Gilberto slowly approached the old wooden door of his family’s house. His grandparents bought it in the 1960’s with money they earned after years of them and their children breaking their backs in the fields. It was once a bright pink color, but now the bricks have faded into almost light beige. It began as a modest two-bedroom home, but over time a third bedroom and bathroom were added to accommodate their growing family. These additions were never contracted out, but were added by and under the direction of Gilberto’s grandfather José. In fact the wooden carport which stretched out before the front door was built by Gilberto and his grandfather. The carport was the last addition to the home: every time Gilberto walked underneath it, he stared up at some of the nails he had accidently punched through and were now exposed to the elements. Invariably he would smile. The smile was not just due to his bad carpentry skills, but because his fondest memories were of doing any kind of works with his grandfather. He would accompany his grandfather to mow lawns, cut down trees, and even weed gardens. All the while, Gilberto would stare at his grandfather and marvel at the energy and strength of what he assumed to be an elderly man.
However the true matriarch of the family and the person who just exuded strength and respect was his grandmother Maria. For as long as Gilberto could remember, his grandmother had never spoken to him in anger, and always appeared with the most congenial personality, but Gilberto and everyone else in the family feared her. Not that she was mean, at least not around Gilberto; she just commanded respect in her actions and in her countenance. Nevertheless, she was loved and revered by all. Also, it was not just the family that treated her with respect: she was an active member of the community, attended political rallies, and knew every priest in the local Catholic Church. In short, her influence knew no bounds.
Gilberto fumbled in his pockets for the keys to the home. He felt odd doing so, because for the whole of his life he would simply open the door and walk in. Somebody was always home and all family was welcome at any time. In fact, there were times when cousins, aunts, uncles, would all be visiting from upstate and somehow, room was made for everyone to spend the night. Of course, with every visit there would be a barbecue. A barbecue in which the fire was lit at three in the afternoon and the cooking commenced all the way until late in the evening. Gilberto’s father Luis would stand at the pit, beer in hand, along with Gilberto’s uncles, John and Hugo. They would talk and laugh throughout the night. The music would play a rather eclectic mix of Tejano, corridos, and some country (Maria’s favorite was Hank Williams, Sr.). As the empty beer cans were replaced with full ones, Gilberto and all his cousins would stare at the empties littering the ground, knowing the next morning they would be tasked to collect and bag them. Gilberto especially enjoyed this aspect of the barbecue, due to the fact that he was allowed to recycle them for money, which he was allowed to keep. He would usually only garner fourteen or fifteen dollars, but for a young teenager in the 1980’s, it was a lot.
Gilberto pulled the squeaky screen door open and placed the first key in the deadbolt and then the doorknob, swinging it open he instinctively smelled the air. This was an old habit which came from years of visits in which, at each opening of the door, a visitor was confronted with the smells of food either being cooked or served. No matter what time of the day it was, there was always an offer of food, either, “stay and wait while it finishes” or “let me reheat you what we made earlier.” During Gilberto’s childhood and on into his early adulthood, if there had not been a barbecue the night before (or sometimes even if there was) everyone came for Sunday lunch. The dishes served ranged from menudo, baked ribs, beef soup, and on what Gilberto considered to be lucky days, “calabaza con pollo.”
Now, in vain, Gilberto sniffed the air only to perceive an old dusty smell. Before him was an empty living room and on the wall an old metal gas furnace for those rare Rio Grande Valley cold nights. Staring into the vacant living room, Gilberto’s mind was flooded with memories of various relatives who had sometimes left the house in a “standing room only” type of occupancy. His grandmother Maria would sit on the couch and hold court with her sisters, cousins, and the rest of the family. Jokes were exchanged and countless of stories which if taken down and recorded would probably reveal the whole history of their small town of Donna from its inception to the present. The large television set would either be displaying old cowboy or Mexican movies. Of course, if there was a football game on featuring the Dallas Cowboys, then the men would be in the living room watching and the women would be seated in and around the kitchen table.
It was the vision of his grandmother seated at the table which drew Gilberto’s eyes toward it. Of all the furniture which had been removed from the house over the years, no one touched the kitchen table. Would one remove the altar from a church? The table was especially significant due to the fact that there was one particular seat everyone was afraid to touch; at the head of the table, at every meal, sat Grandmother Maria. To her left hand side would be seated José (Gilberto’s grandfather) and the rest found seats where they may, but no one took the seat at the head of the table, save Maria. For years after she passed away, Gilberto’s family would hold family gathering there and everyone instinctively and out reverence avoided sitting at the head of the table.
Gilberto slowly made his way to the kitchen table, the arthritis in his knees was starting to flare up and he leaned more on his cane. As he sat on the opposite end of the head of the table, Gilberto could feel all his seventy years begin to fade away. He looked toward where his grandmother sat and felt twelve years old again. He smiled as the image of his grandmother seated before him entered his mind. Her curly black hair shot through with grey, her large round glasses, and her pleasant smile all came into view. Seated to her left sat his grandfather, eating heartily like he always did, the veins and muscles along his arms reflected years of physical labor, of which he never complained. Next to his grandfather and nearest to Gilberto sat his father Luis, dressed in a Dallas Cowboy t-shirt and asking for the salt shaker. Standing behind his grandmother was Gilberto’s mother serving him a plate of “calabaza con pollo” and talking to Grandma Maria about what dishes to make for the upcoming Thanksgiving Day dinner. To Gilberto’s left was his brother Jaime, followed by his sister Carla, each separated from him by two years. Gilberto’s other sister Suzanne was standing next to their mother helping to serve plates. Gilberto thought, “If there ever was a picture, next to the definition of ‘home’ in the dictionary, this would be it.”