My maternal grandmother had rough hands. She had big, calloused hands that knew all about hard labour and vicissitudes. From an early age her wrists, fingers and thumbs learnt how to tame the arid land in her native Guanajay, formerly in the Pinar del Rio province, nowadays Havana.
My grandma's hands were broad with thick fingers, that's why people used to say she had 'manos de isleña' (islander's hands), a reference to those immigrants who arrived in Cuba from the Canary Islands at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. In her case, this claim was more than justified; her own grandfather on her father's side was one of those fortune-seekers who had crossed the Atlantic looking for a better future.
My grandma's hands changed function shortly before Fidel and his troops toppled the Batista's regime in 1959. She moved to Havana with two of her daughters and began to work as a maid. No more would she be tilling the land, planting potatoes, digging her hardened hands into the soil. She would be now serving coffee in delicate china, dusting furniture brought from countries whose name she could hardly pronounce and cleaning floors until they shined.
My grandma's coarse hands' DNA was transferred to both my mother and one of my aunties. The third one would always poke fun at her sisters for having hands like a farmer. Until my mother and auntie ganged up on her. That was one of the stories my mum used to tell me when I was little. And my grandma, sitting nearby, would rub her ancient hands and give us her broad smile.
When I was five, I was diagnosed with stomach ulcer and gastritis. That was the time when my fits started. The pain would half-nelson me to the ground, and I would be kicking and screaming in agony. Not even doctors would attempt to touch me and on a few occasions I had to be restrained and anaesthesised. If I was home, my grandma would approach the bed where I was writhing in distress, and start reading me the 'Oración a Santa Bárbara' (Prayer to Santa Barbara): 'Gloriosa Santa Bárbara, a ti que puedes interceder para alcanzar la ayuda de Jesucristo, te ruego que protejas a mi nieto, y que lo ayudes para no vivir y morir separado de la gracia de Dios y de los sacramentos...' All the time, one of her chapped hands would travel around my tummy in a circular motion, smoothing the pain. With tears in my eyes, I would clasp her other hand with mine until my stomachache subsided.
My grandma was the epitome of Cuba and Cubans odd relation to religion. She had been raised a Catholic but had a shrine to the African gods in our flat. She worshipped openly except for when my auntie and her daughter, my cousin, had visitors in our house. My auntie was a member of the Communist Party whilst my cousin belonged to the Youth Communist League. One Sunday a strange man came to our house for lunch. After eating, he sat down with my auntie, my mother and my grandma to talk. Slowly he fell asleep. After a while he woke up as if he was in a trance or sleep-walking and started to speak in a weird language. My grandma, however, understood what he said and replied in his lingo. They both formed a chain with their hands and arms and since our flat was very small, the space was reduced. I got up to go to the toilet and on trying to jump over their nexus, they said that, no! no!, I had to break through it. I did so and when I returned from the bathroom the man had come out of his stupor. My grandma caressed my face with her broad hands and told me not to worry; the evil spirits would not harm me anymore. At that moment many of the reservations I had harboured for years finally found an answer: the reason for her wearing sackclothes on the 17th of each month and her disappearance from our house every 17th December; the large coconut in the bottom of one of the bedside-tables in my mum and dad's bedroom - a fetish much derided by my father and located in the only dormitory in our flat - and her passion for medicinal herbs. The babalawo returned a few more times at my grandmother and later my auntie's request and he struck up a good relationship with my family.
Whenever I complained about a problem, my grandmother would say: 'Don't worry, more was lost in the war'. When I asked her to which war she was referring, her reply was short and simple: 'Any. They're all the same'.
One day my grandma happened to pass in front of our telly whilst a speech by Fidel Castro Ruz was being broadcast. She raised her two hands in fury, closing them into two tight fists: 'You're to blame', she bellowed, 'It's your bloody fault that this country is falling apart!'. My cousin admonished her severely and later that evening we all concluded that the first signs of senile dementia had appeared. Or maybe only those who are non compos mentis dare speak the truth without any fear of reprisal.
When my grandmother died in November 2000, my best friend in Cuba sent me an e-mail with the sad news. I remember printing his message off and retiring to the toilet at the far end of the corridor, away from the operations department. I recall clearly how I locked the door behind me and as I read the e-missive again, I began to slide down the wall slowly. One tear made its way across my cheeks and dampened my upper lip whilst my other eye withheld its outpouring of grief for just another second before giving in to the might of my lacrimal glands. I re-read the message many times until the language made sense no more. I cried silently first and in big sobs afterwards. I cried in the way Oliverio Girondo describes weeping in his immortal poem 'Llorar a Lagrima Viva': 'Llorar a lágrima viva. Llorar a chorros. Llorar la digestión. Llorar el sueño. Llorar ante las puertas y los puertos. Llorar de amabilidad y de amarillo. Abrir las canillas, las compuertas del llanto. Empaparnos el alma, la camiseta. Inundar las veredas y los paseos, y salvarnos, a nado, de nuestro llanto...' I cried because I had made my grandmother's life very difficult in her last years. I could not understand her illness, or rather I chose not to. And now, I could not turn back the big and unforgiving wheel of Time. I cried because I would miss her hearty laugh, the one she displayed everytime my family came to visit and asked to be served her speciality, "pollo arrebata'o"(fried chicken in a rush). But above all, I cried, because I would not be able to feel the soft touch of my grandma's rough hands again.
 Santa Bárbara is one of the most worshipped saints in Cuba. It is commonly found in most houses, together with its Yoruba counterpart, Shango. It is celebrated on 4th December when most followers dress in red and white or just plain red, the colours that symbolise this Catholic/Yoruba deity/orisha.
 St Lazarus is another saint widely worshipped in Cuba. Its Yoruba equivalent is Babalu Aye and both the Catholic deity and the African orisha are usually depicted on crutches and with one or two dogs licking his wounds. On 17th December every year, followers of this deity/orisha make a pilgrimage to its sanctuary, El Rincón, outside Havana, wearing sackclothes.
Next Post: 'What Makes a Goood Writer?', to be published on Tuesday 22nd September at 11:59pm (GMT)