(My first book of essays — Things and Stuff — was published in 2011 as something of an experiment. The result was, in many ways, premature. This past weekend, at a talk I gave at St. William Catholic Church in Round Rock, Texas, I looked at it again and was surprised by its appeal. I think it outsold my Primer. Here is an essay from the collection that, in many ways, paved the way for the the Primer that I dedicated to my late Abuelito Rocha. I wrote this the day after he passed away.)
¡No le aflojes!
In loving memory of Andres Rocha (1913 – 2010).
No le aflojes mijo. Don’t let up son. These were last words I heard my Abuelito Rocha say to me. He died a peaceful death in his home yesterday at 2 o’clock.
He was born in 1913 on a horse ranch in south Texas. He was one of the last vaqueros of the mythic American West. But his life was not a rosy myth. He worked hard for very little wages. He picked cotton in the South and vegetables in the North. He packed produce in the local packing shed. He lost his fingertips to a workplace accident.
My Abuelito was wise and generous. He had that the best aspects of both pride and humility. In his eighties, he would go to visit the ancianos (the really old people) at the nursing home. Materially poor from birth to death, he always gave what he had to those he loved and those who asked for it. Often, when el cheque (the social security check) would come in, he would have us grandchildren line-up and give us two dollars a-piece. For my wedding, he saved $100 to give us and apologized for not being able to give more.
Like Abraham Lincoln, my Abuelito Rocha only had a third-grade schooling, but he was deeply educated. He taught me my multiplication tables and showed me what true love looked like in his love for my Abuelita, my Dad, and me—all of us really. He wrote with an ornate cursive that curled and looped.
He knew who he was and judged no one with his words. I never heard him slander anyone.
He was not a perfect man. By comparison to those I know—and myself too—he lived the life of a saint. He was very particular and didn’t patronize things that didn’t interest him. He loved to tell stories and he told them in vivid colors and landscapes.
This past Christmas I was in the heat of writing my dissertation and he spoke to me over the telephone from his bed. After asking about my wife and the boys, he told me “No le aflojes mijo.” He was referring to my ongoing dissertation, but I think he was also telling me his parting words of advice: Never let up. Don’t become complacent. Stay restless. Be in love.
The legacy my Abuelito left behind for me was a call to constant action: to continual renewal and conversion. He remained active until the day he died. He prayed and studied scripture for hours daily. He never used his life and self-discipline to lecture others. The testament of his life was indisputable.
He lived in a different world sometimes. The modern world of the city never fit him like the rancho did. He cried at his Father’s grave when we visited it, and tears always came to his eyes when he spoke of the tragic death of his horse-breaking Father. He never complained or made any excuses for himself. He never suffered from naive nostalgia.
He would always say that they—my Abuelita and him—were good, aches and all, and that they were blessed. The blessed life he led was one where he lived his restless words and never let up on being alive and in love.