My grandfather

9 01 2020

Sweat and dirt: I remember my grandfather from that smell. One memory that jumps out at me must have taken place when I was eight years old. My grandfather had to stop by the vineyard where he picked, or had picked… I am not sure if he was even retired at that point. Maybe he had been working because I remember the distinct smell of sweaty clothes caked in dirt. Oddly enough, it is not an unpleasant smell. When I think of my grandfather who lived more than 90 years, one of the first things that I think of is that he was a good worker. Quiet, always looking for something to do, but when he relaxed, he liked the quiet of his own house. That is Lesson no. 1 from my grandfather: Don’t be lazy. Lazy is the worst thing you could be. That’s not because he sought wealth. Though he lived a comfortable retirement due to the support of his many children, he wasn’t prosperous by any stretch of the imagination. Really, work is about love. If you do not go to bed tired only to get up early to go back at it, you haven’t lived a full day. At least that is what I try to live by now.

My grandfather was born in the northern Mexican desert in the late 1920’s. The family lore is that he is the illegitimate scion of a wealthy industrialist and my great-grandmother. She had three children by him, but later he discarded her when his family opposed the union or he got tired of her. My grandfather refused to go to his bedside when his father died. Though he was a Christian man, some acts of forgiveness are too hard to do in this life. Maybe he can find it in his heart to forgive his father in the next. My great-grandmother and her children then endured many years of hardship. My grandfather told me that his older sister was only four when she was “put in charge” of them when their mother had to go out at night and work. I almost cried thinking about that, knowing how vulnerable four year olds are. But they survived it.

My grandfather’s only brother ended up being a musician. A portrait of him and his guitar trio was prominently displayed in my grandparents’ living room. As with most musicians, he didn’t have a dime to his name. His sister would end up feeding him, and one day, she lightly protested, “You don’t ever bring me anything when you come, you just freeload.” So the next time he came, he brought a stone he picked up outside. “Here you go, sis.” She was amused by this apparently. Unfortunately, my grandfather’s brother died very young in El Paso, and my grandfather had to go and retrieve his body. My grandfather’s brother’s son also became a bit of a musician himself, and when he stayed at my grandfather’s house, he sort of became our cool uncle. Sadly, he has also passed on.

Having picked up farming from some relatives, my grandfather began the unglamorous job of trying to make the soil of the northern Mexican desert yield something of worth. He “kidnapped” my grandmother (robarse la novia – eloping without the family’s consent) and started a family that ended up numbering eight (with one child in Heaven). Life in the little farming village was dictated by the cycle of the seasons and the calendar of the Church. Holy Week was a big deal, as was the Feast of St. Isidore the Farmer (May 15th). Though they were bogged down in often grinding poverty, my mother in her stories to me never indicated that they were unhappy. Picking cotton was supposedly “not that hard”. My mom makes it seem like fetching water from the other side of the village was all fun and games until a dog attacked her once (she was balancing a jug on her head that was probably as big as she was, and the other children ran away). One challenge in my grandfather’s life was that my grandmother was often very sick. It was to the point that she would often have to rely on wet nurses who volunteered to breastfeed the babies until they were weaned. This is why my mother says she has a “second mother”.

Life continued on until an opportunity came about to immigrate to the United States. This was probably not an easy decision for my grandfather to make, as when I think of my grandfather, I always think of him as the most Mexican man imaginable (without the drinking and swearing, I know, weird huh?) The most iconic memory of my grandfather is him sitting at the head of the kitchen table, picking small stones out of his bag of pinto beans that he was about to soak. Whenever he left the house for something more formal, he was always wearing his cowboy hat.  Perhaps the decision to immigrate was an easy decision from a financial point of view, but I would have liked to get in his head more about how he felt having all of these Americanized grandkids walking around, some of whom could barely communicate with him in Spanish. I don’t think I ever heard a word of English come out of his mouth, maybe because whenever we were with him, we would translate. What comes to mind here is that old Los Tigres del Norte song, “La jaula de oro,” in which a man talks about how he lives in the United States as in a cage of gold unable to return to Mexico.

Life in the United States wasn’t easy at first. My grandfather came here to do what he had always done: work the land. To be honest, I don’t know how he didn’t die of some horrible cancer considering all of the highly toxic pesticides he was exposed to in U.S. fields. When you see all of those people hunched over in the fields even now, that was my grandfather once, and the rest of his family. One of my first memories was marching in the streets of my hometown when the vineyards went on strike. As an adult, I still remember my grandfather receiving correspondence from the UFW, and I still get pangs of childhood guilt whenever I eat grapes since we were boycotting them growing up.

