Connecting to the past, one family tree at a time

There are many times, too many to mention, where I wish I could sit with my father and ask him about his family, about the stories he heard growing up, and about the “whore” that made him stop in his research (there’s a note from an uncle that says my father told him so). But I can’t because he’s not here anymore. And I didn’t get the urge to research my family tree until after he’d passed, when I realized the delicate tether between myself and him was becoming much too thin.

And about a year after he died, his brother died.

And earlier this year, in July, my other uncle–the one who was helping me make sense of the nebulous territory of genealogy–passed away. That thread is snapping. Three aunts remain, and I can feel the precarious situation for those memories, teetering between recognition and oblivion.

This found its way somehow into my novel, THROUGH THE WALLED CITY. As I labored through the research, I realized that some of what I was finding–Colombia’s history, old photographs from the late 1800’s to the mid-1900’s–correlated to what my late uncle had been able to tell me about our family’s history. With his help, I had mapped out my family tree on my father’s side to circa 1850’s, when the last known entry is of a woman with a son “out-of-wedlock.” That’s where the trail ends, and if I could go back and ask my father, I’d want to know if that was the “whore” he was referring to.

But it was fascinating, pitching the research against Mica’s story. Seeing the past and the present dance, come to life. Someday, I want to breathe life into that family history. Not only for my son’s sake, so he knows his heritage, but for me, because I didn’t pay attention when I had the chance.

Mama Adela with Children This picture is of my paternal grandmother with four of her six children. My father sits in the bottom, nestled between his older brothers. The three are now gone. I have it tucked in the corner of my dry-erase board (which hangs over my writing desk at home) as a reminder that he’s watching over me. I can’t ask him now all the questions that flood my consciousness, but writing THROUGH THE WALLED CITY gave me a better idea of the Colombia he grew up in, of the stories he heard and the climate of his land. He loved his country, which is why when he died, we took his ashes to Manizales, his hometown, to be buried with his parents. He would’ve wanted that.

THROUGH THE WALLED CITY has been a special story for me for many reasons. This is one of them.

Remembering Papi on his birthday

Papi and I at my wedding in 2004, 4 years before he passed away.

Papi and I at my wedding in 2004, 4 years before he passed away. Taken by Debra Weisheit of Debra Weisheit Photography

This picture is one of my favorites of my wedding day. Papi and I share an affectionate moment, something that rarely happened. On that cold Miami winter day, Papi set foot inside a church since he’d left the priesthood, over twenty-five years before. He also wore a tuxedo for the first time ever, something he abhorred. He laughed and joked, reveling with family and friends. It was a departure from his earlier, more sullen self.

Today, he’d be celebrating his 83rd birthday.

Time’s crazy like that–it whizzes by at dizzying speed, leaving us wondering, how did that happen?

Happy birthday, Papi, wherever you are.

My furbabies

These are my pups: Buffy and Baxter. They’re both mixed labs, and they were both rescue dogs. Buffy found my husband. We found Baxter. And we’ve been a family for a long time.

Buffy

Baxter

But my babies are getting old. Buffy’s about fourteen and Baxter’s about twelve. And this last year has seen an increase in vet activity. First, Baxter developed a mass over his shoulder that needed to be removed (but it wasn’t cancerous, thank God!) Then, both developed slight arthritis. Baxter lost a lot of weight, and Buffy gained it. Two weekends ago, Buffy stopped eating for a few days and wasn’t moving much. Her liver enzymes came back extraordinarily high, and the prognosis didn’t seem good. We got her to take her meds, and she started eating again, and little by little she’s been recovering, only she walks around with her head tilted and out of balance. She reminds me of a recovering stroke patient. Vet saw her and told us she had Idiopathic Vestibular Disease. Two days ago, Baxter started limping, his hind legs sprawling in opposite directions, and he refused to put pressure on one of his front paws. Severe arthritis, with his front paw swollen. He’s on medication now as well.

I just feel so bad for them. They poop and pee in the house, without even knowing they’re doing so. I know their time is limited, and while I’m okay with that because I understand it’s the circle of life–birth and death–I’m not okay with seeing them in pain.

We do what we can to make them comfortable and happy, for whatever time they have left. It might be months, maybe years. No one but the Man upstairs knows. I just hope the meds keep working so they don’t hurt.

Peeking in…

I’ve been quite MIA here, I know. It’s been a whirlwind of a month, but a great one! From my son’s preschool graduation, to an amazing SCBWI conference, to staring an online YA Class with Mandy Hubbard, to getting accepted into Lynn Hightower’s Novel IV class at UCLA Extension, to a week in Orlando. Add to that summer classes ending and prepping for the new term that starts Mon (all during vacation), and you have a recipe for craziness. But I’ll come back soon, and I may just elaborate more on some of the above.

