María Castro de Vásquez
.....quia fortis est ut mors dilectio
Note: The purpose of the following series of posts is twofold: on the one hand, I want to memorialize those “unimportant” people who I have touched my life and who have since returned to our Father’s house, and on the other hand, I want to write a very soft apologia for traditional Roman Catholicism. Since Christianity is first and foremost about life, it is the lives of these people who have passed the Faith onto me. And I wish to share this with you.
Some of us are fortunate enough to know those people who have taught us how to love. Our parents of course are the primary source of this knowledge, but many times this is supplemented by someone else very special whose soul is so beautiful that it covers us in its shade long after they are gone. My paternal grandmother was this for me. What she taught me, not with words or books, but rather with actions, touch, and a gaze, was (to paraphrase Newman) that to love is to suffer, and to have loved perfectly is to have suffered often.
To the eyes of that seven year old, she was the most beautiful woman in the world other than his mother. To the eyes of the world, she was balding, hunched over, wrinkled, and wracked with severe diabetes. She was the mother of five, the grandmother of countless, an abandoned wife, a single mother, a keeper of beautiful birds, and a great cook. Everyone around her was intent, however, to make her life as sad and tragic as possible.
Born in Corpus Christi, Texas, she was orphaned at a young age and raised by her grandmother. She met my grandfather, Salvador, at the age of twenty and had five children by him. A drunk in and out of jail for most of their marriage, he finally abandoned her in California when my father was fourteen years of age. Her children, four boys and one girl, took after their father in many ways, and family gatherings often degenerated into drunken brawls between brothers over trifles. There are other more serious things, but I have probably said more than enough. Sons should not reveal the sins of their fathers….
To say that my grandmother had a simple Faith is an understatement. To say she was superstitious is probably more accurate. She had a small altar in her room on the right side of her bed that had, along with pictures of Christ and the Virgin, a picture of a man dressed in a soldier’s uniform. This was one of the many Mexican “folk saints” who would never make it past the post office if his cause was introduced to the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints, but this guy probably did something really nice to some poor family at some point between killing people in knife fights and fornicating, so why not have a little picture of him in your room? Grandma also had to defend me from her rather tacky plastic statues of the Holy Family that scared me so much. I tried to stay away from the room they were in.
I used to sleep in the living room adjacent to her room on the couch opposite my brother. There used to be an old clock whose ticking used to also scare me (now you know what kind of child I was). She used to stuff cotton balls in my ears so I wouldn’t hear the clock, and if that didn’t work, I would go sleep in her bed. (I was six, so what was she going to do?) My father tells me now that she never used to let him hit me, even if I did something really bad. She loved me so much that she did not want to see me suffer, even if I deserved it. Sometimes I think that is how God looks at me.
There used to be a semi-empty lot across from her house where homeless people would sleep under empty truck containers. She would take us over there in order to bring them food. They weren’t there during the day, so we would just leave the plate there. We were poor too, but at least we had a roof over our heads and Grandma always taught us to share what we had.
I think that if I had stayed with my grandmother, I would have come out more spoiled and less emotionally calloused than I am now. I know that compared to most people in the world, I had life pretty easy. But there were times when we didn’t know where we would stay the night, where the next meal would come from, and where we would be next year. That’s a tough life for a seven year old, and it makes you grow up long before your time. Life at Grandma’a house was the only real childhood I had, and it ended abruptly, but here again I am saying too much….
She died on a cold January day in 1991. I wasn’t there, but she had called for me. My parents had separated and we were living in the next town over. For reasons I can’t go into, we were not in regular contact. I didn’t cry at her funeral. It’s not that I wasn’t sad; it was more that my heart was still very calloused over all that had happened. When you see so many harsh things so young, it takes you a while to start feeling again. But I feel now. Her grave in Gilroy is a sacred site to me where I stare into the eyes of the enemy that Jesus Christ has already conquered but in whose night we are still sadly trapped.
My grandmother used to keep two peacocks, as well as ducks, geese, and chickens. (My father said that she used to kill chickens by picking them up by the neck and twirling them around a couple of times, much to the disgust of her children. My grandmother was not squeamish.) The peacocks were of course male and female, so the male would often unleash his splendorous tail for his spouse to see. Sometimes I think that Grandma had all of her beautiful birds as a way to resist the ugliness that had plagued her life and proclaim, in her simple way, that love and beauty will always win out in the end. While sitting on a swing and watching these two fowl walk by, this ideal was passed on to me as well. It is the highest form of theology, etched in the heart, that not even a St. Thomas can articulate in all of the volumes in the world.
Requiescat in pace. I love you, Grandma.