Walter Mencken 6:15 p.m., Feb. 28
- Community Blog
- Memorial Life
Old Photographs, First Kisses
As I have been going through my grandmother’s old photographs and putting them in order, memories are jogged, and some pieces of my childhood that I had not given much thought to, fall into place.
For instance, my grandparents had three close friends, women who visited our house, or whom we went to visit, quite often. They were not related to us, but I must have been told by my grandmother to call them aunt, because that’s how I knew each of them: Tia Graciela, or Chela, originally from Mexico, lived in Bellflower (in Los Angeles County), with her second husband, Luis, and three children from her first marriage, two sons, Tonio and Mario, and a daughter, Margarita. This is tia Chela:
Tia Vicki, she died when I was young. This is her, in front of our house on Irving Avenue:
Tia Maria, or Mari, who had a lot of properties, including a house in Mexicali that we visited. This is tia Mari:
My tia Mari was a wealthy woman. She owned and ran several businesses, including selling hot dogs from carts over at the bullring in Mexicali. She loved watching bullfights. She had an ice cream parlor for a time, pictured here:
In that picture, you can see Vicki and Mari leaning on my grandfather’s car. We used to go to Mexicali all the time to visit with my tia Mari, and when we were there, my tia Chela was often there, too, her husband would bring her to our house in San Diego and she would travel down south to Mexicali with us. Or my tia Mari would come up to San Diego to stay with us, and my tia Chela would come down from Bellflower to San Diego. My tia Mari was a more frequent visitor at my tia Chela’s house than we were, but sometimes we would go up to Bellflower. I remember seeing my tia Vicki in Mexicali and in San Diego.
The friends would get together, mostly at our house, but often down in Mexicali, and have days-and-nights’ long poker and drinking parties. Hardly a month went by, in my memory, that they didn’t get together for those parties. These were usually good times, as the adults were always laughing and arguing good-naturedly as they drank and played friendly games of poker around the table. Once, when we were at my tia Mari’s house in Mexicali, I saw a tall glass on the table with Coke and ice and drank half of it down; my grandfather came in the room, looked at me and said in Spanish, That had whiskey in it. I was okay, though, I just went off somewhere and fell asleep. During these parties, us kids were generally given money to spend on treats and left to entertain ourselves; it was understood that we were to behave, which we did. If we wandered through their space on the way somewhere else, we were generally fussed over; my three aunts were kind, funny, loving people with me, who listened when I talked to them and took me seriously. Though the drinking and gambling parties stopped after my tia Vicki passed away, the two remaining aunts still came to see us until my tia Mari died, suddenly, of a heart attack. We lived a lot of tragedies with my tia Chela. Her older boy, Tonio, hung himself in his twenties, the younger son, Mario, married a native American woman who was a serious alcoholic with a vicious temper, and the daughter, Margarita, became a gambling addict; Chela ended up raising a bunch of her grandchildren. She is now a widow, she calls every so often to see how my grandmother is doing.
So I have three stories in relation to these aunts. One has to do with my tia Vicki’s death, I told this story on another thread but will repeat it here. The three aunts, Vicki, Mari, Chela, were all over at my grandparents’ house on Irving, as usual playing poker and drinking and the party had gone on all night; the living room and dining room were only divided by an arch, so the back of the sofa was right next to the dining table where they were playing. At one point, my grandmother got tired and went to lay down on the sofa in the living room. Above the mantel in the living room was a large picture depicting the Virgen de Guadalupe. My grandmother later told us that while she was laying there sleeping, she had a dream that the Virgen de Guadalupe over the mantel pointed at my tia Vicki and sadly shook her head; my grandmother was frightened by this, instantly woke up and went to rejoin the others at the table. When the people at the table wanted to go to sleep, my grandmother wouldn’t let them and urged them to play some more. Shortly after this, within weeks as I recall my grandmother saying, my tia Vicki was dead.
The second story has to do with her funeral. The vigil was held on my tia Mari’s patio in Mexicali, I recall it being the patio outside the ice cream parlor, and yet we slept somewhere nearby so they must have made beds up for us inside the building. As some of you may know, the Mexican custom is to hold vigil all night with the dead, and I remember the patio strung all around with lights, and the lights on, white bulbs against the dark night, and holy candles burning, and vases of flowers, and the dead woman’s coffin sitting on a platform in the middle of the patio, and people coming and going all night, drinking and eating and praying and crying. The whole scene was so brilliantly colored, with the painted Mexican statuary, religious and otherwise, and the gaudy flowers, set all around the patio, and the bright bullfighting posters and calendars with cockfighting and Aztec princesses tacked on the walls, the vivid colors of the walls and the tables and the benches and chairs. I remember the rosary being said at intervals all night, lead by someone who knew the beautiful classic mystical and bloody Mexican rosary (women who can recite this rosary are highly prized and sought after to lead rosaries at vigils; I had one such lady, Juana, at my grandfather’s vigil). I remember wherever it was I was put to bed looking out from my dark room through slats and seeing and hearing the people as they mourned, my grandmother weeping and wailing over the coffin, asking the dead woman, Why did you leave us, why did you leave us?
