Chapter 22

“Radio?”

“Si, por favor.” He turns up a rock band. It sounds like Sting, singing in Spanish.

“You like?”

“Si. Muy bien.” This is the first good Mexican music I’ve ever heard. “Me favorite-o”

“Good.” He pulls out a pack of gum from a pocket in his shirt, “Chicle?”

“Thanks,” I take a piece. “Gum.”

“Ah, gum.”

He looks down at the socks in my hand, then my feet, and I know what’s coming next.

“No shoes?”

“No.” I’m getting the feeling his English is about as good as my Spanish seems to be. “Uno person-o tango.” I never realized how much Spanish rhymes before. He smiles and keeps driving. I’d rather not talk about it anyway.

I wonder if many Mexicans listen to this kind of music, or if Jose is a “rocker,” and different from other Mexicans our age. He looks normal. Short, dark hair, parted on the left and combed over to the right, clean, thin face, plaid long-sleeved shirt, levi’s, tennis shoes. He dresses American. I wonder if he ever spent any time up north.

This music is actually pretty good. Maybe if I bring a tape of this back with me, the guys at work can play it on the boombox, and I can finally get rid of those frickin accordions and tubas.

It’s starting to get warm again. This is a pretty sweet ride. The wind in my hair makes it feel like I’m on a motorcycle. Maybe I’ll get one of these after I get my license. I wonder how much this car would cost in the States? Hey, maybe I should come back down here and buy one; it’d probably be cheaper. My stomach lets out a growl and reminds me I’ll have to stay away from the bars if I do. We’re now climbing into some mountains. Terrific, just what I need right now—lots of curves. I seriously need to focus on something before I lose . . . act foolish.

The air smells good here. I take in a deep breath and close my eyes. Not like any forests where I come from. Smells like grass and flowers, and a green kind of smell. It got a little cooler all of a sudden too. Maybe the heat won’t be so bad up here in the mountains.

Our conversation consists of bobbing our heads to the music and smiling at each other once in a while. After what seems like an hour we turn onto a dirt road that winds through some trees.

Very soon, the trees give way to a large, gently rolling meadow. Inside this clearing sits a white stucco house with a covered wooden porch that protects the whole front of it from the harsh Mexican sun. In the center of that porch, is a Mexican woman, standing like a sentinel.

I feel as though I jumped off a tall building, and I’m swallowed up by a cold, dark cloud. I am hovering, numb, and frozen. I’m about to come face-to-face with the family I have grown up hating.

Her tractor-beam stare locks onto us and wills us to stop in front of her.

She stands there, short and proud. Thick with the evidence of bearing many children, but strong and sure, with all the confidence that comes with raising them. Her arms wrap each other up in tense anticipation around her waist.

Her once jet black hair now has streaks of silver and is tied up in a bun on the top of her head like a small plump hat. Her face is taut, her jaw is strong and her skin bears witness to many long days in the sun.

Years seem frozen on her, like she just stopped aging at around forty. She stands there, fearless of the unknown that is coming. She is the protector of the family heart. Her husband and children could turn to her when they got injured, and they could borrow her strength if they were in need of it. Inside her was the strength to fight off any danger, and they were surely never fearful. If disaster struck their family, her husband could look to her to see if he had reason to feel if he had failed as a man. She was his sanctuary, his preacher, forgiver of sins. Never had she given him reason to feel shame. She was the giver of confidence and faith that whatever bad thing that happened now was nothing compared to the greater thing that would surely happen later.

I look at her confident face and perfect posture and can almost see she’s had years of denying herself fear and pain, which she wore, if ever, in secret, hidden from those she loved more than herself.

Her clear brown eyes search our car for clues of what is coming. Her tight brown arms ripple as she changes the positions of her hands.

She has long cotton armor of fall colors. It gives her grace, like a dancer. She has a proud Aztec nose and high forehead.  She does not look like a grandmother; she is too beautiful for that.  She is colorful, confident and at one with her surroundings, like a local wildflower.

She watches my every step, never blinking. There is nothing else at this moment. She waits, frozen in time. I stop in front of her. What should I do now? Jose says nothing, probably not knowing what to do either. Neither of us have been here like this before. But she knows. This woman has the eyes of a mountain climber, who is taking in the vista from the summit, after a long and arduous climb. Perhaps at times like these, there are no words.

