When I was a little kid, I would sit in front of the window of my grandma’s living room and let my breath fog it up so that I could draw pictures on it. Sometimes my great-grandma would sit with me and write her name on the window as she spelled it out: M-A-M-I-M-A.
As I’d later figure out, her name is actually Sarah Maria, not Mamima. But Mamima is what one little relative decided to rename her one long-ago day, a funny combination of the words “mami” and “mama” that has stuck for generations. She’s accepted the moniker with grace and a smile, and now few people call her Sarah, whether they’re related or not.
Last Saturday, she turned 100 years old. I saw her then at her party, and I still can hardly believe she’s a century old. Maybe it’s that I’ve never met a centenarian before-that one is something I hear about but never actually see and probably never will. Or maybe it’s that despite her weakening health, she’s still the same crazy, laughing Cuban I remember.
Mamima has seen a lot in all her years. She grew up in Havana, Cuba, with everything she could possibly want: a house in the city, a ranch outside of town, and servants for both-a family, parties, and prestige in society, thanks to her lawyer-poet-teacher husband.
When that all disappeared in the communist revolution, she and her family traded Havana for Los Angeles and haven’t been back on the island since. She’s lost two of her children and her husband since then, and as much as these losses have hurt her, you’d almost never know it.
Mamima takes great pride in informing people, in her limited English, that she is an “American city.” It doesn’t matter that we have told her countless times that the word she’s looking for is “citizen”-her motto, it seems, will always be “I am American city!” She’s certainly proud and grateful to live where she does, but I think she just says it the same mixed up way because she knows she’s funny.
The thing is, she does it to make herself laugh as much as she does it to entertain other people. She made ridiculous faces at her great-grandchildren across the room during her fancy party, earning a poke and a few stern words from her daughter. As usual, Mamima laughed it off. She does that a lot. Every time she forgets to put her dentures in, says something scandalous, or makes a snarky comment about something she doesn’t like, she does it with a laugh that’s bright and funny-a silly “ee-hee-hee-hee” that makes me grin just by listening to it.
You’d think I’d have learned something very profound from this 100-year-old woman. After all, she’s been through so much and has seen so much of modern history. Instead, though, what I learn when I look at Mamima’s life is not necessarily how to surmount obstacles or dream big, though she of course did both regularly. What I learn is how to laugh.
Mamima has given me a lot of advice over the years, from what to do when a boy gets too close on a date (which, for the record, is to whack him you-know-where) and how to be grateful for what I have. But it’s not really enough to be grateful and smile in the face of trouble. You have to remember to laugh when you cruise through just about everything else.
Through a revolution, the loss of close friends and family, and, in recent months, quickly deteriorating health, Mamima has never lost her smile. She knows that life’s happier when you learn to take things as they come and make the best of them. I know that’s a terribly cliche statement, but it’s cliche for a reason: because it’s true.
There’s a picture on the wall in my room of Mamima at her birthday last year, a smaller celebration at my grandma’s house. She’s sitting in her rocker with her hands up in surprise as my mom’s cousin Carlos dangles his little French bulldog, Milo, over her birthday cake. Mamima is terrified of dogs, even small ones like Milo, and you can see that in her face in the photo. But you can also see the hint of a smile there, and you know that whatever sharp remarks she made about how terrible Carlos was acting were made with half a grin and followed by that wonderful cackle of a laugh.
After all, no situation is too big to lose all faith in or too small to forget appreciating. There’s a smile to be found somewhere.