Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 Portrait of a Don

 

 

The South Texas don I knew was one of those rare individuals whose very presence commands respect. As head of the family, he struck fear in our hearts long before Mario Puzo’s image of The Godfather. Perhaps we equated fear with respect. I can’t recall witnessing a challenge to his decrees and feared the unimaginable had anyone dared. We called him Papa, but in South Texas he was don Julian.

Don Julian, the banker in his tailor-made suits, had a reputation as an outstanding citizen. His silver hair, in an orderly burr cut, added to his distinguished demeanor. Early on, my tender literary ear speculated that the title of don could have to do with iambics. Julian (j phonetically like h, in Spanish), the name, sounds as if don should precede it. Surely the status had to do with more than just phonetic luck. Who sets the criteria for donhood? And more importantly, who bestows the title?

In the late ’50s, as he neared retirement from the local National Bank, the Sunday issue of The San Antonio Express referred to him as an “intelligent, ambitious, and energetic executive. A mild-mannered banker.” This mild-mannered bank executive, whom everyone bowed to and spoke of in whispers, was irreproachable. His impeccable attire matched his unflappable formality.

After Grandmother died, Rex, the family dog, and I took turns keeping Papa company. Rex, a purebred chow, looked like a teddy bear and had the disposition of a grizzly. I knew to keep my distance, but I wasn’t in the least bit afraid of the don. Perhaps because once, while in my spy-mode, I saw him in his BVDs. I was five years old at the time and taken aback that without his dark suit, white starched shirt, and Harry Truman hat, he lost gnash. I was often an overnight guest at Papa’s. A double fireplace separated the guest room from his domain. On occasions when a sliver of light from his door fell on the planks of the floor, I flattened myself, like a chameleon, against the side of the brick fireplace. From that vantage I was privileged to the don’s personal habits: Before bedtime I saw him belt down a shot of whiskey. Yes, in spite of his house rules—no wine, whiskey, or uncouth women—Papa drank. Then he raised his arms, stretched, and did a few waist bends. Aha, Papa exercised. Standing before an image of Christ crowned with thorns, he crossed himself. Careful to respect his more intimate moments, I slithered across the flat bricks back to my room to stare at the ceiling and think about how lonely Papa must feel without Grandmother.

Dolor, dolorosa, Dolores. Pain is the literal translation of my grandmother’s given name.

Grandmother died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. This terrifying disease was life-altering for the Gomez family and left ripples of grief that touched each generation thereafter. At the age of thirty-seven, Papa found himself a widower with four children under the age of twelve. Families in South Texas, like ours, were devastated by the plague that took a mind-boggling toll of more lives worldwide than the combined battles in World War I, World War II, the Korean, and Vietnam Wars.

My mother was three years old at the time and innocent, in comparison to the vile virus that morphed into a killer strain. Like a serial-killer, the disease stalked young, healthy adults, sparing the very young and the elderly. Doctors were inaccessible; so were undertakers. I imagine Grandmother, lying in her bed behind closed doors, blue and cold—death from asphyxiation was the final sting of influenza.

Tia Santos, Papa’s older sister, was the only one there for the family. Santos, the saint, wore her wiry, gray hair in a bun pinned up with a thick, tortoiseshell hairpin that left Medusa strands of hair to fall around her face. My recollection of her is one of long prairie skirts, usually black, and cotton blouses with generous pirate sleeves. Once I saw her hike her skirts and cross leg over knee to lace her high-top shoe. Her wrinkled knees and legs, the girth of an elephant’s, had patches of coarse hair. Tia Santos remained a spinster and took care of the children until she was too old.

Eulalia, Papa’s youngest sister, died at the early age of twenty-something, and his oldest brother, a retired railroad man, would join him every evening for supper and lively conversation. I distinguished Uncle Doroteo by his thick, white moustache that half-hid a dark fibroid cyst that reminded me of a chocolate macaroon. Papa’s youngest brother, whom he had little to do with, was a roguish sort who drank too much, so I’d heard, but dared not ask.

