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Papa Ben's Last Laugh
written by: Emilia Paul
Sometimes funny things happen at the most unlikely moments. Benjamin’s, or Papa Ben as we called him, sense of humor did not stop at the grave. For him it was always a matter of timing and getting the best laugh out of a situation. Four days after his funeral my sister and I had to attend to some final details at the gravesite before heading back home to De Kalb, Illinois. The burial service had been somber and most of it a blur. Our relatives took care of the flowers and clearing debris from the nearby graves during the graveside ceremony. We needed to make sure that his name had been properly added to the family headstone, place some fresh flowers and say goodbye. We left our mom at home to deal with the life insurance and pension details.
“Adios Mami, we’re leaving for the cemetery.” We both gave her a kiss on the cheek as was customary.
“What are you two doing? You just bathed and going to the cemetery.” She said.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“Your pores are open and you’re going to get all the toxins from the dead in your system.”
“That’s a superstition not a fact. We’ll be fine.” We told her.
We left the house chuckling under our breath while our mom just shook her head.
Cemeteries in Latin America are not neatly manicured rows of headstones instead they are a tumble of oversized mausoleums, small graves with a metal crosses and faded lettering on a plaque or a rising marble or cement ledger covering the whole body. No lawn just dirt or cut down weeds. There is staff on site to oversee major maintenance but it’s the families who are responsible for taking care of the graves. Both the poor and well to do share these municipal cemeteries.
It was an overcast October afternoon in 1992 with enough of a chill in the air to require the ladies to wrap their rebozos tightly across their backs and shoulders. It was dusk and the foothills around Mexico City were casting shadows on the town of Tlalpan but there was plenty of light left to get things done. Once the cleaning of the ledger and headstone was done, old flowers removed and freshly cut flowers placed in the built-in vases, we took time to remember Papa Ben. The stories were not new but told with a different insight now that he was gone. Storytelling was his real vocation; medicine was a passionate contribution to his fellow mankind that gave him an opportunity to share his stories with his patients, who were at times immobilized and therefore captive audiences. Most of his stories dealt with his own mishaps and how he found the humor in even the most mundane of circumstances. He was intelligent beyond comprehension at times, but easily distracted by a pretty face, a fabulous sunset or the gait of an old man. You just never knew what was going to catch his attention or how his perspective was going to totally change, how you ever saw that person, object or place ever again.
My sister and I recalled how his first foray in 1959 into the Chicago subway system had us rolling with laughter. Some of the stories had to do with the challenges of learning English and this was one of them. He was told to take the westbound number eight train from the station where he was staying near Kenworth street and to get off at the Belmont station near the hospital where he just landed a residency position. He left in plenty of time and waited on the west bound platform on a chilly winter day. He waited as train after train zoomed by progressively looking fuller and fuller with passengers. With his rather heavily accented English he finally asked someone when the number eight train would arrive.
“Eight train?” The older black man asked.
“Yes, eight train.” Said my father.
“Ain’t no eight train outta here. Where ya going?”
“Belmont station.” My father replied.
The old man creased with laughter annoying and frustrating my dad.
“Son, you want the A train. Like the letter A.” He traced the letter A in the air.
“Two just went by just as we was talking.”
The old man chuntered and shook his head as he walked away. My father caught the next A train and made his first day on the job in America.
My sister and I recalled a few more of his stories and encounters in life like the time he left the house to run some errands in Michigan City, Indiana. On this occasion he wore his wide brimmed Colombian style hat. He came back home spewing explicative about how culturally insensitive people were in town about his hat. When he saw our fits of laughter, he became even more irritated when my mom tugged on his shirt and walked him over to the mirror. There he was an Afro Caribbean man with a Colombian hat and white pasty ointment all over his face. He immediately joined in the laughter. He was vain about his complexion and was concerned that blemishes were now running into the wrinkles so he occasionally went into the face mask ritual. We never saw him use it again.
There were more shadows and less light and it was time to go home. The walk to the gate was long so we cut through the graves instead of following the gravel pathways. We noticed that no one was around us and picked up the pace. We also stopped talking. Silence. No one was talking even in the distance. When we arrived at the tall iron wrought gate it was locked with a heavy chain and a thick padlock! We were stuck here for the night. This was well before the era of cell phones. The cemetery was on a hill away from the center of town and the nearest house was at least 50 feet away. We rushed back to the administrative building a few feet away, it was also locked and at that point I think we both wanted to cry. We both believed in ghosts, benevolent and otherwise. There were two men buried underneath my mom’s house who were left there from the days of the Mexican revolution. My grandmother decided to let them rest undisturbed when the place was built. Occasionally we heard sounds and voices when no one else was around. As kids we decided it was them.
Walking back to the gate we were determined that we were going to make the best of the situation and keep each other awake and as warm as possible. Daylight was eight hours away at this time of year. We both said how much we loved each other and vowed to spend more time together when we got back to Illinois. Hugging each other tightly my younger sister laid her head on my shoulder and then we heard a voice. It was someone humming! We unfastened our embrace, stood up and grabbed the cold rails of the gate. Ahead of us was a man approaching the cemetery holding a large paper bag.
“Hello, help us. Can you call the police?” I shouted.
“Why do you want the police?”
“We’re locked in here.” I screamed, not understanding why it wasn’t obvious why the police were needed.
“No, you’re not.” He said.
“What do you mean?” My sister replied.
“The chain is wrapped around the gate but the padlock isn’t fastened.” He said with grin on his face.
“I’m the night watchman and I just went to get some dinner.” He lifted the paper bag in front of us.
He came over, removed the heavy padlock and unwound the chain. One side of the gate remained shut while he took hold of the other and with a squeal opened it wide enough to let us out. He could not contain a chuckle and said, “Someone in there was having a last laugh on you two.”