Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Nature versus civilization: Nature is a woman's refuge
From the start, it is clear that the fourteen-year-old narrator, with her "bull hands," doesn't fit well into her society. She is bad at woman's work, such as crocheting and embroidery. She doesn't see herself as pretty or likable, and she doesn't have a "cute" voice like her sisters. In this patriarchal order, she acts out, for example, hitting her teasing sisters with a "jagged" piece of brick in a sock. She rejects as well the Church her father tries to foist on her, because it leaves her empty.
In contrast, she fits in well at her grandmother's home. This home is described as a place of nature. Here, the narrator says:
I'd gladly go help Abuelita plant her wild lilies or jasmine or heliotrope or cilantro or hierbabuena . . . .
Planting suits the narrator, whose bull hands do well in the soil of the coffee tins where the plants start life. She is at home in her grandmother's house, which is enveloped in the natural world, a paradise apart from patriarchy:
[P]rickly chayotes that produced vines that twisted and wound all over her porch pillars, crawling to the roof, up and over the roof, and down the other side, making her small brick house look like it was cradled within the vines that grew pear-shaped squashes ready for the pick . . .
This natural world is a woman's world: we never see a male in this house, and here the narrator and her grandmother exist in a solely female universe of growth and love, implicitly primal and apart from the scarring whips of the patriarchal order. These whips have tried to tame both the narrator and her abuelita and fit them for patriarchy, for after her grandmother's death, the narrator sees the scars on her back, but both retain a freedom and integrity apart from this world that keeps them whole.
Love and nurture help a person grow
Like the plants her grandmother so successfully nurtures and grows, her grandmother's gentle nurture is healing to the narrator and potentially will help her thrive as she grows into adulthood. Her grandmother heals her of scarlet fever with potato slices and nurtures and tends her through whippings. Her love is gentle. Although the narrator resents her family members (except her mother), she gladly returns the love and nurture she has received from her abuelita by nursing her in her last days as she dies of cancer. Her grandmother has been a refuge for her, a stable source of loving acceptance rather than judgment and pain, a person through whom the young girl can seek wholeness.
Accepting suffering is part of the maturation process
At the end of the story, the narrator undergoes a baptism as she steps into the tub and bathes the body of her dead grandmother. As this happens, "the moths that lay within the soul and slowly eat the spirit up" fly out of her grandmother's body. As they hover around the bathroom, symbolizing suffering, the granddaughter is able to cry and grieve, accepting her grandmother's suffering and her own.