The don’s father, Great-Grandfather Atanacio, emigrated from Spain in the 1800s.

During the summer before the millennium, I walked the hills of northern Spain from Astorga to Santiago de Compostela. I found signs along the way that led me to believe that Great-Grandfather was Galician: I found the Gomez surname carved on ancient gravestones and a street named Eulalia and the church of Saint Julian. Droves of Galicians, one barkeeper said, emigrated during the potato famine in the mid-to-late 1800s. It was easier to cross the ocean than crossing the craggy territory by horse or by foot—a theory I support after my pilgrimage to Compostela.

Atanacio Gomez, a fair-haired and blue-eyed adventurer, was the very antithesis of my great-grandmother Julianette, a brown-eyed Texas Mexican or Mexican Texan, chronologically speaking. I speculate that Great-Grandfather was an adventurer who crossed the ocean to settle on a plot of land in godforsaken Collins, Texas.

Having keen agricultural skills and an opportunistic streak, Atanacio amassed acres of land and opened one of the first saloons in the area. He would sit his young heir atop the bar to watch men of the land relax over a mug of beer and bet odds against young Julian’s numerical knack. He would calculate sums with the accuracy of a hand-cranked calculator as quickly as the men threw out random numbers. By the end of the evening, his pockets jangled and knickers sagged. When the time came, Great-Grandfather sent two of his children to the university: Julian, the son who had an extraordinary mind for numbers, and Eulalia, who was a gifted artist.

Off they went, in the late 1800s, to enroll in Georgetown University in Georgetown, Texas (modeled after Washington’s Georgetown University). Julian studied Latin, Greek, and hardcore basics, with required readings of Ivanhoe, The Vicar of Wakefield, and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Eulalia studied the same curriculum with art and music electives. For years one of her still lifes hung on our dining room wall. It was an oil painting of deep-purple pansies with yellow pistils beside a half-opened black lace fan painted in hunter green, dour Goya tones that foreshadowed her brief life.  Eulalia died in her twenties from dropsy, an old term for edema due to congenital heart failure.

They say that after Grandmother died, Papa’s lighthearted side darkened incrementally. He withdrew from social activities, from friends; he withdrew even from the family. The mild-mannered banker, don Julian, withdrew into a world of silence and solitude, dotted with tyrannical outbursts.

Had he loved his wife more than his work, his home life, and his children; more, perhaps, than the feeling of love? The more he withdrew, the stricter he became. He treated family formally, as if we were outsiders. Even grandchildren were reduced to formalities. He demanded that the family hold high standards, standards perhaps extinct in today’s world: proper manners, appropriate dress, and manner of speech. He had no tolerance for anything common: smoking, drinking, swearing. Without question the family complied, “or else”—the illusive threat we never realized.

The family patriarch sat on his massive, high-back, black leather chair and, like a true don, doled out favors sealed by a handshake, a nod, or a wave of dismissal.

I now wonder if Papa’s ambition for higher education and amassing land and wealth was inspired by family pride, Grandmother’s ghost, or if he foresaw excellence as a way to nip prejudicial bias against Mexican Americans that he saw budding like kudzu in the South Texas of the ’50s.

Papa’s professional story was similar to that of Horatio Alger, according to local newspapers that carried the feature: He worked his way up the ranks from collecting interest for bank loans that he stashed in a sling-leather pouch, to making deposits behind a teller’s cage before assuming the position of vice president. There was always a string of khaki-clad farmers waiting to speak to don Julian, who sat behind an imposing mahogany desk. It was difficult to distinguish the khaki-clad farmer requesting a loan to keep life together from the khaki-clad rancher en route to cattle auction who owned a 300,000-acre spread. They both wore jeans or khakis, wrinkled hats, and dust-covered boots, and hobnobbed while waiting in line to do business with the don.

