Distant Relatives

By Jessica Dominguez ©2020

 

            “In accordance with the wishes of Maria del Carmen de la Guardia, her estate and belongings shall be divided as follows…” Ernesto, the town paralegal/undertaker droned on as everyone settled in, but were suddenly interested in what he had to say.

            “What’d I miss, Luz?” Laura asked as she slipped in through the side door and sat next to me in the back row of the funeral parlor.

            “They just started – so nothing.  Why’d it take you so long to get here after the burial service?  Where’d you go?” I asked already knowing the answer.  But I wanted her to admit she’d stopped at the café to see Alex.  She didn’t answer my question, choosing to focus on the relics, hanging around the place, posing as decorations.

            “The house in town shall be awarded to her beloved daughter Ernestina.” The undertaker continued as our eager relatives listened hoping to get a piece of what the old woman had left behind.

            “That’s a freaking armadillo.” Laura said, as she pointed her manicured finger towards a side table at the entrance of the parlor.  “A stuffed armadillo next to decorative cowboy boots and a bull’s head on the wall.  Is that supposed to help with the mourning process?  Is it supposed to be soothing? Well, I feel better already.” She continued, as she gave me a giant Cheshire grin and rolling her eyes so far back in her head that she almost fell out of the pew.

            “Show respect, and keep your voice down.”  I whispered as sternly as I possibly could without brining attention to us; giving her my raised eyebrow look to make sure she understood I was serious, I squeezed her hand to bring the point home.

“The ranch shall be split into two parcels, the large parcel north of the lake shall be divided equally between her sons Jose Alfredo and Juan Carlos.” The undertaker continued.

I glanced over at Tio Juan, “Look,” I whispered to Laura as I pointed to him with my chin.  “He’s trying not to look pissed that he had to split that with Tio Jose.”

      “It doesn’t matter, we all know he didn’t care about grandma.  He never even went to check on her, just left all the work to Tia Ernestina.”  She answered as she patted my shoulder and judgingly shook her head at him.  Laura lacks the ability to hide her feelings. Some call it bad manners but I think she just has an overload of honesty inside of her that spills over like an overflowing glass – it’s beyond her control.

On and on he went, down the list, which was much longer than I expected.  One by one I noticed the look of disappointment, or modest gratitude, on the faces of those who did or did not benefit from her passing.  I wasn’t that interested in what was going on, we were only there as a formality.  That’s what you do for family.  But the reality was that we were closer to strangers than family.  Our father was given his inheritance when he left Mexico and we weren’t around very much, so we didn’t expect anything.

We’d only visited Juarez a handful of times when I was a kid and then my parents decided it was too expensive and exchanged our trips for long distance phone calls.

Being the only cousins that lived in Texas didn’t help us connect.  We were always treated like outsiders, like tourists, by our own family.  For some reason I have yet to understand, our parents treated us the same way, but only when we were in Juarez, where they were surrounded by their roots.  They’d join in when everyone else made fun of the way we mispronounced things and teased us for being too “white.”  Like it was our choice?  Even today, they’re sitting in the front row with our aunt and uncles, not with us.

It went on so long that I started to drift off and survey the room for anyone I knew.  Some faces seemed to trigger faint memories but they’d dissipate as soon as I tried to extract details. 

“Her sowing machine, as well as all the tools in her shed will go to her neighbor of fifty years, Lupita Gomez and her son Felipe.”  The undertaker continued with his laborious task.

Grandma even left money for the farm hands to be paid for the next six months, and so on and so on.  She carefully, parceled out all her belongings, and it went on so long, I started to wonder what the hell was left to give away?

It didn’t surprise me how particular grandma was about who got what.  She’d always been very organized.  Never left the house without her purse and gloves and was one of the last women I can remember that still covered her head with a shawl during mass.  The beds were always made, the floors were always mopped, and there was always coffee brewing in the kitchen and fresh cookies on the table – just in case a neighbor stopped by.  If we don’t yet have a patron saint for organization and good manners, St. Peter can give her the job, now that she’s available.

My head slipped into my palm as I struggled to keep interest.  I looked over at Laura and she was busily looking around the room, at our relatives, the walls, looking for something else to criticize.

I looked forward and my eyes settled on a large portrait of my grandmother that was displayed next to the undertaker’s lectern.  There were beautiful white rose flower arrangements on each side of the portrait.  I thought about how she wouldn’t have liked for anyone to spend so much money, and make such a fuss, on something that isn’t going to last more than a day. 

I remembered one of our visits, right before the Day of the Dead.  Everyone was getting ready, making altars and preparing their dead loved ones favorite recipes.  I asked grandma if she was going to visit the cemetery with us.  Staring up at the portrait of my grandfather on the living room wall, she held her hand up to her cheek, slightly shaking it from side to side, and said, “That’s the only thing I don’t like about Mexico, taking food to the cemetery.  Why?  They’re dead; they’re not going to eat it.”  Then she went back to her knitting.

