From the pool’s edge, M smiled at me before dipping underwater and popping right back up. I never shifted focus from the very spot she occupied. I believed that if I did, I’d be taking some trust away. As she dipped, she needed to know I’d still be there when she emerged from beneath the water.
I suppose I felt the same way when my brother called me last night – I suppose I wanted him to know on some level that no matter what, when he emerged from whatever sea he’d fallen into, I’d still be here, the same sister, the same person.
“How come you never call your brother?” he asked me late last night, on the phone.
“Oh it’s the back-stabbing traitor,” I said, in a voice that only teased him.
He chuckled, relieved, I could tell. And so it goes. Nothing has changed for forever – I’ll still be there for his birthday, my dramatic promises of never-seeing-him-again, over. We went on talking, reviewing what the kids were up to, what we all were doing, about his search for a new car, mulling over the choice of a hybrid rather than a gas guzzler, the Honda Civic most likely. Benign stuff that spoke of normality, spoke to my still being there when he dipped, still there when he popped back up.
As I scanned the benches alongside the pool behind the fence, I saw the other parents and grandparents divided: half reading books, half concentrating on the swimming children. I divided my time in half: half reading, half watching M. D joined me today – we two watched her and waved when she reached the edge of the pool. We sat close, chatting about nonsense as the heat rose.
Later, in the afternoon, D and I sat close again at our kitchen table and listened to my grandfather tell about his past, his roots. My grandparents had stopped by with the last cutting from the cactus tree in their backyard.
“The last dish of nopales for the year,” my grandmother murmured, as she watched with adoring eyes my son A eat the cactus with a man’s love of good food. The kind of love that might have spurred the saying, “The way to a man's heart is through his stomach.”
Popping open a Bud Light and taking a couple of sips first, Papa Ul then explained that his father came from Chihuaha, Mexico, and his mother from Parral, the city where Pancho Villa was first buried before being moved to Mexico City. He said said that he took a trip once with my grandmother to Parral and visited the church where his mother had been baptized. The church’s priest arranged for a letter to be drafted, detailing the names of his mother’s family members and other such details. He got the letter and pictures, too, and to this day, they sit in a box he periodically studies. The information meant much to him because he lost his mother to death when he was a teenager. "I have a similar letter," he said, "about my father and family." That, too, sits in the box which waits for him in the hall closet, near their television.
“You lived in East Los Angeles, didn’t you?”
“Yes, and I had many jobs.”
He recounts that he once worked for Sears Roebuck, packaging orders from the catalogue. “I worked in that old, old building in Downtown, Los Angeles, the one you could see from the 10 Freeway.” He remembered that he also worked for a stove company, O’Keefe & Merritt, up until the factory blew up. He recalled running like hell down a hallway and through a glass window. Then watched as the building burned to the ground. Later, he worked at a company that made battery cases. He also worked for a company that made specialized oil derricks in Los Angeles, machinery that pumped the oil in a much more efficient manner than the others at that time.
“I became good friends with the son of the owner.” He didn’t say much more about that, just smiled to himself, lost for a moment in memory.
“When had your father come to the United States?”
“He came in 1917 – first to New York, then across the north to Chicago and Minnesota and Idaho, then to Los Angeles. We lived, I was born, in East Los Angeles. For miles to the east, you could see the orange groves.”
Every so often, we’ve driven to San Pedro for lunch and in getting there from Pasadena, we have to drive across Downtown. Never fails that when we cross between the 110 and the 10 freeways, he’ll grumble over the change of the name Brooklyn Avenue to Cesar E. Chavez Avenue.
“It was Brooklyn when I was born, and Brooklyn it should have stayed,” he says.
My grandfather isn’t my biological grandfather – he married my grandmother in 1968 – but he is the only grandfather I know. He’s a bit…gruff. He lost both his parents as a teenager and he and his brother had to make it on their own. No time there to build a sentimental or tender personality. He’s always worked, he’s always made due. His last job was an importer of tequila. He walked the crates to Trader Joe’s, to the Liquor Barn, himself. He brought shot glasses and made sales to these big stores. They always bought from him, bucking their usual bulk requirements, because he was a damned good salesman.
When the clock began to inch its way to dinnertime, my grandparents gathered their things and walked slowly out our front door as we walked with them, saying our goodbyes. The sight of the two of them, my grandfather carrying a bag of returned containers, my grandmother in her hat and carrying her purse, is a familiar one - they are steady, always returning to the surface as if nothing ever happened despite their own troubles. We were grandchildren...we were not impacted by their chaos (and they certainly had it in their day) in the same way we were impacted by our parents' actions. Though the buffers are gone now, they are older and can no longer afford to be away from each other. My grandfather now refers to my grandmother when talking to me or my sister as, “Your mother,” such habit he was in when talking to my mother about my grandmother.
They climbed into their car and waited for the air conditioning to cool them off. I noticed a new dent on the side, just a small one, but black and definite. The dog sped past me, running off again, out the door, and D and the kids hoofed it after her. The heat continued though it was mild today. The kids are growing so, so fast. Our lives are in constant motion.
I found myself grateful for my grandparents’ presence in my life as they drove off…slowly, slowly down the road. They have not changed much, no matter the dips that have taken place over the years – they are always there, beyond the edge of the pool, waving, never shifting focus.