My numbness now settles into guilt for all the bad things I have thought about these people. From guilt to shame, then the shame melts into something else. What if they can tell how I used to feel? She talked to Carlos. Does she know how I got here?

Suddenly she hugs me with a strength I didn’t know was possible, and all the fear and shame are squeezed out of me with one powerful show of . . . forgiveness? Happiness? Relief? Joy? Love? How is it she does not hate me? I wonder if it’s me or my father she grips so tightly.

There seems to be something wrong with time on this mountain; it seems to flow in fits and spurts, followed by long pauses. When she finally pulls away and wipes her face, it feels like there were several people holding each other all at once. It doesn’t even matter who was holding whom; we all flowed from her fountain.

She takes a step backwards, but I still feel the residual effects of that hug, like a warm static cling. My body feels like it glows all over, and deep inside my chest I feel a tingling nugget of something I can’t explain. Something I’ve never felt before.

Other people appear on the porch, and they are looking at her with sad and hopeful smiles, as if asking her permission to spend some of the pain that they had been saving up for the day my dad came home. They probably never gave up hope for that. Women never do, even though they may say so, wearing the charade of indifference, while bearing the light of hope.

Love is the essence of hope, and where there has ever been love, there will always be a lingering hope. I can tell that even though they all knew very well by now that Armando is never coming home, my arrival is providing more than enough material for an emotional connection, and when they see their mother’s shiny cheeks, they trade an old hope for a new one.

After a time, when all these silent wonderings pass, Jose finds an opportunity to introduce me,  “Mama, permitame, este es su nieto, Francisco.“ She smiles, her eyes forming two slits of shiny black. She says something in Spanish and Jose moves on to the others, “Francisco, ellas son tus Tias, Adriana Y Joselyn.”

Adriana is slightly older and thinner, but not American skinny. They both look very strong. Being my Aunts, they are probably in their thirties, but they too wear the years behind their eyes and not on their faces. Although they both are living in the house of their mother, who obviously doesn’t need any help, the daughters look like they are the protectors of their mother, standing there like two lionesses. If their mother should break with tradition and fall, they will be there to catch her and show her there is nothing to fear, having studied for years at the side of the master; they too own the secrets of motherhood.

All three women have different shapes, but they all grew to the same height, as if the younger ones were told that this was the size all women should be, and they had dutifully obeyed.

Joselyn is a tad younger, rounder, and fairer than the others. Her hair is chestnut brown, not jet black like her sister, and it falls in shiny waves around her shoulders. She is dressed like her mother, but her colors are a little brighter, maybe newer. Younger. Her eyes hold no fear, no shame, no anger, and no pain. They are as clear and innocent a set of eyes as I have ever seen. She is like a child, pure and adulterated by the stresses and punishments of life.

She runs up and hugs me before Jose can finish introducing me, and she is the first one to say it. Calm and quiet like a breath in my ear, “I love you.”

She holds me a good while longer than the others, and I can tell she has a heart as deep and as vast as God has ever made. For some people there are no limits to the love they can give. It is made from a source that never runs dry, and they can call upon it as often as they wish, so there is no fear of running out, or not having as much as the next person, no fear of losing it, no need whatsoever for portioning it, or saving some for later. She is one of those.

Now that the women have had their time, I feel my nerves begin to settle, and the lone man of the house takes his position alongside the women. Herminio is a male, and that will probably deem him the man of the house, but it is obvious his age is his handicap. He is the youngest of all my uncles, In fact I bet he is younger than me by a year or two. It is this chance of fate that castrates him and keeps him the child of the family. It doesn’t appear to bother him though; he has grown up in this position, and as long as they are a family, he will belong. This must be where he gets his confidence. He knows his place in the family, and it is secure.

Suddenly, I feel very sad I never had any brothers or sisters. I never even thought about it before. It never occurred to me that I might be missing something. Being the only child and not having to share anything with anyone else, I thought I had it all.

It feels weird to have an uncle younger than me. A cousin, yes, but an uncle? This means that after my mother had a child, my father’s mother had one too, as if saying, I can still do that . . . or maybe this was Grandpa speaking.

Herminio is taller than the women, not needing to obey the height limit like his sisters. He has a naturally smiling face and I know at once he‘s going to be fun. He is too young to have known his brother, and while I’m sure they’ve informed him in great detail, unlike me. I wonder if he ever felt the longing for a relationship he never had.

