In life, we sometimes encounter individuals who leave us with inspiration. The most impactful of these relationships are those where the person creates this inspiration without any excessive effort or display. A little over month before writing this, my wife’s grandfather, Don René Sandoval—affectionately known by the family as “Papi”—passed away. Just by simply being who he was, and by living the life he had set out for himself and his family, he created a potent sensation of belonging.

All throughout my time at Calvin, I heard lectures about community. I heard an emphasis on commitment to the place you found yourself in. I had long talks in the dorm about what it meant to act locally and value things that come from the community in which you participate. All of these concepts were amorphous ideas until I went to Guatemala and spent time with the Sandoval family, especially Don René.

When I first traveled to visit in December 2013, my Spanish—which had gone long dormant since high school and was in the process of a forced resurrection—was not perfect. But somehow, I was able to understand most everything Don René said. We strolled together through a row of magnificent trees, just the two of us, as he pointed out each one and told me its precise age, rate of growth, and any unique tidbit that applied to the species. He pointed out plants that cascaded from their pots, joking about how quickly they had sprung up. He spoke of nature with the reverence of a dedicated caretaker. He told me that this grove was the result of his past hobby: whenever he took a road trip somewhere, he always bought a tree. The carefully and meticulously planted rows were the fruit of this endeavor, and there I was gawking at tropical trees I never would have dreamed of encountering as a cheesehead from Wisconsin.

For those that don’t know, I have a budding obsession with plants. Throughout the trips, I have consulted with Don René about how to make cuttings of various plants, how to encourage growth, and—most recently—how to grow plants in the Arizona heat. This hobby stemmed from that walk around the grove, a simple result of contact with a man who shared his passion and dedication.

This commitment he had made to the flora of property was a reflection of his approach to life. The Sandoval family, spanning its four generations, exceeds thirty people when they are all gathered together. I don’t particularly love crowds, and as an awkward gringo fresh off referring to himself as “cute and wonderful” instead of “ready,” I was feeling like withdrawing into a quiet state of observation for the remainder of the trip. But despite being so out of sorts, and after some quiet moments alone, I began to feel more and more relaxed as I watched the family interact.

They all had an incredible knack for making sure nobody was left out or felt neglected. The sheer act of coming together in the living room, sipping on wine or whisky while listening to music, was enough to generate roars of laughter and unceasing smiles. This, I have both seen and been told, is a result of Don René’s commitment to place and to people. He worked tirelessly, all the way into his late eighties, to create a home where family and friends felt welcome. He did not use grand showmanship or elaborate displays. He used simple, humble, everyday love. He used his infectious chuckle and his slick sense of humor to turn a lighthearted meal into a cherished memory, like the time he jokingly dragged out a misunderstanding that a lemon was just a really big lime.

When I step back to think about the future I want, particularly now with a small daughter of my own, I can’t help but dream of the elaborate ways to create a feeling of connection among my future family members. But then I recall Don René, and the Sandoval family who has so naturally and emphatically made me a part of their family with so much dedication to spend time together and make sure I feel at home.

During our last visit in August 2018, many of Maria-Renee’s cousins drove up for a weekend from Guatemala City to enjoy a big dinner in Salama. Before the meal, the family circled up and shared their appreciation for their grandparents. I wish I had had the strength to share these words then, but I knew that I would never have been able to produce them through the tears:

Don René, I cannot begin to thank you enough for welcoming a nervous, awkward kid from Wisconsin into your beautiful family. Thank you for raising so many marvelous people who taught and inspired the woman I love to value family the way she does. Thank you for your commitment to the world, and to the town of Salama, which you showed by simply going about your business and by treating others with respect, humility, and love. I hope you know how much you mean to everyone you meet, and I hope you know that I smile and think of that first stroll we took whenever I trim, plant, or water anything from my expanding collection. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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