THE LENTEN SEASON never fails to evoke strong memories of my grandfather. My father’s father was a big man. At least that’s the way I remember him. He had dark skin and white hair. He sported a broad, drooping mustache.
He didn’t drink or smoke cigarettes, although he did enjoy a cigar every once in a while. When he was not working, he would read the newspaper or pray, using his prayer book or his rosary. Alejandro Palomo was a carpenter. He built his own house and then built a house for each of his children, working alone, with only occasional help for his sons and grandsons. He didn’t own a vehicle, so it was not unusual to see him walking from the downtown lumber yard, about a mile away, carrying several two-by-fours on his shoulder.
He was not the easiest person to work for. He demanded perfection, and he ridiculed us when he feared joining him on a rooftop. He muttered obscenities under his breath when we bent a nail or hit our thumbs with the hammer. His biggest thrill was to ask us for a particular tool and have us hand him another tool (we never could remember their names), giving him another opportunity to ridicule us.
“Muchacho tarugo,” he would always say. I never knew what the tarugo meant, but I knew it couldn’t be good. He lived in a small house behind Tío Adrián’s, which was next door to ours. He lived alone after my grandmother died in the early 1950s. Every morning, we kids were expected to go over to pay our respects, which consisted of saying, “buenos días,” and kissing his leathery brown hand.
In addition to his carpentry work, my grandfather was also a caretaker of the local church. One of his duties there was to tug on the thick rope hanging from the steeple to ring the bell that would signal all over the town that mass was about to begin. He did it 30 and 15 minutes before mass, and the final time at the allotted hour period that meant he had to be there every morning at 6:30 or for the 7 a.m. mass.
Late in the afternoon, he’d walk back to the church to lock it up. On his way back, he’d come to our house and sat down at the kitchen table where my sister Dora (he always asked for Dora) would serve him a cup of coffee with lots of sugar and milk. He’d drink it quietly then walk out. “Cierren la puerta porque hace frío,” he’d tell us. Or, if it wasn’t cold: “Porque hay zancudos.”
DURING LENT, Dora, my other sister Carmen, and I would go to daily mass as part of our seasonal “sacrifice.” Because it was dark at that hour, my mother insisted we walk with my grandfather, even if it meant we had to leave home more than half an hour ahead of time. We had to be prepared to leave when he was, because he did not like to wait. After we got the good mornings out of the way, we said nothing we simply followed him, single file, all the way to the church, about a mile away.
We must have been quite a sight. There were no paved streets or sidewalks back then, not in the Mexican part of town, so we’d raise a huge cloud of whitish dust as we stumbled in the dark (there was no streetlights either). While we made little noise – it was usually too cold to talk talk – the dogs along the way greeted us with loud barks and that caused those who were already awake to peer out their windows to see what was happening. I often wondered what these people thought of us, of this old man in the three young children trudging along down the dusty streets.
When we got to the church, he would grunt something that I interpreted to mean, “OK, I brought you here, you’re on your own,” and went about his business. After mass, we’d go off to school and he’d stay behind. And we’d repeat the scene every day until the end of lent.
MY GRANDFATHER never joined the migrant trail with us. One summer, however, my aunt decided to go to California, and she talked him into going with her family. They were all picking plums in an orchard outside San Jose when my grandfather reached for a tree, grasped it, then closed his eyes and died. He’d had a heart attack.
We were in North Dakota that summer. I remember we were lying in bed when Tía Ester came to our door with the news. Tío Adrián, her husband had gotten the call from California. Nobody said anything after my mother thanked her. We stayed in bed. There was no point in getting up. Besides, we had to get up early for work the next morning. The only sounds of mourning I heard were a few almost-silent sobs coming from where my mother lay.
They buried him in California.
The next Lenten season, we started our daily-mass ritual anew. We were old enough to walk to church alone by then. And we didn’t have to leave that early anymore. We should have felt better, but it was never really the same. When we were about halfway to church, we’d hear the clanging of the church bell and we were reminded that it was somebody else pulling on that rope. Alejandro Palomo lived a simple life dedicated to his family, his community and his God. He is a good man to remember during the season of selflessness.
(This was first published, in a slightly different form, in The Houston Post March 10, 1992)