If leaving Mexico was an opportunity for material improvement, his family certainly took advantage of it. All of his children became productive working citizens of the United States, and some of them even became prosperous. I remember my younger aunts and uncles in high school diligently doing their homework and entering the workforce. It didn’t matter if we lived in less than ideal conditions, there were no excuses. You did what you had to do to get ahead, and you were loyal to your family and God above all. This could be seen in family gatherings growing up, which were “family friendly” in every sense of the word, with no drinking and swearing allowed.

My own rather unstable immediate family situation meant that my mother along with my brother and sisters ended up living in my grandfather’s house on and off throughout childhood. Looking back, even though this was a product of material necessity, it probably brought a structure to my life that has made me a mostly functional adult to this day. I got to witness my grandfather’s personal ethos first hand. He would sit at the table with corn tortillas in hand, eating his humble chile con papas (he would give us the stink eye if we ever brought home McDonalds’ or other gabacho abominations). Sometimes he would just gnaw on a raw jalapeño with his food: he kept his life fairly simple. His (in)famous piece of advice to us was that we needed to eat more beans because that would make us stronger, smarter… basically whatever ailed us, beans were probably the answer (I still love beans on an existential level).

My grandfather taught us hard work by more than example. At that point, we no longer had to work in the fields (though I have memories of them from when I was very, very young), but we would still have to work in the apricot orchards every summer. This could be considered the poor rural Mexican-American version of summer camp. (I earned five dollars for a summer’s worth of work when I was five. I guess I was rich for a five year old.) Once my older brother had a school project in which he had to make a model of a Spanish mission, and my grandfather dug a pit and instructed us on how to make adobe to create an authentic model (he had constructed his house out of adobe in Mexico). And of course, we helped a little with his garden, where he had fruit trees and vegetables of all sorts, including a nopal, a plum tree, and a quince tree. Between those and my grandmother’s flowers, their garden looked like a miniature Garden of Eden every spring and summer.

By the time I was a teenager, we moved out of our grandparents’ house to a place across town. My grandfather’s role in my life greatly diminished after that. I got other jobs in the summer, including working under one of my grandmother’s brothers as a summer custodian at a school where I earned my first real paycheck. When I dropped out of college in pursuit of religious life, my grandfather’s house became my refuge when things went south (my mother had moved back in when I left for college to take care of my grandparents). He never complained when I returned as a prodigal son. I always found a job and helped out almost as soon as I moved back in, but I never felt like I was unwelcome. If life had gone differently, I might still be there. I got to see my grandfather in real retirement, enjoying his simple pleasures of soccer games on TV on the weekends and watching Mexican soap operas with my grandmother. Until he was into his eighties, he went every year to Mexico for a month around All Souls’ Day to visit the graves of his loved ones. But he would always return to his own private Mexico on a block in central California, surrounded by friends and loved ones.

I have left discussing my grandfather’s Faith for last, though it was certainly not last in his eyes. My grandfather’s Catholicism was muted but sincere. He never missed Mass, and he went along with his wife when she got involved in the Catholic charismatic movement. I remember fervent discussions when some of his children became evangelical Protestants. My understanding is that he would help out at church into old age as an usher and working on keeping the parking lots orderly. While wearing your piety on your sleeve isn’t a particularly masculine trait in the Mexican psyche, he always prayed the rosary with his wife, and he created a squeaky clean household, at least on the surface. This is perhaps the reason I don’t really like it when people curse around me (though I don’t have a particularly clean mouth myself). It is also the reason religiosity comes as second nature to me.

There is one keepsake that I have on me at all times that reminds me of my grandfather. When I made my first go at religious life, I had a very tearful discussion with my grandfather. Since this was over twenty years ago, I don’t really remember what he said. He gave me a key chain that he had bought at the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City that has the Virgin of Guadalupe on one side and the Ecce Homo on the other. Every time he mentioned God, he referred to him as “mi Padre Dios”: my Father God. That’s all the spirituality he needed, and that’s all I can ask for, really. God wants us home more than we want to go home. But in the meantime, live simply, live sincerely, love in silence where it counts. Be there for those who need you, and remember home.

My grandfather passed away on Epiphany night. May God keep him in His glory.


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