I tried to explain that it was the sentiment and tradition that counts but she was too practical to understand.  She just responded with a polite smile.  I suppose someone from her generation wouldn’t be able to grasp the concept of leaving food on a slab of concrete to rot.  Thinking back on it, she was right.  We’re sentimental fools at heart and she was pragmatic and deliberate.

She was the only grandparent I had, so I looked forward to our trips so I could spend time with her and get to know her world.  We even wrote to each other for a short time, before her eyesight deteriorated so much that it was difficult for her to read my letters.  As much as I wanted to have a closer relationship, we only grew farther apart as I grew older.  Part of me always held some resentment towards my cousins - all thirteen of them.  They got to grow up here, with family, roots, not like us.

“And finally, to her beloved granddaughters from the United States: She has left her music box, to Luz; and her trunk, to Laura.  On behalf of the family, we would like to thank everyone for attending.  Refreshments are available in the next room.”  And with that, the undertaker fulfilled his duty, took a handkerchief from his coat pocket and gently dabbed his forehead as he walked away.

“No shit, she left us something?”  Laura said out loud and elbowed me to motion it was time to go.  I didn’t say anything.  I just wanted to get out of there and recollect the events in peace.

As we walked towards the door, Tio Juan suddenly appeared and stood between us and freedom.  “Girls,” he said, as he twisted the ends of his mustache with his thumb and index finger, “it’s so nice of you to have come all this way to pay your respects to my beloved mother.  I hope you’re not too disappointed that she only gave you some storage boxes for your trouble.”

“Nothing to be sorry about.  Material things aren’t important to all of us.”  Laura said sharply.

“Of course, of course.  And being that you both have such a long trip home, it would be such a burden to carry the extra baggage with you.  If you like, my girls can take those and sort through them for you.  If there’s anything worth keeping, they’ll send it to you.  Or we can save it for your next visit.” He said as he rolled back and forth on his snakeskin cowboy boots.  As we stood there, the door opened and let in the winter cold.  The wind blew up my legs and into my spine which made my entire body shiver.

The “girls” he was referring to were his daughters.  Of all the cousins, I think Laura and I can agree that they were the worst.  All they cared about was status and money.  When we’d visit, they wouldn’t even hang out with us because they were too embarrassed by our Spanish to have us meet their friends.  I don’t think they ever had a hair out of place or a speck of dirt on their clothes, but then again, they had a full-time maid, which made it easy to only focus on their social calendar.  Last I heard, they’d made climbing the social ladder their full-time occupation.

I wasn’t sure why he was interested in helping us sift through some old trunk but I didn’t even get word out before Laura said, “No, thank you.  We’re totally bored in this town, so going through that stuff will give us something to do before we leave.  Thanks anyway.  And say “hi” to the girls, since I don’t think we’ll have much time to spend together – being such a short trip and all.”

He stood there like a stump and we had to walk around him to get to the door.  We thought about waiting for our parents but they’d already gone into the other room to drink coffee and sit with relatives.  I’m sure catching up on who’s doing what and who else is dead, was going to last until the wee hours, so we felt ok to leave them behind.

When we stepped outside, Alex was waiting, leaning up against his car – an old Chevy Chevelle.  Alex Trujillo was an interesting figure in this town.  He fit right in, but somehow also seemed out of place.  His parents lived a couple of blocks from our Grandmother’s house and owned the café in the plaza – I hear they still do. 

Alex had a fair complexion, green eyes, and dark silky hair, which was a little long for my taste.  Not that it mattered, since it was Laura that showed interest.  At five-foot-ten, he held up to her height requirements – since she won’t date anyone shorter than her.  Because his parent’s café was the town hangout, his family always knew what was happening with everyone, all the time.

The ride there was bumpy – literally.  They were cobblestone streets that made the car vibrate but it didn’t seem to bother Alex or Laura who were blabbering away in the front, while a mix of static and mariachi music filled the background.

It had rained earlier, a complete downpour actually, which created large puddles in the potholes that seemed to be everywhere.  I leaned my face on the windowsill and let the wind whip my hair around.  The town smelled like winter.  Like wet bricks, smoke, and sweet bread from the bakery we passed on the way to the café.

We spent a couple hours at the café, eating, drinking coffee and getting a history lesson from Alex.  He told us that our grandparents moved to Juarez right after they were married and their land had been a wedding gift from her father.  Apparently, she had come from a wealthy family and it was rumored that her mother was a descendant of Spanish nobility.  I politely listened to the story but had heard it many times before, the one about so and so claiming to be from a noble European family, royalty, brave warriors, whatever.  I wondered, how come nobody ever tells the story about how they came from a long line of basket weavers?

“Wow, nobody tells us shit.” Laura said nodding her head.

“Well, your family is Catholic and bragging about money is a mortal sin.” Alex replied and we all shared a laugh.

“I’m sure they’re just rumors.  I didn’t see any evidence of that during the reading today.  The only things worth anything were given to her children.  Even our cousins just got random stuff around the house  -  or livestock.  And that’s an obligation more than it’s a gift.”  I said, being my practical self.

