Vessels: Grandpa

Each of the next few posts will feature an excerpt from Vessels: A Memoir of Borders. The series will conclude with my work plan, wish list, and an invitation to join the Vessels Crew.

Today, meet Grandpa:


A baby he hardly knows sleeps in his wife’s arms in Deming, New Mexico, a place quieter than this with low light, perhaps a lantern.

He smokes a cigarette from his C-rations and waits, keeping the red tip low, shielding it with his helmet so the Germans won’t detect his position. He tries to fill his lungs and mind with smoke, to block out the stench of his bloody fatigues, the socks he hasn’t changed in eight days, the memories of last night, of so many nights and days, in another gutted village.

A baby cried.

He smokes. She must be dead by now from exposure, hunger, bullets. So much will kill her. So little will keep her alive. Her cries came from the church. He can’t be sure she’s a girl. He never saw her. He can’t be sure he heard her cry, how to distinguish dying men’s wails from a baby’s. But the picture in his mind is clear. Someone must have wrapped her in blankets or set her in a basket or simply propped her against a virgin’s feet. Maybe a mother without milk or Jews who ran out of places to hide.

There are things he can count on. Someone is always crying, cold, hungry, frightened, dying. The cries don’t come from outside him anymore. They are part of him. They wake him. They keep him from ever falling asleep.

He blows his nose into his hand and flicks his wrist toward the ground, imagining drops of him raining down on his boots. He’s cold, always cold, and the promised blankets have yet to arrive. He pictures the supply truck driver lost, unable to detect his position, searching through the fog for the lighted tip of his cigarette.

The other survivors will buy L-shaped houses and finish college careers interrupted by Hitler and the Japs. Tino will piece together car engines, losing himself beneath the jacked-up chassis of a late-model Ford. He will build roads through New Mexico, shattering mountains with dynamite, each blast almost spooking him to the dirt. He will hear the mountains wail. So many blasted bodies that he can’t bury. They will follow him across the ocean, through the desert and mountains of New Mexico, follow him to the Highway Department trailer where the young guys who were spared the war eat lunch. And when their break ends, they’ll go back to the road crew, grading one day, laying gravel the next. He will sit in a corner and sleep until the foreman wakes him at sunset. “Tino, it’s time to go home.”

Across the ocean, along the border, the daughter sleeping in his wife’s arms will one day tell her own daughter, “I’m glad your grandpa never liberated the concentration camps. I don’t think he could have handled that.”

Handle. It’s not a word in his vocabulary right now, tonight, smoking another cigarette in the French countryside. To manage. To support. To control. Fly off the handle. Handle with care. That’s what the foreman will do. “Let him sleep,” he’ll say to the young guys. “When this man was well he was the best worker I had.” Let him sleep.

One day he’ll quit smoking. Just like that. He won’t drink, not even coffee. When he spanks his children, he will cry. He will bury an infant son and see the name they share on the headstone, Florentino Moran.

Tino’s father is still alive, still mining coal in Laredo. Tino’s mother died when he was a boy. As he exhales smoke into the cold air, he says her name. Eluteria. They called her Lute, for short. Sounds like luto, mourning.

He’s still alive.

He takes one last puff and extinguishes the cigarette against the moist earth of his foxhole. He buries the butt, packing the dirt with his boot heel.

He doesn’t remember his mother, only that she was tall. He wonders what he will call her when he’s wounded, as he’s dying. Amá. Mommy. Mother. Mom. Mamá. Madre de Dios. And will she know his voice?

Coming Thursday, November 11: Grandma


Published in: on November 9, 2010 at 3:28 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. beautifully written michelle, and heartfelt.

    • Gracias, Ali. I can’t wait to read the stories that are brewing in you.

  2. wow michelle! you have an wonderful way of inviting in and placing the reader squarely within the lived reality of others…a journey i love to take. leila

    • Gracias, Leila. We’re on the journey together, through the music and stories of our gente.

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