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┬áThis 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.

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 rega├▒andolo 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.

Lazy Afternoons in the Backyard

I’m sitting in my backyard today with my husband and son, amidst a lazy afternoon. The smoke from nearby brushfires is, thankfully, not blowing in our direction, and we can enjoy the sunshine (or in my case, the shade). A small child’s sprinkler – a kaleidoscope of greens, oranges, purples and blues – waves its arms relentlessly, spraying cool water as my son jumps and runs, squealing and giggling. My husband has fired up his grill, and the scent of the turkey burgers cooking reminds me I’m hungry. Our outdoor rock-inspired speakers sound off an eclectic array of tunes: 80’s, Disney, country, and pop/alternative. The simple breeze adds a backdrop to the tunes, a soft whisper. I love lazy afternoons like this; they make me feel content.

They also remind me of my childhood. I lived most of my adventures in the backyard of my Westchester home, la casita de Westchester. Though it was a humble home on the inside, just right for a family of three, its backyard was what dreams were made of – or at least, dreams for a six-year-old or eight-year-old. Or an eleven-year-old.

I can’t say exactly how big the backyard was; such exact measurements escaped my interest as a child. Instead, I was more interested in the ampleness of the grass, where I could try my headstands and cartwheels, falling laughing and laying there, arms stretched out, the soft prick of grass comforting as I stared out into the sky bright with the South Florida sun, imagining castles in the clouds and princesses waiting to be rescued.

Or, I was more interested in the two dips in the ground, one towards the center of the yard, the other towards the left, right outside my bedroom window. They became fortresses, lakes, obstacles. The one on the left became a pet-cemetary for my two parakeets when I was about seven.

Or, I would run with my dog, Lucky, waving an adult-sized full skirt, part of the traditional Colombian costume that my aunt (though which one, I don’t remember now) had brought me. Though I loved that skirt and how it made me feel (like a princess, beautiful and delicate), it was much too large, and it was much more fun to wave it around and watching Lucky snap at it erratically until he finally caught the material in between his teeth. I’d tug and pull and he’d growl, and then I’d turn round and round until Lucky would lift slightly off the ground, teeth still attached to skirt. When we both let go, he’d run to me as I lay on the floor, and I’d laugh while he licked my face.

Or, I would sit on the outside air-conditioner unit after having a fight with my father, my face tear-streaked and my chest heaving. The hum, and Lucky’s wet licks on my hands, would comfort me and there I’d imagine I lived somewhere else where “life wouldn’t be so unfair.”

That backyard was my haven, my domain. I could be anyone or anything.

At one time, my father said he’d build me a small house in the backyard and I could live there. I think I might have imagined that, but I remember the dreaming vividly: a small, wooden “house,” just one room with a cot and a window with flowers. It would be right next to the dip in the center, and I could enter and exit into my backyard as I pleased. I would have the stars at night for company and the next-door-neighbor’s banana tree for food. I really wanted that backyard house, like I wanted the Barbie doll house my father had started building me, but alas, neither became reality. The first was never started; the second, he destroyed half-way in a rage.

But sitting out here, in my own backyard now, watching my son play, I remember those afternoons in that backyard so many years ago. Much has changed since then, but the peace and possibility that arises from a simple backyard – that is still intact.

Remembering Papi

I’ve been remembering my father quite a bit lately. Not that I had forgotten him and somehow stumbled across his memory. No, it’s more like I now have an inkling of the pain he must have felt, and I get it, or at least, I get some of it.

I still see him, in his later years, sitting at the dinning table in his wheelchair, a small glass of lukewarm water to his right (he sipped water all day), a bottle of tylenol to his left. He was always taking tylenol because of his headaches and my mother was always arguing with him that it was going to fry his liver. Or his kidneys. But he always took those small, white pills, in hopes of relieving a smidgen of the pain he was feeling, or maybe just in hopes of taking the edge off of the pain. His face was leathery, worn, and his eyebrows were more often than not scrunched up; he winced often. I imagine his whole body hurt, with deep aches and a never ending loneliness because of it. I imagine he missed his younger, healthier self. I do know he wished often to be taken in his sleep, so he could suffer no more.

Before the leg amputation that sentenced him to the wheelchair, his walk was slow, steady. He wouldn’t drive; instead, he’d take it to walking from our apartment, eight blocks south to Publix or eight blocks north to Navarro. Those were his daily outings. I remember walking with him, I was in my mid-teens, and trying to have conversations. As judgmental as he could be, my father was a talker and he’d talk to anyone who’d listen to him. At times, on the bench outside of Navarro, my father would sit, and whoever was sitting there would soon find himself/herself in a tete-a-tete about current world affairs or the downward spiral this country was facing.

Immediately following his amputation and after he’d outlived his hospital stay, he was in a recovery home for several weeks. We’d visit him every day, bringing in chicken, rice and beans from the nearby Pollo Tropical. There, we’d find my father rolling around in his wheelchair from room to room, chatting up the little ol’ ladies in the neighboring rooms. In between the groans and cries, you’d hear some laughter.

I do miss him. I see his character in my son, in his stubborn refusal for help or in his angry outbursts because something went wrong. I also see him in my son’s eyes – dark, round and bright with mischief and imagination.

I Remember: Middle School (7th Grade)

I remember middle school. Seventh grade to be exact. I was in that awkward transition from girl to preteen and trying my hardest to be “cool” – what “cool” meant at that time is a foggy memory, though. I wanted shaved legs (the memory of the previous summer in Colombia and the ambush to see my hairy legs still a vivid hue of humiliation), I wanted make up. I wanted a boyfriend.

Of course, my father wouldn’t hear of it. Me estaba madurando biche, or growing up ahead of my time. Like a fruit, I wasn’t ripe enough, and yet that’s what I wanted to be: ripe. After the short taste of freedom in Colombia, where I spent three months with aunts and uncles, away from my father’s gaze, and after I realized that women, in order to receive men’s attention (or, in my case, for girls to receive boys’ attention), needed smooth legs, painted lips, I sought that in my small, Westchester house. When I pleaded to shave my legs, and my father responded with a short “no,” I proceeded to sneak my mother’s razor into my bathroom and, with lukewarm water and some soap, I shaved my legs. That was my first act of rebellion, and it came with some sharp, stinging cuts. I don’t remember my punishment, but perhaps my mother interceded for me and I was allowed to continue shaving my legs. For me, it was a blessing; I was cursed with pale skin and dark hair, something that didn’t quite cry feminine for me.

When I started middle school, it was the first year that six graders would be moved to middle school, and I was in seventh grade, so I never got to be in the bottom of the hierarchy. Other seventh grade girls were showing their legs, in rolled-up or cuffed shorts, or skirts. They wore their big hair, bangs stiff with hairspray and teasing. And they wore makeup. I wanted to be like them, but when I asked permission for at least a little blush and lipstick, I was told, again, absolutely not. So I snuck it.

I took a small, private bus to school then. Camacho’s Bus Service, with Camacho being our driver. I would sit by the window and, when we were a safe distance away from my house, I would bring out the compact and lipstick. I didn’t choose anything loud. A simple mauve was my favorite shade. When I was on my way home, I’d quickly scrub the makeup off with some wet napkins and my parents never found out.