If I had a résumé, it would reflect that I became a columnist about a year and a half ago.
Not many adults asked me for my opinions, and maybe that’s why I took the assignment so seriously.
I went home and immediately started writing. We were given no limitations. We could choose as our subject something funny or surprising or thought-provoking. I could have written about my paralyzing fear of roaches with wings (which I encountered way too often in my hometown of San Antonio) or the relief of my parents’ divorce or the frustration of not being able to speak to my grandfather because of the generational language divide in ours and many Mexican American families.
I chose instead to write about my Tia Cherola, the aunt who picked me up every day after elementary school and walked me to her house.
The column began:
I was 7 years old and although she was nearly 40, her mentality was that of a child’s. The gray in her hair caused her to look over 50, and her craving for sweets added several pounds to her weight, but as a child I did not see her flaws.
As the three o’clock bell rang, ending yet another day of school, I knew she would be standing outside the heavy doors waiting to walk me ‘home’. We would then set off for her small timeworn house, which stood like an old man too stubborn to use a cane.
To this day, I don’t know why my brain, when faced with a limitless landscape, zoomed in on her. I do know that once I started writing, I couldn’t stop until I finished. I also know that night marked a pivotal moment for me as a person and as a writer.
If you have followed my column in The Washington Post, you have probably noticed that I write often about disability issues. I do that because I believe it is a human rights issue that is woefully undercovered by the mainstream media.
Before Md. trained officers on interacting with the disabled, he was building connections and a collection
I also do that because of my aunt. Her real name was Maria Magdalena. She had an intellectual disability and took care of me every weekday afternoon for years. On those days, she would cook for me the greasiest and sweetest buñuelos, teach me how to crack pecans so the halves stayed intact and listen patiently to whatever story, or stories, I had to tell her.
The column continued:
It was a 20-minute walk, often taking us 45 minutes since along the way we picked up pecans and empty soda cans. As I walked with my head down trying so carefully to find the ripest nuts, I thought how smart this woman was. In reality though, she read slightly better than a fifth-grader and knew just enough math to get by. But she had to be smart; she knew exactly how to stand to catch a breeze at just the right angle. She knew the hiding places of the largest nuts, and she created so many fun games.
One day in particular stands out in my mind. We were halfway home when we saw a baby doll’s arm reaching out through a dumpster. As I stood silently by, she somehow managed through all the garbage and trash to uncover the maimed doll she later washed and gave to her little girl.
The next day at school a classmate laughed at me. Assuming the lady was my mother, he pointed at me and viciously said: “Her momma is retarded and digs through the trash.” I wanted desperately to run and cry, but instead, stood there denying any relations to this woman who never failed to pick me up, make me laugh or spend hours teaching me to build a house from slightly stained Popsicle sticks. After that day, I made sure to always walk several steps behind her, and I didn’t pick up too many empty cans anymore.
I have been thinking a lot about that column lately. This past week, my aunt went from seemingly healthy to needing hospice care. For days, my relatives have been lighting candles, saying prayers and pleading to the saint of lost causes.
They have also been sharing stories about her, remembering how she influenced so many lives in ways she probably never knew. For generations of kids, she provided a rare outlet where childhood held no age limit. She threw together impromptu picnics with loaves of white bread and bologna, and invented contests from whatever material was nearby.
She also made holidays feel more amplified. Without fail, she would dress up for Halloween, and each Christmas, she would show up at my grandma’s house with a bag filled with gifts. From it, she would pull presents that didn’t exist in a Target catalogue or on an Amazon wish list. They were unique, and while inexpensive, showed she knew exactly what made you different from everyone else.
More than anyone I have ever met, she loved giving, and she found a way to constantly do that. It didn’t matter that she didn’t have a regular job or that for more than a decade she relied on a wheelchair to get around.
On Thursday, I traveled to Texas and made it just in time to visit her before she passed away early Friday morning.
I didn’t say much to her, and I’m not sure she would have heard me if I had. But 25 years earlier, I had said plenty. When I look back at that column, some of the phrasing and punctuation makes me cringe, and I feel an urge to edit it. I also recognize, in its rawness, a teenager who considered, maybe for the first time, the irreversibility of regrets and the ways unexpected people can leave lasting marks on others.
The column ended:
As we drive by her house now, I see other children playing the made-up games I once took for granted. I can’t help recalling the lessons this woman taught me. I know now that less fortunate does not mean less blessed. And as society looks down at poverty with pity and disgust, I think how rich this lady really is.
After I turned in my homework, my teacher submitted the piece to the San Antonio Express-News for a youth column writing contest. I didn’t expect anything to come of it. Then months later, I learned that it won first place in the high school division, an honor that left me simultaneously thrilled and panicked.
Thrilled because I got a small cash prize and realized for the first time that I could make money from writing. Panicked because I knew everyone around me — including my entire family — would soon have the chance to see my words.
On the day the column ran, I braced for my relatives’ reactions. Some told me they were proud of me. Others chastised me for writing about her disability, which they believed should have been kept private.
None of that mattered. My main concern centered on what my aunt would think.
I’m not sure if it was that day or days later when I learned that she had clipped the column from the newspaper, framed it and hung it on her wall.
She had seen it for what it was, a tribute.
Read more from Theresa Vargas:
‘Jack is the one constant’: Before Md. trained officers on interacting with the disabled, he was building connections and a collection
Her case opened the way for people with disabilities to reclaim their freedom. Now, her words open a book that could help countless more.
‘Yawhoo!’: The 83-year-old grandmother hit with a lease violation for taking too many cookies won’t have to move