La Noche Buena

By Jennifer Grant (visit her online at
Illustration by Elisa Chavarri

All day, every day, mi abuela sits in the corner of the living room with a blanket over her lap. She’s here, but it’s like she’s not really here anymore. Sometimes I can’t even tell if she remembers who I am.

When Abuela was a girl, her family moved here from Guatemala. She used to tell me about what it was like living in the shadow of volcanoes, or how the streets in her town were made of cobblestone. But her family had to leave it all behind; there was a war and her parents didn’t feel safe living there anymore. Abuela was a nurse when Mom was growing up, but when Mom had me, Abuela retired and moved in with us. I never knew her husband, mi abuelo. He died before I was born.

“Carmelita,” my Mom calls. “Come downstairs. We can’t start decorating the tree without you.”

I pretend I don’t hear her.

My family always decorates the tree on Christmas Eve, or as Abuela used to say, La Noche Buena. As she takes them out of their boxes, Mom describes each ornament and reminds us where it came from. There are Swedish Dala horses and Tomte Santa dolls from when they visited my Dad’s family in Stockholm, and the beaded quetzals and other birds from our family trips to Guatemala. And then, of course, there are all the ornaments my brother and I made when we were little. School pictures stuck to little paper plates, wreaths made of puzzle pieces, and dried macaroni snowflakes, spray-painted gold—it always made for a very odd-looking tree, but it was our family. And we always loved it.

Only this year, I don’t feel like decorating the tree, not with Abuela just sitting there in the corner of the room and looking off into space. Just last year, she was still herself. She was using a cane, but while we hung ornaments on the tree and sang Christmas carols, she came in and out of the kitchen, making tamales and boiling fruit for the ponche de frutas. Like she always did.

“Carmelita,” Mom says, opening my bedroom door. “Didn’t you hear me calling you?”

I don’t say anything. How can I explain it to her? Everything feels different and wrong somehow. Every time I see mi abuela, I feel like I’m going to cry.

Read the rest of the story in your December issue of SHINE brightly!

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