My grandfather, Salvador Medina Camarillo was the strongest father influence in my young life. My parents were divorced and I rarely saw my father – the divorce was bitter and combative. Eventually, the other grandparents faded into the background because to my mother, they were sources of great evil, having given my father life. Hey, I said it was a bad divorce, si? It fell to my maternal grandparents to step in and do the best they could to raise us in the middle of a family war.
I spent a lot of time at my grandparents house, every weekend, school vacation, summers…all were spent in the creaky old house on Goodwin Avenue with all the gardens. My time inside was devoted to my grandmother Lupe and her magical kitchen, but outside I spent my time with my Papa Chava (my grandfather). Papa had tons of wonders in his domain hay afuera. He had a dusty workshop in the garage/el garaje. There were jars of every kind of nail, tools, circular saws, gardening equipment, big MJB coffee cans full of canicas (marbles). He loved to carve things and often sat out on the patio carving stone monkeys. Sometimes he’d take cherry pits and carve those too and hand them to me, while I played with the big can of marbles.
Papa made cutting boards for my grandmother. He’d use his machine saw thingy and make it in the shape of a pig. I loved those pig-shaped cutting boards. They were comforting, homey and showed his love. He had this ingenious irrigation system in his garden too. He’d rigged all these old glass coffee jars (the original eco-recycler) within the rows of vegetables and chiles and place the hose in one of the jars. The water would flow and work its way around the rows through the jars of water and everything would be irrigated evenly. My job was to walk around and make sure all the jars were placed just so so that there was no damming of the water.
For picking lemons or guayabas up high on his fruit trees he’d fastened the hook of an old wire hanger into an old broomstick, taking time to carefully drill a hole, add the hook and cement it in, then wrapping it with duct tape. With those re-purposed broomsticks you could reach the highest fruit, wrap the hook around it, twist and it fell into a basket easily. I loved doing that.
Once, when all the family was together making tamales and my grandmother wasn’t satisfied that the masa was beaten enough, he got together with some of my bis-tios (great uncles) and managed to attach something to one of his power drills that became a powerful beater for those huge buckets of masa. The smile on my grandmother’s face lit the room and I knew then why she loved him so. He was a miracle man, a problem solver and someone you could count on no matter what.
On quiet days, he’d play cards. Lay out solitaire on the big dining table. Piramidas or pyramids and other games I learned watching him. He’d talk to me sometimes about his life before meeting my grandmother. How he left Mexico during the Revolution (he was born in 1900). He’d told me he’d been to Chicago and worked hard in the stockyards there. He once told me he was stuck in Vegas (before it was even the Bunny Seigel Vegas – just some beat up old places with one armed bandits) was hungry, broke and desperate for work. He sat for hours with his belly gnawing at him watching people play the one armed bandit slot machines and noticed a pattern. After someone played for a certain amount of time, they’d leave disgusted and someone else would sit there and hit the jackpot after a few tries. He realized that they gave out money when they were full. He dug deep and found a few nickels or pennies, I don’t remember which and watched the machines. Sure enough someone got up and left. Taking his few coins, he slid one in and didn’t win. On the second try he did. He got something to eat and then stayed watching and won a few more rounds. He then had enough money to make his way back to wherever he needed to get. That’s the type of man he was: diligent, patient, watchful and smart. I like to think he passed some of that on to me. I know I have his persistence and determination.
My grandfather died in 1986 after a long bout with cancer and the loss of his beloved wife two years before. He’d been battling cancer since the ’60s and being the man he was, he never complained. I miss him every day and I wish he had been here longer to teach my boys about his incredible life.