My Grandfather’s Mermaid

First published online on April 17, 2010

This is the eulogy I wrote for my dearest Grandmother who passed away on November 7, 2009 at the young age of 99 years old. She lived a very long life and got to enjoy life in ways that most of us wish we could.

I will always remember you Mama Fela.
Thank you for the many sweet memories you left behind.

Felicita Gonzalez Ramos


There are a number of notable events that took place on February 19th.
On February 19th of 1987 Ronald Reagan lifts the trade boycott of Poland.
On February 19th of 1986 King Hussein of Jordan severs ties with the Palestinian Liberation Organization more commonly known as the PLO.
On February 19th of 1985, Disney is welcomed into China.
On February 19th of 1945, 30,000 US marines land on Iwo Jima, and one of the bloodiest combats in the Pacific theater of WWII began.
On February 19th of 1913, the first prize is inserted into a Cracker Jack box.

But, one of the most important events in all of our lives took place on February 19, 1910. Felicita Gonzalez Ramos, always known to us as Mama Fela was born on that day. She was born in a humble house in Huacho, Peru. A small fishing village two hours north of Lima. She was born to Pablo Gonzalez and Sebastiana Ramos.

It is one of the most important events in our lives because without her, none of us would be here. She was raised by her single mother as her father, Pablo, died when grandma was a toddler. He died from injuries he suffered in a boating accident while he served in the Peruvian navy when grandma was an infant. I understand Mama Fela was about 2 yrs old when her father finally died of his injuries. She always regretted not being able to remember her father, and cried, bitterly at times, even as an old woman, over the father she never knew. She was mainly raised by her own grandmother, Serata, and would sadly remember being called “la huacha” the orphan. Her mother sent her to a private school run by nuns in Huacho, where they taught her to sew, knit, crochet and embroider. My mother remembers how she would lovingly embroider grandpa Victor’s shirts and handkerchiefs with his initials. So, it was in Huacho, her birthplace, where she met our late grandfather Victor Canales. He was about 19 and she was 16 when they decided to elope on horseback. Well, it was actually his idea and she was a willing accomplice, so off they went riding into the sunset. As customary, three days later, he brought her back, and the families agreed to the wedding and they got married. Together with her partner in crime, I mean, her husband, she bore nine beautiful girls. Three of them were lost at a young age due to childhood illnesses, but of the nine, six remained. And what a wonderful testament to her spirit she leaves behind in those six that remain.

The earliest memories I have of grandma, and the dearest ones to me, are that she was a working woman. Come to think of it, grandma was a working woman in her mid fifties in a Third World country, no less. That in itself was quite an accomplishment at the time. So, Mama Fela would get up early in the morning, before sun-up, and head to work at a large market in Lima, the capital. She “owned” a fish stand at the market, and sold the finest fish you could find. She knew her fish and she knew how to slice and dice like you wouldn’t believe. I saw her handle the fish a time or two when one of my aunts took me along to see her at work when I was around 9 or 10 yrs old, and let me tell you, she was a master with the filet knife; the fish did not stand a chance. I never saw Mama Fela get up in the morning, but I saw her come home every day. She would get off the “colectivo” a shared cab, per say, and stop at our house on her way home. Sometimes she would stop to drop off some fish she brought us home. Sometimes, she would just come in and sit on a chair by the front window of our house. It was the sunniest spot. My mom would make her some tea, and she would have some and doze off for a bit. Soon enough, she would get up and head home, which was just a block away. I never wondered, until now, why grandma would do that. Perhaps it was a place where she could have a little bit of peace and quiet before she headed home to deal with the drama of the day. These were the mid sixties, and they were filled with drama in those days.

