My Abuela likes mess. When I visited her as a little girl, anything could happen. We filled a cake with all the toppings and toppings we could find. We eat our food with sticks instead of forks just to see how it will turn out. She let me sleep in a dog bed with Lucky and Chiquita, because I loved them so much. I’ve always loved animals, and once we went to a stream full of frogs. She gave me a bucket, and we brought just enough to her backyard to live in her pond. I think her koi fish ate them all.
As I get older, Mrs. Joan’s tolerance for clutter gave me an outlet to express whatever creative process was going on at the time. When I wanted to paint her house with mud, she let me. When I wanted to create recipes instead of following them, she took her video camera and filmed the process. When I discovered my passion for beauty products, she was my model. She was one of the only people in my life who read everything I wrote. I used to email her excerpts of stories I created when I was 11 years old. I should probably feel embarrassed, but she was so encouraging, I never thought my writings were anything other than Pulitzer Prize winning material.
She so unlike me in a lot of ways. My brother and I are city kids. She made us go camping and touch bugs. We want to wash our hands before dinner? Tres chic, now sit down and eat with a stick. We bake a cake full of coins that we took from her purse. If you bite down on a coin, that’s good luck. One of my favorite pictures is of me with my abuela, her two sisters and their mother, my great-grandmother Mireya. We have clothes pins in our hair. I don’t know why, but obviously we all got the idea.
There’s a cliché that Latina abuelas are beauticians, teaching their daughters and granddaughters how to apply eyeliner or keep our skin soft and hydrated. In my home, I did most of the teaching. My mother provided me with a box of barely used makeup that she didn’t use, and Joan let me sit down and go crazy. They still won’t let me down because once I applied lip gloss to my grandmother, only later realized it was nail polish. She let me brush and braid her hair, even though the slightest tug would make her miserable. But she knew that I was curious about beauty, and she didn’t want to discourage me.
Here’s Joan on special occasions: her hair is long in braids and she wears red lipstick to match her red head. Her lipstick is a measure of the fervor of an event, how much she looks forward to it, or whether someone needs to be impressed. And if by the end of the night, that little bit of lipstick hasn’t been kissed on my cheek, then maybe I’m not a good niece. I could look back at any photo of her and tell you if it was a holiday or a weekday, depending on her lipstick color.
Red lipstick aside, Joan is a minimalist beauty. She is an activist, first and foremost. She cares deeply about the world, the rights of workers and animals. While on leave from work as a social worker, she discovered that geese in a local pond were entangled in loose fishing lines. So now she’s going down to the pond and rescuing them, lecturing people about harming the poor creatures, and carefully removing the ropes that have stuck to those people’s skin. Recently, she texted: “I forgot to report that I am raising 12 orphaned mallards”.
She sometimes texts in family group chats, asking us what she thinks she should name her latest goose or duck rescue. I suggested Arroz and Frijol to the two orphaned ducklings. One time she tried to rescue a dead fish from a lake near my house (she thought it was alive and needed help, alas) and ended up falling in. She and I walked home, she was soaked, I couldn’t stop laughing.
To put it mildly, roundabout, Joan is the reason I am who I am today. Even if she didn’t care about makeup, she let me turn her into an eyeshadow raccoon. Even though she couldn’t see me combing her hair comfortably, she never stopped me. She tried every strange recipe I concocted. She asked me to recommend moisturizer even though I don’t think she wore what I recommended. She’s still the only person in my life who reads everything I write (hello!).
Now that I’m older, my mom still encourages me to mess around a bit. She kept trying to get me to run away with my boyfriend (“Don’t let him run away! Do you want my ring?”) Or start a fresh life back home in California. But at the same time, she also helps me keep my life just clean enough to get work done. Her last gift to me was a pack of three dishwashing gloves, because I told her my hands would get dry when I washed the dishes. Beauty, clutter and problem-solving in one? Sounds like my abuela.
This story was created as part of From Our Abuelas in partnership with Lexus. From Our Abuelas is a series of Hearst Magazines that celebrate and preserve generations of wisdom in Latino and Hispanic communities. Go oprahdaily.com/fromourabuelas for the complete portfolio.
Tatjana Freund is a Beauty Commerce Writer, covering makeup, skin care and hair care products and trends. She’s a fan of vodka tonics and creepy Wikipedia pages.