The Missing Piece
by Lilia Hine
I was eight years old the first time I noticed the picture. It was hanging on the wall of my mother’s bedroom in a 5×7 picture frame. A young woman smiling at me, her brown eyes shining.
“Who is she?” I asked my mom.
“She is my mother,” she said smiling as if she had been waiting for this moment all her life. She took the picture off the wall like a child excited to reveal a surprise.
“She is so beautiful, what is her name?” I asked touching the glass, tracing the tiara she was wearing with my index finger.
“Her name is Tomasita,” said my mom.
“Her name isn’t as pretty as her” was my answer. “What was she like?”
“I don’t have any memories of her. I was two years old when she passed away.” We both searched the picture for answers. Hoping that if we looked long enough, we would be able to discover who she really was.
My mom sat on the bed next to me to admire the woman we knew so little about.
“My first memory is sitting on the ground crying because one of my cousins pulled on a scar I had on my knee. I was so scared of the blood. I remember crying, but no one listened. I was probably four years old.” I could tell my mom wasn’t talking to me when she spoke.
“Why is she wearing a tiara?” I asked.
“This picture was taken when she was eighteen years old,” my mother said. “She was a beauty queen. Spring Queen, I believe.”
To me she looked like a princess, like the ones I read about in fairytales. They don’t exist, but they are real if you believe in them.
“What about Nana Lilia?” I asked with concern.
I adored my Nana. I was worried that finding out about my grandmother would change my relationship with her. Nana turned sixty years old the day I was born, and she always made me feel like I was her special gift.
My mother had told me the story many times.
“When I found out I was pregnant, the doctor told me the due date was December 19, and I told Nana, if it’s a girl, I will name her Lilia, like you.”
“So you have two moms?” I asked.
“Nana Lilia is the one who raised me, the only mother I knew,” my mom said, putting my grandmother’s picture on the bed. I knew she was sad.
After my grandmother’s death, her kids were divided among family members. At that time no one in the family could take care of all five children, one of them only two months old. My mother and her younger sister went to live with my grandfather’s brother and his wife in a town six hundred miles away from their father and siblings. My mother’s world crumbled. It was like she died too. Her brother and older sisters didn’t exist anymore. Her father disappeared and she would never see her mother again. It was as if my grandmother had been the only link between my grandfather and his children. Once she was gone, so was their connection.
“My father was like Santa Claus,” my mother told me. “Someone who shows up once a year with gifts, but whom we really know nothing about.”
My grandfather remarried a few years after my grandmother’s death. We didn’t inherit holiday traditions or family heirlooms. Sometimes it’s like my grandmother never existed. The end of an ordinary life had an extraordinary effect on the lives of many, especially her children. Her absence created a reality no one imagined.
“Promise me that if I die you will raise our children,” I heard my mother tell my father countless times. A plea I didn’t understand until I had children.
My grandmother passed away during surgery when she was twenty-nine years old. I am a decade older. Her life, though short, had an impact on many lives including mine. Although I never met her, I feel like I have always known her.
When I was younger, people would comment on our resemblance.
“You have the same smile. Your eyes are just like hers.”
I never get these comments anymore. Her frown never converted into permanent lines on her forehead like mine. Her smiles weren’t recorded on the sides of her eyes and in the creases around her mouth.
It is an odd feeling to miss someone you never knew, to long for something you never had. Sometimes I daydream of the conversations we would have. It’s ironic to think that this person is so close to me and so far at the same time. It is possible that I exist because she died. Her death broke her family in pieces leaving an incomplete puzzle. A puzzle that my mother could never complete because there was always an empty space that could not be filled by anyone, but her.
I hold the picture in my hands. The same picture I once discovered in my mother’s bedroom. My eight-year old daughter looks at it. She’s curious about the beautiful woman with the sweet smile and the bright eyes. And I realize that, like my mother, I also have waited for this day to come. I want my daughter to know my grandmother, even if I never met her because she is also a part of her.
As I tell my daughter my grandmother’s story, I feel exposed and fearful of life and the irreversible events that create chaos in people’s lives. But I also know that circumstances like these open paths we never knew existed. We sit in silence, reflecting on what it would be like to lose your mother at a young age, trying to understand my mother’s sorrow, her yearning for a lost life and the family she left behind. I know the pain is still alive in her after all these years. To this day there is a hole in her heart no love has been able to fill. To this day she mourns the loss. To this day she looks for the missing piece.
Lilia Hine is a creative writing student at Santa Barbara City College. She was born in Sonora, México where she lived until she attended college in Arizona. Before becoming a wife and mother of two, Lilia earned an MBA and had a career in business. She now lives and writes in Santa Barbara, California.