When did my treehouse become more of a tree than a house?
Leaves poke through the wooden planks. Nails and screws have traded in their silver shine for the grimy brown that is symbolic of things forgotten. The ladder is not so tall. The swing rope is down to its last thread. The rooftop is missing, maybe blown off by the wind or the rain. But the slide is as sturdy as ever, still bolted down, and I use it to climb into my treehouse, where my view of the land is silently breathtaking, a familiar sight made new by the years I have been away.
Standing on my treehouse, I realize something feels different about this town. Perpetual summer…yes, it feels like perpetual summer with this tiny town slumbering around me. Maybe Harper Lee lived here when she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird:
“People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy…nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County.”
I am standing in my treehouse when the tears come. Not the remembrance kind of tears, but the type of tears that come with an irreparable sense of loss, the tears that flow and flow and bring with them every living memory of my grandfather who died last week; his gray-black hair all streaks and whisps, the glint from his golden medallion sparkling in the sun and the naked lady tattoo on his leg laughing at my innocence…
…I can hear his voice…he calls me Jordy…
An old memory springs to life.
I am ten.
The backyard changes with the memory. It stretches in all directions. The dying cactus and old lawnmowers find the life and shine they had in the mid-nineties. All the broken cars with broken windows and bushes growing in and around them find their glory days and rev their engines. Amidst the memory-changes taking place, I can hear, faintly at first, but growing stronger with every second, Grandpa Tony’s whistling.
So many random notes.
Never a song.
Always spontaneous sound.
Grandpa is in the distance watering his flowers. The petals have taken their color from the rainbows and glow in hues a crayon would be jealous of. When he finishes, he looks at me and motions me towards the family house. I try to run but memories don’t work that way so I yell at my legs to walk to him, scream at my legs to try harder because Grandpa Tony is right there…he is right there…
I watch him slip through the sliding glass door of the family kitchen and eventually follow him inside. It smells like cooking. Fresh cooking. A normal breakfast on a normal day with my great-grandma and Grandpa Tony still alive, both of them laboring over their own contributions to the family breakfast: my great-grandma shaping her tortilla balls and my whistling grandpa stirring his Menudo with a ladle, taking sips every now and then, making the proper adjustments, tinkering and sipping, tinkering and sipping until everything is just right.
Relatives fill the kitchen to the brim. Every chair is taken. The food is piping hot. Conversations are not limited to who is sitting next to you so people are shouting across the table and under it, laughing and eating and existing as if time is an ingredient no one uses. I watch everything from my place near the door, wondering why it took me so long to understand the beauty of this culinary routine.
Then the morning meal ends. I follow Grandpa Tony from the kitchen and into the living room and all at once another memory takes me.
My great-grandma has passed and Grandpa Tony is old and I am twenty-three. The perpetual summer feeling has disappeared because there is nothing summery about a first Christmas without my great-grandma.
“Jordy…come here Jordy,” I hear Grandpa say.
I walk to him with heavy legs and a heavy mind.
“I love you, Jordy,” he says.
The memory prohibits me from talking but he seems to understand. A tear forms in his eyes and soon we are both crying. He hugs me. His hug breaks our language barrier. When our eyes are dry and our cries turn into smiles, he reaches into his back pocket and hands me a $20 bill.
I hold the bill in my hands. In this memory of Christmas, with the fireplace embers throwing shadow dancers on the walls and over the presents and the Christmas tree, with the kitchen sending in every smell of my childhood in fluffs of tortillas, the $20 bill means something more than money spent on gasoline or food; it is not meant for the hands of a fast-food worker or the rent collector or someone who cannot understand or appreciate my grandpa’s fingerprints that have embedded themselves in this tiny green paper.
The memory begins to close.
The $20 bills slips all smoke-like through my fingers.
The treehouse becomes more of a tree than a house again.
I grow up all over.
Childhood memories try to catch up with my adult mind….the whistling…oh…that whistling and the dogs following grandpa, and all the $20 bills I would gladly give to the wishing well to hear grandpa’s whistle reverberating off the family house and pool table that is rarely used, off the washing machine in the little shack and the swimming pool and avocado trees and the house that burned down a long time ago; give all the money in the world to relive the times spent running with Katie in the wild dark of night with youth’s imagination propelling us through the scary parts with headlights blazing in a childhood so pure so pure so very pure.
Then the guilt comes.
All the years away…
All the letters never written…
All the numbers never dialed…
I go down the slide and wipe the tears from my eyes and a ten minute drive has me at the mortuary, looking down into an open casket.
I see him in a way I have never seen him.
I take a seat at one of the pews and watch all the people coming to pay their respect. So many tears. Alfredo real sad, all shaking and crying hard which makes me cry hard. I wonder how many tears my face can hold. I lose count around a thousand. Aunts and uncles and cousins and family friends all walk the mortuary aisle to see my grandpa for one last time. Some of them take pictures and I think this is weird but then I realize that sometimes a memory of someone is not good enough.
Then my dad walks in.