At home he retired to his room, a private sanctuary that had an assortment of framed documents: a letter from President Roosevelt, a black-and-white photo of Pope Pius, and an award for “meritorious service” from the Office of Price Administration. I don’t know what he did to achieve this recognition, but I do remember it said that Papa’s influence in the community had helped keep the bank’s doors open during the 1920s crash.

My Aunt Lala, Papa’s oldest daughter, swore that she saw a smile fall across Papa’s face when he first laid eyes on me. Truth or hearsay, she used that incident as leverage for my frequent visits. On one of those visits, I happened to step over forbidden boundaries and found myself on the via dolorosa. I didn’t like the dolorosa implication of my name, but I was pleased to be Grandmother’s namesake, a name that, like my grandfather’s, became a family name—a redundancy that caused confusion, especially when the family vacationed together.

One summer the family, cousins included, drove in caravan-style across the border to Monterrey, Mexico. That was the summer the family had the rare occasion to witness the don’s sense of humor. Our destination was the Gran Hotel Ancira, a five-star hotel, best known for having had Pancho Villa ride his horse into the bar. We were ten miles out of the city limits when Papa made his son, Julian Jr., stop at Ben Bolt, Texas, to mail a postcard. It was a greeting addressed to his co-workers at the bank: “Having a great time. Wish you were here.”

At home Papa and I used to spend hours in each other’s company, silence prevailing. The clock on his side table was not digital, but in bold, numerical blocks that made a soft click as the numerals were swallowed by time at a slow, steady pace, as if we had forever. Yet unaware, time was moving toward finalities. Photographs of all eight grandchildren hung over his fireplace mantel. (Only one grandson, Julian III, now a heart surgeon, left to carry on the family name.) In the far corner, a nightstand stood with the radio that he listened to nightly. In the middle of the room, an iron bed stood erect with an oversize mattress that was covered with a silk Asian throw that he and Grandmother had bought at the World’s Fair. I used to spend hours braiding and unbraiding its dark fringe. At the foot of his bed sat a sloping school desk, sized especially for me. I used to sit and entertain my muse, forthcoming plays, poems, and stories that my teacher allowed me to read aloud in class. Papa, absorbed in thought, sat in his easy chair to blow smoke rings and listen to the news on his shortwave radio. On those quiet evenings, the radio turned low, the fireplace burning, he would pause and touch the tip of his cigar to the edge of the newspaper. Half-moons burning the margins, he’d watch the sparks glow and expire like fallen stars.

What must he have been thinking? And in whom did he confide? No close friends, no visitors, except family and co-workers at the bank. His only sports were hunting and fishing, which he did often with his son.

“Papa, where are we from?” I asked one evening, while sitting at my desk to fill out a school form.

“United States of America.”

“But what are we?” A question I wouldn’t have asked had Texan been offered as one of the choices.

“We are citizens of the United States of America.”

“But what about this?” I showed Papa an array of colorful selections: Brown. Black. White. Red. Other.

“Put ‘US of A’ next to other,” he said emphatically. I looked at Papa’s distinct complexion, a mirror image of my own, and thought, “Toffee.” I marked “other.”

Aunt Lala ran the household like a general. She finally married at the age of forty and soon thereafter earned her college degree. I dared not ask how he, who had placed so much emphasis on education, had sent only his son to the University of Texas. The three daughters had remained at home—a virtual nunnery. Papa built a new home for the family after Grandmother died, leaving the home he built for her abandoned. He ordered the lilies that Grandmother planted uprooted and cast away. We were not allowed to speak of her. “Why?” I asked and was hushed.

