Lucía’s Song

Pasatiempo - - Essays - By Charles L. Padilla

Pablo was looking care­fully across the cañón at the dry oak brush and dry, yel­low, grass. He re­moved his jacket qui­etly; his ri­fle rested across his lap. The sun warmed him, his shirt damp from his long walk. He looked in­tently for a change of color, telling him that a deer was in­side the oak thicket. And then he heard her singing. “Adiós, oh madre mía, adiós, adiós, adiós.” It was his wife Lucía’s voice, plainly heard in that stark fall, just as she had al­ways sung at church and at wakes. Very con­cerned, Pablo gath­ered up his jacket and ri­fle and quickly be­gan his long walk home. Lucía and Pablo’s youngest child was 7 months old and their old­est was 15, both girls. They had eight chil­dren. Pablo ar­rived home, alarmed but too late. Lucía had died of a heart at­tack. She was 37 years old. Sixty-eight years af­ter Lucía’s death, I sit in a down­town restau­rant across from Pablo and Lucía’s son, Pa­tri­cio. “What made your best Christ­mas?” I asked.

“You have to ex­cuse me,” he said. “Some­times I cry when I re­mem­ber th­ese things.” Tears be­gan to glis­ten in his eyes, and he be­gan to de­scribe mem­o­ries of his fa­vorite Christ­mas.

“My rel­a­tives had gath­ered in the small un­fin­ished cabin, three rooms heated with two wood stoves, and af­ter my mother Lucía’s fu­neral and their sim­ple good­bye, they sug­gested that my Papá Pablo sep­a­rate the fam­ily, giv­ing one or two chil­dren to each aunt and un­cle. My fa­ther lis­tened to his broth­ers and sis­ters, and he said to them that he would not take a chance that his chil­dren would be mis­treated or harmed in any way. He did not con­sider that he was a la­borer, his house was not yet fin­ished, or that it lacked in­door plumb­ing, elec­tric­ity, or run­ning wa­ter. An ace­quia me­an­dered close by, and from this he drew wa­ter for us. Our house stood at the edge of a cañón; the ace­quia wa­tered fields and a gar­den, and Pablo worked, hunted, and gath­ered wood to heat our house. He de­cided to raise his own fam­ily without Lucía.

“Ros­alie was 7 months old, and I was not yet 2 when my mother died. My fa­ther packed his sand­wich to go to work. When he re­turned home, he would take half of that sand­wich, un­wrap it, and di­vide it be­tween Ros­alie and I, as we each sat on one of his knees. On cold days, he rose early, and warmed our clothes on the wood stove. Ros­alie and I were con­sen­ti­dos or those who were treated with the ut­most com­pas­sion and sen­si­tiv­ity by our fam­ily, aunts, and un­cles, and cer­tainly by my fa­ther.”

Pa­tri­cio’s tears flowed freely now as he con­tin­ued. “I re­mem­ber Papá warm­ing our clothes on the morn­ing of the Christ­mas that I re­mem­ber best. My old­est sis­ter was Is­abella,” he smiled, re­mem­ber­ing her. “She was a vo­ra­cious reader. She made us read The Power of Pos­i­tive Think­ing. Is­abella would tell me to be ‘ pos­i­tively fo­cused, to be de­ter­mined, and to be­lieve in my­self.’ Is­abella was 15 and the old­est. She also read Napoleon Hill, who said that from ev­ery ad­ver­sity there comes an equal mea­sure of good. Is­abella was in­spired to dream from a mes­sage more ap­pro­pri­ate to a place where there was op­por­tu­nity, and not for a poor fam­ily in ru­ral New Mex­ico.

“Our fam­ily life was cen­tered around the wood stove and an oil lamp pro­vid­ing light for read­ing. Pablo would be­gin each day by warm­ing our clothes. He would go to work. Ros­alie and I would wait for our half-sand­wich on his knee, and some­times he hid a piece of gum in his pock­ets. Life in our lit­tle house in the cañón was beau­ti­ful — the gar­den, rain, the green grass, the fall and win­ter when all the leaves would fall and snow would come. We read books, while Papá sat qui­etly weav­ing cuar­tas, in­tri­cate wo­ven dec­o­ra­tive horse whips which he sold for $6 each.

“Townie was our dog’s name,” he said. “I re­mem­ber him wait­ing for us when we re­turned home from school. One time, our teacher asked us to write down what we ate. Is­abella told us to write that we ate chicken, or­anges, bread, and ba­nanas. We were ashamed to write that we ate pota­toes, beans, chile, and tor­tillas ev­ery day,” he smiled. “To help us, peo­ple would give us clothes.”

Pa­tri­cio’s tears had mo­men­tar­ily stopped, and he held his hands a foot apart. “We had a very small Christ­mas tree that year. It was maybe a foot tall, with two shiny balls and a bit of shiny tin­sel.

“My fa­ther was very pro­tec­tive— he was a la­borer at the high­way depart­ment or he fought for­est fires, and he was a keen deer hunter. My mother’s mem­ory and her singing were never for­got­ten, and we were re­minded of her in ev­ery song at church. Sixty-eight years have passed, and I still hear her voice. My fa­ther had a third­grade ed­u­ca­tion. He never for­got my mother, and he loved us all,” he said, as his tears re­turned.

“I never spent a Christ­mas without my fa­ther. I was 22 when I in­stalled a phone at his house, and I called him ev­ery sin­gle day of his life. When I told him that I was ac­cepted at Har­vard Law School, he asked me why I would go so far away. He said that there were jobs in the lo­cal sawmill. And I an­swered, ‘ But, Papá, this is the best law school in the coun­try,’ and he agreed to let me go, say­ing sim­ply, ‘ Que Dios te ayude’ (Let God help you).

“Christ­mas when I was 5 and Ros­alie was 3 was my very best ever. My fa­ther had warmed our clothes, we awoke to that beau­ti­ful lit­tle tree, and un­der it were two rolls of Life­Savers. My fa­ther told me that as I ate each one, to re­mem­ber my mother. And so, tak­ing each piece, I broke it in half, and then in quar­ters. They lasted me for most of that win­ter. With each piece I did re­mem­ber my mother, and each day brought me closer to the spring­time that I loved so much. I al­ways re­mem­ber her in the fall, when she sang to Pablo as she was leav­ing us, and he was out hunt­ing in the cañón.”

I sat qui­etly in front of Pa­tri­cio. I have known him for 25 years, but I never knew about Lucía, Ros­alie, Is­abella, or Pablo. Pa­tri­cio told me about a fam­ily who lived in a house with no con­ve­nience other than a wood stove and an oil lantern and a mother who con­tin­ued her song wher­ever they went. I sat qui­etly, happy to have asked, “What made your best Christ­mas?”

I asked a ques­tion in­no­cently, and I re­ceived an an­swer that I did not ex­pect. I re­ceived my own very spe­cial Christ­mas, sit­ting in front of this man, who gave me a re­newed un­der­stand­ing of what Christ­mas, fam­ily, and to­geth­er­ness truly mean. Pa­tri­cio told his story of the house in the cañón, of the magic in­side a pack­age of Life­Savers, his mother Lucía’s song, and Pablo’s love.

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