Today marks the 120th anniversary of the birth of my paternal grandfather, Epigmenio De La Garza. That’s a name you don’t hear too often, if not at all. But, his moniker is as rare as the man was himself. I was a little more than five years old when he died in February 1969, but I can still remember him rather clearly. He had a sharply angular face with blazing green eyes and a booming voice. He’s been gone for more than four decades now, but his memory lingers strongly and proudly in my father’s family.
Epigmenio was born in Eagle Pass, Texas (formerly El Paso de Águila); a city on the Mexican border. He was a descendant of some of the first Spanish settlers who arrived in the 1580s. The region was then known as Coahuila y Tejas, Nueva España, or New Spain. By the time of Epigmenio’s birth, the De La Garza clan had carved a unique place in the state’s history. Unique, albeit separate from the traditional or accepted version of the grand saga of Texas.
The third of nine children, Epigmenio left school after the second grade – only because he had the audacity to correct a math teacher in front of the class. He was a carpenter by trade, so exacting in his craft he could draw a straight line on a sheet of paper without a ruler. After he and my grandmother, Francisca, wed in 1924, they immediately started a family, and Epigmenio developed his construction and carpentry business. Like most men of his generation, emotional strength and personal pride were uncompromising attributes. In the late 1920s, my grandparents and their two oldest children moved to Dallas where Epigmenio quickly established a solid reputation as an extraordinary carpenter. One day, while my grandfather and his crew built concession booths at the State Fair of Texas, an Anglo man commented on Epigmenio’s heavy Spanish accent. My grandfather – as fair-colored as the Anglo man – said he had been hired to work there and, picking up a sledgehammer, added, “What are you going to do about it, goddmanit?”
He and his crew built many of warehouses on the southern edge of downtown Dallas, an area now known as Deep Ellum; hoisting massive steel beams onto their shoulders. Today, many of those warehouses still stand; converted to chic loft and studio apartments for the city’s artistic crowd. He often did work on the stately mansions of Dallas’ Highland Park and Swiss Avenue neighborhoods; wealthy enclaves where Hispanics and Negroes could labor, but not live. Shortly after World War II, Epigmenio attempted to purchase a large home in Highland Park, but was denied simply because he and his family were “Mexicans.” But, they definitely liked his carpentry skills. In the mid-1950s, he purchased a large swath of land in North Dallas and designed and built a home for his family; a large red-brick structure where he lived out his final years.
Epigmenio’s tendency towards practicality had no limits. In the 1930s, he and another man were patching up the roof of St. Ann’s Catholic school on the edge of downtown Dallas, when the local bishop arrived. The other man set down his hammer and knelt onto the sharply-slanted roof; bowing in blind reverence to the bishop’s presence. Epigmenio scolded him for his seeming idolatry. “You’re going to roll off that roof and splatter onto the ground,” he said. My grandfather also refused to kiss the hand of any Catholic official, as was the tradition back then; a response that always upset my devoutly religious grandmother. But, Epigmenio remained undeterred. “I’ll kiss the hand of Jesus, but I kiss the hand of no man.”
Epigmenio began smoking as a boy, a common practice among his generation. By his late 50s, however, he’d developed lung cancer. Back then, such a diagnosis was a virtual death sentence. But, he immediately quit smoking and, in 1952, he opted to have that lung removed. At the same time, England’s King George VI had a similar surgery at the same time. In a curious twist of fate, the doctors who operated on my grandfather in Dallas had attended medical school with the doctors who operated on King George. George died, but Epigmenio survived – and lived for another 17 years.
The day before my grandfather’s funeral, I asked my father to take me to the local grocery store. I wanted to get something for my grandfather. Not knowing what else to do, my father acceded and led me to the store; whereupon I led him up and down the cookie aisle, searching for a particular brand. Finally, I found it – whatever it was – as neither my father nor I recall the product. But, he told me later he had never seen it before – and has not seen it since. When we visited the funeral home, I placed the package of cookies in my grandfather’s coffin and told him to enjoy them “because they don’t have these in Heaven.”
After we arrived back home, my father rushed into his bedroom and closed the door, while I remained in the front room with my mother. She went into the bedroom after a few moments, and I could hear my parents talking. My father had been crying; something I didn’t think, at the time, fathers did. I still don’t know what the significance is surrounding those cookies, but I suppose it was just the mere innocence of a child coping with something new and thoroughly unknown.
I often wonder – amidst my daily struggles of dealing with personal finances and aging parents – if lessons from my grandfather’s life could impose any meaning on me. Am I the kind of man that my grandfather was? It’s one of those eternal questions; contemplating if your ancestors would be proud of you.
One Sunday night in April 2004, I severely sprained my left ankle while walking my dog; rotating it as far it could go without breaking it. I lay on the cool sidewalk for a minute, excruciating pain swamping my body, before I forced myself back up. The dog – just a puppy, really – still had to do his business. I finally visited a local hospital early the next morning, both my ankle and foot swollen. Then, I hobbled into work – and recalled another incident my father had told me about years earlier.
In one of those only-in-the-old-days situations, Epigmenio was working on a house across the street from the family doctor’s house, when he severely sprained an ankle. The old doctor had witnessed the accident and told my grandfather to come into his home, which doubled as his office. My grandfather declined the offer and ordered his men to dig a hole in the dirt roughly the size of his foot. He then planted the injured extremity into the hole and literally wrenched it back into place. “See!” he called out to the doctor after a few minutes. “Saved myself three dollars!”
Three dollars is what it cost me to park in downtown Dallas nine years ago. But, like my grandfather, I had to get to work. And, I knew – like my grandfather, I suppose – that life must continue.