Puerto Rico Trip: 2020 A Memorable Year

Writer and Dreams Abroad founder Leesa Truesdell during her Puerto Rico tripLeesa Truesdell’s beloved grandma, Tata, is a continuing influence on her travels, inspiring her to fall in love with adventures abroad from an early age. While teaching English in Madrid, Tata passed away. Since then, Leesa has developed in ways her grandmother would be proud of. After taking an emotion-packed trip to Puerto Rico in December 2019, Leesa was able to honor her grandmother’s memory. Now, at the close of 2020, she takes time to remember the one and only Tata and all that she learned from her.

2020: A Memorable Year

It’s 2020. When I wrote my last piece about Tata, I did not realize how much would change and how fast it would happen. This year has been tough for all of us. It is times like these when we must remember to tell people what they mean to us often, live with conviction and purpose, and remember that every person you meet has a story, so listen. Listen up and listen hard. 

Last year, I was in Puerto Rico. Letting go has never been easy for me, nor has saying goodbye. When I returned from Spain, I worked and did not stop working. It is almost as if I did not give myself a chance to fully let go of the sadness that would creep up every time I heard a song or was reminded of her. I realized I needed to take a break from overdrive and go back to the place where all of my traveling began. So that is exactly what I did.

Feelings on Arrival

When I landed, I didn’t feel the usual buzz of anticipation when you get off and exit the aircraft. This was probably because I knew this trip had a purpose external to my personal destiny. I was there for Christmas Eve (my grandma’s favorite holiday) but also, to let go. For much of my adult life, “letting go” meant backing away from being right in a conversation. Or, letting family members have the last cookie at a holiday party.

This trip just had that feeling… yeah. It could have been a subconscious all-in-your-head feeling. But, I still did not feel that that let-me-jump-for-the-luggage-carousel-to-find-my-bag-so-I-could-explore vibe. This had a different feeling altogether. However, it was up to me as to how I chose to live in the moment. Since Tata no longer was there for me to tell her how much I loved her, it was time to set her free. After her passing in 2017, it was about time.

As I drove to the other side of the island, memories of her stories and Puerto Rico flashbacks bounced into my mind. Years of listening to her stories filled my heart. They came out right when I needed them most. It was as if those memories armed me with what I was about to encounter next. 

She would talk about Puerto Rico and her sisters over and over again. In the end, I felt like I was the adult and loving grandparent she had been to me for thirty years prior to that moment. These moments made me realize how much people have to tell if you listen.”

— Leesa Truesdell

A photo of Leesa and her grand mother, Tata. Leesa reflected on her grandmother's life and the messages she carries with her today during her Puerto Rico trip

Why Am I Really Here

When Tata passed while I was in Madrid, my father had a small portion of her ashes encased into a ceramic heart. The purpose of this heart was so that I could have her with me at all times. Truth be told, she had been in my heart since the moment she took her last breath. Although we were separated and on two different continents, I knew when she passed. Time stood still. 

So, while the sentiment was thoughtful and sweet, Tata needed to return home. She had been locked in a tiny heart for years. This was not how she would have wanted to have been remembered. I believe with conviction that she needed to be set free. She lived her life traveling the world, yet was not afforded the opportunity to go home one more time before she passed. 

She talked about Mayagüez many times over the years — as long as I knew her, which was my entire life. But, she never returned. Puerto Rico was not calling during her life until the end. That was why it was my responsibility, down to me and nobody else, to release her and to let her go. Over the years, I heard her stories and when dementia set in, she spoke of the island even more. I listened. I listened hard.

Leesa looking at a picture on a camera while at the beach in early 2020 during her Puerto Rico trip

Ashes to Ashes

The location and personal ceremony I had with Tata one last time before she physically left my hands and rejoined the earth was an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life… I will never be able to put it into words. I had so many things I wanted to tell her. And, so I did. I let go. We let go together. 

William Parrish : It’s hard to let go, isn’t it?
Joe Black : Yes it is, Bill.
William Parrish : What can I tell you? That’s life.”

