The rain stopped. It seemed we were almost there. Traveling sure is hell. No wonder we didn’t make the trip more often. People are always talking about how great it is to travel; they’ve never ventured into northern Mexico with six kids in one car, a trip that takes three days. That’s what I got for being the tag-along. I asked for it after all. I asked to go. My cousins always seemed to have the most fun and well, going somewhere, anywhere without my parents seemed like a dream come true. At least that’s what my 14-year-old brain thought. When my mom said yes, a yes that I truly didn’t expect, my heart stopped and I squealed. I didn’t expect that my adventure could at times be so boring.
The old Chrysler really took a beating that day. It always seems that the last day of a trip is the most eventful. The “road” became a muddy trail and the Chrysler couldn’t manage its grip. We were stuck in the thick, dark brown Mexican clay-dirt. We weren’t allowed out of the car; my aunt knew a bunch of dirty kids would be more trouble than the sticky mess itself.
Sitting in the back seat I grew tired of holding the baby on my lap and the constant bickering between the two kids fighting for the window seat. I tried to let my thoughts turn to our destination. I’d never seen the old man before. I never thought grandfathers had brothers and sisters like other people. I never knew Tio Cruz existed before the day my uncle called and asked if I wanted to make the trip with his family.
I was scared. Sometimes I’d think of my grandfather and how much I missed him now that he was dead. He died one year after my grandmother died. I died a little on both those days. As we barreled down one of the longest stretches of freeway my weary mind has ever experienced, my thoughts would drift, interrupted only by unexpected bumps in the road and the sit bones of the skinny baby squirming restlessly on my lap. Jolted into reality I wondered how much farther we had to go. My grandfather’s brother was alive. 82 years old and living in near a small town in the countryside. Soon I would be able to see and talk to the man most like my Abuelito Vicente. I was very glad I decided to go. It would be nice to have that feeling again, that feeling I lost when my grandfather died. Maybe Tio Cruz and I would become just as close. Now if we could only get out of the mud.
My uncle walked down the road to an old wood house with a well in the front yard and asked some men if they would help with the car. Together they placed small rocks and pieces of brush underneath the back tires. My uncle got back into the car and, while he steered, the men pushed. My heart pounded out a sound more earth-shaking than he cussing my uncle’s new friends spewed bad words while the car’s tail end swerved and slipped around on the unpaved road. Finally after every curse word in the Spanish language and a few in English had been uttered, we were ready to go. We traveled for another ten minutes. Up ahead a bride signaled to my uncle that it was time for a right turn. This decision would have been alright, even welcomed, were I able to see a road.
“Aqui me subo al bordo,” he said as if to remind himself of what he had to do. Luckily, I caught the phrase and braced myself for the last leg of the trip.
He turned right, alright! Right onto the surface road running along the bank of the canal. I thought I had just gotten over the shock of having to travel on a narrow slimy path– it was no wider than a path– when my uncle decided to get out of the way of the donkey cart coming toward us. My heart yelled, “this is not time to be a gentleman!” this maneuver took some skillful driving on the part of my uncle and at least ten Hail Marys from me, but it was done. It’s funny, the part of the prayer I remember emphasizing the most were the last few words: “…pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
Up ahead, a single house stood by the canal. It looked like something out of an old John Wayne movie. At first, it didn’t hit me that this was where I would find what I dreamed of since getting approval to tag along on the trip.
Around the old building and about the yard there wandered a few pigs and goats. the house itself was built against the canal providing a shelter of sorts on the north side of the house which, facing south looked over e yellow leafed corn patch. The corn seemed out-of-place among the sage brush and the mesquite. The house looked so quiet; I wondered if anyone were home.
The house itself seemed to me to be so perfect; its adobe brick walls were just right for the setting I pictured after hearing the stories my mother told me. I knew inside that with in those walls was my mother’s childhood and a whole lifetime of other memories. Inside I would find my Tio Cruz.
I could see a figure come out of the house. I asked, rather impatiently,”who’s that?”
“Tu Tia Canda,” came the reply from my uncle.
“But I don’t have an Aunt Canda!”
“She’s your grandfather’s sister-in-law. You are to call her Tia Canda. When we get there I want no running around. I want all of you to stay outside and play.”
It always seemed that us kids had to stay outside and play. I knew that this time it wouldn’t be that way for me. This was my trip. My interest grew. She waited just outside the door of the two room adobe. She looked old.
She wore a gray colored dress with a blue flowered apron around her waist. She had one long braid that seemed to be just the right shade of silver to match her dress. She wasn’t very tall and she wrung he hands as if trying to warm them. When she did this, she appeared to diminish even more. She smiled as we piled out of the car. I noticed a twinkle in her eye. For a moment I remembered the twinkle in my grandmother’s eyes when we visited her.
