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.

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La Mano Peluda–The Furry Hand

I have fond memories of spending the summers in Colombia when I was a kid. I didn’t get to go every summer, but when I did, I spent just as much time in the city visiting family as I did going to the fincas, or farms. I was lucky that some of my aunts and uncles had them on both Mom and Dad’s side. Some had names I remember to this day, like Villapaz, or Villa of Peace, in Caldas, where I have the image of my Tia Ruth sitting on a stone wall, churning butter. Others were so remote that in order to reach them, we had to travel over a tiny, flimsy wooden bridge–the kind made out of logs tied together, so that crossing over it was a bumpy, jumpy affair. Somehow, my Tio German would get his jeep over it, though people would have to help navigate. And still others were in higher, colder grounds, where every morning a curtain of fog blanketed the finca and surrounding land like the mosquito nets surrounding the beds. Most of the farmhouses contained staples of country living: hammocks, open kitchens and courtyards, parrots, roosters, and beautifully crafted wooden beams and burnt brick tile roofs.

They, along with flowery balconies, are epitomized in the many Colombian crafts sold there and abroad.

Those were times of adventures, of setting out and exploring mountainsides, creeks, and forests. They were also times ripe for ghost tales and mysterious legends, especially the kind to scare children into behaving!

One I remember often is the story of la mano peluda, or the furry hand. I don’t remember much of the actual story behind it. What comes to mind is anecdotal. My cousins and I were in a large room with several beds. Dusk had settled and outside, the noises of the country were settling. Inside this over-packed bedroom with cold cement floors and bare walls, however, was full of the sound of children not wanting to go to sleep. With the lights off, we took to telling stories, with local cousins leading while those of us from abroad listened. That’s when someone–who exactly I can’t remember–started tip toeing, grabbing our ankles in the dark saying, “La mano peluda got you!” You can imagine the screams that elicited.

malfoy-screaming

I always remember that night, just like I do waking up in the morning and stepping out into the wet morning, watching the fog lift back painfully slow until the mountainous surroundings were reveals, and just like I remember the scent of dew and grass and the slow chirping of birds as they awaken. To this day, any time I get up early and step into my backyard, I get sent back to that moment in a Colombian finca.

What I never bothered to find out until recently, however, was the story behind la mano peluda. In Latina.com, I found this, though it most likely refers to the legends across Latin America, not just Colombia:

La Mano Peluda

Imagine lying in bed and feeling a big furry paw grabbing at your feet. La Mano Peluda (or “The Hairy Hand”) is said to belong to a man who was killed during the inquisition, and chopped up and buried in an old Indian cemetery. His hand is said to have come back to life to seek revenge on his enemies while they’re asleep. Our advice: Wear socks at night!

Read more: http://www.latina.com/lifestyle/our-issues/scary-latino-myths-read-or-el-cuco-will-get-you#ixzz2Ye9FO6hT

Then I stumbled on a Facebook page for Mitos y Leyendas de Colombia (Myths and Legends of Colombia) and it said this:

Mito o leyenda de la mano peluda

Se dice que un hombre fue injustamente culpado de robo, por lo que su castigo fue cortarle la mano. El hombre con su mano mutilada juro tomar venganza de todos los que injustamente lo señalaron.

Al tiempo del hombre morir, todos estos hombres que los acusaron tiempo atrás, fueron asesinados por una mano peluda, según un testigo que lo vio todo.

That loosely translates to: “There’s say that a man was unjustly accused of robbery. For his crime, his hand was cut off. The man swore to avenge himself of all those who accused him. When he died, all those who wrongly accused him were murdered by a furry hand, according to witnesses.” Kinda gruesome, if you ask me! It’s also said that parents will tell their children this to make sure they behave. Go figure.

And then there’s this, which I found in a forum:

La Mano Peluda

Localizada en México y Colombia. Común en los subterráneos de las casas. Es una mano grande y velluda de uñas grandes que se asoma por las ventanas o los huecos de los muros. Sirve para infundir temor a los niños traviesos, malcriados y callejeros. En México se cree que llega por las noches y te toca mientras duermes.

“Located in Mexico and Colombia. Common in basements of houses. It’s a large, hairy hand with large nails that peeks through windows or holes in walls. It’s used to strike fear in mischievous, bratty, and wandering children. In Mexico, it’s believed that it comes at night and touches you while you sleep.”

Just one of those things that goes bump in the night.*insert wicked laugh here*

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.

Writing Reflections

Now that I have two projects on the table, one in final stages of an R&R and the other still in the drafting process (20K words in), I keep feeling that sense of wonder at the way the words come together to form these stories. It’s like a drug, an adrenaline high!

But what I find most fascinating lately is that no matter how different the stories and characters and feel of each individual project, I love each one just as much, even if differently. Does that make sense? I wonder if this is how parents with more than one kid feel. I can’t completely wrap my mind around it.

SOUL MOUNTAIN was my first love. I breathed and lived this story, these characters for about two years, from the moment I dreamt it to the moment a former instructor encouraged me to write Jimmy and Emily’s story. I have that email printed and posted where I can see it, for the days when self-doubt rears her ugly head. It took me a little over a year to decide this was something I wanted to do and once I did, I couldn’t stop. SOUL MOUNTAIN tested me. It’s a fantasy, so there’s world-building involved. Quite a bit, actually, and in doing so, I learned so much. But essentially, though there are scenes that take place in the real world, locations with which I’m familiar, a good chunk of it takes place in another level. The process of creating this other world (or rather, this other dimension of our world) was fascinating. It was dreaming put to the max: I am master of this universe and I create the rules. Pretty darn cool! And challenging. But nonetheless amazing. I started Soul Mountain with a feeling, a pair of characters, and a scene. The possibilities grew from there.

