I HAVE MANY photos of my brother, Alejandro Palomo, but these four show how I choose to remember him: a man who adored his family, a man who loved to tell stories, a man who loved to dance, and a man who thrived on laughter: laughing and making others laugh.
Alejandro, named after my father’s father, died early this morning in his bedroom in San Antonio after a relatively short but difficult struggle with the ravages of Alzheimer’s. He was 87. Many people knew him as Alex; we called him Jando. Six wonderful men and women – Becky, Sandie, Alex, Mandy, Art and Eva – had the privilege of calling him “Dad.”
Jando joined the Air Force in 1952, when I was six years old, and he never returned to live in Crystal City, where we grew up. As a result, I have very few memories of him during my early years, not the kind of memories I have of my younger sisters. Most memories are of him as an adult, a husband and father.
The one big memory I have of him was of that day in ’52 when he left to enlist. We were in Wisconsin, near Fond du Lac, living in a big old farmhouse provided to us by the labor contractor who enlisted my father for work in the nearby canneries. Because the adults were at work, there was nobody available to drive him to the nearest town where he could catch a bus, so he walked along the side of the road, bag in hand, until someone offered him a ride.
The year before that, our family had traveled to Ogden, Utah, where we lived in a Del Monte labor camp while my parents and older siblings worked in a tomato cannery. Our apartment was adjacent to one inhabited by the Garcias, a family from Carrizo Springs (12 miles south of Crystal City), which consisted of a mother, a young son and several daughters. Jando fell in love with Elida, the most beautiful of those daughters, and they were married several years later, when he was still in the Air Force.
When he left the service, Jando and Elida moved to the suburbs of Chicago, where most of her family had settled, and he began working at the post office. He later worked in the composing rooms of several newspapers. In the late 1960s, Jando and Elida decided to move to San Antonio, where he worked for the San Antonio Express-News until he rejoined the postal service. He worked as a letter carrier, a job he loved because it allowed him to make friends along his route.
As a teen-ager, Jando hung out with two boys his age, his cousin Mike Palomo, and a guy who lived on the next street. His name was Tomás Rivera.
ABOVE ALL ELSE, Jando was a devoted family man. We visited him and Elida one year on our way to Wisconsin. They lived in a small mobile home but they welcomed us warmly and gladly. He took us to O’Hare airport to watch the planes land and take off, and he took us to the natural history museum, and he took us to a movie theater downtown to see “How the West Was Won.”
Another summer, when we were living in Wisconsin, finishing up with the cucumber harvest and getting ready to travel to Minnesota to harvest onions, my father got picked up for driving while drunk and his license was suspended. He was the only driver the family and we were stuck in Wisconsin until Jando drove up from his Illinois home, drove us to Minnesota and then took a Greyhound back to Wisconsin.
He loved to travel, whether by car, train or airplane. He and Elida traveled to Mexico, Germany, China, Costa Rica, and South America, and they camped in most of the nation’s national parks. As far as I know, they visited every state but Hawaii. One summer they drove all the way to Alaska in a pickup truck with a pop-up tent camper in tow!
Jando was a teller of stories, about his growing-up years, about his co-workers and neighbors, about his travels, about his family. Unfortunately for us, he developed a strange habit of repeating his stories, especially if they were funny, over and over again. And I don’t mean several days or weeks or months later, but right away: as soon as the laughter had died down. If he didn’t repeat the entire story, he would at least repeat the punch line. (This is a trait he inherited from my mother, who also often repeated punch lines of funny stories she’d told.) It could be irritating at times (especially, I assume, to people who didn’t know him), but for the most part, we found it endearing.
Not all his stories were funny. He often spoke of the difficulties of growing up poor in South Texas, about migrant life, and about the time he was stricken with lockjaw when he was 8 years old and he ended up in the hospital for days, stiff as a board, unable to move or speak or eat. He told about how his jaws would relax periodically, long enough for him to extend his tongue only to clamp down again, without notice. His tongue was caught between his teeth until the nurses administered enough shots to get him to relax again. Most of those shots were in his upper legs, which remained numb all his life.
BUT JANDO didn’t dwell on the negative. He was a man of dreams who believed in possibilities and who sought to find good in every person he met. He loved being with people. He would talk to anybody, anywhere about anything. He once got into a conversation with a native American man in New Mexico that resulted in an invitation to join a tribal birthday party, which he, of course, readily accepted.
His favorite conversations were those he had with his children, his grandkids and their children, even if (with the young ones), most were playful. In one of the pictures shown here, he is talking to his oldest daughter, Becky, about his early days as a migrant farm worker. In the other he is talking to his grandson, giving him advice.
Jando loved his booze, especially scotch. Of all the gifts I gave him over the years, nothing pleased him more than the bottles of scotch I gave him. And he was thrilled that he didn’t have to share it with me, as I long ago developed a hatred for scotch.
He loved to dance (and was lucky to have married a great dancer), and he loved parties of any kind, particularly if they featured Mariachi music. His favorite song was “Cu Cu Ru Cu Cu, Paloma” (and he was lucky enough to have two sons-in-law who are singers – and one of them plays with a Mariachi band.)
I visited Jando Sunday. Held his hands and kissed him lightly on his forehead before I left his room to return home. I don’t know if he knew I was there, but I’m glad I was.
It was not an easy death. There was pain and anguish. And there were tears. But it is over now.
Palomo, ya no lloras.