adventures of an american housewife in the south of france

The Namesake

Do you remember when you used to be able to wait for visitors at the gate in the airport?  You would sit in the hard, plastic chairs watching the plane land, waiting for the jetway bridge to be attached, listening as the gate opened and searching eagerly to find your loved one as all the passengers filed through the door.  That's what I think of when I remember my Grandpa.  I think of waiting in airports, excited to see his smiling face coming through the door.  Always wearing a suit and hat, always happy to see me.

My Grandpa, Ramon Padilla, was born in Brownsville, Texas in 1914.  His family had come over from Mexico during the Mexican Revolution and he lived there until he was three.  In 1917, Ramon and his family moved to Matamoros, Mexico.  He lived with his mother, who worked many odd jobs to support their family.  His uncle, a carpenter, also helped to take care of them, but the family lived in poverty.  When Ramon was about 4 or 5 years old, his mother gave him a little guitar and it changed his life forever.  He would walk through the neighborhood singing and strumming along on the little guitar, although he didn't really know how to play. When he was 13, his mother passed away and he lived with his grandmother and uncle, going to school and helping out with the carpentry work.  Around this time, Ramon had the opportunity to learn to play the guitar from a teacher in school.  But he needed a proper guitar of his own.  He was working in a grocery store at the time and the owner had a guitar to sell.  It cost 36 pesos.  So Ramon made a deal:  he would take the guitar and give his boss a peso a week until it was paid off.  After about 6 weeks of this arrangement, the owner asked Ramon to show him what he had learned to play so far.  After Ramon played for him, his boss was so impressed that he told him he could have the guitar for free.  It was already plain to see that Ramon was talented and passionate about music. From the ages of 14 - 19, Ramon experienced what he described as "many adventures."  It was during the time of the Great Depression and he dropped out of school to earn money for his family.  He picked crops as a migrant worker and joined a traveling troupe, singing and playing his guitar.  When he was 18, he went down to Mexico City to take a test, certifying him as a high school graduate.  After that he attended the National Conservatory of Music in Mexico City, where he studied for three years.  He taught himself English by reading books, and he eventually ended up in Pittsburgh, PA where he attended the Pittsburgh Musical Institute.

At 24, Ramon was drafted into the Army and went overseas to fight during World War II.  He deciphered Morse code, was a short order cook, and performed as a bugle boy.  During this time, he met my Grandma, Gloria, through mutual friends and they were married in 1944.  Ramon went back overseas until 1946 when he returned to Pittsburgh to live with Gloria, her sister Rose, and their mother.  They ran a hotel of sorts, taking in boarders to earn money, and Ramon resumed his life as a musician.  He supported his growing family by traveling to Chicago, New York, Texas, and Florida.  He performed solo and in various bands, singing, and playing the guitar, piano, and accordion.

Music was his true passion in life.  Not many people can say that they spent their life earning a living doing what they love, but that's what Ramon did.  He never went anywhere without his guitar and nearly all my memories of him involve him playing and singing.  He would entertain my sister and me with classical songs like "Malagueña", and more whimsical songs like "El Paso" and "La Bamba."  For every birthday, he would play and sing - first "Happy Birthday" and then "Feliz Cumpleaños."  I remember visiting their condo in Florida every summer and sneaking to the back patio, where he kept all of his guitars and music stands.  He practiced his music every single day of his life until his stroke in 1999.

He was a caring and loving Grandpa.  I have many fond memories of going to the little park near their home in Florida to feed ducks.  Whenever we got together, we would make homemade tortillas.  I loved watching him roll out the dough to paper thin discs and then cook them on the griddle.  We'd eat them fresh and warm, slathered with butter.  To this day, they're the best tortillas I've ever had.

My love of foreign culture and language comes from him.  Growing up in a small town in Ohio, I loved watching him prepare "exotic" foods like tamales and guacamole.  I loved to listen to him speak Spanish, giggling at his nickname for me, flaquita.  Because of him, I've always had a desire to learn foreign languages, to travel to distant lands and have adventures like him.  And I can't think of better passion to pass onto my daughter. When I was young, my Grandpa gave me a little guitar to play along with him.  It was one of those little guitars that you can probably get anywhere these days, but it was very special to me.  I still have it, packed away safely with the rest of our belongings back in the U.S.  Someday I hope to place the little guitar in Ramona's room.  I'll tell her all about her Great-Grandpa, for who she is named.  Her Great-Grandpa who overcame poverty and discrimination to create a life and a family in the U.S.  Her Great-Grandpa would have sang her songs and taught her to make tortillas.  Her own personal Guardian Angel.

