The Abuela Cycle

The Abuela Cycle by Leanna Petronella

José de Diego y Martinez (1866-1918) Georgina Blanes Mangual (1880-1982)     

I keep a coin on my desk of José de Diego. The coin, which commemorates the centennial of his birth, is embossed with his face. I rub my thumb over his raised features like a worry stone. Eventually, a gold coppery color starts to shine through the bronze. 

José de Diego was my great-great-grandfather. According to the internet, he was also the “Father of the Puerto Rican Independence Movement” and “Father of the Modern Puerto Rican Poetry Movement.” These are some intimidating offspring. 

In 1900, he married Georgina (pronounced hair-HEE-nuh). Everyone called her Mama Georgina. She lived to be 102. My mother knew her, can you believe that?  

There are many stories about Mama Georgina. In one, she employs a little person, a young girl, as a housemaid. Like a fancy squirrel, Mama Georgina hides jewelry in a room below her home. When she wants a piece, she upends the tiny girl by her ankles and dips her headfirst into the room. Mama Georgina lifts her up and the girl re-emerges, draped in pearls and sapphires. 

Abuela laughs when she tells this story. Is it funny? 

My twin sister is named after Mama Georgina. Most English speakers pronounce her name jor-JEE-nuh.  


 Elisa Estrella de Diego y Blanes (1901-1985) Agustín Segurola y González (? – ?)  

Mama Georgina is Abuela’s grandmother. When Abuela is a little girl, her parents divorce. Her mother, Elisa Estrella, puts Abuela and her siblings on a ship from Puerto Rico to Mallorca. After arriving to Mallorca, they are told that their parents have died. This is per Elisa’s instructions, as neither she nor her ex-husband wants the children.  

The children live in a Spanish convent for a decade. Meanwhile, Elisa Estrella works as a journalist in Puerto Rico and New York City. She writes true story after true story, while across an ocean, her lie curls into her children. 

Then, for whatever reason, Elisa changes her mind. She summons her children back to her.  

What mother fakes her own death to her children? What mother reverses that decision, and in what ways can she come back to life? 


Olga Segurola de Diego Flores (1921-2020) Hector Flores Gallardo (1918-1998) 

In January 2020, Abuela dies in Mexico City. Georgina and I, who live in Texas, find out via text message. By the time our aunt Chabi contacts us, they have already cremated her. We never even knew Abuela was in the hospital.  

The last time I saw Abuela was in 2017. On that visit, I asked her again about the convent. She was confused, so my cousin Hectorcito translated. He said that, yes, Abuela’s parents got divorced and sent her and her siblings to a convent in Mallorca.  

Here’s where the story changes. According to Hectorcito, Mama Georgina lived by the convent, and the nuns let the grandchildren go visit her. Mama Georgina, who was deeply Catholic, was furious about the divorce. In a moment of pique, she claimed that Abuela’s parents were dead to her. Abuela thought Mama Georgina meant her parents were dead, period. I don’t know how long it took to clear up the confusion.  

Georgina and I believed the first story for over twenty years. My mother was there when Abuela told it to us. She didn’t contradict anything. Why didn’t my mother speak up? Maybe Georgina and I misunderstood Abuela’s telling or Hectorcito’s translation.  Maybe it doesn’t matter. However the story is told, Abuela’s parents still abandon her. 

After Abuela and her siblings return home, she lives not with her mother Elisa, but with her grandmother Mama Georgina. When Abuela is raising my infant mother, Mama Georgina moves in to help. Abuela once told me, “She was my mother more than my own ever was.”  

After Abuela’s death, Georgina and I discover that she has written us out of her will. Everything goes to our aunt Chabi.  


Olga Elisa Flores (1945-2005) Richard Lucas Petronella (1946-) 

A few days before my mother dies from cancer, she tells my father that she has hidden cash all over the house. There are several thousand dollars in the envelopes, which my father splits between my sister and me. “That Olga,” he says. “You never knew what she was up to.” 

My mother never talked about her past. Georgina joked that she sprang from the forehead of Houston, fully formed, when she met my father in 1978. I knew the basics: She grew up in the U.S. for a few years, then Puerto Rico, and finally Mexico City. The family moved around on account of her father, who was a chemist for a pharmaceutical company.  

In her twenties, she moved from Mexico City to Houston. Her parents told her that if she left, they would cut her off financially. They kept their word. 

My mother’s sister Chabi is ten years younger. She looks like her, green-brown eyes and dark brown hair. Chabi is the daughter who stayed. My grandparents bought her a house to raise her children in. For two years, they flew every month from Mexico City to Houston to take Chabi’s daughter to orthodontist appointments. 

Georgina and I, on the other hand, got twenty dollars every Christmas. Abuela would fawn all over my father, saying, “Richard, thank you for taking such good care of my daughter! Such a good man, a good husband.” Years later, he tells us how our grandparents’ favoritism never seemed to bother my mother. “I was the one it pissed off,” he says. We look at each other. Another mystery. 