Quote: Meet Joe Black

Life and Legacy Beyond 2020

What things are you doing or working towards now that are helping to shape the legacy you want to leave? How are you moving past 2020?

I ask each of you to join us as we begin our life and legacy chapter of Dreams Abroad. We want to make this a space where parents, students, teachers, doctors, executives, healthcare professionals, military service members, police officers, and more can come to speak about their lives. Our goal is to not leave our loved ones behind. We want you to share a note, a phone call, or an online greeting to let them know that you care. Please join our team as we reach out with information about how you can help us stay connected.

Jack Whitten: Whittens Have a Little Bit of Outlaw in ‘Em

My name is Amanda Whitten. I’m from a small-to-medium town found in northeastern Oklahoma in the USA. I currently live in Madrid, Spain. I don’t meet many people from Oklahoma, or even from the midwest, around here, and I couldn’t tell you why that is. Maybe it’s resources that many Oklahomans lack, or maybe it’s a matter of mindset, but I don’t think that many of us feel like we will ever get to leave unless it’s via the military. Some of us don’t even have the desire to ever do so. Sometimes, I wish I felt that way. Being far from family and friends is not easy, and the part of Oklahoma that my family and I call home is gorgeous. 

I think what allows me to be an exception is that I have a little thing called a Travel Bug (having an emotionally supportive family and a safety net helps, too, of course). It’s a condition that I believe I caught from my paternal grandfather. His name was Jack Whitten. My papa was an exceptional man. I recognize that I say this looking through the lens of familial love and adoration. I really think it’s the truth, though. 

Jack Whitten Origins

Jack whitten and hit wifeWhen he was young, before he met my grandmother, he had an experience that left an impression on him. He upped and left with his family to Oregon to become a logger for the summer. His family left early to go back to Oklahoma, but he stayed on the condition that he would come back when school started. When his dad, my Grandpapa, wrote him a letter telling him come home and finish school, he totally ignored it. Being a young teen, he became accustomed to making money and having freedom. It took a second letter that probably included some strong language and a few threats to get him to return home. He might have hitchhiked all the way back. I’m not sure. The specifics may be fuzzy, but his stories live on inside of me.

Humble Beginnings

His dream was that when he retired, he and my grandmother would take their camper and travel through Canada and Alaska, stopping to fish here and there. It didn’t happen for various reasons. He wanted to go out in style. He wanted to die fighting a grizzly bear. My grandfather died in a nursing home. 

He called me “kid” and “squirt”. He had a very specific dry sense of humor that coincided with mine very well. It was strange, though. I rarely understand other people’s dry senses of humor, but I got his perfectly. He was the wisest person I’ve ever known. He pulled himself and my grandmother out of terrible poverty, and together, they made a comfortable life for themselves. Papa told me that in one of the first places he and Mama lived, the lack of heating and insulation was so terrible that during the winter, a diaper actually froze to the floor.  He was smart financially and had a knack for making the right investments at the right time. 

Jack Whitten

Who He Was

Jack Whitten was honest. When I asked difficult questions, he didn’t shy away from the truth. I asked him about segregation. He told me that at the time he thought it was the natural order of things and that he didn’t want change. I asked him what he had thought about Martin Luther King. He told me that at the time he had thought he was making trouble. My Papa wasn’t a perfect man. In fact, sometimes, he could be downright difficult. He couldn’t be swayed, let alone manipulated. He was a man’s man which came with most of the wonderful pros and cons thereof.

Despite all that, during a time when the majority of people, specifically older people, conservatives and even a lot of progressives, were actively against gay rights, he wasn’t. When I asked him what he thought about gay rights, he said that he didn’t care what people did and that it was their business. I can’t say that he was an ally, but he wasn’t an enemy. Not like the others. He had no poison or vitriol. He was open-minded about the universe and the possibilities concerning religion. I asked him once if he thought that it was possible that humans could have “extra” abilities like clairvoyance. He told me about the time that he had shot his bow and lost an arrow. He had no idea where it went so he closed his eyes and just followed his instinct, and walked right up to his lost arrow.

