My Great-Uncle Julián

I met my great-uncle Julián for the first time at my great-aunt Teresa’s funeral. He was a dark, tiny man dressed all in white. White pants, white shirt. And a cowboy hat. He looked like the stereotypical Mexican peasant, even though I don’t think he had ever spent an hour in the country. Until he was diagnosed with prostate cancer that was currently in remission, he worked as a baker in a bread factory. He and my great-aunt Teresa lived in a small, one story apartment in Cd. Juarez, Mexico that was part of a block-long row of similar apartments. Built of watermelon-colored brick, they all shared common walls, and opened directly onto the street, a style of apartment building known around here as a presidio.

I learned later that my great-aunt had collapsed while shopping at a supermarket, and they had taken her by ambulance to a hospital. When her brother, my great-uncle Julián, arrived there, a nurse told him without any preamble or preparation that his sister was dead.

My great-aunt Teresa used to babysit for us, my brother and sisters and I, and she was usually pretty strict. She would bring a box of chocolates with her, and would offer it to us after dinner, but always with the admonition, “Uno—no más.” One—no more. Her appearance was hardly the kind to make a child comfortable, either. She was skinny and always wore black, and her nose had been eaten away by some horrible disease. Because of her strictness, I wasn’t particularly attached to her. Her funeral was hardly an occasion of sorrow for me. Instead, I was filled with curiosity about the Mexican way of death. Unlike other funerals I had been to, there was no funeral mass. Just a quick blessing in the nave of the little baroque church down the street from her home. And unlike American graveside services, the undertakers didn’t wait for the mourners to leave before lowering the coffin in the ground and shoveling dirt on top. They finished the job quickly and efficiently right in front of us, leaving me feeling strangely gratified and confused, my senses filled with the vegetal smell of damp, newly-turned soil.

A throng of relatives crowded into my great-uncle’s apartment after the funeral and planted themselves on the vinyl sofa covered in Saltillo blankets, or on uncomfortable wooden dining room stools and plastic lawn chairs that someone had brought. My great-uncle sat alone in a corner and was silent as a mouse. He also offered no hospitality, not even a cup of coffee. My sisters played on their phones and complained about the reception, and a big, hulking cousin of mine with the face of a Boston Terrier tried to teach my brother and I to do cat’s cradles with a couple of pieces of string. A mentally ill uncle produced a wax statue of the Virgin Mary and began to eat it. I asked him if he wanted some real food.

“No, gracias,” he said.

Finally, my dad went to buy fried chicken for everybody at a place on Avenida Lerdo.

That evening there were fireworks at the church where the little service for my great-aunt had been held. It was the feast day of the patron saint. We walked down the street to watch them bloom, great balls of sparks and silver showers sketched brightly on a blackboard of darkness. My brother and sisters and I pranced and jumped about with the neighborhood kids and joined the crowd in their oohs and aahs. The explosions of light were like angels welcoming my great-aunt—her strictness notwithstanding—into heaven. My great-uncle Julián stood a little apart, in his spotless white.

 

Charles Haddox lives in El Paso, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border, and has family roots in both countries. His work has appeared in over forty journals including Chicago Quarterly Review, The Sierra Nevada Review, Folio, and Concho River Review.