Last April marked five years since one of the most spectacular human beings I’ve ever had the opportunity to meet, passed away… mi papá. April was the last month of 2004 that he was alive, although I don’t know if alive is an accurate description for he was in ICU a while and afterward he was never really himself.
I think about him everyday, but specially this month because my Dad used to hate Father’s Day and his birthday – both of which happened to fall in the month of June. Maybe “hate” is too strong a word, it was more like he couldn’t care less. So even though we didn’t really make a big deal out of Father’s Day, we ignored his indifference toward his birthday and always made sure to celebrate it in a special way – and he always liked it!
I remember one year we got my little brother – his only son – to come home from Utah, where he was stationed while serving in the Air Force. My sister and I planned a surprise birthday party and had my brother knock on the door as if he was one of the guests, so my Dad could open it and find him standing there. His reaction was priceless. That was a happy day.
Recently, my little brother, my big sister and I, decided to get together – just the three of us, no kids, no spouses – to do something we’ve been putting off for a while – maybe because we didn’t want to deal with the pain or maybe because we weren’t sure what we’d find – and go through el baúl de los recuerdos… A delapidated and despintado, black, wooden chest full of memories: love letters, slides, photo albums, notebooks, to-do lists, birth certificates, inventions, menus, postcards, my and my siblings’ first works of art. A trove full of a family of five’s memories and memorabilia.
Ever since I can remember, the chest in the picture above, has been a part of our lives. Through all our travels and our million mudanzas - we lived in three different continents growing up – the baúl was one of the few constants.
When we were little, we weren’t really allowed to rummage through it, but rummage we did. Whenever we got a chance – meaning whenever my parents left us in somebody else’s care – my sister and I managed to go through sections of it and thus find out “family secrets” we weren’t supposed to discover.
The first thing I noticed when we opened it up at my sister’s house is that its contents have been pilfered. Not everything I remember was in it. No love letters. My mom’s high school report cards are also gone. The result of the dissolution of a 33-year-long marriage and of all of us growing up and going our separate ways, taking with us whatever we deemed to be ours.
Anyhow, what we did find were a lot of personal documents belonging to my Dad. Proofs of a life well-lived. We read through some of the letters of recommendation and I wished someone, one day, would praise me the way they did him. We scanned through some of the many letters of congratulations he got every time he was promoted during his 30-year plus stint at a well-known international in-flight catering company. We took turns reading the many letters from grateful friends, colleagues and former employees who he obviously touched in one way or another and who considered themselves lucky to have met him. We cracked up while we examined photographs of him receiving awards for his outstanding work in a ceremony in Amsterdam – both my Mom and him looked so Eighties!
We also perused a resume of his we found hidden underneath a bunch of financial documents and that’s when I remembered: my father taught himself English as an adult. He used to sit with a book or a magazine and a dictionary so he could look up the definition of the words he didn’t know. He was relentless. Eventually, he received a Certificate of Proficiency in English from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. His mastery of the language got him places, including a big shot position within the company he worked for most of his life. A position which took us all to live in Johannesburg, South Africa!
All this got me thinking about a bunch of things, but mainly about how my papá’s way of seeing the world impacted and affected the way I see the world.
He – and my mother – totally understood the importance of knowing more than one language. No wonder he did whatever he had to do to make sure we were raised bilingual when it wasn’t half as popular or understood as it is today. He truly believed that diversity can enrich your life. Diversity in people, culture, food, music, literature. Thus, it’s no surprise he instilled in us a love for traveling.
He was a stickler for grammar, punctuation and the correct usage of both English and Spanish. He taught me to love books and the written word. I will never forget how annoyed I’d get when I’d ask him for a definition – in either language – and he would send me to one of the many dictionaries in our home library – even though he KNEW the answer. I now collect dictionaries – not a bad thing to collect when you’re a writer, ¿no creen?
He believed we never stop learning. He became a self-taught stained glass artist in his 80s. Never once did he take a lesson, and his Tiffany lamps and other objects now adorn my house and my siblings’. Not too long ago, as I was looking through the contents of boxes from when we moved to Denver three years ago, I found an Accent Reduction tape which belonged to him and which he used to listen to on a regular basis toward the end of his life. ¿Por qué? Again, he believed we never stop learning.
Oh, I forgot to mention the most important thing: not ONE day went by, that I didn’t feel loved by him – and I’m pretty sure mis hermanos feel the same way…
For all this and so much more, I will be forever grateful!
One of the things that hurts the most is that my children were cheated out of the opportunity to meet such an amazing human being – I have yet to meet anyone quiet like him… Anyhow, I promised myself I wouldn’t cry, but the tears are now unstoppable, so Happy Father’s Day to all the papás out there, including mine, wherever he is…
And, Feliz Cumple to him! He would’ve been 86.
¡Te extraño mucho, viejo!
This Father’s Day, we’d love to hear your stories about your papás, abuelitos or tíos. Too often the male figures in our lives get a bad rap, but I know there’s so many out there who deserve to be admired and I’m sure you do too!