After two full days of driving, I can finally see the sign. BIENVENIDOS A EL NIDO, GTO (Welcome to El Nido, Guanajuato). As we drive into my dad’s hometown, I’m actually surprised at how normal it looks. I had been listening to my dad go on and on about growing up in Mexico my whole life, and this was not the dying, poverty-struck place he told me about.
The cobblestone roads and tall palm trees are like something off the front of a postcard. The churches are tall and accented with large bell towers. All of the houses we pass are either made from brick or adobe, and the adobe houses are painted crazy colors like yellow or pink or orange. This place isn't dying out. It's colorful, like something out of my old books from kindergarten. I’m just about to tell dad this, but then he pulls the van over by a little orange house that looks like it’s made out of clay.
“We’re here,” he says shortly.
I actually have to hold in a cringe. My dad never talks in short, simple sentences like that unless something’s up. If this were a normal day, I’d get a goofy “Alright, mìja, the bus is letting off now.” or something cheesy about how him and his brothers built this house “with our bare hands, you know”. But this is not a normal day. This is the day before my grandma’s funeral, and my dad is understandably off. The entire drive from Texas, I think he said ten words to me in total. “Hey, you want to take the next rest stop, or no?” Part of me gets that he just lost his mom, but the other part just really wants my regular dad back.
I tried to feel sad about what was going on, I really did. I just didn’t have it in me. I never got to meet Abuela. While she was alive, she never even sent abirthday card or anything, so to me, she wasn’t really more than a wallet-sized photo hanging on our refrigerator. It’s kind of hard to grieve a picture.
I hop out of the van and help unload our stuff from the back while Dad sort of stands and stares at the house. Then I realize he hasn’t been back here in over fifteen years. I try and imagine how it would feel if I left our town in Texas, and came back fifteen years later. Would it even feel like home anymore?
The front door of the house opens and a petite, dark skinned lady steps out, sees us, then walks over and hugs my dad. They look enough alike that I can tell this my aunt, Tìa Paulina. They talk for a minute, then Tìa Paulina looks over at me.
“Anna-Rosa,” she smiles. “Mì sobrina nueva.” My new niece. Then she breaks into rapid Spanish I can’t catch. I look at dad for help.
“She says you’re tall and beautiful, like your mom was,” he translates, locking the trunk of the van.
“Oh,” I say. “Um…gracias.”
“Pasalèn,” she says, pointing towards the front door. And I know that’s an invite to come in, because my dad says it to everybody who comes over our place. “Pasalèn, Pasalèn…”
I head into the house, suitcase in hand, and it’s a lot roomier than it looks from the outside. From the front door, we walk right into the kitchen, the floor covered with large, green tiles. A hallway leads to four bedrooms. I know they’re all bedrooms, because they have no doors, just open arches covered with curtains. A girl around my age walks out of one of them, says something in Spanish to my dad, then they hug.
“Anna-Rosa,” dad says. “This is your cousin Lupita. She just turned sixteen, just like you.”
“Hallo,” Lupita says, flashing a pretty smile. Then she stutters through accented English. “I’m so happy to finally put a face on my mysterious American cousin.”
“Hey, your English is pretty good,” I say. “Did you take it in school or something?”
“All kids around here start English lessons in primaria.”
“That’s elementary school,” dad translates.
A few minutes later, Lupita shows me her room, then tells me to leave my stuff there. Since she has a bunkbed, I’ll be staying with her the next two weeks. Then she shows me around the rest of the house.
“This is my mom and dad’s room,” she says. “And this one is my brother Mario’s room, but he’s not home. He works and goes to school in Mexico City. You’ll meet him tomorrow.”
“Is the bathroom over by the family room or something?” I ask, realizing that I haven’t seen one anywhere in the house.
Lupita grins and points out the window that looks out into the backyard.
“You see that little thing out there that looks like a tool shed?” she asks.
“That is the bathroom.”
“Any more questions?”
“Yea,” I say, pointing to the empty bedroom at the end of the hall. “Whose room is that?”
Lupita’s face falls as she suddenly gets really interested in a spot on the tile floor.
“That was Abuela’s room,” she says.
She looks so sad, I feel like I should apologize and say something like ‘Sorry for your loss’, but that wouldn’t make since. We had the same grandma. Technically, it’s my loss, too. But when I try to match Lupita’s grief, I come up empty. The next few seconds are long and silent, until they’re interrupted by yelling from the kitchen. It’s my dad and Tìa Paulina.
“¡No te empiezas conmigo, Paulina! ¿No piensas que queria estar aqui cuando mama se infermo? Me duele todo tiempo…”
I haven’t heard dad yell like that since the time Bryan from across the street pushed me off the monkey bars in second grade. Lupita’s eyes go big as two grapefruits before she grabs hold of my arm.
“Vamos,” she says in a hushed voice. “Let’s go out the back.”
And in one swift move, she rushes us out of the house.
“Hey, what’s going on?” I ask once we’re outside. “What are my dad and your mom arguing about?”
She throws me a confused look.
“You dun’t know?” she asks. “They be arguing on the phone like that for two weeks. Ever since Abuela got sick.”
I think back and it hits me how lately dad’s been hanging up the phone just as I walk into the room.
“Whatever it is, my dad must be hiding it from me,” I say. “What’s the problem?”
“Your father forgot us, that’s what’s the problem,” Lupita says. “He bought that ticket to America and never looked back. Not even when his own mother was on her death bed.”
“Now hold on just a minute,” I say. “We wanted to come back sooner, but my dad has a job. If we had come down while Abuela was sick and stayed for the funeral, that would have come out to a month away from work, and we couldn’t afford that! Plus, I had finals at school. We do have lives up there in Texas, you know.”
“Well, I understand,” Lupita says. “But my mother migh' need a little more convince before she forgives your father for missing his last chance to say goodbye to Abuela.”
I’ve barely met my aunt, and already she was already rubbing me the wrong way. What did she expect? For us to just drop everything and-
“May I ask one question?” Lupita asks suddenly.
“Texas really isn’t so far away. How come you and your father never come to visit?”
“And what about you guys down here?” I ask. “The phone rings both ways. You guys don’t exactly call us up every Christmas. You guys never write. My mom’s mom calls me on my birthday ever single year. I never got so much as a birthday card from Abuela!”
I regret that last part as soon as I say it. My dad’s voice rings through my head. “Anna-Rosa, you should never speak ill of the dead’.
“Birthday cards?” Lupita asks suddenly. She thinks for a long minute then says: “Wait right here.”
She ducks back into the house, and as I stand there by myself I think; Great. Dad and I haven’t even unpacked our bags yet and we’ve already pissed off two family members. But when Lupita comes back, she doesn’t look mad. Just…tired. She walks out of the house holding a stack of envelopes, all different sizes and colors.
“Here,” she says, putting them in my hand. “For you.”
“What are these?”
“Birthday cards,” Lupita says. “Abuela went down to the market and bought you one every year.”
I open the top envelope and out comes a glittery little card that says: HAPPY FIRST BIRTHDAY, 2002. My heart drops into my stomach.
“She would go all the way to San Miguel de Allende,” Lupita goes on. “Just to find you cards in English. That’s a one-hour trip, you know.”
“But I don’t get it. If went she through all that trouble, why did she never send any of these?”
“Because,” Lupita says. “Every year, your father would call, saying he was bringing you to meet the family, but every year something would come up. Abuela was waiting. She was waiting to give you these cards in person.”