The moment hurts deep, pull out your insides kind of deep, the way my dad shakes and cries his way to the casket, the first time he has seen his father since hearing the news, and I hear a sob come from him I have never heard before, and it makes me think of a lament some mythical bird would sing, some inspiring songbird from a thousand different stories. His chest moves up and down. His back muscles are about to rip through his tucked-in shirt. Maybe he goes to his knees or maybe he stands there. I’m not sure. But I am there in a heartbeat. Next to him. Crying.
My grandma is there, too.
Her pain is everywhere. Like the room has become a sadness bubble that just won’t pop. Why did you leave me leaves her lips more times than I can take. Everyone gives her a kiss on the cheek and offers their condolences in the best way they know how. Some guy comes up to me and shows me a photograph he took with my grandpa a long time back, another says he is wearing the necklace Tony bought him as a gift, another woman saying some things in Spanish and giving me a hug. I understand the hug well enough.
My aunt taps my shoulder and says it’s time. Before the casket closes, I walk up to my grandpa. I hold his cold, cold hands. I kiss his cold, cold forehead and whisper words I cannot even remember now. I expect him to call me Jordy one more time but his silent lips hold the sentiments my living grandpa would whisper back. My uncles are standing by. They watch intently, Uncle Anthony the hardest, and longest.
The ride to the church is silent, ethereal…the weight of the casket…my firm grip on the railings… the splash of holy water hitting my forearm as we walk my grandpa into the church…
We pass through large wooden doors and under an arch that leads to the main room. The priest waits in white at the end of the aisle, his arms open. Before I take my seat in the front row, I look back and see hundreds of bodies sitting in the wooden benches of the church, seemingly hundreds more standing, lining the walls, hanging on pillars to get a better view of the priest blessing my grandpa. Spanish singers create a motion picture moment…their voices sound amazing in between prayers and the air itself feels old and grainy and contributes to the ghostly sound.
To the cemetery, then.
Our limousine is the at the head of the procession as all the cars leave the church. By the end of town the line of cars following behind us is miles long, curving around buildings and stop lights, family and friends, and people who know the name Tony Marquez and have felt the need to see him laid to rest, form a locomotive train better than anything I could assemble in childhood.
When we reach the cemetery, and I open the doors and take my step on the gravel, and see the black wrought-iron fencing and the headstones and black birds up in the trees taking refuge from the sun, and the green grass surrounding the graves and the brown grass where the sprinklers are broken, and the places six feet under where Geri and Domitila and Mariano and Frankie with his pancet lay in their coffins, my emotions begin to stir, and I resent the land for wanting my grandpa, and resent the mortuary man who keeps instructing me on how to carry the casket.
Then I turn around, and am softened by what I see.
The pallbearers are lined up and behind them are more people than were in the church. And my grandpa comes to life in all their faces. My uncles point out some of Tony’s closet friends…I envision them with my grandpa in the back house watching a boxing fight. They point out people who frequented Don Ponchos restaurant, and people who used to come by the house in the old days, when visiting for a morning meal was like a text message, done regularly, mechanically.
“He said no one would come,” falls from the lips of my entire family. All of Tony’s children- my dad and my aunts and uncles- are smiling and marveling at the fact that, indeed, MANY people came to pay tribute to my grandpa, HUNDREDS of people turned up to pay respect for everything Tony did in their lives or for people they knew or for the community they grew up in.
We lift my grandpa up and the casket feels lighter. Silence takes the cemetery field by force and all eyes are on us as we take my grandpa to his final resting place. The shade from a nearby tree mixes with the sunlight and the priest takes it from there. My uncles say their speeches and my dad takes his turn. I hear his sob sound. I see him shaking. He talks about things I have never heard before, stories and life growing up with my grandpa as his father. I see my dad in a way I have never seen him before and when he finishes I hug him in a father-son embrace I am grateful for. My aunt says it was Tony’s wish to have everyone take a shot with him at his funeral. So tequila is pulled out and the young and old line up and cheers their shot to the sky in honor of my grandpa.
The shot taking ends and everything goes quiet. People begin departing the cemetery, headed into town to attend the reception afterward. Before leaving, with my sisters close to my side, I place my own $20 bill on grandpa’s casket, and say my own solemn prayers as I watched the men lower him into the earth. Those who are still left hug each other and share a few more tears, but more than anything, we have a sense of peace, a sense that grandpa’s life was celebrated and celebrated well.
At the end of the day we all meet back at the family house. Family members swim and cook dinner and chat as the summer sun sinks down below the horizon, leaving the warm air behind to settle our nerves and the food happily resting in our bellies. I notice some of the family absent-mindedly looking to the back yard, stretching their ears in a last attempt to hear Tony’s whistling.
Then I find myself standing on my treehouse that is more a tree than a house. My day has come full circle and I feel my emotions have come out all wrinkly and wet. But standing here feels amazing, and thinking of grandpa makes me smile, and listening to the sounds of my family laughing and loving and eating their favorite foods in their favorite spots in the family yard makes me realize how important these sounds are, all the family noises coming together in a wordless tune, a song of family togetherness riding the wind in a whistle Grandpa Tony would be proud of.