The revelation I was struck with, when I was looking at these photographs and thinking about my aunts is that my tia Vicki, as far as I knew, had never been married and had no children. My tia Mari, likewise, had no children. She had married men who were wealthy and old, it had been implied for their money and property, and she had quite a bit of both when she died; my tia Mari had promised that she would leave something to my grandparents and to me in the Will she had written, but when she died, my tia Chela was the one to look through her things and claimed never to have found a Will, told us my tia Mari had left everything to her, and that is what happened, she kept it all. Anyway, as I recall, just from comments made, my tia Mari had never slept with these men she married. It occurs to me now that my tia Mari and tia Vicki may have been marimachas, lesbians. In those days, that sort of thing was kept quiet, but just looking back and putting things together, it is possible they were a couple. I am tickled now by the thought that as a child I may have had two lesbian lover aunts!
The third thing is that my tia Mari adopted two boys at different times in her life. I don’t know if these were formal adoptions, or if in the Mexican style back in those days, some poor woman basically gave her baby to someone who was more financially able to give the child a better life. The first one, Pedro, was two or three years older than the rest of us kids. Years later, my tia Mari took in the second boy whose name escapes me now. My brother and I and Pedro, along with my tia Chela’s younger children, Mario and Margarita, were playmates and friends; while the adults played poker and drank inside the house, we kids would play together, usually out in the yard, running around the house, Tag, or Hide-and-Seek, or other games, the kind children invent and play among themselves when they have hours and days to spend together.
It was an unspoken joke around our house that my tia Mari was a stingy woman. She was always looking for bargains, rarely bought anything unless it was absolutely necesssary and at rockbottom price, would bring her dirty clothes to wash at my grandmother’s house, took castoffs of any sort, including broken gadgets and machinery or anything else not being used that she thought had any value, loaded them into her old pickup and took the stuff down to her house to sell or barter, even took old food back with her for her dogs and pigs. Both of her adopted boys were treated very badly by her when they were growing up. She would lose her temper and beat them and forced them to work like slaves for her in her house and her businesses. I remember once, at our house, my tia Mari blowing up at the younger boy because of some damage he had supposedly done to a mounted set of bull horns she had brought with her, he claimed he hadn’t touched them, but she got the horns and started poking him hard in the head with them, chasing him as he ran away crying. As so often happened back then, no one stepped in to intervene on either of the boys’ behalf. I later heard that when they grew into men, they were both gay, Pedro a successful businessman in San Francisco, who died of AIDs during that first wave of deaths when no one knew much about the disease. The younger boy became a male prostitute and a drug addict, and we lost track of him.
In this photograph, you can see Pedro. From left to right, that is my little brother, then me, then Pedro, with his arms around a little boy (I don’t recognize the child).
As I said earlier, as children we all used to play in the yards of whoever’s houses we were at while the adults had fun drinking and playing cards. Years later, when we were teenagers, both of my tia Chela’s sons tried to pursue a relationship with me, but except for one or two kisses they stole, nothing happened, made easier by the fact that they lived in Bellflower and I could escape my house whenever they came down to San Diego with their parents.
Anyway, Pedro had beaten them at the game. One day, when the adults were inside playing cards and drinking, all of us kids were playing Hide-and-Seek in the yard, that was when my grandparents still owned the house on Julian Avenue. Pedro was pretending to hide behind the shed; he saw me and gestured me over to hide with him. He was probably about ten years old then, and I was maybe seven or eight. We were standing against the back wall of the shed. He asked me, in Spanish, if I liked him. I said, Yes. He leaned over and kissed me on the lips. My first kiss from a boy.
Pedro was a cute and gentle boy, dark brown skinned, with dimples. That time I accidentally drank the whiskey and Coke at his mother’s house, it was evening, and he followed me outside, looking concerned, and asked me if I was all right, then watched as I crawled into the back seat of my grandfather’s car and fell asleep on a blanket; I think he covered me with another blanket, and my heart even leads me to believe he watched over me. I didn’t see Pedro very often growing up. I wish my tia Maria hadn’t been mean to him. I wish he had not died. I’m glad that he was my first kiss. I still love him a little bit.