I have been reading stories on this site for over 8 years (a lurker) and only recently joined. This is my first story as told to me by my grandmother, my mother and her sister. It's the reason I read stories on this site.
My family is from the island of Puerto Rico. This is a place in my heart that brings to mind hot sunny days on the beach, great food, cold beers and loud music. My mother moved to the Bronx in New York City, when she and her cousins were teens (early 1950's) and this is where I was born and grew up. Being Latin and from the Caribbean, I was raised Catholic and knew of the existence of Santeria, though no one in my family practiced this Religion.
My grandmother's parents were from Spain and came to Puerto Rico in the late 1800's and tried to raise their 7 children in the rural countryside. Misfortune plagued them as my grandmother's mother died in child birth, leaving a man to raise 7 children by himself. Times were tough and he was poor and so he left them in the care of relatives while he worked in the city and one day, he never returned. They were divided and grew up among other relatives families and were raised separately but remained in touch all throughout their lives with the exception of the youngest female who was placed in an orphanage. My grandmother was the second eldest. She obtained a job as a servant in a rich city woman's home doing laundry, cooking and cleaning. Grandma could press a shirt so stiff it could stand up by itself, was one of my family's best cooks and was absolutely ridiculous about cleanliness. When she had saved enough money, she took the youngest sibling out of the orphanage and they lived together. Grandma was somewhat educated considering she only went up to 7th grade. She could read and write very well. She didn't attend school much because of an "affliction".
This "affliction", grandma said started around the age of 9. You and I would know it today as epilepsy, but not so fast, this was not so simple to diagnose in the 1920's nor was much known about the illness, even to this day. She said she would feel strange, like an out of body experience, where she couldn't move or speak and then she would lose consciousness - day or night - wherever she might be. She said she would wake up on the floor of a classroom, the street, a train or bus - with cuts, bruises and dirty, and once at the bottom of a mountain slope, were her family members found her because of the screams and cries of my infant mother. Yes, Grandma married, twice! Sadly both times the marriages failed. I never met my mother's father.
Because of this "affliction" my mother grew up and spent her adolescence with my Grandma's youngest sister, the one from the orphanage, who had married and had 4 sons. My mom was her princess. So eventually due to hard times in Puerto Rico, our families moved to New York City, and this is where I was born. My mother had married young, 18 and had me by 19. My grandmother lived with my mother's sister/aunt in the Bronx (second marriage), who was 7 years younger than mom. Grandma couldn't work because of her affliction and my aunt, as a very young teen was forced to cope with what life threw at her. Grandma would tell me that sometimes she would have up 9 seizures in one day. She said she would know when a seizure was about to happen, because she could see, what she described as "flying naked angels descending upon her" and that would be the last thing she remembered. She would tell me about the different horrific tests that were run on her at hospitals trying to diagnose, treat and learn about epilepsy, why so many seizures and to try to control them with experimental medication available at the time (1960's) that caused more harm than help. Doctor's thought at times she was insane or had a brain tumor - but nothing showed on these tests. She was rapidly deteriorating. One time it was so bad, that my poor aunt was crying on the steps of her tenement building thinking that any day she would find my Grandma dead. My aunt said that she sat there sobbing when an elegantly dressed latin mulata lady (half black/half white) - Doña Lydia, asked her why she was crying and my aunt explained to her what was going on. She said the lady just held her hand and said in Spanish "I want you to come to a "Velada" tonight and we'll take care of your mother. I met Doña Lydia later on in life, she was... As best as I can describe - always dressed in a tight white cotton dress, she had a curvy body, big bosom, smelled real good, like flowers and was always wiping sweat off her forehead with a white cloth handkerchief. Being near her made you feel good.
For those of you who are not familiar with a "Velada" it is a term used in Santeria religion, and here is a best effort translation from Spanish: A Velada is a spiritual ceremony that is done within a cult, where the person to whom the ceremony will be performed on, lays down, sits or stands within a circle of symbols, physical or drawn (bones, chicken feet, goat hooves, chalk drawn crosses, etc) and many candles. The purpose of the ceremony is to cleanse a person's spirit.
That evening Grandma said she and my aunt, went together across the hall to Doña Lydia's apt. She said the apt smelled strongly of incense. The only source of light were the many lit candles - all white - and there was a huge alter against one wall with many large and small statues of saints, and offering dishes in front of these statues containing cash, fruit, eggs and small ju-ju bags containing God knows what. There were other people there all dressed in white, and holding hands.
This is how best I remember my Grandma describing what happened next. She was seated in a chair in the middle of the living room and Doña Lydia brought out this young dark skinned man. She said he looked thin but very strong and had a piercing gaze - sure of himself. He and Doña Lydia both began to chant and pray around my Grandma, and all the while drizzling her with what she thinks was Holy Water and blowing smoke into her face and around her. This went on for a while, then suddenly she feels the "naked angels coming". She says that this time she didn't lose consciousness - but how she best describes it as seeing through someone else's eyes - she saw the "naked angels" fighting and scratching this young man and he fought back. They flew around fast and angry. My young aunt describes it as seeing a ritualistic dance, the young man would wave his arms around my Grandma as if fighting off unseen things. The others in the room were all chanting and swaying their arms, the young man still moving and sweating profusely, until suddenly he fell to the floor exhausted. Then Doña Lydia took over, placing her hands on Grandma's forehead and praying and chanting until Grandma says she fell asleep. Grandma said she woke around 2am. Everyone had left, except for Doña Lydia and the young man who told my Grandma that she had had a "phenomenon" attached to her all this time and they were able to get rid of it. What does "phenomenon" translate to - my guess is something not of this world. My Grandma never had a seizure again and lived to a ripe old age of 92. She loved the Mets and the Yankees, knew every player and yelled while watching the games, LOL.
Because of my parents getting divorced, we moved in with my Grandma and aunt when I was about 5. This was just after my Grandma's "Velada". I never saw my Grandma have a seizure, but learned of the "affliction" when I was a teen. I fondly remember Doña Lydia (God Bless her soul) and going to her apt in the daytime and it was scary to say the least. She said to never touch or take anything from the alter, and trust me I never dared to. I do remember going to her place of business once, a "Botanica", for another evening "Velada", I was around 10 years old. I don't know who it was for, as children weren't allowed to watch. So while this took place upstairs, my younger brother and I explored the place, ground floor and cellar - wow! There was all kinds of stuff and smells, there was a goat head on a wall, animals feet hanging from the ceiling on ropes all dried out looking, potions and candles of all colors and smells, sea shells, bones, ju-ju bags, chalk of all colors and live chickens.
My aunt got very involved in all this, understandably, but to a degree that we all thought was too unhealthy, obsessed. Weird stuff happened to her. That will be in another story. Safe to say she later married and moved out and eventually stopped the belief/practice. Grandma was always Catholic and prayed daily, she said "Good will always prevail over evil" and I strongly believe that to this day.
Sorry for this long story but I wanted to capture as much as I could remember. I wrote and rewrote it over the course of two days. Comments are welcome, as I don't have any questions.