Oh! And I added my Twitter feed on here in case you want to follow me! I update that a little more lately. Something about bite-sized messages I can do from my phone makes it easier to update. 🙂

In the meantime, I’m sharing this pic from our trip. Hubby is getting into photography. He takes the camera everywhere and is always taking pictures of everything, especially nature and architecture (and he’s pretty good!). So for Father’s Day, I signed him up for a Nature Photography class. He was super excited! Anyway, on one of the afternoons after my conference, we took a walk. We were staying at Disney’s Yacht Club and the walk consisted of making the loop through the Boardwalk, where my son begged and begged for a disposable camera. He also loves taking pictures! We got him one and he spent the rest of the walk stopping with hubby to take pictures. In this one, two bunnies were in the grass and it was such a cute shot of them both, father and son, both with cameras in their hands.

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My Amazingly Talented Cousin–Check her out!

If you like music (and really, who doesn’t?) you have to check out my beautiful and amazingly, crazingly talented cousin, Natalie Duque.  She’s a singer-songwriter with a soulful voice that stays with you well after the song’s ended. Last year, she released the EP “Show and Tell” and her new EP “Shine Your Light” is now streaming at her website www.natalieduque.com. The new songs will be available in iTunes soon and I can’t wait to purchase them and add them to my project playlist (because, of course I have a playlist of songs that inspire me!!) My favorite in the new EP? I think it’s “So Close,” though the other two, “When I Fall” and “Pieces” are just as awesome!

So check her out. Go to her website, listen to her songs, check out her videos, Like her on FB and follow her on Twitter!

For the love of flying

Today I got to live flying in an airplane through the eyes of my son, and it made me happy. There’s something wondrous about embarking on something new with a child who is old enough to understand what is going on around him but who isn’t old enough to understand what, if any, dangers lurk in that adventure. At four (and going-on-fourteen…), his biggest fears are the dark, monsters, shadows, and the mystery eyeball (still trying to figure that one out)—he knows nothing about plane crashes, so there’s no reason for the fear to take hold of him.

I’m thankful for that because it lets him truly enjoy this miracle of flying.

I love flying, from the speeding up in the runway to the lifting, when I feel the changes in pressure as I marvel at the city below me growing smaller and smaller until the clouds envelop me and I feel close to the edges of the earth. I also love the landing, when the world below grows larger until we jerk forward as the tires touch the pavement.

Do I get nervous? Of course. My godparents passed away in an airplane crash in January of 1990. I was ten. And since then, I remember hearing of plane crashes and seeing the movie based on Eastern’s crash in the Everglades. I know that it can happen, so of course I get nervous. But I also know car crashes happen and that we are less likely to experience a plane accident than we are a car one.

One of the things I refuse to do, though, is let fear reign me.  I’ve been on the verge of it, for other reasons, and I hate feeling like that.  I’m immobilized, with the weight of impending doom suffocating me until I make the superhuman effort to wrestle that beast out and think of other things, happy things.

And I pray. Whatever resistance I may have with religion, I am still spiritual and I have a strong faith in God and to Him I pray.

Throughout this ride today, on our way to the airport (“Are we there yet?”), as we checked-in our luggage (“Where are they taking our stuff?”) and passed through the security (“Cool!”), boarded the plane, and took off (“That.Was.Awesome!”), I explained what was happening. His excitement was contagious. I hope that excitement never fades and he still finds this adventure as “amazing” and “awesome” as he did today.

 

Happy Birthday, Papi

Today is my father’s birthday. Or, rather, it would’ve been if he were still alive. He’d be turning 82.

Next month, on Valentine’s day, will be the fourth anniversary of his passing. Four years. My son’s age–he was six months when my father left this world of conflict and pain and frustration.

My father wasn’t one to celebrate birthdays. He never really saw the need. In fact, one of his favorite anecdotes, about birthdays, went something like this: “When I was growing up, I never had parties or anything of the like. No. It was simple. I needed pants, so for my birthday, I got pants.” I wish I could remember the exact way his words that left his mouth, but now the memory melts into the idea of what he said: no parties, just pants.

