Celebration of Grandfathers
"Buenos Dias le de Dios, abuelo.” God give you a good day, grandfather. This is how I was taught as a child to greet my grandfather, or any grown person. It was a greeting of respect, a cultural value to be passed on from generation to generation, this respect for the old ones.
The old people I remember from my childhood were strong in their beliefs, and as we lived daily with them we learned a wise path if life to follow. They had something important to share with the young, and when they spoke the young listened. These old abuelos and abuelitas had worked the earth all their lives, and so they knew the value of nurturing, they knew the sensitivity of the earth. The daily struggle called for cooperation, and so every person contributed to the social fabric, and each person was respected for his contribution.
The old ones had looked deep into the web that connects all animate and inanimate forms of life, and they recognized the great design of creation.
These ancianos from the cultures of the Rio Grande, lived side by side, sharing, growing together, they knew the rhythms and cycles of time, from the preparation of the earth in the spring to the digging of the acequias that bought the water to the dance of harvest in the fall. They shared good times and hard times. They helped each other through epidemics and the personal tragedies, they shared what little they had when the winds burned the land and no rain came. They learned that to survive one had to share in the process of life.
Hard workers all, they tilled the earth and farmed, ran the herds and spun wool, and carved their saints and their kachinas from cottonwood late in the winter nights. All worked with a deep faith which perplexes the modern mind.
Their faith shone in their eyes; it was in the strength of their grip, in the creases time wove into their faces. When they spoke, they spoke plainly and with few words, and they meant what they said. When they prayed, they went straight to the source of life. When there were good times, they knew how to dance in celebrations and how to prepare the foods of the fiestas. All this they passed on to the young, so that a new generation would know what they had known, so the string of life would not be broken.
Today we would say that the old abuelitos lived authentic lives.
Newcomers to New Mexico often say that time seems to move slowly here. I think they mean that they have come in contact with the inner strength of the people, a strength so solid it causes time itself to pause. Think of it. Think of the high northern New Mexico villages, or the lonely ranches on the open llano. Think of the Indian pueblo which lies as solid as rock in the face of time. Remember the old people whose eyes seem like windows that peer into the distant past that makes absurdity of our contemporary world. That is what one feels when one encounters the old ones and their land, a pausing of time.
We have all felt time stand still. We have all been in the presence of power, the knowledge of the old ones, the majestic peace of a mountain stream or an aspen grove or red buttes rising into blue sky. We have all felt the light of dusk permeate the earth and cause time to pause in its flow.
I felt this when I first touched the spirit of Ultima, the old curandera who appears in my first novel, Bless Me, Ultima. This is how the young Antonio describes what he feels:
When she came the beauty of the llano unfolded before my eyes, and the gurgling waters of the river sang to the hum of the turning earth. The magical time of childhood stood still, and the pulse of the living earth pressed its mystery into my living blood. She took my hand, and the silent, magical powers she possessed made beauty from the raw, sun-baked llano, the green river valley, and the blue bowl which was the white sun’s home. My bare feet felt the throbbing earth, and my body trembled with excitement. Time stood still…
At other times, in other places, when I have been privileged to be with the old ones, to learn, I have felt this inner reserve of strength from which they draw. I have been held motionless and speechless by the power of curanderas. I have felt the same power when I hunted with Cruz, high on the Taos Mountain, where it was more than the incredible beauty of the mountain bathed in morning light, more that the shining of the quivering aspen, but a connection with life, as if a shining strand of light connected the particular and the cosmic. That feeling is an epiphany of time, a standing still of time.
But not all of our old ones are curanderos or hunters on the mountain. My grandfather was a plain man, a fan from the valley called Puerto de Luna on Pecos River. He was probably a descendant of those people who spilled over the mountain from Taos, following the Pecos River search of farmland. There in that river valley he settled and raised a large family.
Bearded and walrus-mustached, he stood five feet tall, but to me as a child he was a giant. I remember him most for his silence. In the summers my parents sent me to live with him on his farm, for I was to learn the ways of a farmer. My uncles also lived in that valley, there where only the flow of the river and the whispering of the wind marked time. For me it was a magical place.
I remember once, while out in the fields, I came upon an anthill, and before I knew it I was badly bitten. After he had covered my welts with the cool mud from the irrigation ditch, my grandfather calmly said: “Know where you stand.” That is the way he spoke, in short phrases, to the point.
One very dry summer, the river dried to a trickle, there was no water for the fields. The young plants withered and died. In my sadness and with the impulse of youth I said, “I wish it would rain!” My grandfather touched me, looked up into the sky and whispered, “Pray for rain.” In his language there was a difference. He felt connected to the cycles that brought the rain or kept it from us. His prayer was a meaningful action, because he was a participant with the forces that filled our world, he was not a bystander.
A young man died at the village one summer. A very tragic death. He was dragged by his horse. When he was found I cried, for the boy was my friend. I did not understand why death had come to one so young. My grandfather took me aside and said: “Think of the death of the trees and the fields in the fall. The leaves fall, and everything rests, as if dead. But they bloom again in the spring. Death is only this small transformation in life.”