My mother’s last day is something I replay again and again in my head when I want to punish myself. I don’t know why I want to punish myself. For most of the day, she screams for my father to kill her. “I can’t, Olga! I can’t!” my father cries. Then she keeps screaming that she needs to pee. I get on the phone and call hospice (“Hurry, please, she is so agitated”) and the nurse scolds me for pulling her out of a meeting.  

When the hospice nurse comes to our house, I meet her on the front walk. She stops to breathe in, look up at the blue sky, and say, “Isn’t it a beautiful day?” 

The facts of that day are terrible. They are terrible. 

My mother switches to only speaking Spanish. I can’t understand her last words. Then she stops talking. Her mind shuts down and she is all body.  We wait for my mother’s body to stop. It takes a few hours. 

Towards the end, one of my mother’s friends stops by. She reads poems by José de Diego, from a book I didn’t know my mother owned.  

Chabi and Abuela are there that day, too. But my brain has erased their presence completely, except for one thing. We had a Day of the Dead statue, maybe two feet high, a skeleton in a green dress by the stairs. As my mother is dying, my aunt and grandmother are frantic. So they hide the statue in a closet. “Bad luck,” they say.  

I wonder how long they left the skeleton there, grinning in the dark, waiting for someone to come get her. 

Chabi and Abuela leave two days later. Chabi says Abuela can’t handle the funeral, and that she can’t let Abuela fly on her own. When we tell my mother’s best friend that Abuela isn’t coming to the funeral, she slams her coffee cup down. “That bitch,” she says. “That bitch.” 


Leanna Elizabeth Petronella (1983-) Adam Thomas Escandell (1981-) 

When Abuela turns ninety-five, our cousin Chabeli plans a big celebration. Georgina and I make the trip to Mexico City. As children, whenever we went to Mexico, I invariably got sick. Now, when we visit, Chabi cooks us feasts at home and orders for us at restaurants (¡Agua de botella para las niñas! Sin hielo! Bottled water for the girls! No ice!). 

Abuela always called me Leannita. But I am not Olguita, daughter of Olga; Chabeli, daughter of Chabi; Hectorcito, grandson of Hector; or Georgina, great-great-granddaughter of Mama Georgina. Of whom am I the diminutive? 

My middle name comes from my paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Panto Petronella (1917-1999). But she always went by Betty. It feels lonely, dangling by myself from my father’s lineage, my middle name not even the used name, while my sister is woven deeply into all those Georginas. 

My mother was Olga Elisa. Remember, Abuela’s mother was Elisa Estrella. Why did Abuela name my mother, whom she abandoned, after her mother, who abandoned her? And why did Abuela treat my sister and me like such afterthoughts? My name is elsewhere, but Georgina was named for Mama Georgina, the beloved one, the mother loyal as a shadow. 

I met Mama Georgina once, if you can call it that, a few months before her death. My parents were visiting Puerto Rico, where she lived. My mother was pregnant, my sister and I twirling inside her.  

There’s a story my father tells about a roasted pig that he didn’t get to eat on that trip. Abuela had described the lechón in loving detail in the weeks before they left. But on the night of the meal, my mother felt sick and my parents left the restaurant early. My dad still speaks wistfully of that pig. 

When Chabi and Abuela drop Georgina and me off at the airport after Abuela’s ninety-fifth birthday, the four of us stand at the curb, crying and hugging. Like us, they have lost blood. They have lost their skin and eyes. People tell me I have my mother’s smile, but her actual smile, the material and action of her lips and teeth, is gone.  

I’m glad that before Abuela died, she knew I had fallen in love. I’m glad she knew her great-grandson, Chabeli’s son, and that she saw Chabeli through most of another pregnancy. Abuela died a few months before Chabeli’s daughter was born. She is three now and looks so much like Abuela, uncanny in her gestures.  

There are many almosts in this story: great-grandmothers meeting about-to-be babies, Abuela learning of my soon-to-be husband. Even that pig, a feast seen but never tasted. 

When I get married, Chabeli, her husband, and my cousin María make the trip to Austin. I am joy-stunned, surrounded by my cousins and sister, who have known me for my whole weird life, astonishing, and Georgina even before that, one clump of cell splitting into two, the very beginning. They are still here and here and here. 

Chabi sends her regrets but doesn’t come to my wedding. Still, it helps to remember how every night on our visits, she brought trays of treats up to our bedroom, tea and cookies and chocolates.  It helps to remember how she called Georgina and me her little Olguitas

On our last visit, Chabi taught us how to make perfect scrambled eggs. Our breakfasts were long and full of laughter. Chabi spoke Spanish, we spoke English, and everyone did their best to understand.  

Leanna Petronella’s debut poetry collection, The Imaginary Age, won the 2018 Pleiades Press Editors Prize. Her poetry appears in Beloit Poetry Journal, Third Coast, Birmingham Poetry Review, CutBank, Quarterly West, and other publications. Her nonfiction appears in Brevity and Hayden’s Ferry Review, and her fiction appears in Drunken Boat. She holds a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri and an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. She lives in Austin, Texas. Visit her website at