My grandmother was raised in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico. She said the name, Vega Baja, meaning the “low plains,” with such romance that it was clear she longed for the place. In her stories she described a big house, and a farm where the children could eat the fruit from the trees and learned to milk a cow. Every Sunday after church they went to the beach. She taught herself to swim because the other children always played in the deep water and she hated being left behind.
The beach was a strange one geographically. There was a sand dune stretching out perpendicular to the shore and into the sea. On one side the water was wild and rough; the Living Sea, it was called. The other side, protected by a row of rocks, was calm, and so was called the Dead Sea. She’d practiced in that Dead Sea for weeks.
My grandparents raised my brother and me on the neighboring English-speaking island of St. Thomas. Both our parents were away on the United States mainland — our mother suffered from mental illness and our fathers wanted nothing to do with us. Many of my classmates had a family member, even a parent, on the mainland. So for a while I didn’t see my situation as strange. But then, in fifth grade, every morning while waiting in line, one boy would chant in my ear, “You don’t have a mother. You’re an orphan.” I was a tough kid and I always turned around to throw him a curse word. Still, it hurt because I knew there was something to what he was saying.
We often went to Puerto Rico when I was growing up, but never to Vega Baja. We went for the huge mall where you could buy anything you saw on TV, and for the good medical services — I’d had my wisdom teeth pulled by a dentist who spoke only in Spanish. But those trips were to the capital, San Juan.
I understood that my grandmother had been raised in Vega Baja because her father, a ship captain, had perished when his boat went down in a storm. Soon thereafter her mother had succumbed to illness. Though some of her siblings were already grown, my grandmother, Beulah, was the youngest and was only a toddler. It made sense that she, along with the two other youngest children, would be sent away from St. Thomas to live with family in Puerto Rico.
But when my grandmother herself passed away in 2011, I wanted more than the story. She had raised me, and her death was devastating. I wanted to swim on the beach where she’d learned to swim. I wanted to sit in the house where she’d slept, to imagine the idyllic childhood she’d remembered so fondly. I would visit Vega Baja to feel close to her.
I assumed Vega Baja was located somewhere so remote that it would be difficult to find. But it was less than an hour’s drive from San Juan. Why had we never visited? A colleague at the University of Puerto Rico had a student who was from neighboring Vega Alta. She said she would be happy to drive me to Vega Baja and show me around. The student and her husband picked me up at my hotel, and it soon became clear that I knew nothing about where I was going. I didn’t know the proper name of the beach and I didn’t know the address of the house.
I knew only what my grandmother had called the aunts who had raised her: Tan Liz and Miss Kelly. Who would be able to help us find the house of two women, both long dead, where three children, not even from Puerto Rico, had been raised some 70 years ago? It turned out that it wasn’t that hard. The first man we asked was running a fruit stand with huge papayas. “You mean Mama Kelly?” he asked. “Yes, the house is that way and down that road.” Down that road, we asked someone working on a car. “Oh, you mean Ma Kelly’s place.” He gave more directions. “Miss Kelly’s,” a woman clarified.
But as we neared the house the acknowledgments became stranger. “You mean the place with all those kids?” someone asked.
“The orphanage,” one woman said clearly. “An orphanage?” I asked. “Yes, the home for abandoned children.”
When we reached the property, we found the house had long ago fallen down. Only the foundation remained. It was smaller than I’d imagined. Private homes had been built on the former farmland, though fruit trees still grew in their yards. There was also an elementary school on the grounds, empty for the summer.
My grandmother’s family had been upper class. When her father died the newspapers had written effusively about Captain Smith’s gentle manner and deep love for his children. It would have been a comfortable life for little Beulah. But she hadn’t lived that life. She’d had to teach herself how to swim, despite her seaman father. She’d worked on the farm, earning her keep, like all of the children. This was not the story I’d been told. Perhaps it wasn’t the story she wanted to tell.
The kid who had harassed me at school was wrong. I wasn’t really an orphan; my grandmother was. She had gone on to raise me as if she was my own mother. My grandparents had paid for my private schooling, for my braces. I had never milked a cow. They had paid for me to have swimming lessons.
There were many beaches in Vega Baja, but the beach where my grandmother taught herself to swim was easy to find. We described it to the locals and they gave us directions. There it was — the Living Sea and the Dead Sea. Exactly as my grandmother had described it. My image had always been of fierce little Beulah, her name a Biblical reference to heavenly Zion, teaching herself to swim in the Dead Sea. So I went into the calm water, swimming where she had swum. I tried to see it all through her eyes.