These are the things I remember, these fleeting images, few words.
I remember him driving his horse-drawn wagon into Santa Rosa in the fall when he brought his harvest produce to sell in the town. What a tower of strength seemed to come in that small man huddled on the seat of the giant wagon. One click of his tongue and the horses obeyed, stopped or turned as he wished. He never raised his whip. How unlike today when so much teaching is done with loud words and threatening hands.
I would run to greet the wagon, and the wagon would stop. “Buenos Dias le de Dios, abuelo,” I would say. “Buenos Dias te de Dios, mi hijo,” he would answer and smile, and then I could jump up on the wagon and sit at his side. Then I, too, became a king as I rode next to the old man who smelled of earth and sweat and the other deep aromas from the orchards and fields of Puerto de Luna.
We were all sons and daughters to him. But today the sons and daughters are breaking with the past, putting aside los abuelitos.’ The old values are threatened, and threatened most where it comes to these relationships with the old people. If we don’t take the time to watch and feel the years of their final transformation, a part of our humanity will be lessened.
I grew up speaking Spanish, and oh! how difficult it was to learn English. Sometimes I give up and cry out that I couldn’t learn. Then he would say, “Ten paciencia.” Have patience. Paciencia, a word with the strength of centuries, a word that said that someday we would overcome. Paciencia, how soothing a word coming from this old man who could still sling hundred-pound bags over his shoulder, chop wood for hundreds of hours on end, and hitch up his own horses and ride to town and back in one day.
“You have to learn the language of the Americanos,” he said. “Me, I will live my last days in my valley. You will live in a new time, the time of the gringos.”
A new time did come, a new time is here. How will we form it so it is fruitful? We need to know where we stand. We need to speak softly and respect others, and to share what we have. We need to pray not for material gain, but for rain for the fields, for the sun to nurture growth, for nights in which we can sleep in peace, and for a harvest in which everyone can share. Simple lessons from a simple man. These lessons he learned from his past, which was as deep and strong as the currents of the river of life, a life which could be stronger than death.
He was a man; he died. Not in his valley, but nevertheless cared for by his sons and daughters and flocks of grandchildren. At the end, I would enter his room, which carried the smell of medications and Vicks. Gone were the aromas of the fields, the strength of his young manhood. Gone also was his patience in the face of crippling old age. Small things bothered him; he shouted or turned sour when his expectations were not met. It was because he could not care for himself, because he was returning to that state of childhood, and all those wishes and desires were now wrapped in a crumbling old body.
“Ten paciencia,” I once said to him, and he smiled. “I didn’t know I would grow this old,” he said.
I would sit and look at him and remember what was said of him when he was a young man. He could mount a wild horse and break it, and he could ride as far as any man. He could dance all night at a dance, then work the acequia the following day. He helped the neighbors, they helped him. He married, raised children. Small legends, the kind that make up everyman’s life.
He was ninety-four when he died. Family, neighbors, and friends gathered; they all agreed he had led a rich life. I remembered the last years, the years he spent in bed. And as I remember now, I am reminded that it is too easy to romanticize old age. Sometimes we forget the pain of the transformation into old age, we forget the natural breaking down of the body. Not all go gentle into the last years, some go crying and cursing, forgetting the names of those they love the most, withdrawing into an internal anguish few of us can know. May we be granted the patience and care to deal with our ancianos.
For some time we haven’t looked at these changes and needs of the old ones. The American image created by the mass media is an image of youth, not of old age. It is the beautiful and the young who are praised in this society. If analyzed carefully, we see that same damaging thought has crept into the way society views the old. In response to the old, the mass media have just created old people who act like the young. It is only the healthy, pink-cheeked, outgoing, older persons we are shown in the media. And they are always selling something, as if an entire generation of old people were salesmen in their lives. Commercials show very lively old men, who must always be in excellent health according to the new myth, selling insurance policies or real estate as they are out golfing; older women selling coffee or toilet paper to those just married. That image does not illustrate the real life of old ones.
Real life takes into account the natural cycle of growth and change. My grandfather pointed to the leaves falling from the tree. So time brings with its transformation the often painful, wearing-down process. Vision blurs, health wanes even the act of walking carries with it the painful reminder of the autumn of life. But this process is something to be faced, not something to be hidden away by false images. Yes, the old can be young at heart, but in their own way, with their own dignity. They do not have to copy the always-young image of the Hollywood star.
My grandfather wanted to return to his valley to die. But by then the families of the valley had left in search of a better future. It is only now that there seems to be a return to the valley, a revival. The new generation seeks its roots, that value of love for the land moves us to return to the place where our ancianos formed the culture.
I returned to Puerto de Luna last summer, to
join the community in a celebration of the founding of the church. I drove by
my grandfather’s home, my uncles’ ranches, the neglected adobe washing down
into the earth from whence it came. And I wondered,
how might the values of my grandfather’s generation live in our own? What can
we retain to see us through these hard times? I was to become a farmer, and I
became a writer. As I plow and plant my words, do I nurture as my grandfather
did in his fields and orchards? The answers are not simple.