A wonderful old man.

In my mind I can see him getting off the bus.  He had travelled from his home in Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico to downtown, walked across the bridge to El Paso, Texas, waited in the main plaza for a bus, and took that bus 30 minutes to a house in the Lower Valley.  This was the second trip in a week, each visit probably took him 2 hours round trip, and he  had made the same semi-weekly trip for a couple of months.

Was he visiting a sick relative?  No.  Was he coming to do some work at the house?  No.   Was he coming to see his daughter?  Well, yes and no.  His daughter would not be home from work for 3 or 4 hours.  The purpose for this trip, as well as all the others he had been taking, was for a very simple reason.   His grandson, at the age of  20, had finally decided to take advantage of this old man’s incredible musical talent and have him teach him guitar.  This offer, as well as an offer to teach him violin, had been extended since the time his grandson was 3 or 4 years old.   Like the frivolous youth that he was, his grandson kept telling him “no.”

The old man was quite well know in Juarez as a “maestro” for his ability to play multiple stringed instruments and for teaching many young kids in Juarez how to play.  He organized a series of “rondallas” in Juarez that entertained many people.   But his grandson had other “more important” things on his mind.   Oh my, if he only knew how short a period of time he would have with his grandfather.   The lessons seemed to fly by in an incredibly short time, and true to the talent that the grandfather possessed, the grandson was rapidly mastering the intricacies of the stringed instrument that he now longed to play.

The call came on a hot August afternoon in 1976.  The old man had suffered a stroke.  One day later, Arturo Rivera Frias, my grandfather, passed away.   The guitar that I had so badly wanted to play went into a closet and I did not pick it up for almost 20 years.  At 40, the guitar was much more difficult to learn to play.  I still miss the simple, straightforward way that my grandfather was able to teach.  The guitar that I so badly wanted to play I now just play badly.

This is not an attempt to assuage my guilt over turning him down for so long.  This is rather an homage to a man who loved his grandsons unconditionally, and who helped his daughter raise the boys as the only father figure they would know for several years.   The story of his trips to teach me guitar only scratches the surface of the kind of sacrifice that he made to help his daughter with the two snotty, ornery kids that she so proudly took with her everywhere.

My “papi” was grandfather, father, disciplinarian, story-teller, teacher, jokester, and a lot of other things all rolled into one.  He used to sneak me out of the back of church during the long church services that my grandmother took us to on Sunday.  My “lela” was so busy with what she was doing in church she never noticed.   There was a bar across the street, and he would take me in there, sit me on a stool, and buy me a Coke while he enjoyed an adult beverage.  About 15 minutes before services were over, we would cross the street again, go sit in the back, and he would tell me – “no digas nada.”  (don’t say anything)    I never did.  How my very strict Pentecostal grandmother never smelled the beer on him is beyond me.

We have all heard about the ying and the yang, right?  That was my grandfather and grandmother.   Don’t get me wrong, my grandmother loved me just as much.   But while my grandmother would fuss at us for running around, my grandfather would tell her in his own quiet gently way – “leave them alone, they’re kids.”  For every bit of impatience my grandmother had, he had patience.   For every reverent moment my grandmother had, he had his little irreverent moments.

I know for a fact that several times growing up that we were able to have food on the table only because my grandfather would come over and sneak my mom some money.   He set up a little candy and snack store at this house on Pascual Orozco street to help make ends meet on his little pension.   Somehow I know that some of the profits found their way to my mom’s pocket to help pay the bills.   Those profits could have been a lot larger if my brother and I didn’t eat so much of the inventory.

It is incredible that at the most desperate times of my life my grandfather comes to me in my dreams.  At the lowest point in my life, when I was alone, my kids were 600 miles away, and I was facing an important medical procedure, I dreamt that he came to see me to tell me the most consoling words I have ever felt – “mijo, everything will be alright.”

My grandfather never got to meet my daughters.  Given the love he had for my mom I know he would have been crazy about them.   I would have loved for him to meet my wife.  My wife, even before we married, helped me care for my grandmother in her last year of life, so she got to know her well.  How I wish she had known what a great man he was.   He would have loved my wife as well.

In my life I have been very lucky to have family that has cared for me and shown me how to be a good person.   My mom showed me how to be a good parent.  My grandmother, in her own wonderful way, showed me how to have faith and appreciation for the spiritual things in my life.  I am a grandfather, with an 11-year-old grandson and my new little 2 month old granddaughter.  I can only hope to be half the kind of grandfather that this wonderful old man was to me.


4 thoughts on “A wonderful old man.

  1. Mario

    Lovely, mi hermano. I too have sweet memories of Tio Arturo. A quiet, sweet man. A warm, glow in my childhood. Thanks for writing this. He was a music prodigy. The story was that he had been “discovered” as a young boy and very young played violin with the Chihuahua Symphony.

  2. Molly

    It’s wonderful to read those precious moments you’ve shared with me. I too would have loved to meet him. I know how proud you are to share these things with me and now with others in writing. As I read this, I also felt the love and honor you have for him.


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