My Over-the-Top Abuela's Tip For Youthful Skin Was a Surprisingly Affordable Secret

Mercedes López Durand (Abi Coca) 1940s
Alex Dvorak
Alex Dvorak

My mainland American friends described their grandmothers as sweet, old women who baked them cookies and took them to the park. I couldn't relate.

At 96 years old, my Puerto Rican abuela, Abi Coca, endured Hurricane Maria in the basement of her building for safety. When Maria had done her worst, and the power was out, Abi Coca had two men carry her like a queen, up countless flights of steps, to her apartment on the highest floor. We spent 24 hours trying to get in contact with her, to no avail. When the building's generator kicked in, and we got a call from my aunt, we heard my Abi in the background say, "Tell her how I got up to the apartment."

Coco, as my sister and I affectionately called her, loved Champagne, cheating at card games, and melodramatic monologues about the dreadfulness of getting older. To my sister and I, she was so over the top, and unlike any other adult we knew, that we found her hilarious. There were two subjects with which you could trust Coco wholeheartedly: beauty and boys.

Having been in her prime in the '40s and '50s, her style was classic, refined, and stunning. She honored her weekly appointments to "el beauty" to get her hair and nails done until her final days. As kids, my sister and I would get an earful if we were too rough in the ocean water and a single splash landed on her coiffed blowout. Appearing beautiful in the traditional sense was of the utmost importance to my abuela.

Coco shared with us her one secret skin-care tip to keep wrinkles away: Albolene, the inexpensive makeup remover from the drugstore. Her cabinet was filled with tubs of this jelly, balm-like cream. She would slather it on her face every night generously. Instead of washing it off, she'd leave it there to soak in overnight. Coco was determined to stay young forever, and she swore this thick layer of moisture was the key.
At 10 years old, I didn't have a skincare routine and thought it was silly to slather on such a thick cream at night. But like any little girl, I absorbed more than I realized from the strong women in my family in how they cared for themselves. Now I appreciate my grandmother's consistent beauty regimen and pride in her appearance. Outwardly presenting ourselves with confidence can give us the inward nerve to step out of our comfort zones. And if there was one thing my Abi had, it was nerve.

When I felt insecure about speaking Spanish, Coco was the only family member who got through to me.

My big family in Puerto Rico came down hard on me for only speaking English at the dinner table. As a multicultural kid, I was insecure that I would be mocked even more for being the only gringa cousin, if I forgot a word, or even worse, had an American accent. I had tuned out my aunts and uncles, who said for years, "How else will you get a good job if you're not bilingual?"

Coco pulled me aside privately. "You know when you get a little bit older, the boys here will love it if you can speak Spanish well," she said. My ears perked up. I had yet to meet boys on the island that weren't family, but that would all change soon, and she would be right.

My Abi lived in the old school ways of life, where boys and beauty were of the utmost importance, and every once in a while, her point of view was poignant and unlike anyone else's I knew.

The amicable times in my family only lasted until I was 10, and then I never really saw my Abi again. Our family split, sadly, not unlike many other Latin families I know. As I grew up, what was once funny about her personality became a burden, as I saw the strained relationships amongst the women in my family. But in the short time I knew her, she left an indelible impression. My Abi took up space wherever she went and she taught me how to do the same.

I'm sure she's raising hell in the sky now, reunited with my grandpa Pepe who was the only one who seemed to ground her. And for those of us still here, we'll forever remember her sass, her beauty, and her face covered in Albolene.