In spite of this, his cheeks are as shiny as everyone else’s, but being a man, he doesn’t acknowledge it. Soon the tears will be dry and denial will be his defense. His short, black hair is shiny and mostly covered by a white straw cowboy hat. His body is lean and dark brown from hard work outdoors, and his dusty boots, jeans and sweaty t-shirt tell his story. He looks me in the eyes like he is investigating something and grasps my hand hard. When the investigation is over, and he has learned what he needed, he releases my hand and his smile returns to it’s natural state.

We all float into the white stucco house like an octopus caught in a tide. We land in a large white living room, with lots of natural light and furniture. There are pictures of family covering the walls, set in frames of various sizes and colors, and Jesus seems to be represented on every wall in one form or another.

A family lives here. A great big family. A small village really. Aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, nieces, grandpa’s and grandmas, brother and sister-in-laws. They are all here. A family tree covering the walls of the room. A vine really, with branches and bunches spreading here and there, yet all tied together at the same root, but the root is at the top, and all the youngest pictures are at the bottom. It’s kind of strange that way, but it makes sense too. All the young ones are new seeds and the older one gets, the higher on the wall they go, until sooner or later, each of them is going to pass away, and be at the top of their own vine. The top of the wall near the ceiling must be—like heaven.

They lead me around and introduce me to all the people who are represented in the room but not present at the moment. A lot of them will be here soon, I hear, even with my mediocre Spanglish. There is a party tonight, and it’s in my honor. That’s an awfully short time to put together a party. I wonder how many people will actually show up.

Grandma points to three pictures at the top of the large photo-covered wall. A picture of Pancho Villa on the left, and a photo of our great, great, great grandmother, Alberta Sala.” In between the two is a wedding photo set a little higher than the others, representing their relationship I guess. There is a picture, on the left and below Pancho Villa and Alberta Sala. That is the sole offspring from that union, my great, great grandfather Carlos Armando Villa Sala. To the right, after Pancho Villa was killed, Alberta Sala married again and had three more children with Ricardo Gomez. This is the important part they tell me: the children of Carlos Villa have “la sangre” and the children of  Ricardo Gomez do not. That is why there are no pictures of Alberta Sala and Ricardo Gomez together, not on this wall anyway. That family line is not important. The blood is what makes the difference.

They hand me a photo of Pancho Villa, and Alberta Sala, the family patriarchs. “Pancho Villa liked to marry,” Aunt Joselyn translates. “We don’t know how many times but many, more than twenty. It is impossible to know for sure. After the wedding Pancho would tell the preacher to burn the wedding papers so he was then free to do it again and again. Many people make the claim to be with his blood.” She hands me a photo of Pancho Villa in a white suit and a young-looking girl with flowers in her hair. “This wedding photo proves we have the blood.” They all smile at me and beam with pride. “Marriages join families together, and family is important, but the blood is what makes us special. We have the blood of Pancho Villa. You have the blood, too, Pancho.”

Wow. I don’t know what to think about this. This whole blood thing is really important to them. “Oh, thanks,” I guess. What do you say to that? I am starting to feel like the new kid in school. The outsider, not knowing all the inside jokes, the histories, the do’s and don’ts, the unwritten rules.

When they finish with the lesson on the history of their family, we all sit down on the sofa and chairs near a doorway to the dining room. All eyes are on me and I can almost feel the presence of my father. A quick violent shiver stops that little detour.

All the women begin talking at once, in Spanish, then Jose waves in, “Calmate calmate, Pancho es un Americano y no sabe espanol mucho.” They all look at me strangely. I seem to be the only one who understood that, and it was in Spanish! Now I’m confused. Do I or don’t I speak Spanish? Aunt Adriana jumps up and leaves without a word.

Grandma smiles and says something and Joselyn translates, as their mother goes over to a dresser and picks up a small picture in a gold frame.  “She says it is a miracle you are here, but always she know that one day, you will come.”

I look into the picture, obviously from the past, but I see what looks like me, sitting proudly on a large black horse and smiling broadly, posing for the picture. Although he had coal-black hair, his skin was fair, and his eyes held the invincibility of youth, and the promise of a full and happy life. I look a lot like my father at his age. I remember seeing that from the wedding photos and a couple of small pictures my mom keeps in the box at the foot of the closet. I now remember how much we looked alike when we were kids at the same ages. This picture, it looks like he is around the same age as me right now. We could almost be twins.