That never stopped me, though. I do like parties and celebrating–always have. So on his birthday, I would either make him a card or I would spend hours perusing the greeting card sections at Hallmark (or Publix or Eckerds, now CVS), and then I would pen what I thought was a beautifully written sentiment. And it usually was, except it was in Spanish, and my Spanish, though good, wasn’t perfect. When I gave him the card on his birthday, then, I grew accustomed to him reading it, pen in hand, correcting my grammar in the greeting card. I have to say, though, it stung a little, and sometimes, I would fight the tears that threatened to overcome my eyes. It was a card, damnit! I’d think. Just a card. I wanted him to read past the errors (which weren’t that many!) and get to what I wanted him to know: that despite the differences and hardships and fights, I still loved him.

But love, for my dad, was different. I realize that now.

For gifts, oh that was difficult. What do you get a man who doesn’t want anything? The only thing he wanted were cigarettes–Winston ones in the red and white box. Some birthdays, that’s what he’d get. He’d already made it clear he wasn’t going to stop smoking. Not after he went months without smoking, after his leg was amputated (is it weird that I can’t remember which one right now?) and he was in temporary hospice. Not after all his doctors kept regañandolo because he was slowly killing himself. No, he wasn’t going to stop smoking. He was a man of stories, anecdotes to make his point. So for this he’d remind us that when his mother, my grandmother, was dying of breast cancer, and all she wanted was a cigarette, he fought everyone to give her one last “gusto”– “She was dying anyway; who are we to deny the dying?” That was his motto, I guess, and since, in his mind he was dying (though his “dying” lasted well over a decade), he felt we should heed his argument without question. So on his birthdays, we would sometimes relent and wrap up a box of Winston cigarettes in bright birthday wrapping paper, place a big bow on it, and present it as his birthday present. Those were his happier birthdays, I think, and in his later years would elicit a series of chuckles as he put on his shirt, grabbed one of the cigarettes and his lighter, and rolled outside of the apartment to smoke his birthday gift.

I think of him often. Not only as a daughter thinking about her dad, but as a kindred spirit who is just beginning to understand the workings of that man. I didn’t understand while he was living; I didn’t understand when, as a teenager, I saw him break things and scream and make my mom cry. I didn’t understand his pain and in not understanding, I couldn’t help him. My mom, I think, understood him. I am only just beginning to understand as I tread through my own journey of illness. And I wish so many times he were still alive and I could ask him questions. I miss him.

So happy birthday, Papi. We love you.

Christmas Eve Thoughts

There’s nothing better than spending Christmas Eve with family, except maybe spending it with family you don’t see often, along with those you see every day, in a manner that reminds you of your childhood.

I was blessed to have that kind of Christmas Eve.

We drove the almost-two-hour trek to my cousin’s house where this year’s celebration was being held. Making this Christmas that more special was the fact that family from Colombia and Germany were joining us. Though we were missing some family, this was the largest gathering we’d had in a while! I sat with my cousins, and we started with the “Remember when?” We giggled and laughed, and I swear time shifted and we were teenagers again, at my aunt’s townhouse, when she lived in Miami, sitting in the front steps and talking about boys.

Once everyone was there, we started novena. Colombians partake in novenas, where, for the nine days leading up to the birth of El Nino Dios on Christmas Day, we gather with family, sing villancicos (Christmas songs), and recall the story of the birth of Christ. The last of the novenas is read on Christmas Eve. Our family is no exception, and though I might not hold onto that tradition every day, I do try to make at least a few novenas, especially if there will be a large group. They’re one of my favorite traditions. This year’s Christmas Eve novena, though, was even more special. My uncles took out their guitars, my aunt passed out the maracas, panderetas, and other noise makers, and the signing commenced. We sand Tutaina, Los Peces en el Rio, Antontiruliroliro, A la Nanita Nana. We ate bunuelos, natilla, empanadas and arroz con leche. Then we passed around the book with the novena readings and those of us brave enough to trying out our rusty Spanish read our part. When it all ended, my aunt read some thoughts she’d penned earlier that day, about love, and family, and their mother (my grandmother) celebrating with us in spirit, and about never forgetting the love that was promised with the birth of El Nino Dios. It was beautiful, and most of us cried. Good crying. We were happy and blessed because we were together.

Isn’t that what Christmas is about? About the love that began because God sent his only Son to Earth because he LOVED us?

And so what if Christmas really didn’t happen on December 25. So what if the celebrating straddles the solemn and the festive. It’s a time to rejoice and love!

Yesterday, I was blessed because it was a day spent with family, first my husband’s, then my own. In each of these homes, the promise of family and love was present, and we enjoyed something more precious than any tangible gift can provide: we enjoyed each other and the gift of family, and love.