The family home had a typical early 19th-century wraparound porch with a slat swing and a screened porch at the far end. The rooms were ample in size, each with its own fireplace. But for the most part, the home was sterile and practical and cold in the winter. I recall venetian blinds with no curtains, tungsten lighting, with a few lamps that cast warm halos here and there, a Victrola with the RCA dog emblem on the top, and an upright piano. The outside of the home was impressive, with its Roman-pillared porch and antique roses with thorns that grew profusely over a nearby trellis. Bordering the porch, wildflowers grew: pink primroses; white daisies; succulents that attached themselves to tree crevices like the devil’s whip; a tentacle cactus that grew a single white flower on each strand; and a nopal with pinpricking thorns and alluring yellow flowers. Poisonous pink oleanders clustered near the back door. In the front yard German orange trees bloomed with sweet-smelling blossoms that yielded bitter picks. On the west side of the house, a coral-flowered tree flourished with plump pomegranates that left telltale rims around our mouths, impossible to wash off, and impossible to deny having eaten forbidden fruit. Mesquite and chinaberry provided us scanty shade from the harsh sun that we endured. How all this survived in the hard, black dirt that no one bothered to water is remarkable.

The morning I turned six, Papa asked if I wanted to accompany him to the bank. I nodded for fear that butterflies would flutter from my lips had I said, “Yes, sir.” That morning he arose at his usual time, 6 a.m. Aunt Lala made sure I dressed for the occasion: She pinned a pink, satin bow atop my dark, curly locks, dressed me in a crisp dress adorned with delicate pink flowers, and laced my white, high-top shoes.

The bank was past the public library, which was just past the post office—all within walking distance. Off we went, hand in hand, the don and me in a spiffy-do. The marble columns in front of the Georgian-style bank building reached skyward while I shrank in size like Alice in Wonderland. I took tiny steps in and looked up at the massive marble countertop behind which stood windows for tellers. The building smelled of leather, stale cigar, and ink. Papa looked important wearing his uniform: a dark-blue, three-piece suit, a white handkerchief in his pocket and a gold watch in his vest pocket; a starched, white, button-down shirt with a tasteful tie; black, polished, lace-up shoes; and a dress hat which he promptly removed upon entering. It seemed odd to me that after all the care he gave to his dress, he used rubber bands looped through French buttonholes as cuff links.

When I wasn’t conversing with Papa or playing with a friend (always under Aunt Lala’s severe scrutiny), I played alone. It was one of those alone days that I dared to overstep boundaries. In that adventure, I stumbled upon an old trunk like a gift from the past that brought me closer to understanding the don, more even than the personal glimpse I had caught of him in his underwear—I would never tell.

I stood on the outer marker of via dolorosa and found a crawlspace in Grandmother’s old house. The house Papa had built for Grandmother was, or should have been, condemned, for it was held together by rafters refusing to rot and a weathered, lopsided frame with corners braced by spiderwebs. Now empty except for a chair turned on its side and a dust-covered chest in the middle of the room, the home had, at one time, been fully furnished, complete with linen and china, even before he asked for Grandmother’s hand.

Papa was a closet Cyrano—he didn’t have a long nose; it was rather wide and average.  But much like Cyrano, he wrote poetry and letters, creating a visual image of a gentleman and a scholar. Perhaps this very quality made him somewhat handsome.

All was still and silent on that hot, summer day except for the twitter of a mockingbird. I, in search of adventure, allowed curiosity to override a cautious inner voice. The stagnant air in Grandmother’s old house allowed a shaft of sun to blaze through weathered planks, spotlighting random particles of dust stirring the thick air. In my first attempt to climb an exposed floor joist, my footing slipped. Black dirt smudged my lacy pink panties and my upper thigh. From a far corner of the room, a brooding hen gurgled a low warning. I hesitated before my second attempt. How had these rafters withstood the South Texas weather? Every board, however ramshackle, stood covered in ashy dust, undisturbed like Pompeii; frozen in time, anticipating the slightest heartbeat, the slightest sign of life. Had their love withstood time? Fifty years between then and now bridging eternity? Through the languorous particles of dust allowing shafts of sunlight, I imagined a sunbeam striking Grandmother’s cheek. Her auburn hair atop her head; her long skirts swishing across the floor as she prepared breakfast; Papa laughing; Lala as an infant, sitting in a high chair, cooing and basking in their attention.

