Image Source: Unsplash/Cristian Newmann
My abuelita, may she rest in peace, had a very serious face. You'd think she was being charged money for smiling, yet when she did crack a smile, she had the incredible power of lighting up the whole world.
My only paternal cousin and I had front-row seats to her affection as well as the privileges of seeing her best days and trying the incomparable stews that came out of her steaming pots. But we also learned the most effective — according to her — ways to get rid of bad energies with her Spring-cleaning rituals that she genuinely believed in.
Since my parents divorced when I was a baby, seeing my paternal grandparents on alternate weekends was a regular thing for me. But, to be honest, my favorite time of year to visit was Spring, specifically Semana Santa.
Although she was fervently Catholic, my abuela also kept some of the secrets of Cuban syncretism that mix different beliefs and ancient traditions. Many of those secrets, she told us, had been taught to her by her mother, who had learned them from her own mother.
It all started with Palm Sunday mass, where my abuela got a blessed palm branch that would end up behind the main door "to protect those who enter and ward off all evil." Then, it was time for the general cleaning, because no type of ritual can work if you have not generously poured water throughout the house. She started by dusting off all surfaces, organizing the messy clothes, and collecting toys from, well, everywhere. Basically, Marie Kondo had nothing on her.
A nonnegotiable requirement for my grandma was that all windows and doors had to be open to let in the sun and air.
Image Source: Unsplash/Daniel Von Appen
Once everything was in order, she swept, then tossed infinite buckets of clean water from the back of the house to the front door. Afterward, she meticulously dried each room. My cousin and I were supposed to help, but in reality, we asked my abuela to throw some water buckets on the front porch and move the chairs away so we could slide on our knees with all the soaked cloths she used to dry the floors.
Finally, the water used to clean the floors had to be thrown out, to release negative energies forever and prepare the house for el sahumerio, or the incense.
Incense can traditionally be made by burning myrrh or lighting a stash made up of various plants, each with a particular function. My grandmother's favorites were eucalyptus, rosemary, yerba santa, and ruda. Some of them help remove bad energies, others attract peace or economic prosperity. A few more, I think, were just there just to provide a more pleasant scent.
The distinctive smell that remained in the house after the incense, and the figure of my abuela in her bata de casa smoking every corner of the house, will always remain among my best childhood memories.
Perhaps some may consider this Santería or brujería, but my grandmother's rituals were simply inherited traditions — cultural practices that helped her predecessors "cleanse" the family's pathways of negative energies in an attempt to push away bad feelings like frustration, stress, exhaustion, or illness.
Image Source: Unsplash/Marcos Paulo Prado
Those same practices helped my abuelita feel that she protected us all, and somehow they have also helped me as well, because every Semana Santa I can't help but burn at least one incense stick just to remember her.
Each culture is riddled with a variety of interpretations of reality, and I believe that none are wrong. Whether you light candles and pray to your saints or angels, take flower and herb baths, or sprinkle Agua de Florida in the corners of your home, every action that brings you back to your center and gives you peace is valuable, and you should treasure the ones learned from a significant person in your life.
For me, having at least one little cleansing ritual every Spring is not just a promise of renewal and a way to kick out bad vibes. It is a way to bring my grandmother back to me at least for a little while. Perhaps, someday in the future, one of my descendants will remember me the same way when they take a broom in their hands, or smell some incense.