Kim Vazquez

The Lady in White


Kim Vazquez is a Puerto Rican writer. She studied Dramatic Writing at Tisch School of the Arts NYU. The lack of representation and diversity in children's books drove her to write a middle-grade Latinx mystery that she is currently querying as she works on another. Two of her articles, “Green Plantains and Memories of mi Isla” and “Mushrooms and Sofrito” have been curated and published on Medium.

You can contact her at

Twitter @KimVwriter

Instagram @puerto_rican_writer

The spirit of a woman wearing all white has visited Abuela three times throughout her life. The woman is short and has a smile that Abuela describes as tranquila. A white scarf holds back her salt and pepper hair, and she wears a white dress that reminds Abuela of 'los tiempos de antes.' She thinks that this lady in white is a great-great-aunt or some other family member who passed long before her time but reaches out to help when she needs it most.

Abuela is telling me about the lady in white's first visit, as we're walking around La Plaza del Mercado in Rio Piedras on a hot Saturday afternoon. Shopping in La Plaza is a sort of tradition for us, and every time I visit Puerto Rico, she and I come. She's told me the story of the lady's first visit before when I was young. I remember bits and pieces of it but most of it I've forgotten. What I mostly remember is that I had fought with my dad, and Abuela was trying to give me advice and make me talk to him.  

As we make our way across the aisle from one kiosk selling viandas to another, Abuela holds onto my arm. The man selling the viandas gives me a quick smile and approaches Abuela respectfully. He bows his head slightly and lets her know the price for the yuca she's holding. Abuela's voice becomes authoritative and no-nonsense as she haggles price. She's 92 years old, and that alone gives her the right to demand and receive everyone's respect.

She pays the man with a few dollar bills she pulls from her coin purse and drops the yuca and a batata in her bag while proudly showing me the stitching. She made it herself—no need to spend money on bags when you've been a seamstress all your life.

"I came here to La Plaza the day after she came to me for the first time," Abuela says as we make our way to the kiosk selling lottery tickets. It reminds me of when I lived with her in New York while I was in college. Her hair was darker then, and I was thinner. Every time we would run errands together, we'd have to stop off at a diner on 10th avenue so she could play the numbers. We'd make our way past the counter to a back room where she'd call off numbers she'd dreamt about to a gruff man sitting behind thick glass. 

Abuela brings me back as she asks the lady behind the plexiglass in the kiosk about yesterday's winning numbers. She has no matching numbers and throws out her lottery tickets with a sigh. Then she smooths her blouse down and stuffs her coin purse in a pocket.  I remind her to continue her story of the lady in white as we walk away. She looks at me like she's not sure what I'm talking about, and for a second, my heart hurts as I wonder if she's starting to forget things. But then she turns away with an, "Oh!"

Abuela was 12 and had paid ten cents to take a carro publico from where she lived in El Caimito to La Plaza to buy soap for her mother. She was strolling around the kiosks when her older brother, Ricardo, showed up. He had come to get her and the priest from the church next door. They had to make their way back home quickly because their father was dying. Abuela remained calm as her brother told her that the man she loved so very much would be gone before nightfall. She had known this was coming. The night before, the spirit of a woman in all white had visited and had warned her. She had said that hard times were coming and that she needed to be strong. The lady in white told her that she would need to help take care of her family after her father was gone. And Abuela did and was still doing it.

"That's all she said?" I ask when she gets quiet and focuses on a sign for fresh juice. She gives me a look and a small smile. And, again, I wonder if she's forgotten her memories. Or, maybe, she's just keeping her secrets to herself. It's only after we've gotten our fresh juice and fried bacalaitos that she continues talking. "Nena," She still calls me 'nena' even though I'm 50 now, "In life, we have to be strong. Tu lo sabes." She's referring to my widowhood at 26. I nod and turn away because it still hurts, and I don't like talking about it, but she doesn't ask questions. She never does. She's just stating a fact.

We sit at one of the small metal tables in front of the food kiosks and tear apart our bacalaitos. And Abuela tells me more about the lady in white. She tells me how the lady in white showed her everything that was going to happen before it did—the funeral, the mourning, and the money trouble that followed. Abuela was prepared and helped handle everything because of it.  "Hay que estar siempre preparados en la vida." She takes a bite of her bacalaito and washes it down with her parcha juice.

"Nena, you know what I'm thinking?" She continues, "I'm thinking I want to get some material and make you a bag like mine so you can take it back to New York with you. Don't waste money buying those bags. Ahorrate tu dinero." She starts talking about the ban on plastic bags in New York. She heard about it on the local news, and I'm going to need a bag to shop. I don't have the heart to tell her that I have about twenty cloth bags in a bin under my kitchen counter. I smile and accept her offer.

After a bit, I ask her about the second visit she received from the lady in white. I've never heard this story before, and I'm curious. She wipes her mouth with her napkin a little dramatically and gives me a slight smile. I know she's uncomfortable. She never did like talking about herself unless it was to make a point. "You've told me before that she visited you three times in your life and helped you. It's time for you to pass along her wisdom." I smile slyly, knowing that she'll relax and laugh. She lays her hand on my arm and laughs while calling me a "pendeja." I laugh too.