In the middle of the floor, an old trunk awaited human touch. I used caution to open it; rusted hinges squeaked and released a ferric mist. Fumes of old musk and dust arose from their tomb, and aging paper that lined the trunk creaked like old bones. On the top shelf, compartmentalized for flotsam, a tinted photo was wrapped in tissue. I knew it was of Grandmother. She looked like a perfectly tinted cameo—Grecian-coiffed, auburn hair held up by a comb. I studied every detail. I didn’t look like her at all; she was beautiful—peachy-cream skin, dark eyes that matched a black taffeta dress. The story of Papa’s courtship had passed from cup to lip. It was into those eyes he had gazed while he strummed the mandolin and recited poetry. In the next compartment, cuff links—a pair of men’s gold cuff links with tiny pearls adorning the top lay abandoned and forgotten. A lady’s tortoiseshell comb with an intricate filigree design at the top. A fan and a bundle of letters. The letters were wrapped in grosgrain ribbon. One with precise penmanship caught my attention. It was from his sister, Eulalia, written from the university. I had seen a photo of her and a group of ladies, arms entwined, and all dressed in black bloomers. I assumed it was a sports team. The letter made mention of how she played tennis, and how much she enjoyed her studies, and that she sent her family love and best wishes.

My young writer’s mind exploded with images. I ran inside, eager to tell Aunt Lala. News of my archeological find was met by the general’s steel-cold stare. She sent me marching off to my room for the rest of the day.

“But . . .” I was not allowed to explain. I was not allowed to express my thoughts about my discovery or how sorry I felt for Papa, for the family. And how glad I was to know that my Grandfather had loved, regardless of how he now caged his emotions, as if this emotional tiger would run amok.

“But nothing,” Aunt Lala admonished. “Off to your room. And one more thing—never, ever speak of your grandmother in Papa’s presence.”

“Why?”

“Because,” Aunt Lala confided, “he cries.”

He cries? I was amazed. The very thought that my grandfather, the don, cried absolutely amazed me.

I was already off to college; time and distance veiled the creeping chronology of an aging don. It was obvious in Rex, the house dog, who developed a tic that caused his knees to buckle at intervals in perfect 4/4 rhythm and who, having developed an approachable disposition, liked to have his ears scratched.

I knew Papa’s days were numbered when, out of the blue, he reached out and ruffled my hair. “Chiquita,” he said lovingly. At that moment I realized he was slipping into a state he had once felt. He forgot decorum that for so long had hidden an emotional abyss that he desperately tried to skirt.

Don Julian died of heart failure at the age of eighty-five. All eight grandchildren sat perched on a church pew, hands folded in laps, with a full view of his body laid out in an open casket. I couldn’t begin to imagine the storehouse of grief buried in his casket. He never remarried. And as far as I know, if he did have female companionship, it was outside of the house and of such a discreet nature that no one knows for sure.

At the viewing a khaki-clad farmer, reeking of mescal, staggered down the aisle. Hat in hand, he paused by the casket. This farmer must have known a side of Papa few family members had been privileged to. I could tell by the way he viewed the body that don Julian had played a crucial part in this farmer’s life—saved his farm, perhaps. Who knows that it wasn’t this farmer who might have been the first to kiss Papa’s hand and by the mere whisper “don Julian” bestowed the title. The farmer, now standing by the casket, shook his head and wept, “Ya mudio, don Julian”—the don is dead.

Teary-eyed, I wondered if Papa’s crown of grief had been the catalyst of his honorable conduct, duty-bound to family and work. And to his mantra “right is right,” his legacy left to us by his example,

 

 

Dolores Redfearn is a graduate from the Johns Hopkins Advanced Academic Program in fiction. Her work has appeared in the anthology Voices of Lung Cancer and Palo Alto Review. She now lives in Philadelphia and divides her time between there and the Yucatan Peninsula.