It’s days (and nights) like yesterday, when family comes together, that I’m reminded family is the thread that holds our past, our present, and our future together. I am grateful and blessed to have such an amazing family, immediate and extended.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

 

Mamá Adela

I never met Mamá Adela, my paternal grandmother. She died in the sixties from breast cancer, when my dad was still a priest. From the stories my Tio Germán tells me, my dad was in Chile when he received word of my grandmother’s declining health. He asked the Church, and was granted, a transfer back to Manizales, where he spent his time by her side.

Like my dad, she smoked cigarettes until the end. My dad often told me how he’d sneak some to her, a last gusto, because at that state, why deny her simple pleasures? Perhaps smoking was a comfort for her, a tool to embrace a death that was hers. Her husband, my grandfather, had died ten years earlier in a motorcycle accident. He was too young. Maybe she saw her sentence as a way of seeing him once more. Maybe she’d missed him, especially since the children were all grown. Or maybe she shuddered at the thought of being bound again, in the afterlife. I don’t think the latter holds true to her memory, though.

In the picture I have of her, tacked on a collage on my living room wall, she is still young. She’s sitting, staring off to the side, her hair a neat, dark bob, her thin lips in a line. No smile. I don’t think it was customary to smile in those days, but I wonder if she had other reasons not to smile. The photograph is circa 1934 and four of her six children are pictured; the final two would follow in the years to come. My dad, the youngest here, was about four or five. Germán, the oldest, must have been about eight. In the photograph, Ruth is standing next to my grandmother, behind the three sitting boys: Rodrigo, my dad, and Germán. The only ones smiling are my dad and Tia Ruth. Tio Rodrigo’s lips are also in a straight line, his eyebrows scrunched;  Tio Germán doesn’t scowl nor does he smile. When I was a child, I loved this photograph because it’s the only photo of my dad as a child. All I have of my dad’s youth are stories. This is one, tangible proof that he was, in fact, a child – funny haircut and bright, wide eyes and all.

I wonder what my grandmother felt, sitting beside her children. Did she feel divided? Did she care that she had no choices? I wonder if that’s why she didn’t smile, why she bore her cross, that woman born with the century, without complaining but without smiling. I look at her and want to know her, understand her, as if that is the key to understanding part of who I am.

I ask Tio Germán, the eldest of her children and now well into his eighties, about her and he tells me stories of her my father never did. She had poor health, unidentifiable pains the doctors couldn’t name, so they sent her to Aguadas, a valley near Manizales that provided much-needed warmth for her aches; Manizales was just too cold. She went to Aguadas with my dad whenabout six or seven, while my uncle stayed behind with my grandfather. I don’t know how the others were divided, but I wonder whether my grandmother yearned for that solitude, for that brief period of independence.

The stories I’ve heard of her are conflicting. My dad referred to her as docile, sweet; my cousins, the ones that met her, remember her as stoic, stern, and the one who punished.

In this photograph, I can see traces of both women.

Self-Satisfaction

Today during dinner, my husband, son, and I sat, eating an array of leftovers that consisted of rice, spaghetti, carrots, pan-fried tilapia, eggs, teriyaki chicken, and salad. We sat, said our prayers, and began chatting about our day. Mid-way through the meal, the conversation went something like this:

“I don’t like salad,” my son says.

“That’s okay,” I reply.  “I like it. Do you know what I like about it?”

My son shakes his head.

“The colors.” And he proceeds to name the colors in my salad with me.

Daddy chimes in and says, “Carrots are good for you, baby. They give you super vision, like Superman.”

“I don’t want to be Superman,” my son says.

“Then how about Spiderman? Spiderman eats salad to make him strong.”

My son shakes his head. “I don’t want to be Spiderman.”

“Then, who do you want to be?” I ask.

“No one,” he replies. “I just want to be Lukas.”

My husband and I were caught off guard by the innocent, yet profound statement uttered by my almost-four-year-old.

We spend our lives looking up to and wanting to be others. We look up to role models, and work our behinds off so we can achieve the sliver of fame or recognition or status that we want, because we want to be like someone else. We want money because we want to be like those who are well off. We want those shoes because they’re the latest fashion and all the “cool people” have those shoes – and we want to be one of those “cool people.” We want that car because it says something about a status that we may or may not have. (And by the way, the “we” refers to us as humans, the general population, you, me, the guy in the corner, the girl at the mall. It means everyone.)

Sometimes, we believe we’re happy with who we are and, at times, we are. We like ourselves. But there are other times, and more than once, like during a mid-life crisis, when we just want to be someone else or we want what someone else has. We let ourselves be influenced by this and it clouds our judgement, our actions, our behaviors.

Lukas is on to something. “I just want to be me.” With imperfections and character flaws. I hope I can remember this next time I want to change something about me so I can be like someone else.