The Nanny and The Nena

Carlitos, me and Mariela on my 15th Birthday.

I was four years old when I met my nanny, an Argentinian woman of bright blue eyes, pale skin, and black hair with white highlights, Maria Elena Guerrero. She called me “nena” which is Spanish slang for baby or sweetheart. I called her Mariela as she preferred.

I grew to know Mariela as the woman who combed my hair, picked me up from school, and served me lunch. She watched me while my parents were working. I became accustomed to her dimly lit home, enveloped by the smell of cigarette smoke, with the whirring sound of the air conditioner and her cat’s meowing. I found a safe refuge of tranquility in her home by watching television, coloring, and assembling 1,000 piece puzzles with her.

One day, my cousin and I grew bored and decided to give Mariela a makeover. We used everything from hair clips to makeup. Upon completion, Mariela was covered in layers of make up with a hairstyle worthy of “Worst Hair Don’t.” Despite looking ridiculous, Mariela chuckled and praised our skills.

A vivacious woman with ceaseless energy, Mariela exclaimed loudly, laughed contagiously and whispered advice. I enjoyed hearing her Argentinian Spanish because it differed from my family’s Mexican Spanish in its accent, words and terminology. However, we communicated effortlessly as we shared meanings for similar words and embraced our cultural differences while being united through our common language.

The years went by, and at 12 years old I didn’t need a nanny anymore to pick me up from school. Yet, Mariela remained a neighbor and a family friend. She attended family birthday parties, shopped with us or joined us for a cup of coffee.

When I became stressed about my studies, I felt the looming fear of the future, and uncertain of my abilities. Then, I turned to my greatest cheerleader, Mariela. She believed in me blindly, more than I ever believed in myself. I was always astonished at her unwavering faith in my capacities and skills. I would ask her “But how can you be so sure that everything will be okay?” She always replied “Because I know you and I believe in you.” The greatest thing about it all, is that I would return the following week with good news regarding my worries.

One night while I was helping Mariela with her computer, her husband, Carlitos arrived with a joyous smile and an object in his hand. He leaned in and placed a miniature Eiffel tower on the table, and told her “For your charm bracelet.” I immediately knew this would be a moment to ingrain into my memory because it was a beautiful gesture that showed their deep affection for each other. Mariela had already completed her bracelet, so she gave me the Eiffel tower and decisively stated “For you, nena. I know you’ll visit Paris, France and see the real Eiffel tower, but for now here’s this.” I had no idea how true her words were until 2013 when I visited France and Italy with the charm in hand.

In 2012, I received disappointing news that Carlitos had passed away. We were all devastated because he was a strong and energized man despite working as a store clerk and newspaper deliverer. Mariela was deeply affected and no longer laughed, rather she would cry silently in her rocking chair. It took her months to come to terms with it and she made a monumental decision to return to Argentina.

As the weeks went by, I saw the life of her home vacuumed by enormous boxes. An accumulation of boxes took over and the only thing that remained was her rocking chair. I entered her home and felt disconnected from what I saw: darkness and years of memories hidden in paper boxes. I knew I didn’t want to be thousands of miles away from her because the only distance I had ever known was the 10 footsteps it took me to knock on her door. However, I accepted that she wanted to return to her homeland and reconnect with her family.

My sister, Mariela and I on her last day in California. Featuring Pico, her dog.

On her last day in California, she came to my home, hugged everyone, reminisced in all our memories and we both agreed I would visit her in Argentina. Then, she told me “This isn’t our goodbye, come to my house tomorrow morning before I leave so I can tell you everything I need to tell you.” I agreed. The next morning, I accidentally slept in and never saw her again.

Although Mariela was thousands of miles away, we kept in touch through Facebook. She would send me motivational images with flowers that said things like “Smile, today is going to be a great day!” We also shared conversations about how our lives were going, and when I returned from my trip to Europe in 2013, I sent her pictures. She was overjoyed. Suddenly, one day in 2013 I recieved a video chat call from her but I assumed my computer was glitching because we hadn’t agreed on conversing at that time. Immediately, I replied with a message. I didn’t hear back, so I assumed she was busy.

A week after the missed video call, I came home to disheartening news. Mariela had passed away. I was senseless. I ran to my room to escape from it all, and cried intensely like I never had before. I sobbed incessantly not because I hadn’t lost someone before, but because I had lost multiple in one day: a nanny, a grandma, a motivator and a guide. She played so many roles in my life it was immeasurable.

I lamented not having the opportunity to tell her I had graduated high school, and that I was going to college. It pained me to know that there are experiences I had yet to share with her, but she was gone. I ran desperately to her old home, stood outside the door like I had many times before, with birthday cakes, Christmas presents and other surprises, but this time she wasn’t the one behind the door and I had nothing in my hands besides the heaviness in my heart.

I wasn’t able to mourn her properly, because I had no tangible thing such as a casket or an urn to affirm that she was gone. I would like to go to Argentina someday to visit her grave so that I can firmly accept her departure from this world.

It’s been three years since Mariela passed away, but if I close my eyes I can still visualize her home, her face and see her dancing around her living room to Latin music. For me, it’s as though she’s still alive in Argentina living her days watching sports, international tv series and piecing together a puzzle. Yet, I know she’s gone and I live with that pain every day because there is not a day that goes by when I don’t remember her and her affectionate name for me: “Nena.”