When Zoe was little, her parents pretended to fight over her.
«Who’s your favorite, mommy or daddy?».
Zoe’s response never changed. She would brace herself, knowing that her response would provoke a tickle attack from her parents.
«Grandma!» she would scream and burst into uncontrollable laughter.
Years later, the pillow fights between her mom and dad had gradually turned into bitter silence and pent-up resentment.
Zoe was away from it all, learning to be a strong but kind young girl to her grandmother. Emilia may have only had a small house on a farm, but for her granddaughter, who visited every weekend, it was paradise.
While other grandparents read stories to their boys, Emilia taught Zoe how to feed the cattle and clean the sheds. Zoe learned to bargain, sell produce and improve profits at the Sunday market. By the age of twelve, the girl could run the market stall on her own.
Zoe thought she had the best of both worlds. She lived with her parents in the city during the week, and on weekends she spent time with her grandmother in the country.
Until that day when both worlds toppled like dominoes. Zoe still remembers how her parents sat her on the same couch where the family would cuddle and watch movies together.
«Zoe, I know this will come as a great shock to you, my dear. But your father and I have been unhappy for some time now and have decided to divorce.»
With each sentence from her mother, Zoe’s heart sank deeper. Meanwhile, her father remained silent and barely made eye contact with her.
That’s when she received that devastating phone call. Zoe could still remember how her father’s face turned pale and he stared blankly at the floor for a few seconds before bursting into tears.
Her father had collapsed in his wife’s arms and was crying:
«It was Uncle Gerardo…. Mom is dead!».
Emilia had passed away. Zoe’s favorite person, her teacher of strength and kindness, her best friend, had said her last goodbye.
»All while my parents were too busy trying to separate!» thought Zoe.
The rest of that fateful week was a blur for Zoe. The funeral, the last family breakfast with her parents, it all seemed insignificant to her.
Zoe was distant and angry for the rest of the year. She expressed her pain in all the school essays, drawings and letters. For her, it was a means of relief. But for her teachers, the darkness of her thoughts was troubling.
In the last month alone, Zoe’s mother Berta had been called to the school twice. It looked like today would be the third time.
Exactly one year had passed since the day of Emilia’s passing. Berta had packed lunches, lit a candle in front of Emilia’s smiling portrait in the living room, and waited for Zoe at the door.
«Maybe today she’ll talk to me,» thought Berta as she watched Zoe put on her backpack, ready to leave the house.
Mother and daughter used to share a silent, uncomfortable car ride to Zoe’s school every morning. But today, the girl had other plans.
«I’m taking the bus to school today,» she muttered under her breath and walked briskly past her mother without looking her in the eye.
Before Berta could say anything, Zoe was gone.
It wasn’t that Zoe didn’t love her mother, but that she needed time and space to think.
«Maybe I’ll cry today,» Zoe hoped.
As she pulled up to the neighborhood bus stop, her heart skipped a beat. It was as if her grandmother was sitting on the bench, curled up and trying to keep her arms and legs from shivering from the brutal cold.
She couldn’t help but approach the old woman.
«Are you all right, ma’am?»
«Huh? Yeah, I’m just… really, really cold.» The woman could barely speak.
Zoe cast a spiteful glance at the people at the bus stop.
«How could they ignore an old woman who was suffering before their eyes!».
Without a second thought, she took off her coat and helped the woman put it on. Luckily, she was wearing a sweater underneath that kept her warm.
«Thank you, thank you, young lady!».
«Do you have somewhere to go?» asked Zoe, helping the woman stand.
«My house is on Corrientes Street! Silly me, I missed the bus, and the next one won’t be here until the afternoon. I just want to go home.»
«Corrientes Street is just a few blocks from here. I can walk you there if that’s okay.»
«You’d do that for me?» the woman gave a surprised look, squinting to see the girl through her blurred vision.
«Sure, I can walk you. I have classes, but I can get away for a while, anyway my teachers will probably summon my mother to school today.»
«You look like a lovely student!» the old woman said, making Zoe giggle.
It was a slow 20-minute walk to the woman’s house.
«Shame on me if I let you go without a nice cup of hot chocolate!» the woman said.
While sipping the delicious drink and munching on homemade cookies, Zoe had a heartfelt conversation with the elderly woman, Diana. Old repressed pain began to bubble up from the corners of her mind, and Zoe finally burst into tears in the arms of her new acquaintance.
«I feel like Emilia and I would have been great friends!» said Diana, as she comforted Zoe.
The touching afternoon was coming to an end. When Diana hugged Zoe to thank her one last time, Zoe remained in her embrace for several seconds before letting go.
The next day, Zoe made her way to her bus stop. She zipped up her coat and, as usual, put her hands in both pockets.
What’s that,» she thought as she felt a small box and a folded piece of paper in her left pocket.
It was a small velvet box with a sparkling emerald ring inside. Zoe stopped in surprise and quickly opened the note, wanting to make sense of how the box had gotten there:
Thank you for showing me your kindness. Your grandmother would be proud. I know your pain and I also feel the relief you experienced today.
Just as I have reminded you of the grandmother you lost, you have reminded me of my dear Susanna, the daughter I lost. This is her ring, and I want you to have it.
Come back soon, I will tell you all about her.
Zoe stood with the box open and the letter in her hands, speechless. She took a few seconds to gather her thoughts and knew what she had to do.
«Mom, can you come pick me up at the bus stop?».
An hour later, Zoe and Berta were knocking on Diana’s door.
«Zoe, I didn’t expect to see you again today! This must be your mother. Come in.»
The three women sat in the small living room, talking in turn about the greatest sorrows of their lives. For the first time, they felt heard. For the first time, they felt like things were going to be okay.
For the first time, Zoe hugged Bertha and let herself grieve.
«She told me that this beautiful ring belonged to her daughter. After her, it can only belong to you,» Zoe said, placing the velvet box back in Diana’s hands.
«I helped you because of the kindness my grandmother taught me. But in return, you gave me something better. You brought me closer to my mother. I can’t ask for anything more.»