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Meet My Grandparents

I’m going to guesstimate that I spent around three hundred weekends with my grandparents. Looking back now, it’s easy to see how much I took each of those Saturdays and early Sundays for granted back before I knew any better.

Today, I’m deeply grateful for the tangible examples given to me on a regular basis — proof that the love I saw on television and in some of my favorite movies actually happened in real life. I sure as hell never saw any evidence at home.

Weekend visits started early (around six or so). We piled into our orangey-red VW Microbus and hit the road. Every once in a while we’d stop at a Winchell’s for donuts, but it was usually a straight shot to get started on our Saturday morning cartoons. We usually arrived early enough that Papí had not yet left for work, and in those instances he always made time to connect with me and Megan before leaving. Sometimes that meant letting me into the bathroom while he shaved and making a snowman out of shaving cream. Other times it meant telling us a story about work, or a joke I might not necessarily get, even if I could figure out the right time to laugh. But no matter what, Papí always shined with warmth and affection.

Papí owned a small store on Olvera Street. Not just the oldest street in California, this historic Mexican marketplace in the heart of downtown is considered the birthplace of Los Angeles. It was lined with brightly-colored stalls selling handmade crafts, pottery, clothing, and endless souvenirs, from disposable to heirloom. Stucco walls, vibrant tiles, and red-tiled roofs harbored traditional restaurants, bakeries, and cafes. Some vendors are descendants of the original Mexican settlers who founded Los Angeles in the 18th century.

Olvera street is a special place. Papí is not an original descendent, but he could not have loved that ancient little alley any more if he was. He and Honey were both born in Guadalajara, immigrating through Arizona into the early 1900s. I have often imagined my grandparents when they were young, long before Honey gave birth to my mother at forty-one years old in 1952. Thirty years after I smelled a freshly-made churro for the first time, I would long to revisit Olvera Street through narrative, with a western dedicated to my grandparents. I will still write that western one day, but the original idea for that story led to a book called Unicorn Western, and one of the most ridiculous right turns my life has taken so far.

Jose Ramos was Mr. Olvera Street: his store was home to the Lost and Found, he served as the MC come Las Posadas for decades, and everyone knew his name. The Mayor of Los Angeles threw Papí a party on Olvera for his 90th birthday, when he was still driving in and opening up the shop every day.

Ramos Imports was a junk shop, though considering my grandfather’s reverence for the place, he might as well have been displaying Faberge Eggs. Papí sold the kind of jewelry that can be bought by the pound, and did his best business with the display of brightly-colored paper flowers flanking the exterior of his mercantile, and $5 grab bags, which were exactly what they sounded like. His shop, like Olvera Street itself, was a second home for him in every way. Papí owned the place for 54 years and was open 365 days, including Christmas for a few hours. He said it was just in case someone needed a last minute gift, but we all knew it was really because the Street was part of his soul and he didn’t want to ever go a day without it. If he wasn’t there, then Papí left his shop the caring hands of his lone employee, Glaffi.

While Papí was at the store, Honey watched over me and Megan. I made her cry more than once. She would wipe her eyes and wonder out loud why none of her other grandchildren were problems like I was.

Resetting the cuckoo clock so I could see the little birdie tweet (just like in Pinnochio!), nipping and eating pieces of ancient candy off of her lacquered candy houses, and beating up on my sister were just a few of the things I did at Honey and Papí’s house, all inspired by simple boredom. Honey was many wonderful things, but not much of a disciplinarian. I had to grow out of that unfortunate side of myself on my own.

But despite my flaws, I was always welcome in my grandparents’ faded turquoise and white house (painted to match an old ’57 Chevy that was gone at least a decade before I made it into the world). Only a few blocks from where Reginald Denny was dragged out of his truck, beaten unconscious, and left bleeding in the street on the second day of the 1992 riots, this house sat between a Hispanic family with a yard full of kumquats and chickens and a Black family with a junkyard teeming with stacks of bald tires and cars that would never run again.

Big Norris did his best, but it was hard to take care of Little Norris when Mrs. Norris was smoking crack. Twice each day, we would hear a light knock on the kitchen door: little Norris waiting outside for a meal that Honey always prepared for him.

It didn’t hit me for years, what any of that actually meant, seeing this child grow up into a man through glimpses at the back door over the course of a decade. Despite the occasional awkward exchange, there was never much interaction between us. His presence was simply one of those things that happened at my grandparents’ house.

“Thank you, Mrs. Ramos,” Little Norris always said, bowing his head as he took the plate.

Honey was a beautiful human and a better than decent baker, but a godawful cook. Still, her food no doubt saved Little Norris’s life. It wasn’t the Mexican hot dogs (a turkey wiener dressed in a skirt of American cheese, wrapped in a tortilla, and turned all melty in the toaster oven) or the tostadas (a large flour tortilla left in the toaster until puffy, with a full ladle of tomato sauce poured on top), it was the consistency of having a place to go where somebody cared enough to make sure that the kid had what he needed each day. Made sure he felt loved, just like they made sure I felt loved.

Honey and Papí radiated the heat of love like a crackling fire. 

In a life with few regrets, I do wish I could rewind the clock to let my grandparents know how much they meant to me, how extraordinary I think they were, and that watching them all of those weekends as a child helped me to better nurture my own children.

If I could step back in time, with all the wisdom and gratitude life has since poured into me, I would thank my grandparents for giving shape to my understanding of what a loving relationship could be. That legacy still guides me every day. More than anyone else in my childhood, Honey and Papí taught me to love deeply, cherish family, and extend kindness without expectation. They were my first teachers in the art of living meaningfully.

Going to their house each weekend also introduced me to a lot of wonderfully trashy TV. Next week, I’ll tell you all about it.