One day in May 1985, nine-year-old Reyna Grande was called to her grandmother’s house and told to wait for a phone call. When she arrived, she found a man waiting there.
“Nobody had to tell me who the man sitting on the couch was,” she writes in her memoir The Distance Between Us. “I thought about the eight-by-ten-inch photo I had placed on my grandmother’s altar. He had put on weight. He wore glasses now. Instead of black-and-white, he was in color, and I could see that his skin was the color of rain-soaked earth.”
Thus ended an eight-year period of waiting. For most of her childhood in Mexico, all Grande knew of her father was what he had left behind when he went north to El Otro Lado. Grande’s father was a bricklayer, and he’d gone north to pursue a dream of making enough money to build a great house. When he arrived there, he discovered he needed help, so Grande’s mother soon joined him. Grande and her two siblings went to live with one of their grandmothers, a bent-backed older woman who takes out her frustrations on her granddaughters.
In the mythosphere of the migratory journey from Mexico to America, we do not often see this part: the time spent waiting, the loneliness of children, the not-perfect emotional support they receive among overtaxed or indifferent grandparents or aunts and uncles. How much anguish just this separation can put children through, even if a kindlier relative steps in, as ultimately happened in Grande’s case, when her other grandmother, a healer, took her and her siblings in.
In The Distance Between Us, Grande charts the emotional costs of these other forms of distance and how they alter a family. Most of the book is seen from a child’s eye. Grande remembers so well the sights and smells of her hometown of Iguala, with its ring of hills, pouring rains, the hot summers. The scorpions trying to sneak in at night. The luxurious mangoes sold at school that she could never afford. Not to mention new clothes, a quinceañera, and many other things her next-door neighbor and cousin could.
With childhood comes an acute awareness of fairness, and Grande deploys this moral centering to observe the way distance operates on her family. The trying times draw Grande and her two siblings closer together. When her brother, Carlos, sneaks out, she and her sister, Mago, work to distract their grandmother from realizing he’s nipped across town to where he knows he’ll be fed. Tenderly, they watch out for one another, and then for their mother, too, when she comes home heartbroken: their father has met another woman.
When it is at last Grande’s time to leave for El Otro Lado, she faces another leave-taking. Her mother will be left 2,000 miles behind. The Distance Between Us is divided nearly in half, the second part beginning in September 1985, three months after Reyna, her brother, and her sister have arrived in their new home, in their new country, and where the shock of having been initially left behind comes with them. There are real and persistent physical symptoms of trauma. To add confusion to this ache, when Grande goes to the dentist for the first time in her life, she’s told to answer to “Cindy,” the name of the daughter of Grande’s father’s girlfriend.
This is a tremendously affecting book, a chronicle of a prototypical Californian childhood, and a reckoning with memory. As Grande describes her teen years, the shadows of her family’s dispersal grow. Certain smells—the wax in a beauty salon—send Grande zooming back to her kinder grandmother’s home. Meanwhile, in California, her father is ever a stranger, even more so when he tells her, offhandedly, that her own mother is there, too. How to hold all this in one body, Grande’s memoir seems to ask, so much disparate family, so much distance? It is impossible, but on the page this complex family and the journey they undergo hold beautifully, like a map that is still being written.
AUTHOR REYNA GRANDE IN CONVERSATION WITH CBC HOST JOHN FREEMAN
When: Thursday, November 19, 2020, 5 p.m. Pacific time
Format: John Freeman will lead a free hour-long conversation with Reyna Grande, which will include an excerpt reading and taking questions from the audience. Produced by Alta for streaming on Zoom.