For Grandmother, it was always, “Next year, we’ll move him to Laredo.”
When my abuelo Leonides Lopez died, in July 1935, his expeditious summer burial in Tío Jose’s family plot in Cotulla was meant to be only a brief earthen sojourn. In the Cotulla summer heat, it was important to get the difunto into the ground quickly, after lying in state overnight in the family home.
There are few surviving photos of Abuelo Leonides, none from his childhood or youth. In one studio portrait from 1908, sepia tinted, full of shadows and glowing orbs, he’s a vital young man, seated with one strong arm leaning on an ornately carved desk, a pen and notebook alongside an oil lamp. Broad-shouldered, he wears a white shirt with suspenders and black pants. One long muscular hand rests calmly on his lap as he gazes with a distant, pensive expression into the camera. With his dark features, wavy black hair, handlebar mustache, and penetrating eyes he looks almost like a Tejano Emiliano Zapata.
His funeral was one of the grandest for a Mexican that anyone had ever seen. And despite the fact that he was a Mason, and as such would ordinarily have been excluded from a funeral mass, Grandmother exerted her considerable powers of persuasion upon the priest to allow Leonides to receive a full religious funeral, which was attended by Mexicanos and Anglos alike.
Grandmother’s plan had been to transfer his body soon afterward to her family’s grander plot in the oldest cemetery in Laredo. Grandmother had never loved Cotulla, and she would not abide Leonides’ spending eternity there, even if it had been his home for most of his 52 years. This would happen as soon as possible after dispatching the business of closing Leonides’s grocery store, securing leases for the other properties in the town, and moving her children to San Antonio.
Even into the afterlife, Abuelo Leonides carried his orphan’s destiny with him. It would be 1954 before the plans were finally realized to disinter his bones from the Cotulla earth and transport them an hour to the south, to Leonides’s last repose, on the border with Mexico, just a few miles north of the Río Bravo.
Life in San Antonio had been very demanding for the widowed mother of five, with children ranging in age from nine to twenty.
Grandmother would not allow the children who were still in school to be sent to San Antonio’s segregated Mexican schools. My mother walked out of one such school on the city’s South Side. The two oldest boys, Leo and Lauro, were already teenagers. For them, the city’s always festive, brassy Mexican nightlife, with its boundless pageant of feminine beauty, was an invigorating change from Cotulla’s sleepy twilights and early bedtime.
Uncle Leo showed a predilection and a talent for card games. Uncle Lauro, tall, dark, suave, and already carrying an elegant, lonely air of being from far elsewhere, was more inclined to adoring las chicas Bejareñas. Grandmother watched her two eldest sons particularly closely, passing judgment on any alliances she deemed unsavory, whether among conspirators or romantic aspirantes.
But Grandmother’s lengthy delay in arranging Abuelo Leonides’s encore funeral may also have been occasioned by something that took place just after his death. A month after his funeral in Cotulla, there was a knock at the door in the early evening.
“Buenas noches, Doña Leandra.”
Grandmother received a lady visitor into the salon amid stacked boxes that were already being packed for the move to San Antonio before the beginning of the new school year.
My mother, always curious, told me how she overheard their conversation from a room next door.
“You do not know me, Señora Leandra. My name is Gertrudis Ramos. Forgive me for coming sin aviso.”
The woman was younger, perhaps in her late thirties, and Grandmother’s patience was already straining under the burdens of all the tasks of moving. She turned another lamp light on to have a closer look at the woman.
“What may I do for you, madame?”
“Forgive me, but I was very close to Don Leonides, señora.”
Grandmother then stared icily at Gertrudis Ramos, who had started to weep.
“We were very close, Señora Leandra.”
“What do you mean by that, madame? My husband was a friend of everyone here.”
“Señora, he is the father of my daughter, Segunda.”
Grandmother let out a shriek, standing up.
“What did you say? ¿Que me dijiste? ¡Sinvergüenza! How dare you?”
“He loved Segunda very much. She’s three years old now.”
“Segunda? How many do you have?”
“Tengo solamente ella. Pobrecita. She is named after Leonides’s mamá—por eso, Segunda.”
The room went quiet for a while. Finally Grandmother moved toward the front door.
“I don’t care why you came here, and I don’t care what cuentos you tell about your daughter. He made no mention of these mentiras, if you’re coming to see if he put you in his will. I never want to see you again.”
The woman left without protest.
Mother always kept track of Señora Ramos and Segunda, the child who was her alleged half sister. Eventually they too moved to San Antonio, and Segunda went to the same high school as my mother, later marrying a pharmacist friend of hers.
Did she think the story of Abuelo Leonides’ second family was true?
Mother remembered the many nights Abuelo would set out in the evenings after dinner, dressed in a suit and a freshly ironed shirt, to sleep out on their little ranch, he said, coming back in the morning. That’s just the way things were.
“Well, she really looked a lot like us,” Mother observed, grinning. “But we never mentioned it to each other. And she died a few years ago.”
This revelation may well have taken some of the urgency out of Grandmother’s desire to move Leonides’s bones to the family pantheon in Laredo. Let him pass a little bit of eternity there in the dry, knotty earth under infernal Cotulla. For a while, he was forgotten amid the new life