Twenty years ago, I was living in the Basque Country, in Donostia, trying my best to learn Batua. After resisting all of my parents’ efforts to get me into Basque dancing back at home, I had decided, on my own, to immerse myself as much as I could into the Basque culture. I wanted to learn about the culture of my dad and my grandpa — my mom’s dad — as a way to better connect with and understand these two men.
Grandpa — Joe Telleria — was born in the US, in Jordan Valley, Oregon. While he was born an American, his parents were both Basque immigrants so his first language was Euskara. While he had opportunities to go to college to study mathematics, his sense of obligation to his family was stronger. He pretty much stayed in Jordan Valley his whole life, marrying and raising a family there, hooking up his kids (at least my mom) with the new generation of Basque sheepherders, and making a life for himself. He became a corner stone of the town, running the market that was a hub of Jordan Valley.
Twenty years ago, on Thanksgiving day, I called my grandparents from a pay phone in the Parte Vieja of Donostia, escaping briefly from an evening of wandering the streets and bars of the heart of the city, knowing that everyone — my parents included — would be there for the traditional Telleria feast. “Maite zaitut” I said when the phone finally got to grandpa, both trying to express how I felt about him and show him I’d learned something of his language. “Eh?” was what I got in return. Not knowing if he didn’t understand my Batua (his Basque was Bizkaino) or if there was a bad connection, I again said “maite zaitut.” Again, I heard back “what?” Finally, I simply said “I love you, grandpa.” After a brief pause, “I like you too, boy.” That was the last conversation I ever had with my grandpa.
Twenty years ago, on December 1, my grandpa died. I’d known he was sick, but didn’t really appreciate how sick he was. The only piece of advice he ever really gave me was “They can take your money, they can take your family, they can even take your body, but they can never take your mind.” I’m not an overly sentimental person, but maybe his words are one of the reasons I decided to spend so much time in school. If they are, I certainly owe grandpa an enormous debt.
Maite zaitut, grandpa.