My uncle walked over and introduced himself. She said to him, “Como estas?” She hadn’t seen him since he was a teenager on the day the family left for the States. Somehow I couldn’t imagine not remembering an aunt or an uncle, and it felt weird that we had to be introduced. Then I realized it was she that could not remember him. It had been so long ago and now she was so old– she was 80–it was no wonder her memory failed her. When the rest of the family was introduced, it was my turn.
My Tio gently urged me toward Canda. He spoke loudly to her and said, “This is Adalia’s girl.”
“A, si? Mira nomas!” she said as she touched my face with a soft and wrinkled hand. I could tell she was trying to remember my mother.
She invited us in. I say us, because, again, I played the tag-along. I knew that being on a trip without my parents meant I’d have many privileges the other kids wouldn’t have. I was treated like an adult. While, I knew I had to help out more than the other kids, I also knew that I didn’t have to do everything they were told to do; like play outside. I could choose what I wanted to do. I chose to go in and meet Tio Cruz.
In the background I could hear my Tia say, “At first I didn’t know the color of the car. I thought it was my son coming to visit me.I haven’t been able to see too well these past few months.” She laughed. It didn’t bother her in the least that she was going blind.
The dark house was lit in part by a small fire burned directly on the hard-packed dirt floor. My eyes slowly adjusted . I could see that the floor had just been swept, the marks from the broom were still visible. Then as I looked around I saw him. The old man, Cruz, Tio Cruz lay on the bed. He smiled when he saw me walk in. He looked so old. The scraggly beard and bushy gray eyebrows made him look so rugged; his eyes, cloudy with age made him look so helpless.
My uncle entered the room and said hello. Greetings exchanged, they sat to talk. My Tio Cruz, propped up with pillows talked in mumbled speech. I didn’t want to move. Outside, the sun shone brightly. I could tell because the cracks in the mud walls let in streams of light. I had no desire to move; not even to play with my cousins yelling wildly to each other as they discovered the rancho’s secrets.
I looked over to my Tia. She sat, hands folded on her lap, smiling at whoever happened to talk. Suddenly, she looked down and picked something up off the floor. When it grunted I realized it was a baby pig and not a puppy. I walked over and touched it. I had never touched a pig before.
Tio Cruz called me over closer to him I sat next to him on the bed almost as if we were best friends.
“You know, mija,” he started and I knew I was in for a story of the past.”when you mama was small, about 8 years old, I would take her to the store with me. Your abuelito lived close by so I always took her with me. I would take her by the hand and we would walk along el bordo del canal. She always looked forward to the trips because she like to play with the dolls that Don Martin had on one of the shelves.” He chuckled. “They were always there because no one ever had enough money to buy them. While she looked at the toys, I would secretly buy a few pieces of candy. These I would hide in my pocket so she wouldn’t know. After I finished the shopping, I would call Dalia and tell her it was time to go. On the way out of the store we would pass the dulces. Like any muchachita she would ask for one. I always said no. But you know, she always smiled at me. She was that sure that she would get one anyway. And you know what else? She always did. You see, on the way home I would tell her to look in my coat pocket for a surprise. She acted excited, but she always knew they were hidden there. She wanted to make me happy.”
His eyes fixed on an old photograph of him and Tia Canda when they were younger. After a few seconds he looked at me and smiled.
“Look in here,” he said point to his coat pocket. His eyes never left mine.
I did, but not before wondering if it was okay. I looked over at my uncle to see if I had his approval. I got a quick nod and my hand fished into the pocket.
I pulled out a piece of hard candy. He smiled. He said I looked like my mother. A tear came to his eyes.
The other day my mother got a call from one of her sisters in Mexico. She called to tell us that Tio Cruz died. When my mom told me this, I said, “It can’t be. I’ve been writing him and he never said he was sick.” I couldn’t believe it, especially because they said that he had been sick for a long time. I went to my room and in disbelief tried to find some clues in the letters.
His writing was hard to read and I realized that because of this I never read the letters like I should have; I mostly skimmed them. I always skipped the words I couldn’t make out and never tried to decipher them.
I sat down with the letters and decided to read them all again. Because they were in Spanish, and his thought were jumbled, this took some time. I noticed that he never did use my name in the letters. Instead, he called me Mija. Even the address he used was that of an aunt’s house and my mother maiden name. It was so late I put them away and went to bed.
I thought about the time I first met him. I still remembered how he said I looked like my mother. It had been a while since his last letter. I wondered what he was thinking before he died. I cried.
A few days later my aunt called to tell me a letter arrived from my Tio Cruz. I rushed over to get it, but I couldn’t bring myself to open it for three days.
The writing was almost impossible to read and it took me a while to realize what happened. In his old age and being sick, Tio Cruz wrote to me thinking that I was my mother. He wrote about the trips to the store and the candy in his pocket. I searched for a post mark on the envelope. The date read April 26, just two days before he died.
When someone says how much I look like my mother, I always think of my Tio Cruz.