We all acknowledge that the mother is the heart of every family. But what do you do when the heart of your family is getting smacked with everything life can throw at her? Well, you learn to persevere. You get in the cab of the bulldozer and you learn to drive that puppy over everything in your path.
Nereida’s story is not the one you can find in a book of fairy tales. While I don’t know what the early part of her life was like, I was an eyewitness to her adult life. A young wife, who was bullied into finishing high school by her sisters-in-law, she learned to bully back and they became sisters, without the in-law part. The conversion of Nereida Diaz into Nereida Santos had begun.
She went on to have three children with Guillo and a successful career at Prospect Hospital, the personal ER for the Santos grandchildren. She cracked the whip over all of our heads. When Titi Nereida said something, you did it. As kids we knew who to go to for nurturing, although it was a close call between Mama and Titi Ana. They became our protectors against whatever storm was brewing. We all knew that Titi Nereida and Titi Luisa (my mother) were the ones to hide from.
Guillo’s sudden death hit us all hard, none harder than Nereida who now had three children to raise by herself. Oops, did I say by herself? My mistake, you see this is the Santos Family and here you don’t have to do anything by yourself. You need help, there will be a Santos to the rescue. Wrinkled cape and all.
I’m not going to say the Santos Family is resilient in the face of tragedy, only because I don’t have to say it. I remember Mama telling Debbie to stop crying in the aftermath of Guillo’s death. This woman who had just lost another child was in the kitchen cooking. Yes, cooking. I remember Tommy headbutting my boyfriend because my lap was his, and only his. Gil, known as Kookie in those days, was concerned about the collateral damage. A true sign of the man he would become.
When my parents had to go out of town, I stayed at Titi Nereida’s apartment in the Santos compound. After all, we were the South Bronx’s version of the Kennedys (ok, maybe just Beck Street’s version). Just like Titi Flora, we spent part of the day hanging in the window looking out onto Beck Street to see what everyone was up to. During one of our window sessions, Titi asked me if I had my friend yet. Not getting her meaning, and thinking that she meant to ask if I had a boyfriend, I told her that I did in fact have a boyfriend (although he may not have known it). She laughed and asked me flat out if I had my period yet. Red in the face, I admitted that no, the momentous occasion had not yet happened.
Yes, Titi could be embarrassing even without witnesses.
Again, as an eyewitness, I must admit that there were two pivotal events in Nereida’s life. One was a return to the church. She was always a woman of faith, but not always a church-goer. Upon her return, she jumped in with two feet and never looked back. She wanted me to take my comadre, for whom she had much affection, to a healing service following her MS diagnosis. Her invitation brought tears to my comadre’s eyes.
The other event was becoming a grandmother. I’ve never seen a woman take to being a grandmother faster than Titi. All of a sudden the nurturing side of her was out and in full display, and those of us who lived under her whip, found ourselves just the slightest bit jealous. Billy, as the first, was the recipient of a lot of coddling and spoiling. So much so, that we begged her to stop when he started using those eyebrows against us.
I thank God for Gil, Debbie, and Tommy. I thank God for Billy, Alexandra, Victoria, Saadia, Ariana, Elizabeth, Antonio, and Mark. I thank God for Mitzi, Joanne, Teresa, and David.
I thank God that when her illness hit hard, she was good with Him. I thank God that she was able to see and interact with all her grandchildren. I thank God that she was not cognizant of Debbie’s illness and death, because it may have broken her. I thank God for every minute of her life. The good and the bad. Her illness took her from us way before we were ready to lose her.
Rest in Glory, Titi.