More and more, my grandmother prefers to be in the Dominican Republic and not in New York City, where she has to do everything herself—the mopping, the washing, the cooking, the ironing. On the island, she can afford to hire help. She can nap in the middle of the day. She’s not stuck inside a tiny apartment, cut off from the world. Before Washington Heights became gentrified, there was a time when sitting outside on the stoop was common; opening the fire hydrants and setting up a grill on the sidewalk incentivized people to gather outdoors; and boom boxes blasted merengue and bachata. These days, the neighborhood feels like a ghost town. In the D.R., my grandmother is still free to sit outside and play her radio at whatever volume she wants.
She doesn’t travel alone, and when asked to travel with her, I always say yes. We used to fly back and forth two or three times a year. This happens less often now that I’m a mother and teach full time, but I still go when I can.
Before our most recent trip, my mother asked me to look for her storage containers at my grandmother’s house in the D.R. (It’s common practice to enter each other’s kitchens and retrieve lost wares.) My mother had been fixated on her lost containers: They’re the good kind, BPA-free, with thick plastic and lids that don’t warp in the microwave. (She had paid top dollar for them after reading an article about BPA causing cancer.)
And of course, once we arrived, I did find the missing containers. Having made their way to my grandmother’s apartment in Washington Heights, they were inadvertently boxed and shipped to the D.R.—an entire cabinet full of plastic, stacked and piled, in all sizes and shapes. She needed them there, too. No one stopped by her house without leaving with food from her kitchen, but neither did anyone visit empty-handed, bringing sacks of oranges, piles of cherries, a decent avocado, bars of dulce de leche.
Her house in the D.R. is a living museum. Installed in the living room are objects from various decades, including old-school television sets and record players, many found on the streets of New York, cast away but still useful in her mind.
“The salt water, the humidity, destroys everything. You can never have enough stuff,” she says.
The house is tucked between an evangelical church and a building under never-ending construction. Bougainvillea and mango trees crowd her garden. Her property is like a birdcage, padlocked and surrounded by iron fences. She carries around a heavy set of keys whose jangling announces when she is nearby.
“These are Mami’s,” I tell my grandmother when I hold up the set of Rubbermaid containers.
She studies their mint condition—no dents or marks—admiring the way the lids snap perfectly open and closed. I can tell by her expression that she deems my mother to be of equally good quality. A hell of a woman, her daughter. The best. The very best.
“I’m taking them with me to New York,” I say, waiting for a fight.
“Not until we find something delicious to fill them with,” says my grandmother. “What kind of woman returns an empty container?”