His Quest for Gathering and Sharing Knowledge

great depressionWhen I had questions, he had advice. He knew the real history and was always wanting to learn. He told me what the Great Depression was like since his dad lived through it. Papa grew up during its after-effects. I remember a story he told about a young boy who stole a handful of flour. I asked if he the child got into trouble for it and thankfully he hadn’t because everyone knew his family was starving. 

When the internet became available, most older folks shied away from computer technology. Papa dived in. He learned all he could. He saw it for what it was: a miracle and a gold mine. Later, when he got Netflix at home and saw all the available documentaries, I’m told that his eyes lit up. I didn’t feel surprised in the least. 

A Vacation

In the summer before my 10th grade, he and Mama took my cousin and me with them on vacation for two weeks. We went to Maine and a few surrounding states. That trip gave me a big taste of travel. I was surprised to see that the countryside in Pennsylvania, New York, Tennessee, and the Virginias was so beautiful. 

The first thing that I remember when I stepped out of the camper in Maine was the smell of pine trees. We got to see Niagara Falls and ride in the Maiden of the Mist boat. We stopped on the way and spent the night in a park in Salisbury, Massachusetts. I made a point of remembering the name because I liked the place so much. The sound of the wind and the smell of the sea at night made an impact on young-me for sure. 

Shaping Who I Became

My grandmother and I got up at 5:00 AM many times to look for seashells when the tide went out at a few of the beaches we visited. One time, my Mama, my cousin and I tried to catch the little crabs, but they kept pinching us so we tossed them back and forth between us, trying to catch them in the folds of our clothes. I feel a little bad for them now, but I also remember our peals of laughter and shrieks of joy. 

Jack Whitten and family

There was no real plan. Papa just drove and where we ended up is where we ended up. It was one of the best times of my life. During this trip, I feel Papa made a definitive impact on my personality. When Mama asked me to cut a cantaloupe, I must have been feeling a little lazy, selfish, or even afraid of using a large knife. I told them that I’d do it when I was twenty. I don’t know what kind of logic that was. Papa said, “If you won’t do it now, you won’t do it when you’re twenty.” I felt unbelievably embarrassed and, of course, I cut it up for everyone. He didn’t slap me or get angry. He just used his logic and words to make an impact. 

Dealing With the Loss of Jack Whitten

Papa died about three months after I arrived in Spain. After that, I imagined him with me in spirit. I wondered if he would get to experience my travels through me. I think he would have made the perfect traveling companion. There is a part of me, perhaps a selfish, egocentric part, that believes that he died because I left. I don’t mean that my leaving had an overwhelmingly negative effect on him. Quite the opposite. 

I told him something that we aren’t supposed to tell people. I told him that I wasn’t ready for him to die — that I needed him in my life. This was when his cancer was starting to get a little more serious. There’s this part of me that believes that he let go because he knew that I was finally going to accomplish my dreams and carry on for him in a way. It’s more likely that the timing was a coincidence. He was a survivor until the end, and he fought tooth and nail for every scrap of life that he had. There were times at my lowest that I wished that I could have gifted him the remaining years of my life. He wanted to live so badly.

Jack Whitten Lives On

a big fish

His love of travel and adventure lives on through me and many others in the family. Also inside of me is a quality that I’m not quite sure how to name. I have, in my opinion, the ability to see any avenue, no matter how minuscule, that may lead to any given goal of mine. I have the urge and wherewithal to follow it, full steam ahead (with the exception of giving up chocolate and cheese. Luckily, I got that from him, too. Thanks, Papa! Haha!). And one time, he told me that what he liked about me was my curiosity and my desire to learn about history, for example. I definitely think that we shared that trait. 

Jack Whitten left his intelligence and knack for survival instincts to my uncle. My sister joined the Navy when she was seventeen. I think he gave her boldness and inner strength that I may never quite possess. He left his talent for good advice and honesty in my father. I see him everywhere I go. When I see tobacco pipes in the Madrid shops, I remember the smell and I feel a twinge of regret for not having bought him one when I had the chance.