For THROUGH THE WALLED CITY, I wanted to turn to something that has always called my attention: magical realism. It was my focus for my MA thesis and I’ve long since admired the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, and Toni Morrison. So when I set out to brainstorm this story, I started with a setting (I wanted to tell a story in Cartagena, Colombia) and the desire to explore the magic of this city. Then came the main character, Micaela Uribe, who just sassed her way into the story. The rest started coming together as I researched the magnificent, and oftentimes turbulent history of Cartagena. And what a different experience writing it has been! Though there is some magic and I have to work out the myth that is accepted as real, TTWC is rooted in the here and now. And the best part hands down has been getting to write about that which makes me Colombian: the food, the people, the experiences. It’s like tapping into my memories, my experiences growing up while straddling both the Colombian and American realities while molding this story. It’s pretty awesome!

I can’t wait to see how the process evolves into the other stories I tackle. And I hope I never grow tired of it. Ever.

Because it’s pretty freakin’ awesome. 🙂

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.

Evoking the Senses: A Writing Exercise

One of the exercises I love to do in some of my classes involves description. I break the class into small groups of three and assign each group a word of a place. They have to then use all their senses to describe the place without giving away their location. Then they present it and the class gets to guess the location. We all have fun with it, as the students realize just how specific and descriptive I want them to get.

For example: It smells good. Well, what is good? What does good smell like? Is it the scent of gardenias on a summer’s afternoon? Is it the thick and overpowering smell of steak being cooked on the barbecue? Is it the smell of rain right before the first drops fall?

There’s no denying that good writing uses all the senses, and great writing does so in a manner that is flawless, leaving the reader with beautiful, vivid details and, to paraphrase one of my students, completely transports us into the story. And there’s also no denying that our senses are integrally tied to our memories. How many times have we smelled a particular scent and been hurled into a memory head first? Or sometimes we taste something and we’ll immediately recall a scene from long ago that had been tucked away behind more pertinent memories.

At the FIU Writer’s Conference two years ago, Dan Wakefield, who was leading a workshop on creative nonfiction, gave us a freewriting exercise that involved writing the scenes that came to mind with a few key words. For smell, he gave us: Smell of hamburgers cooking on the grill, perfume, sauerkraut, Vicks vapor rub, new car. I chose to write about the smell of new car:

My mother had always complained about the ol’ junkers in our driveway: a large, army green automatic one, el carro verde and a smaller, two-door stick shift one, el carro blanco. My parents always referred to their old cars by their colors. But my mother wanted a new car. She was tired of the old ones breaking down, and she refused to take the expressway for precisely that fear. For that Christmas in ’89, my father finally conceded to buying a car, and he bought her el Mazdita, a metallic blue, 2-door hatchback. They went from using shades of color to describe the car, and instead focused now on the brand. It was a step up. I loved the new car. It didn’t smell like the lingering, nose-tickling scent of my father’s Winston cigarettes, like the carro blanco did. It didn’t smell damp, like el carro verde did, because water had leaked in through its windows countless times. It smelled new, if newness had a scent. The hard plastic, musty smell of the new car was overpowering, and it reminded me of richness. Even at nine-almost-ten, I could tell the new car smell was empowering to my mother, who although quiet, beamed. She didn’t get many new things; this was a treat. And it was hers. I would simply ride in the back, with my eyes either closed or glued to a Babysitter’s Club book, inhaling the clean, plastic air that was free from pollutants. My mother made it a rule that my father could not smoke in her car. He had the other two junk cars to do that in.

That same car became mine, ten years later, as I was a student at FIU and had left home. My mother had upgraded to a Toyota Corolla; my father didn’t drive. He was sick and stayed home, and although he didn’t know it yet, would have his left leg amputated in a few years. The Mazda was my form of transportation for about a year. The new car smell was gone; instead, it had the scent of books, a Tweety air freshener that was to resemble fruits, and the shampoo of the day.

So here’s a writing prompt, if you need one: write the memories that come to mind with any one of the following:

– The smell of freshly brewed coffee, hamburgers cooking on the grill, perfume, freshly cut grass, Vicks vapor rub, or new car.

– The taste of chocolate covered strawberries, peanut butter, hot chocolate, meatloaf, eggs

– The sound of a washing machine, a car’s engine, a train whistle, chalk on chalkboard

Happy writing!

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.

Memories

My mother and I used to play Parques, much like the American Parcheesi, but the Colombian version. Mom and I would sit cross legged on our sofa and begin the game. This is back when I wasn’t a teenage yet and my mom still had energy and hadn’t been dragged down by my dad’s illnesses. We were happy then, and we laughed.

The games would happen sometimes during the week nights, but more often than not, our Parques game night happened on Saturday nights, after dinner, and while we watched Sabado Gigante back when it was still somewhat decent and women were three-quarters clothes (as opposed to the now three-quarters naked women pushing their Latin sexuality on the audiences). Dad never played; this was Mom’s and my game. I would go to the closet and bring out the box with the vibrant greens, yellows, reds and blues. Mom would sit on the sofa, trimming her cuticles while she waited. I’d set up the game and chose the color – Mom would always let me choose the color – and then we’d start. I won often, and sometimes I think she’d let me win. We would talk and laugh and enjoy that time.

Then Dad stopped sleeping and started taking some sleeping pills sent from Colombia. Our games stopped around then. We were in the 2-bedroom apartment with the den. My godparents had died in the 1990 plane crash in New York, and we had left Westchester for good. I was a new face, with glasses and braces, in a new school, secluded to my studies. That’s when Dad started breaking more glasses, and when the screaming became ordinary. My mom and I would go walking now; no more Parques games because something would set my dad off and the board would fly, the game pieces would get lost, and my mom would cry.

I miss those games.