It was raining when I arrived at his house. I could see him from across the street watching me as I braced the rain without an umbrella carrying an oversized laundry bin up the stairs to the door. It was so oddly characteristic of him to be watching out his window.
When you’re young, you have this romanticized vision of the elderly watching life happen to other people staring out of windows, but that’s not why it was so…Jesús Montenegro. It was him because he’s got to be one of the most anxious people I know. In fact, when I have my brief moments of neurosis I often blame him as being the genetic carrier and I as his offspring (once removed of course) get to now be neurotic about what else I carry in my genes too.
“Hola Abuelo!” I say smiling and wet. He doesn’t seem to be receptive of my hug (maybe because of the rain) and he steps back to allow me and my dirty laundry to enter while chuckling.
“What is that?” He asks.
“Laundry,” I reply.
He doesn’t waste time with the pleasantries of small talk or ask where I’m coming from but instead walks me down to the basement and leads me to his washer and dryer. This is another uncanny characteristic of my grandfather. Work always comes first.
When I was in high school, I was the first of my friends to get a job. In my family, as in many Latino families, there was such a strong emphasis on working that sometimes it trumped the value of studying. One who does not work must therefore be lazy, goes the logic. And let me tell you, when you are raised my a mother like mine, the last thing you want is to be called lazy.
We walk back upstairs to the kitchen and make some tea. I pull out my journal and say “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
He looks at the journal and then back at me and says that he doesn’t feel good and that sometimes when you don’t feel good you are in no mood to tell stories. I sit back quietly and rethink my approach.
The reason I find myself in Little Village visiting my 86-year-old grandfather is because I want to document some of the rich living history we have as a family. My grandfather was born and raised in Mexico and in all of my 27 years I don’t remember the last time I sat across from him to really have a conversation with him about himself, who he is, what he was, his passions, life lessons and what fills his mind these days alone in his house.
I’m not here to place a hatch mark on my good deeds list, I am here to write and my subject doesn’t feel like talking. I put my journal away and start telling him about my day. He tells me about his aches and pains and then I start asking him random questions about my uncles and aunts.
“What year was Uncle Adrian born?”
“1950.” He fires back barely blinking. Don Jesús’ memory, even in his old age, is sharper than mine. He remembers names, dates, times, places but I must warn the reader that my abuelito isn’t this cute old man we imagine our elders to be. He’s tall with a strong build, broad shoulders and a shiny bald head on which he always wears a hat. He’s tan with brown freckles dotting his still handsome, yet much older face. At 86 years old, he is probably healthier than most 60 year old men. He rarely eats red meats or sugars, only drinks tequila on special occasions, limits his bread consumption and eats his five – seven servings of fruits and vegetables daily. He walks on his treadmill for exercise during the colder days. In short, he has the type of discipline I wish I had inherited instead of the neurosis I did inherit. It’s fairly easy to see why he isn’t the type of person to inspire pity, that is, until you start asking him how he’s feeling.
“My stomach hurts.” I grimace. I had just gotten him to forget about his maladies for a good twenty minutes. I find myself treating him like a child: trying to trick him into forgetting about his body; trying to trick him into retreating into those stored memories of his mind and get so lost in there that he makes the same face I make when I write. Once I accomplish this, I pour some more tea and start again.
To be continued….