When the sun rises and I feel the cool morning air, I think of when I was a little girl. After staying the night at my grandparents’ house, I would get up to sit in his lap and we would watch the sunrise together. When someone tells a dry joke that I don’t get, I can’t help but think that he was funnier and would have delivered it better. When I’m traveling to a new place, I know that even though it may not have been his preferred destination, I still think he would approve. Jack Whitten wasn’t a perfect person, but he was a perfect grandfather.

by Amanda Whitten

My Biggest Inspiration: María Dolores González

by Carlos Balbuena

Carlos-Balbuena María Dolores GonzálezMy name is Carlos Balbuena González. I’m from México City and I want you to meet my mom: María Dolores González Aguilar. She was the most amazing person I’ve ever met and I had the privilege of having her as a mother. Being her son is the best thing that ever happened to me because of what she taught me.

Importance of Family

My mother taught me the importance of family and the value of sacrifice. She was an incredibly hard-working person. When her mother died, she cared for her father, who had Alzheimer’s. It was a challenging task and she did everything and even a little bit more for him. I admire her dearly because, at the same time she was taking care of him, she was also able to manage a business, take care of the house, and take care of me and our three dogs. She did everything to provide and educate us. She did it all for her family. 

My mother always encouraged me to be myself and this taught me to be my authentic self. Maria Dolores Gonzalez was not a regular mom. She always talked to me upfront about everything and she always inspired me to pursue my dreams. I vividly remember her saying that I should study something that made me happy rather than something profitable. She constantly encouraged me to do the things that I liked rather than the things I dreaded. She taught me I must be myself and never try to shape myself to be likable. My mom shaped my world and my vision of it. 

She Always Listened

Carlos Balbuena and mother

She taught me that you don’t need someone’s validation or a title to prove your worth. Mom was everyone’s person to go to when they felt sad or they needed advice. She always listened to you without judging, and her advice was always pure gold. My mom was really smart and she could’ve done anything she wanted. Unfortunately, my grand-dad had the notion that women should not study since they were just going to be supported by a husband. She had to quit school soon after high school. Nonetheless, she excelled in all the jobs she had and became a fundamental part of them. When she died, the company where we worked together went down and it’s now sinking. She was the only one who was able to properly manage the business.

 

Besides being incredibly smart, she was also an incredibly giving person. My mom always worried about everyone else instead of herself. As we say here in México, she was the kind of person who would take the bread out of her mouth to give it to you. She died on February 19th of 2019. With her passing my world turned upside down. 

I’m very sad about her passing, but I’m really happy that I was able to meet her. There’s no day I don’t think about her. I carry a few her ashes near my chest in a necklace. Whenever the day gets too rough or I’m feeling down, I grab my necklace and think about what would she say or the advice she would give to me to make me feel better, and then, the pain fades away. 

 

María Dolores González Is My Inspiration

María Dolores González is not here anymore, but she’s still my biggest inspiration to move forward. I want to make her proud going forward and I know for sure she felt proud of me before she passed. She said it sometimes, but I want to succeed in life so I can be exactly what she wanted me to be: a good, decent, loving person, who is independent and self-sufficient. She shapes and will shape my world.

My mother knew I loved her with all my heart because we used to tell each other “I love you” often. So please, you can never be short on the “I love you’s.” If you love someone, let them know how much they mean to you. If you live with your mom, go to her room and give her a big hug for me. If you live by yourself, call your mom. It’s a good time to say to her that you love her and that you’re grateful for everything she’s done for you.

María Dolores González 2

 

Remembering the Woman with a Heart of Gold: Micaela Colon

Micaela Colon

Pleased to make your acquaintance. My name is Leesa Truesdell and I am from Coral Springs, Florida. As I get older, I realize that life means more. What do I mean by “more?” Well, it means three little things which add up to a large sum: tell people what they mean to you often, live with purpose and do what you can often, and finally, remember that every person you meet has a story, so listen carefully as they might only tell you once.

