It never occurred to me how wrong my definition and standards of family were until last year, when I began spending time with my cousin Keysha from my dad’s side of the family. She continues to redefine what the word love means to me and how it is meant to be shown. 

Keysha lived across the road from us in Puerto Rico. After we left, I didn’t see her again until my father’s funeral. After that, I didn’t see her for another few years until I moved into the city for college. It was the end of September, and they were having a surprise sixteenth birthday party for her younger sister, Dareylis. She invited me despite the years of not seeing nor speaking to each other. My mother never cared much for my father’s family and made her distaste for them well known when I was younger, so I figured maintaining a relationship with them was more trouble than it would be worth. But once I got to the city for college, something in me changed. I realized that my overwhelming fear of codependency had caused me to try too hard to handle life on my own. I was so used to not having family around that even when they offered to be there, I stayed away for fear of abandonment. I also realized that I missed my father dearly. In high school I didn’t talk much about himI tried to not even think about him. But my heart yearned for him, and Keysha and her family were the closest pieces left, so I went to the party. 

I saw my grandfather for the first time since I was five years old that day. He immediately recognized me despite his age and sight. He cried. Mi nieta! Mi nieta! Hija de me hijo que se murió. His body was shaking. I realized then that I wasn’t the only one still mourning my father. I wasn’t alone in my pain. I hugged my grandfather and we cried together. After we both calmed down, he told me stories of his life in Puerto Rico with my dad. I felt like I had uncovered the most valuable treasure in the darkest part of the sea that I had been searching for my entire life. At one point while he was telling a story, I stopped him and asked if he was cold. His whole body was still shaking. He smiled. Estoy temblando porque eres tan hermosa. He was shaking because he thought I was so beautiful. He resumed and told me that now he lives with my aunt in Queens and she cares for him, but that soon she’s taking him back to Puerto Rico. He’s sick and old and he doesn’t want to die here. The thought of losing him again after just reconnecting bore a hole in my heart, but I realized that I was lucky to even be seeing him in that momentto hear untold stories of my father’s youth. He kept saying that he saw my father in me and that I had been my father’s world. It was overwhelming to hear so much talk of him after years of avoiding even thinking about my father, but I realized I was also longing to have him back in my world; my family from Puerto Rico was my way of rebuilding that bridge. 

After that party, Keysha began texting me to make plans nearly every week: bowling, barbecues, movie marathons. And I went, every single time. She had a way of always making me feel welcome in her home. I had never felt fully welcome anywhere before. Her mom is my dad’s sister and I deeply love her and her other daughters as well, but it is Keysha who continues to show me what it means to love. When Keysha loves someone, she devotes pieces of herself to them. She has done this for me and I have continuously wittnessed her do it for others. One of her best qualities is her selflessness, and I think that is one of the reasons she is so wonderful at sharing love.

I have never once felt like a burden to her, which is how much of my family made me feel when I was youngerwhether intentional or not. Every time I sleep over, she makes a simple breakfast: French toast with Nutella, powdered sugar and maple syrup, scrambled eggs, and toast. She also always makes coffee, and to this day I don’t know what it is, her but her warm, sweet coffee remains the best cup I have ever had. As time progressed, her signature breakfast became something I longed for when my heart grew weary. I first realized Keysha was becoming home for me when throughout the year I would have arguments with my mother. In those moments of vulnerability and instability, I felt homesickfor Keysha. I wanted to wake up on her unusually comfortable leather futon in her house that is so dark with the curtains closed, that despite typically being an early riser, I sleep until eleven in the morning. I wanted to eat the breakfast while we binge watched a show on her comfy couch and Mya, her husky, sat at our feet hoping we drop a piece of scrambled eggs. I wanted to be with her. She makes me feel safe. 

Keysha would drive me all the way back to my dorm when I came to visit her in the Bronx, which is a little over an hour drive from Greenwich Village. I told her I could take the train, but she insisted. One of those times, she told me her and her boyfriend had picked up a few things for me the other day. When I arrived back at my dorm and unpacked the bag, I cried. She had been so nonchalant about it, but in reality she must had spent at least $100 on getting essentials for me.

The bag was filled with items that I desperately needed but could hardly afford to spend my own money on: paper towels, deodorant, soap, shampoo, conditioner, a pencil case, pens and pencils, laundry detergent, fabric softener, and more. She had also bought me a brand new coffee pot and grounded coffee beans for me, along with giving me her perfectly working speakers she claimed she didn’t use anymore. Keysha just went out one day, thought of me, and got all of this stuff that I really needed. And she didn’t make a big deal out of it, at all. She didn’t praise herself for the act of kindness; she has never thrown it back in my face. She just did it, for me. And it’s not the actual things she bought me that made me so emotional. It was just the fact that she had went about it so eloquently. She knew I needed help, but she didn’t make me ask. 

Keysha has continued to demonstrate this level of thoughtfulness. She texts me every week just to see how I’m doing. A text is such a basic act, but I often go months without speaking to close family members. She never forgets about me. And whenever she drops me off, she always gets out the car to come around and hug me and tell me she loves me. She’ll randomly text me questions like which color do you prefer red pink or blue? and what kind of coffee do you like? and then I go to her house and she has a coffee pot and a phone case for me.

All of these things she does seem so small, so basic; but I am not otherwise used to them. I am not used to family members doing things simply out of the kindness of their hearts. It’s bizarre: a family member who genuinely cares about me, who goes out of her way to help me and show me that she’s always thinking about me. This summer I wasn’t sure if I was going to have a place to live. I knew my mother was moving to Florida, and I obviously wasn’t going to move there, because she’s living with her boyfriend. One day, I opened up to Keysha about my past and all of the pain I have endured. She immediately started planning for me to spend the summer with her. They would buy me a bed and put a curtain up in her room so I could have my own space. A few friends had offered me a place to stay, but Keysha was the first person I felt fully comfortable enough to stay with. I love my friends, deeply, but I know firsthand that people change once you live with them. I luckily got a job as an RA at an NYU residence hall over the summer so I didn’t end up needing a place to stay, but Keysha still made me a copy of her key so that whenever I experience that homesickness I can head over, no questions asked.

Since Keysha, my relationship with other family members and others in general has improved. I am trying to follow her in her path. I want to practice that selflessness that seems to be second nature for her. She has had her own pain through life but she controlled how it shaped her and is currently one of the strongest people I know. Everyday she restores my faith in family and love while bringing me closer to my father and my culture. 

By Jaelynn Grace Ortiz

Jaelynn is a rising sophomore at NYU majoring in Journalism and Social and Cultural Analysis with a focus in Latino studies and is minoring in Creative Writing. The list of her hobbies is almost as drawn out as her majors are. She writes poetry, essays and stories, she dances, mentors high schoolers in the Bronx and often plans environmental events in NYU Residence Halls. She has a poem published in the introspective study Inside My World by the Live Poets Society. Despite vehemently condemning social media, she ironically has instagram which you could follow her on. 

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