He always looked at me puzzled, as if I was somehow unfamiliar. I never knew if it was the fact that he had more than 20 grandchildren or if the memories of my out-of-wedlock birth triggered him. My relationship with him and my grandmother will always contrast to that of my atheist grandpa. These grandparents were survivors. They were born poor, as most Indigenous peoples reminiscent of the colonial past, and they had grown estranged from many of their children, at least emotionally. My grandfather never held me in his arms or his lap, and he rarely called me by name to the point that, as a child, I wondered if he even knew what it was… but I cannot blame him… he did not meet me until I was about six-years old.
My childhood memories of him are permeated by the image of an incredibly strong but stubborn man, and also by the long disease that attacked him. Cancer consumed him within three years… three years when his habits, his past and his nature were constantly scrutinized. He had been an alcoholic, a smoker, and a man of “poor habits.” “That’s why you should not smoke, that’s what is killing him,” would say one of my aunts to all the children as she made efforts to hide my grandfather’s cigarettes from him.
When he got sick things started getting better between him and his children… sometimes they would even seem closer. When I turned 15 he happily encouraged the idea of a traditional party, one of those that are extremely gendered and sexist, but that are quite important socially and traditionally. Most of my female cousins had them. Their mothers were quite keen on them because having grown in poverty my grandparents could not afford them. My cousins had hundreds of invitees in their parties, and they had walked into the altar of beautifully decorated Churches to confirm their commitment to the Catholic faith.
I could not walk into the Church to be confirmed because I had never been baptized. This had always been a point of contention within the extended family. I was the only member that had not been initiated into some kind of Christian community. Most of my family members were Catholic; some others were Jehovah’s witnesses. My mother always told everyone that I had not been baptized so I could choose what I wanted to be later in life.
One evening I walked into my grandparent’s house just to find my grandfather sitting at the table and drunk. He was in pain because of his illness, but the alcohol had made him quite chatty. “You know kid, it is not good not to be baptized… it is not good,” he said. “I know grandpa, I know…” I said brushing away his comments. “You cannot get married like that,” he continued. “I know grandpa, I know…” I kept saying. “When I die, you are going to remember that,” he concluded.
I cannot describe him as a particularly religious man, I rarely saw him in Church, praying or anything, but funny enough he was an early supporter of patriarchal practices within the community. You’ll see, my family stems from one of the only surviving pre-colonial matriarchies of the world. I come from a long line of strong women who did all sorts of things from child rearing to business and political leadership, but not only that… to this day the muxes are an important part of the community, despite external homophobic, transphobic and patriarchal pressures.
My grandfather never had anything against the muxes, but he always preferred his grandsons over his granddaughters. Every male child in the family was given a gift at birth, usually a small piece of land and a calf since my grandfather was a farmer. Even my little brother, 16 years my junior, got one. But us, the girls, the legacy of the matriarchy did not get anything. Some members of the family say that my grandfather believed that the girls would get married, and their husbands would have to take care of them… an assumption that is quite new within the community. Yet, I always wondered if perhaps that is what bothered my grandfather… I could not get married because I was not baptized… Hence, who would care for me?
My grandfather was the first person I saw die. By the time I got to his house, the wake was happening. It went on for a couple of days. He was put in a coffin with a glass cover. After my arrival my aunt told me to go and see my grandfather once last time through the cryptic glass that now covered his body.
I just could not.
As a child no one ever had to explain death to me in much detail because we had very few dead loved ones. There were the odd times when a classmate’s parent would die and the teacher would make us pray. Then my parents would storm into the school and complain because the school was violating my Constitutional religious freedom and rights to secular education by making me pray. Also, although my great-grandma died when I was six, I was not taken to the funeral, and I was not given any explanations other than her old age.
Thus, this was my first real death experience.
After the wake my grandfather was buried in the town’s cemetery. His coffin was sprinkled with holy water and a priest said a few words. He was buried with his valuable belonging, as per the regional tradition. While his coffin was being covered with dirt one of my aunts hysterically asked the attendees for forgiveness for my grandfather. Deep down we all knew that despite how much people respected him, my grandfather had not been the greatest when it came to his personal relationships. What is more, it was time to fear. Death was in town.
I recall my grandfather’s funeral as a day of deep doubt. I cannot say that I was overly crushed because I had had very minimal interactions with him throughout my life. But it was not until that day that it occurred to me that something in my spirituality was wrong… Despite my upbringing, I just could not get myself to feel that my grandfather’s life was over in such a sad and meaningless note. I even wondered, if he was a Catholic (even if it was just by name), does that mean that he is now dealing with God (whoever that is)?
And if so, was he right about my lack of baptism?
To be continued…