By Emanuela Gallo

My aunt never came to my house empty-handed.

She showed up unannounced, usually sweaty from her 20-block walk in the summer heat. She dug into her purse, usually finding four or five packets of M&Ms and giving them to my siblings and me. We ate them while my mother served her coffee. Other times, she brought ladyfingers, which we added to the growing pile in our closet. “We can’t make tiramisu at the rate she’s bringing them,” I always joked after she left.

When we visited her, she offered bottles of pear juice or sour orange soda. These drinks were a treat; my mother usually didn’t splurge to purchase them. My aunt would give me the bottle opener magnet from the refrigerator. I had fun using it, feeling like a grown-up with an alcoholic beverage. Then, my siblings and I would sink into the couch, the plastic cover squeaking against our clothes. We listened to her and our mother’s rapid back-and-forth conversations in dialect, only half understanding. We stared at the television that always played some game show on a foreign channel.

These sweets remind me of my grandmother on my father’s side. I have no memories of her; she died when I was too young to remember. But I heard of her notorious tendency to slip my older sister candy when she thought my parents weren’t looking. They told her to stop giving so much, especially before meals. But my grandmother gave it to her anyway. It was their little secret.

My aunt, too, kept a secret with me. She gave me a pair of gold earrings wrapped in a paper towel. They were shaped like a teardrop: simple, but elegant. “Don’t show these to your uncle,” she told me in broken English. They were hers, but she never wore them and wanted them to be put to good use. My uncle would’ve been mad that she gave them away. She didn’t care.

Other times, the gifts were purses, perfume, or shirts from the local department-store sale rack. I felt guilty accepting these just-because gifts. I would say ‘thank you’ again and again, reassuring her that she really didn’t have to buy this for me. I knew she wasn’t doing so for my cousins. What made us special? “They have grandparents,” my mother said one time.

Both of my grandfathers died before my birth, and one of my aforementioned grandmothers when I was an infant. My sole remaining grandparent lived overseas. We only saw her once every other year, each summer ending with a tearful goodbye and a trip to the airport. The pain of growing up without her only worsened after her death.

My aunt had no daughters or grandchildren. But she had found a granddaughter in me. I had found a grandmother in her.

It pains me to write that I cannot remember the last time I saw her. I never did truly see her again after a day in March 2021, when we got a call that she was in the hospital. It’s not a unique story: she got COVID-19. The doctors only sent her home to rest. She didn’t get better. She got worse. Her heart rate went up. Her blood pressure went down. My father rushed there, while the rest of us waited anxiously by the phone. My mother took the calls from our landline. I pressed my ear to the other side so I could hear what was being said. I prayed. I cried.

“Don’t take her from me,” I wrote in a diary entry. “I lost a grandmother I never actually had. Not her too.”

The ensuing eight months were two steps forward and three steps back. Sometimes there would be progress; other times, things would get worse. We waited for good news. We usually got bad news. She changed hospitals twice — something about the insurance — then went to rehab. They tried something new; she made this improvement; this or that happened. At the time, I obsessively asked for details, hoping to observe an overall trend toward improvement. Now, the details are unimportant.

Only one person was allowed in the hospital room, so I waited on a bench outside and watched ants march by. When it was my turn, I put on the disposable coat, gloves, and mask. I went into the room and watched her breathe. I talked to her about random things, hoping she could hear and understand, but knowing she could not respond. I stared at her outgrown, red nail polish. It reminded me of my grandmother, whose nails I had painted the same color during those summers.

“It’s my birthday next week, but we’re not doing a cake,” I said during a visit in July, tears blurring my vision. “I am waiting for you to come home.”

Her eyes stared intently at me, an image that now haunts me. She began to cry. I dabbed the corners of her eyes gently with a tissue. She was trapped, understanding what was happening, but unable to communicate.

After I ran out of things to say, I told her I had to leave. She was still crying, but my phone in my pocket vibrated with a call from my parents.

It was weird to leave a room without hearing a goodbye back.

She died in October, the month my grandmother overseas had also lost her life. The irony wasn’t lost on me.

When my father’s mother was alive, she woke up at dawn to tend to the garden, where she grew vegetables and herbs. I see her in my other aunt, who does the same now and brings us the fruits of her labor. When my mother’s mother was alive, she sent me birthday cards with adorable doodles in the margins. I see her in my father’s oldest sister, who does the same in similar loopy handwriting.

In them, I also find my aunt who passed away. In the phone calls they call me my sister’s name, mistaking my voice for hers; in the hugs greeting me; in the visits on Fourth of July, accepting a slice of watermelon; in the chattering and complaining my mother endures over the phone. I found, lost, then found again, love from the women in my family, sharing roles and filling each other’s shoes.