I stare at every detail in the picture. I have seen this picture before, but that was a long time ago. I can feel the years of hate begin to loosen its hold around my chest, like an iceberg shrinking in the desert. It is a huge feeling. I look up at the faces staring back at me, watching me meet my father. It seems that Carlos is the only other person who is not wrestling with the old feelings that once had protected our secret and sensitive hopes. It makes me feel a little better, knowing I am not the only one struggling with these contradictions. As the iceberg slowly melts, I see it drip a little on the picture frame.

There are many voices, and people coming and going, getting more pictures off the walls and tables around them. This is all so strange. I have another family.

Adriana returns, holding the hand of a cute little girl. “Pancho, ella es su Prima, Carlotta.”  She walks shyly over to me. She has huge brown eyes. I can immediately tell she’s one of the family. Her hair is a shiny black and is tied in a pigtail in the back. She looks to be about four or five years old, and not much more than three feet tall. She’s wearing old Levis and a pink t-shirt, no shoes, and obviously just up from a nap. She comes up and leans on my knees, staring at me with such intensity it feels like she is looking for evidence of our relationship, like she didn’t believe her mom and she has to see for herself. Satisfied, she puckers her lips. She wants a kiss. “Mmmmmwa.” That was a wet one. She must have done her duty, because now she’s leaving the room. So much for cute.

Joselyn brings out a tray with some sandwiches cut in half and several glasses of fruit juice with lots of pulp floating on top. I take a glass. It’s cold and delicious. I don’t recognize the flavors, and they all watch me as I take a sandwich. Grandmother sits up straight, and everyone seems to wake up. She gives them a look that they seem to understand. Jose gets up and walks over to Herminio, and Adriana smiles her apologies and goes back to work in the kitchen. Joselyn and grandma are the only ones left sitting.

“Josie.”

“ Mama!”

They say some more things in rapid-fire Spanish and Joselyn reluctantly gets up, puts the plate of sandwiches down on the coffee table and joins her sister in the kitchen. Great. Now I’m left alone in the room with Grandma. She is pretty intimidating, being so small yet having so much power over everyone. Why does she want to be alone with me?

She smiles, reaches over and holds my hand and says something in Spanish. I can feel the soft warmth of her small hands begin to climb up my arms and then into my chest. It stings my eyes.

By the way she dismissed everyone, I guess she wants to spend some quality time with her new grandson. Or maybe with the only thing living that’s left of her son. I can see she loved him very much. I can’t imagine what it must be like to lose a son, to have him just up and vanish without a word. I never met him, so I felt abandoned and hurt. I wonder what she felt, or how long she waited to hear some news of him and his new family. I don’t think she ever stopped looking out her window, expecting him to just show up.

So here I am, holding hands with a woman that before today I didn’t know. She is so much darker than me and her eyes are a deep brown, while mine are sky blue. She is Mexican through and through, and I am American, yet somehow we are the same.

She talks to me gently, her voice coming from deep within her chest. I can feel it vibrate through her hands and I wonder how on earth anyone could hate this woman. My other grandmother never held my hand like this, or spoke to me like this. My two grandmothers couldn’t be any different. I don’t really understand what she’s saying, but I get her meaning. I am happy to be here too.

Jose walks back into the room, “The horse is ready.” Grandma uses my shoulder to help get up and rubs my head, stopping me from standing too. She messes up my hair, smiles, and goes into the kitchen. I guess she said what she had to say. My life will be different from now on too.

I try to stand, but feel a little wobbly. Oh, my bare feet. I don’t have any . . . my grandmother reappears carrying a pair of black cowboy boots. I’ve never worn cowboy boots before. I take them, standing firmer now, regaining command of my legs. Oh, almost forgot, “Gracias”

She says something in Spanish, “De nada . . . Armando . . .”

I don’t understand everything, but I get the impression that these were my father’s.  I struggle to get them on. My foot doesn’t seem to fit.

After I break a sweat and finally get my feet into these things, they actually seem to fit pretty good. How does that work? This is beginning to creep me out. Do they want me to be my father or can they remember who I really am?

Jose says something about Tio Herminio, and I think he’s waiting for me. Grandma smiles and walks back towards the kitchen. Jose leads me outside. He’s heading towards that barn-looking thing. There had better be a truck in there. Everything I know about horses I learned from TV.

Mike J Quinn About Mike J Quinn
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