When we stop laughing, she tells me that the second visit from the lady in white happened when she was a young mother. "I had my two sons. Tu papa was two years old, and Paco was a year. We were living with my Tia Maria in Old San Juan. I was working in one of her businesses. And, Alvarez," She always referred to my grandfather by his last name, "Was doing something. I don't remember what." She made a jerking motion with her hand as she dismissed the memory of the man that abandoned her and her sons.

Abuela sipped her juice and told me about her second visit with the lady in white. She had just gotten back from work and was sitting on the edge of the bed when she looked up and saw her. The lady in white spoke to her softly but with conviction and made it clear that Abuela needed to learn a trade. "Go down by the bay," the spirit instructed her, "And find a woman named Taveras. She will teach you how to sew." Abuela raised her eyebrows at me, "Those are her exact words. I'll never forget it. Taveras. She told me the name." I was a bit skeptical, but Abuela insisted that the spirit had told her the woman's name. I suggested that maybe she didn't remember right or that she had adjusted the story in her head over time. I got a 'callate' and a dirty look. Then she reprimanded me for doubting her word. "Yo se lo que digo." She held her index finger up as a warning not to doubt her again. I relented, and she continued her story. "If I hadn't learned how to sew, I would never have been able to take care of myself and my sons when Alvarez left. I wouldn't have been able to make any money. Gracias a Dios, I had a talent for it and made a good living. And by good, I mean that I could keep a roof over their heads and food on the table."

I finished my bacalaito as a burning acid gurgles up my esophagus, making me burp discreetly behind my hand. The greasiness is too much, and I'm not used to it. Abuela pulls a roll of Tums out of her bag and hands it to me, "Tragate uno de esos." she says before asking if I want coffee. I shake my head; my stomach won't be able to take it. She hands me everything on the table and wipes it down, then grabs my arm so we can get her cafe con leche. When we get back and sit down, she lays a napkin out and carefully places her paper coffee cup on top. She looks around for a few seconds, then says, "Oye nena, you know what I'm thinking? I should make you un delantal for when you're cooking. This way, you don't ruin your clothing." She avoids looking at me.

"Abuela, you're just trying to get out of talking about the lady in white. Tell me what else she told you."

"Nada. Just that. And that I had to be strong. En la vida hay que ser fuerte. La vida es lucha. Life is hard, and no one should expect it to be otherwise."

I nod as I feel the burning in my chest calming down. Abuela looks around and nods at no one in particular, then sips her coffee. I want to ask her about the lady's third visit. I look over at her, and I can see she feels uncomfortable. She pulls the roll of Tums out of her bag again and instructs me to take another. I do as she says, then look out at the kiosks across from us and watch the people.

  We sit there in silence for a few minutes, and then Abuela turns to me, "I've never liked talking about myself."

 "It's okay." I can see myself in her averted eyes and hunched shoulders. Her guardedness is familiar because I'm the same way. I've tried my best to protect my secrets when, in reality, I'm just afraid of being vulnerable. Always project strength and don't let them see your vulnerability.

"No te creas que soy loca." Abuela admonishes and smiles uneasily.

I shake my head, "¿Tu? No way. You're the sanest person I know."

My stomach is feeling much better, and I decide to get coffee. When I get back, I sit down quietly next to Abuela. After a minute or so, she lays her hand on my arm to ensure I pay attention and starts telling me about the third visit from the lady in white.

"I was sleeping, and something woke me up. I don't know what, but I sat up, and there she was, in all white. She looked the same as the other two times she came to visit. Igualita." She held her index finger up for emphasis. Abuela had been feeling unwell for a few days but had ignored it. She had continued getting up at 5:00 every morning and going into the backyard to check on her plants. She cooked and cleaned and chatted with the neighbors. In bed by 8:00. But that night, the pain was worse, and it woke her up around 1 am. The lady in white told her to get to the hospital right away. Don't bother getting dressed. Go now.

So, Abuela woke my dad up, and they rushed to the hospital. Abuela's diagnosis was stage 4 Colon Cancer. She needed emergency surgery. Later on, the surgeon would tell my dad that if he had brought her in just an hour later, they wouldn't have been able to save her, and Abuela would have died.

 I stare at Abuela. I don't know what to say. She nods, "There are still things I have to do." I nod too. She must be right.

 "Acuerdate nena, you have to be strong always, even when you're old because you don't know what life has planned for you."

We sit back in silence and, for a while, watch the people and inhale the smells of La Plaza.

"Do you think you'll ever see her again? The lady in white?" I finally ask and disturb our silence.

 Abuela nods, "The next time I see her will be so she can take me home. Pero no te preocupes, I'll come back and visit you." I give her a look, and she smiles then finishes her coffee. I'm still working on mine. She rushes me because she wants to go to the material store before it gets too late. She needs to buy material so she can make me that shopping bag I need.

 While I finish my cafe con leche, she waves a hand in front of her face and exclaims, "Que calor." Then pulls a white scarf from her bag and ties her salt and pepper (mostly salt) hair back. She smooths down her white blouse and smiles a smile that can only be described as tranquila. I sit there, nodding, as I realize she's dressed in all white. I open my mouth to ask her about that, but she's in a rush. "Vente nena." She hurries me along. She has things to do y se hace tarde.

© The Acentos Review 2021