Abuelita Lalita, my father’s mother, would give my sister and me a great treat every summer when we visited Miami from Mexico.

On Saturday mornings when she was not working at the jean factory, she would take us downtown — a trip which consisted of two bus rides preceded and followed by long walks and waits in the melting heat. Our destination was the Sears department store, a veritable wonder-house of goods in which a person could buy anything — if they only had the money. 

Abuelita Lalita would make a modest purchase, something she had thought long and hard about, invariably accompanied by a carefully folded advertisement from the Nuevo Herald announcing a special low price that she pulled out of her purse. After that came our great moment: a hot dog and soda lunch at the counter of the adjacent Five and Ten. It was a treat we found glorious. 

Abuelita Lalita has been on my mind a lot lately. My son’s wife is expecting the very first child of the next generation of our family in March: a little girl who is making something new out of each of us — father, mother, uncle, abuelita.

These are total transformations, like the ones that nature accomplishes every time a swimmy tadpole becomes a landlocked frog. It may be most remarkable in the case of the new mother and father, but my own “becoming abuelita” feels just as momentous to me. The child is granting me a whole new identity, in the proper sense of the word. I am taking on a novel role, forming a new, permanent bond, moving up a generation, acquiring, even, a fresh title. I am receiving at her little hands a whole new set of duties and responsibilities. 

It has made me reconsider the whole concept of identity, which we hear about constantly, usually attached to broad categories like sex, race, and nationality. This entirely misses the real source of identity, which is relational, and its nature, which is distinct. Human beings are not simply interchangeable members of a particular affinity group like checkers shifted around a board. We are unique persons who manifest our individuality more fully with each personal bond we make, whether chosen or unchosen.

We are, each of us, the unrepeatable center of a vast web of human connections, and in each strand, properly acknowledged and lived, is the source not only of individuality but of real fulfillment and meaning. We know this, instinctively. When asked who we are, we respond: I am so and so’s wife, or that person’s father, or my sister’s sister. If we go to the deepest, most fundamental source of our identity, we can each answer, in truth: I am an irreplaceable child of God.

As he exists in a relationship of three persons creating eternally together, and as we are made in his image, we flourish exactly in the measure in which we love and are loved. This is why the saddest person imaginable is one who loves no one and is unaware of the great love God has for him or her. That kind of loneliness is not compatible with life.

The rugged individualist who will not be beholden to anyone, the cynic who considers all human dealings transactional, the armchair Darwinist who sees others chiefly as opponents in the struggle for existence — these are all the types who deny the relational essence of man. Perhaps, at bottom, is a rejection of the burdens that each human connection lays upon us. To love someone is to act on their claims on us: for companionship, tenderness, encouragement, correction, material assistance — the list goes on. And their claims cannot be set aside for being inconvenient or ill-timed, or even for requiring some great sacrifice from us.

I can’t tell for sure what claims upon her Abuelita Lalita was fulfilling when she took two little girls with her to Sears on those hot Saturday mornings. Maybe she was helping my mother a little by taking two of her children for a few hours. Perhaps she knew how hard it was for my sister and I to be all day in her little government apartment where it wasn’t safe to play outside. I imagine she found our joy at the lunch counter with its red revolving stools infectious, and that the joy sustained her on our weary return journey. 

What I do know for certain is that she was the irreplaceable — and unforgettable — center of a complex web of loving relationships. And that is exactly what I’m hoping to be, too, when I become an abuelita.