt buckle. My Tía Martha took her role as my godmother seriously and gave me a room in her house to sleep in when it was too late to go home. But it was my grandmother who cooked whole meals even when I insisted I wasn’t hungry, held me in her lap, introduced me to telenovelas, and spoke to me in Spanish even though I didn’t understand what she was saying. Losing her to a sudden stroke in February 2021, exactly one week after her 99th birthday, felt like losing a piece of myself.
To the family, she was referred to as “Amá,” “Mama Alicia,” or “Lichita” when we were in a teasing mood. But to me, she was always Abue, a name that stuck after I refused to say “abuela” as a baby, a name that was all mine. Even now, more than a year after she passed away, no one questions that she is still the matriarch of the family. Her name continues to be brought up in conversations, not as a memory but rather as a member of the family who is seated right beside us. “Remember how she used to lick the plate with her finger,” I ask my relatives. “Ay, stop it. You sound just like her,” my mom tells me.
Her counterfeit paintings of Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy and Thomas Lawrence’s Pinkie still hang on the walls of her house, her jewelry and Catholic crosses still sit on her vanity, and her ofrenda still greets ancestors with statues of La Virgen and a small bottle of holy water. Photos of her hang around, too; they depict various stages of her life: a toddler standing in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, a mother posing with her three grown daughters, and a wife smiling next to her second husband.
Even though my and Abue’s language barriers kept our conversations light when I was growing up, our bond was deeper than verbal communication. As a child, she communicated her love and care for me through cooked meals, gentle smiles and hands, and silent moments together on the sofa. Our language divide should’ve limited our connection, but it fueled it instead, strengthening our love, respect and, somehow, our understanding of each other.
Our relationship continued to grow as I became an adult. In mid-2021, several months into the pandemic, my mother and I moved in with my grandmother and Tía Gloria. What had been a house of two women for years quickly became a home of four. I treasure those seven months of my life, our matriarchal living quarters, where Abue, as usual, reigned at the center. In some ways, our roles reversed. I began cooking for her, counting her pills each morning, helping her shower and sit at the table, and fetching the mail. Similarly, I helped my Tía Gloria clean and gave my mother massages, made sure she ate, and slept next to her at night. I wanted to take care of the women who had once taken care of me, who were still taking care of me through unsolicited stories and life lessons even when I wasn’t placing my problems at their feet. I longed to learn the kind of love that makes a house a home.
Then, a week after Abue’s 99th birthday, she unexpectedly passed away from a stroke. Even considering her age, this death came as a shock to all of us. One moment, she woke up complaining of a headache. The next, she collapsed in a fireman’s arms. Just hours after that, we received a call from the nurse saying she was gone. She’d lived a long life, but, to me, it wasn’t nearly long enough. The loss of a caregiver who I could barely speak to but understood so intimately was agonizing. For a whole month, I couldn’t hear sirens or see a fire truck without having a panic attack. I couldn’t walk into her room without crying. If someone sat in her favorite red chair in the living room, where she’d ensconce herself to watch people pass by the window, I wanted to scream at them to get up.
In the midst of this gloom, something unforeseen happened: Like a miracle, Abue’s backyard began to bloom anew. There, in her garden, she had grown roses, a bougainvillea bush, and a lemon tree; she was famous for it. But these weren’t the only plants blossoming. After several barren years, her fig tree began to bear fruit. At the same time, her tropical milkweed plant began to bloom yellow and red flowers for the first time ever, attracting dozens of monarch butterflies to lay their eggs. Her backyard was coming alive with plants we thought would never grow.
That spring, my mother, Tía Gloria, and I tended to the garden that Abue had left behind for us, an informal inheritance. Instead of grieving — or maybe to grieve — we learned how to trim milkweed leaves to feed newborn caterpillars and bought special mesh cages to protect them from birds and other predators. We discovered that when a chrysalis turns black, it doesn’t mean that it’s dead but rather that a new monarch is about to be born, leaving behind its shell. We made a game out of naming each monarch as it birthed itself, and, like mothers, swapped photos of the children we helped raise. We’ve raised and released more than three dozen monarchs since we began our cross-species motherhood.
Some may say that spring just started early that year, but the three of us know the truth: Abue’s spirit played a hand in transforming our grief into caregiving, our pain into healing. For me, there’s no other explanation than her desire to help us move on and honor her, to give us that last gift.
By the time she died, Abue was a two-time wife, a three-time mother, a multi-generational grandmother, and a great-grandmother. She came to this country to start a new life and ended up building a legacy. I didn’t know it then, but the women who raised me had been preparing me for this since my childhood: the chance to be a mother without the physical tolls or bodily pain.
I may never truly let go of my grief, but every time we raise a caterpillar into a monarch, or just see one fluttering about in the wild, I feel the love of the women of my family and know my grandmother is spreading her wings and watching over me.
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