In spite of the turbulence filled days of the sixties for Mama Fela, she gave me some of the sweetest memories of my childhood. As I mentioned, she would come home in the late afternoon, and by the time she came home, my heart was filled with anticipation. I could see her at the distance with her little purse tucked under her arm, her high heels clicking on the pavement as she made her way down the walkway to our house in her customary waddle. I was so small, grandma would tower over me. Then I would ask her, “Grandma, did you bring any fruit today?” and she would say “Well, let’s see what I have in my purse….” “A ver dejame ver que tengo en la cartera…” and she would take out the most beautifully red apple from Chile (Manzana Chilena), for those of you who do not know what a Chilean apple is, they are very similar to the Washington reds. On other days it was a humongous and juicy ripe plum, and some days a perfectly round and sweet-smelling, giant, fuzzy peach. Perhaps they were not so big, but to a child of five or six, they were gi-gan-tic. She would hand it to me with a smile. It was such a treat for me.

We all have different memories of grandma, and some of them are absolutely hilarious. There is the time, when she was living with aunt Ada not very long ago. This was the time when aunt Ada had the two chow dogs. Grandma gets up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and there are prickly things under her feet. She is worried that perhaps she is stepping onto broken glass, so she gingerly walks over to the light switch and turns on the light only to see these little white things scattered all over the floor. Upon close inspection she discovers they are loose teeth and what is left of the dentures she had put in a glass on her night stand before she went to bed which the dogs had promptly chewed up into little pieces while she was asleep.

There was another time when she loved to hang out at the Senior Center in North Berkeley. She would call the local Wescat shuttle which she called “la wess-ca” to pick her up and take her to “heel-top,” the local shopping mall that served as the transit center at the time, and then she would take the bus all the way to Berkeley. She made lots of friends at the senior center in Berkeley and enjoyed traveling with them when they organized day trips or weekend tours. They would go to Reno, Lake Tahoe or Disneyland. In one occasion, she told me about this castle she visited up on a hill that belonged to a newspaper owner and of the beautiful paintings and statues she saw. I think she was talking about Hearst Castle, in San Simeon. I can still see her tucking her purse under her arm in order to climb onto the Westcat shuttle, and off she’d go. She’d come home tired, but full of stories to tell of what she ate and saw.

She was very particular about the clothes she wore. Nobody could tell her what to wear or what to do. She had a mind of her own, and to say that she had a bit of a stubborn streak is an understatement. She was definitely a woman marching to the beat of her own drum. Nobody to answer to, nobody to give accounts to of anything, and yet she remained connected to her family and her Peruvian roots. She was in her own way, indefatigable in her beliefs and a woman with an indomitable will. When she made up her mind, she stayed on course until the end. She was not a woman to give up her position or beliefs easily. As a matter of fact, I have no recollection of her ever doing that. You can ask her daughters, and they could probably attest to this.

Although she was very strong minded, in a very quiet and subtle way, Mama Fela taught me not to care for frilly treats such as candy, ice cream or chocolate for that matter. As tasty as they may be, they are all artificial and short lived. Grandma had a much greater appreciation for what nature had provided. She taught me to enjoy the wholesome natural sweetness of fruit, and that after a hard day’s work, it’s ok to get yourself a wholesome treat and then some to share with others. I guess there is something to be said about working hard and waiting for your reward at the end of the day rather than enjoying short lived ones along the way. Grandma led a simple life. She worked hard, she loved with all of her heart, she was strong and relentless in her pursuits; and she was always generous with the fruit of her hands, and whichever form the fruit of her hands took, she was always, and I mean always, generous and willing to share with those around her.

There will always be a bowl of fresh fruit in my house filled with apples, peaches and plums when in season, but basically, fruits of all kinds for anyone to have. It is a daily reminder to me that grandma always gave the wholesome best she had to those she loved, and that if you work hard, at the end of the day you too can have your reward. I love you Mama Fela, thank you for always being so good to me, and showing me that some of the greatest lessons in life don’t always come on the pages of the daily newspaper broadcasting your accomplishments, but sometimes come through a simple act of kindness, like sharing a piece of fruit with a small child. It is the love you gave, Mama Fela, and the sacrifices you made that makes you unforgettable and not the titles you received, the offices you held or the degrees you earned. We will never forget you because your love, generosity and kindness will always stay in our hearts, forever.

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