Keeping with the theme of the season, I find that I am still thinking about family and death. No, I don't mean the homicidal kind of thoughts you have when the family reunion is going badly. I'm talking, of course, about the issues that come up around Dia de los Muertos. How do we remember our family members who have passed away? How do I want to be remembered when I die? And do I want to end up like my Great-Uncle Buddy?
My daughter being about a year and a half old, my husband decided that it was high time for her to have her first dolly. Off we went to the toy store, where my daughter selected a little "boy" baby doll, dressed in blue. She gave him hugs and carried him gleefully about, and if she happened to drop him under the wheels of the shopping cart and then push the cart over him, I am confident that had no bearing on her affection for the dolly or the kind of mother she'll be to my grandchildren. "What are we going to name it?" asked my husband.
"Lillian," I frowned at him. "That's what I put on the birth certificate at the hospital. It's been a year and a half. Haven't you been paying attention?"
"Not our daughter," said my husband, looking at me as if he wished I could be the one dropped accidentally under the wheels of the shopping cart and run over a few times. "The doll."
"Ah. His name will be Sanchez."
"What?" My husband looked at me as if he were suddenly worried that I already had fallen under a cart and been run over.
"After Lillian's Great-Great-Uncle Buddy."
"Lillian has a Great-Great-Uncle Buddy?"
"No. She has a Great-Great-Uncle Erasto. That's why the doll's name will be Sanchez."
My husband didn't see the logic either, and so I will again explain the story of Great Uncle Buddy, as I explained it that day in the toy store.
Once upon a time, my great-grandmother Josefa found herself rather suddenly widowed, not so suddenly but equally irrevocably pregnant, and on the wrong side of some local politics. She gathered up her four children and left the little town in Jalisco where she had grown up. Josefa took a train to Pennsylvania, where she hoped to give young Manuel, Salvy, Mili, Tere and (along the way) little Erasto a better life. Was my Great-Uncle Erasto always a little different? Nope. Not unless you count the fact that as a boy he came home one day and told the family that they would now refer to him as "Buddy".
"Buddy?" they all echoed, giving him much the same look as my husband would give me years later when I suggested we name our daughter's first doll "Sanchez". Where did that come from?
"Buddy," he said, and Buddy it was until the day he died. (Trying to get people to pronounce 'Erasto' in Central Pennsylvania must have been, admittedly, an uphill battle.)
Fast forward many, many years to a time when my grandmother was a grandmother, and the littlest of the five children was now an old man himself. Great-Uncle Buddy called my grandmother one day in a panic.
"Tere!" he exclaimed. "Do you know if our mother ever had any affairs?"
"Wha-a-at?" my grandmother was sure to have replied. "Of course not. I was old enough to have known."
"Is there any chance at all that I might be ...illegitimate?"
Statements that make no apparent sense seem to run in the family. "Of course you weren't illegitimate," my grandmother said. "What ever could make you think that?"
"One of our aunts said that she heard the immigration certificate listed the children as 'four Paloses and a Gonzalez'!"
At that particular moment, all my grandmother could think of, she told me later, was that it sounded like a bad hand of cards. She did what anyone might do under the circumstances. She laughed.
Sadly, my Great-Uncle Buddy was gravely offended that she could not take his anguish seriously. Even more sadly, my grandmother, who was absolutely secure in her recollections of their mother's habits, could not stop laughing. Most sadly of all, my Great-Uncle Buddy died several years later, still refusing to speak to her.
So why, still more years later, would I name my daughter's dolly, "Sanchez" after my Great-Uncle Buddy? In a nutshell: because it's funnier that way. And Great-Uncle Buddy was a fine, upstanding man except in one regard -- he needed to develop a better sense of humor. You can call me superstitious, but every time my daughter and I play with little "Sanchez", I chuckle and say a prayer for Great-Uncle Buddy's soul, remembering him warmly for the good things as well as for his one-sided feud with my grandmother. I often wonder if he's got a better sense of humor yet and can laugh about it and enjoy the fact that his name is associated with a child's beloved toy and a baby's laughter. Or is he still prone to taking himself a little too seriously and trying to muster up the ectoplasmic energy to give me a good haunting?
So when I am a ghost coming back on el Dia de los Muertos to visit my descendants, will it be better to be remembered merrily, with much warmth and respect, and a little bit of mischief? Of will it be better to have my follies and my virtues both forgotten quickly and with solemnity?
At the very least, I'm going to make sure that I'm not angry at anyone when I go. Who knows what they'll name after me when I'm gone.
This article first appeared in the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin
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