When I was a kid more than 30 years ago my grandmother was my primary caretaker during the day while both my parents were at work. She would feed me, clothe me, and occasionally bathe me. She would pick me up from school, St. Anthony of Padua Catholic School in Queens, NY, a school named coincidentally for the saint to which she was strongly devout, a patron saint of animals.
It was from her, I now realize in retrospect, that I first learned about being green. I learned it decades before it became the “cool” thing to be, before we really had a fundamental understanding of the extensive damage we do to our planet every single day because of the way we live.
I doubt she had this kind of global environmental awareness herself. Rather, it was a result of her upbringing. She was a young adult during the Great Depression. She fled her native country of Spain in fear of political persecution after the Spanish Civil War, coming to America to seek a better life. She knew the pain of deprivation, the value of frugality, the imperative to take only what you need and not one bit more. It was these values that she sought to instill in me.
From my earliest days she would admonish me not to waste food, water, electricity, or other resources.
“We don’t work for the power company,” she’d say, as she’d follow after me and turn off the lights. I didn’t understand why, but I learned that leaving on the lights was “a bad thing.”
“You have to mash down the milk cartons before putting them in the garbage so they don’t take up too much space at the landfill,” she’d say as she stomped countless cartons flat with her feet before putting them in the garbage can. Sometimes I’d stomp on them some more for good measure.
She would knit me my sweaters and scarves, seeing no need to waste money buying clothes that would soon be outgrown.
She walked everywhere, having neither car nor driver’s license, often with my hand clasped firmly in hers.
After she picked me up from school we would sometimes walk together around the neighborhood. There was a church with a large mulberry tree growing in front. We would go up to the tree and she would pick off mulberries for me to eat–unusual for me, as I was otherwise a very picky eater. She would then reach into her purse and pull out bits of leftover bread from the house, spreading it around for the nearby sparrows and other birds to eat.
It was during these times, wide-eyed little boy listening to wise old grandma, when she taught me about the beauty of the world, about the preciousness of animals and plants, about the wonders of the Earth and moon and stars. I was a city dweller, but nature’s beauty was everywhere for a little boy to see when she pointed it out to me: the anthill poking out of a crack in the sidewalk, the birds chattering from hidden nests, the squirrels chasing each other up a tree.
She planted the seeds of love for nature’s creation in all its beautiful fragility that later took hold and helped influence the course of my life three decades later, including my decision to write this blog.
But all good things come to an end. Upon Franco’s death she repatriated to Spain and I saw little of her after that. I grew up, went to college, learned about the climate and environmental crises, learned the importance of activism, and eventually decided to take up the cause.
She died ten years ago this month at the age of 97 after a battle with Alzheimer’s. I still miss her.