How are your abuelitos doing I asked Félix last week. His grandparents have been on my mind ever since Stew and I brought them a Christmas despensa, a holiday shopping bag of groceries containing flour for tortillas, corn husks for tamales, cooking oil, sugar and other Mexican staples that we supplemented with a couple of packages of Oreo cookies.
No one seems to know the age of the abuelitos, an excusable lapse in the Mexican countryside. Once we took Félix' father to the emergency room for a leg injury and during the registration neither Félix nor the two brothers who came along knew their own father's precise age.
Grande in Mexican Spanish can mean "old" and muy grande makes you something like "older than lint" and often that's about as close as you're going to get to a exact age.
Felix' grandparents should qualify for muy grandes even though the ravages of a hard rural life in Mexico can make you look far older than you are. They could be no more than late seventies. They were born short and the weight of however many years has stooped them to less than five feet tall. Their skin is a dark cinnamon, encrusted with the dust that swirls constantly around San Miguel during the long dry season. Deep, crisscrossing lines long ago wiped off any youth from their faces though a certain joy still glimmers in their eyes and their toothless smiles as if to assure visitors, "Hey, don't worry; we're old but not dead yet."
Indeed they are most friendly and welcoming. I noticed that Félix greets grandma grandly by bowing and kissing her hand and I do the same: The gallantry sends the old lady into little fits of giggling.
Yet despite their genuine and unselfconscious warmth, the penury—make that the misery—of their lives makes me deeply uncomfortable. After a bit of mindless niceties something sends me back to the car, to run away.
At church this Sunday the story of the Good Samaritan made me think that as much as Stew and I try to help some of the poor people around our ranch—particularly Félix and his convoluted family circle—our hit-and-run generosity may be a bit hollow. We want to help but not quite get involved or know too much.
Last Friday we visited the grandparents again, after Félix told me his grandpa had poked himself in the eye with a twig while scrounging for firewood to cook. The eye was red, tearing and swollen but the old man didn't want anything to do with doctors or hospitals, a common reaction by elders who fear that hospitals are too close to cemeteries. Grandpa just kept rubbing his eye and making it worse, Felix said.
So during a trip to town Friday afternoon we bought some antibiotic eye drops for the old guy.
We found him and his wife having dinner in their home, a one-room shanty constructed out of pieces of corrugated tin, plywood and what-have-you, surrounded by a junk field scattered around a rusted stove. Inside, a pot of beans rested on a wood fire as these two figures sat around an upside-down plastic, five-gallon bucket that served as dining table. And this was it. Dinner was served or so it seemed.
They got up to greet me and I nervously stammered through the directions for the eye drops and how to best apply them, using Félix' right eye to demonstrate. And then I fled. Stew didn't even step out of our shiny 2013 Ford Escape.
Félix once told me how mildly amazed, or perhaps amused, was his family, particularly his parents, at our willingness to attend baptisms, weddings and other family occasions; the celebratory dinners afterward; take pictures and otherwise to convivir with folks that most Mexican employers would regard as faceless workers.
Convivir, a word I had not heard too often can mean to "coexist," as political rivals might, or to share your life with someone else's. Con means "with" and vivir "to live."
Perhaps that is what I should try to do next time I visit Félix' abuelitos: sit down, talk to them—so how was your day today?—and not let my inexplicable fear, revulsion or whatever irrational emotion send me running back to the car.
After all, most old folk appreciate the courtesy of a visit—that someone takes an interest—as much as anything you can bring them. Maybe I a can take their picture, a rare treat, among the older generation who may never had had their photo taken.
As for the abuelito's condition, as of yesterday Félix reported the eye is getting better though this pig-headed geezer still doesn't want anything to do with doctors or hospitals.
The inspiration came from a member of our church, Antonette, an effervescent, tiny Filipino woman who every Wednesday and mostly at her expense sets up a table in front of at San Miguel's main church and hands out meals to elderly indigent folks, no questions asked.