11.17.14 - 12.11.01

15 Responses to “The Namesake”

  1. Devon says:

    What a great tribute to your Grandpa, Nat. I have fond memories of him and I am happy I got to try some of his delicious homemade tortillas! Such a handsome guy – I love the photo of him and Gloria. Does she still have that dress? She is just as stylish today as she was then!

    Big hugs to your family!


    • Natalie says:

      It was so fun to go through the old pictures of him. We had so many of him, Grandma and Rose. They were always dressed to the nines – not surprising!!

  2. and i’m crying. what a beautiful beautiful tribute. ramona is lucky to be named after him.

    i never was lucky enough to meet either of my grandfathers, both passed away before i was born, but this story (sans music) is what i’d like to think my grandfather’s were like – both immigrants as well. of course they’d be making lamb and baklava instead of tortillas, ha.

  3. Julia says:

    This is amazing! I love the story of Ramona’s name. And now that I see those photos of you, I realize how much she looks like you! LOVE. xo

    • Natalie says:

      Thanks Juls! I will never forget that you came down to be with me at Grandpa’s funeral. You’re a great friend. xoxo

      • Kaylie says:

        joli ^^autan je n’aime pas les poupés (mec obelig)autan le travail de l’artiste est superbe il faux avouer .vivement la sortie du sky dollsa promet d’etre terrrrrible !tu a pas essayer d’en faire sortir un en plus petit format comme c’est la mode ?? encore et toujours bravo !pour tout ton travail

      • and Jim Huggins @ 3:15, you have to work on how you try to answer questions, if you really mean to clarify and enlighten the traveling public. Otherwise, most of what you have written here will only help to muddy the water further.

  4. Shannon says:

    La Bamba! He was an amazing man and I will never forget him cooking in your kitchen. I agree! No one else was cooking exotic food like that back home. I’m sure grandma is going to love reading this blog. Love you all!!

  5. Sarah Dempsey says:

    What a wonderful tribute to a passionate grandpa with a zest for life. Thanks for sharing this story, Natalie! xox

  6. Mom says:

    Natalie what a lovely tribute to your Grandpa. Of course it made me cry! Not only was he a wonderful grandfather he was also a loving, kind, and compassionate father. His passion in life truly was music and playing his guitar. I just know that Ramona will share his love of music. She is a lucky girl to be named after such a good and honorable man. xoxo

  7. Donna Ludwig says:

    I love reading your blog and have been moved to tears by past ones. This made me cry as I saw the first picture of your handsome grandpa. This was special as I remember Mr Padilla from my childhood. He was a sweet kind talented man who was so proud of Nina (your mom) and passionately loved his family. He and Mrs Padilla were such a cute couple, even as a teenager when kids didn’t typically look at their parents like that. In the picture with Mrs. P he looks so much like Victor! Thanks for sharing all of this.

  8. Kathryn says:

    So beautiful! Such a lovely tribute to your grandfather. Natalie, where was your grandmother’s family from prior to living in Pittsburgh? Did she speak Spanish? Just curious – i love hearing stories about families uniting!
    Hope you are well and ready for your first Christmas as a mommy! Hugs to you, Michael, and Ramona!

    • Natalie says:

      Thanks Kathryn! My Grandma’s mother was from Barcelona and her father was from Italy. They ran a bakery in Pittsburgh called The French American Bakery – a truly international family!! My Grandma and Grandpa met through a mutual friend, a woman named Conchita who was a Spanish dancer. Grandma didn’t speak Spanish fluently, but she picked up a lot of phrases from her mother and my Grandpa. He used to call her “vieja” which means old woman! Ha! She also knows one Italian phrase: speranze perdute! Which she says all the time!

  9. Sabbio says:

    Oh Natalie, as always you transmit much emotions and vibes through your narrations.Your daughter is lucky… What a man!
    And I love the pic when you’re cooking with him, with your cutie frown/smile ^^

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