Micaela Colon: The woman with the best laugh, softest smile, and a heart of gold. 

I have made my fair share of mistakes over the course of my life. Nonetheless, it is these mistakes that have made me who I am. It sounds cliché, but let me explain. My grandmother, my beloved Tata, is no longer alive to write about how she would want to be remembered. However, I have a soul full of love and a mind full of memories that still feel so raw and real. Micaela Colon passed on January 11, 2017. Yet, I can still hear her voice and see her smile. Those are the memories that will never fade and are tucked in my heart forever. 

The love my grandmother showed me as a child was the kind of love a child could only dream of. I can still see the red swing that I would run and jump on when she took me to the park by her house. We went to the arcade for hours over the summer. One of my fondest memories is going to the cinema with her and sharing popcorn. We used to go to the cinema a few times a summer. Two movies that remind me of her are Chances Are and Xanadu. Tata enjoyed a movie with a good soundtrack. She played the piano and was passionate about a variety of music.

playing piano with my grandmother

Be Mindful

I am telling you about my memories that live on in my mind because as she got older, I remembered her love and I never forgot her. When I got older and was able to drive, I took her out to lunch. Eventually, when I was in college, I called her on all of her birthdays. When we went to lunch, she usually ordered the soup of the day and a half-sandwich combo at Rob’s Bageland near her house. It was one of her favorite places. After she passed, I remembered the things that I did with her as a child and as an adult when it was my turn to care for her. There was no eradication of the sadness but it helped me through it. 

Let me emphasize this — tell people what they mean to you while they are in your life. They will never forget it and neither will you. When I got home from Madrid and saw my mom for the first time after Tata had passed, she handed me a box with things from my grandma. In the box were cards that I had mailed her over the years. She kept all of them. At the time, I did not realize how much a card meant to her, but clearly, it meant everything and more.

Embrace Being Abroad

My grandparents traveled across the world throughout their lives because my grandfather was an aeronautical engineer. His job meant that he needed to live in different countries for years at a time. My grandparents embraced this part of their lives. They did what they wanted and they lived with purpose. They adapted to environments that did not accept them and taught in places that embraced them with open arms. For example, my grandmother taught English in Kinshasa, Africa in the 1970s while my grandfather made friends at work. He attended Rumble in the Jungle. This is something I was not aware of until my late twenties.

Take Time

What Tata wanted most during the older years of her life after Papa passed was attention. Our roles reversed and towards the last few years of her life, I found myself sitting and listening to her about her childhood in Puerto Rico. When her dementia started to progress, she kept her long-term memory and continued to recall her childhood in Puerto Rico. She just couldn’t remember what she had just eaten. It was important for me to sit and just listen to her during these stages of her life. Unfortunately, with Lewy body dementia, the person knows what is happening to them while it is happening.

Shared Moments

I felt at times helpless that she would fail to remember I was there because her short-term memory would not last. She would talk about Puerto Rico and her sisters over and over again. In the end, I felt like I was the adult and loving grandparent she had been to me for thirty years prior to that moment. These moments made me realize how much people have to tell if you listen. Some might not want to share, but those that do might need a friend or, in my case, their granddaughter, to sit and listen to the same story over and over again. As I look back, it only took a few minutes here and there, but collectively these minutes are some of the best moments I have ever spent.

Remembering Micaela Colon

The legacy Tata left me changed my life. It has made me a more mindful person. I tell people what they mean to me more often, I live with purpose, and listen to others regularly. When I got back from Madrid, I became an international student advisor and my sole role was to listen during this job. I also started Dreams Abroad to help others achieve their goals in life. No matter what I am doing in this life, I am always remembering her and using the love she gave me as a guide in my day-to-day actions. Micaela Colon is sincerely missed and never to be forgotten. 

Her legacy lives on through Dreams Abroad and its impact.

by Leesa Truesdell