“What else do you know about our family.”  Laura asked, rubbing her hands together, excited to hear some dirt on our relatives.

“I’m sure I couldn’t tell you anything you don’t already know.”  He said, thinking that would suffice, but it only made her more persistent.

“Yeah!  Come on, it’s not like we really know them that well, and nobody tells us anything.  Ever.”  She said as she took a sip of coffee.

“Well, all I know is that your grandfather had a relationship with the neighbor, Señora Gomez.  And they had a son.  That’s the story – anyway.”  He said, visibly uncomfortable.

“No way!  Gomez, huh?  Luz why do I know that name?”  She asked.

“Today, she was in the will.  And her son.”  I replied while quickly shoving some bread in my mouth and hoping that would be the end of it.  I didn’t like where the conversation was going.  I wasn’t ready to know about any of that.

Laura quickly turned back to Alex and asked, “Did grandma know what happened?”

“She knew.”  He answered.

“It’s time to go, it’s getting late.” I said as I stood from the table and picked up my purse.

We took the bumpy ride to my grandmother’s house, Tia Ernestina’s house now.  By this time the sun was gone and the brightness of the moon was lighting up the town.  The moonlight gave the small houses a soft glow.  They were compact and joined at the sides.  They reminded me of brothers and sisters locking arms in a march – pushing against the cobblestone streets.  Protesting against change, modern culture, trying to hold on to the past as long as possible.

Grandma’s was the second house on the right.  Blue with a metal fence across the front and two chairs next to the front door, we would sit, knit – I’d try to knit – and talk to neighbors as they walked by.  As we pulled up, we saw Tio Juan pulling away in his pickup.  Hopefully that meant he’d dropped our parents off, rather than making them walk.

As we walked inside, we saw our mother waiting on the couch and the first thing that came out of her mouth was, “Where were you?  Everyone was asking where you went, you didn’t even say hello to-”

“Nobody knows us, mom.  It doesn’t freaking matter if we’re there or not.” Laura interrupted.
            “Tio Juan dropped you off?” I asked.

“Yes, he brought us home and told us that he’d sort through that old trunk for you.  I think it’s a good idea.  We looked for it so he could take it home but your Tia Ernestina didn’t know where it was.  I told him we’d call when we found it.  I’m tired, your father is already asleep.  We’ll look for it in the morning.  Get some rest because we’re going out to see your cousins in the morning.”  And with that, our mother disappeared into the hallway and we heard the bedroom door close behind her.

Laura and I washed our faces and settled into the guest room with two twin beds.  I felt just like we did when we were kids.  We’d be so excited that couldn’t go to sleep, thinking about the new placed we’d see the next day or what Tia Ernestina would be making for breakfast – she was and still is the best cook in the family.  Tonight, we lacked the enthusiasm and settled in quickly.  Just as we were drifting out of consciousness, we heard a gentle knock at the door.  Then it started to creak open.

“Niñas, are you asleep?”  It was Tia Ernestina.      

We both popped up.

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

“No, I want to give you something.” Tia Ernestina said as she turned on the light.  She sat at the foot of my bed and placed a small music box in front of me.

“It’s yours.  Open it.”  She said.  I looked into her face and saw the years of taking care of my ailing grandmother tattooed on her face.  But her eyes, were just the same as when we were kids – open and kind.  Her gray hair was pulled back in a bun – she always wore it that way now but when we were kids she’d been known to sport a perm now and then.  In recent years, there’d been no time for her to spend on any luxuries for herself.

I opened the box and it had my grandmothers wedding jewelry in it.  I recognized it right away because her wedding picture was sitting on top.

“She wanted you to have it.”  She said, as she touched my cheek.  “Now, come with me.”

I tucked the box under my arm and Laura and I jumped out of bed to follow her.  She led us to the back of the house, outside, in the chicken coup.  She reached up and pulled the string that lit a small bulb that barely illuminated where we were standing.  She bent down and pulled on a mat that was under our feet and we both jumped back and waved our hands around trying to get the chicken feathers out of our faces.  She pulled a small string and the floorboard came up revealing a large black trunk.

“Laurita, there’s your trunk.”  She said pointing to the floor.

            Laura knelt down and tried to pull the top up and said, “It’s locked.”

            Tia Ernestina motioned to the music box under my arm and I dropped to my knees and opened it but didn’t see anything.  I started feeling around the bottom of the box until I felt a small tear in the silk lining.  I pulled it back, reached in and pulled out a key.  I handed it to Laura and she put it in the lock, click.  With both hands, she opened the lid and we both fell back.  I couldn’t say anything.

            “It’s all true.  What he said.  It’s all true.”  Laura whispered. 

I’d never seen Laura so emotional.  Tears streamed down her face as she reached in and pulled old photographs of our grandparents out of the trunk.  There were birth certificates, letters, old blankets and table linens neatly folded and piled on top of each other, like they were waiting to be lifted out and brought back to life any day.  A lifetime of relics that had spent more time with our family than we had.  She had left us the most valuable thing of all – our story, our history.  We stayed up all night enjoying her company.

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