Preface – This is a personal post. It’s long and doesn’t quite fit the theme of this blog. Some of the content appeared in previous posts. It’s a very touching story about someone who meant so much to me.
These past weeks were rough — after three months of fighting Dad passed away due to pneumonia-related to Pancreatic Cancer. I’ve written about him, here and here, and am comforted by the fact he died in his sleep of pneumonia before cancer got him.
Dad had been in out of hospitals over the past ten years. His procedures included a pericardial stripping, hip replacement, and a gall bladder removal — complications put him in the ICU for two weeks after he developed sepsis
When a doctor explained the details of a lung biopsy needed because of years of asbestos exposure on job sites, the doctor stressed the recovery period would be painful. He then asked Dad when he wanted to schedule the procedure, Dad’s reply was classic. “Can we do it now?”
My father was no stranger to death, his older brothers Manuel and Francisco died serving in the Spanish Civil War when he was a child. His father passed shortly afterward of a broken heart. He spent many years on merchant ships and freighters surviving two shipwrecks — he was one of only three who survived the second one. Dad cheated death so many times, I wondered, how many lives does he have?
The past few weeks are a blur of funeral arrangements, phone calls, and memories. Some knew him as the man who installed a door or helped them put a new roof on their house. Others knew him for the backyard barbeques he hosted and the huge spreads of grilled meat and sardines, homemade wine, and sangria—but many knew little about him.
Jose Priegue was born the youngest of five children in 1926, in El Freijo, a small village in rural Spain. Like his brothers, he learned a trade, carpentry, at a young age, out of necessity. Building and selling rowboats brought in money helping feed and clothe the family of seven. Home Depot didn’t exist in the 1930s so Dad and his brothers cut down trees and dragged them home for the wood needed before going to school.
In 1946 he was twenty years old. Spain’s economy was still recovering from the Spanish Civil War and Europe was recovering from World War II, so he joined the Merchant Marine. When he left home my grandmother told him, “Go find a better life for yourself, but remember if things don’t work out, you always have a home to come back to.”
So he went, traveling the world, he collected experiences. He told those stories after Christmas dinner and many summer barbeques. Usually after a few too many glasses of wine or with a glass of cognac in his hand. Bob and I didn’t fully appreciate stories of his many trips through the Panama Canal, or time spent in Pre-Castro Havana or arriving in Argentina a few days after Juan Peron was overthrown until we were older and had a few of our own life experiences.
After ten years of sailing on freighters, Dad settled in Camden New Jersey where he caught a break. A friend named Viña needed people for a project he was working on — The New Jersey Turnpike. Viña found him, and others like him offering jobs and giving a few a place to live, but there was a condition.
Dad and the others were what would be referred to today as undocumented aliens. Viña had a work visa and wasn’t going to jeopardize his status. His condition was this…if immigration officials came looking for any of them, he wouldn’t hide them, he would give them up.
One night there was a knock on the door and Dad and two others were taken away. That night, having pay stubs and a bank book in his pocket saved him from getting deported. He insisted every employer withhold taxes from his paycheck, although he wasn’t a citizen, he enjoyed the benefits of this country and felt it was the right thing to do. On that night it made a difference, the immigration agent realized this was a hard-working guy who needed a break and let him go.
For years he told us stories, Dad loved a good story, about working on the Jersey Turnpike but he never told us what he did. Years later Bob and I took Dad to DC for a weekend trip so Bob asked him. He helped build the concrete forms for 23 bridges. I could see that he was like a mountain goat, totally fearless when it came to heights.
Dad never forgot Viña’s kindness — in fact, he paid it forward. During his wake, an older gentleman named Serafin came to pay his respects. Walking up to Bob and me he told us, “I owe your father a tremendous debt. When I came to this country he was the first person who helped me out. He found me a job and got me into the union. I saved my money and was able to start my own company. My grandson started working for us last week.”
Growing up our home was a popular stop for newly arrived Gallegos. Dad was from Galicia, the region in Northwest Spain sharing a border with Portugal. Those from Galicia are known as Gallegos. Of all the stories I’ve heard over the past weeks, Serafin’s touched me most because this was part of Dad’s legacy. Over the years he made many phone calls vouching for carpenters, plumbers, and electricians with employers and union reps while Mom served them a home-cooked meal.
From Camden he moved to Spanish Harlem, it wasn’t his first choice — it was out of necessity. He quickly found out Spanish Harlem was a safe haven because immigration officers were afraid to go up there.
Expatriates usually find others from their part of the world. In Spanish Harlem, Dad met another Gallego named Raimundo, who is an important person to our family. Raimundo is Bob’s Godfather, and when he married, Dad was invited to the wedding. At the reception, a charming bridesmaid captured his attention, but there were two problems. First, she was with a date, and second, he was not very confident speaking to women.
A few weeks later, when she and her boyfriend broke up, Raymundo called him up and told him, “I know you like her and the boyfriend is out of the picture. If you’re still interested, this is your chance, get a move on.” To make a long story short, Bob and I call this charming bridesmaid, Mom.
Mom and Dad married in 1959 and moved to Brooklyn. After starting a family Mom and Dad moved to Queens. He built the house Bob and I grew up in and where Mom still lives in 14 months of weekends and vacations assisted by a crew of skilled Gallegos. Serafin and my Tio Francisco did most of the brickwork and half the roof.
Working hard to provide for his family, he worked overtime and worked many side jobs rarely taking a vacation. We weren’t like the other families who went to Lake George or Disney every year, Dad saved his vacation time. When we took a vacation he made them count, taking us to Puerto Rico or Spain for six or eight weeks. If you asked him he would say his favorite was taking us to Spain in 1970.
I was six-years-old in 1970 so my memories consist of running through cornfields, feeding chickens, and riding in an oxcart El Carro de las Vacas with my aunts. I also remember meeting my grandmother, Mama Maria, and how much she spoiled us. He always said bringing his kids to Spain so his mother could get to know them was the best gift he ever gave her.
Besides vacations, he had a family to raise. This was before parenting books, websites, or blogs. He was old school, he was our father, not our best friend. He didn’t give us everything we asked for, but we lacked for nothing. He taught me that actions are more important than words. Anyone can make a flowery speech, he backed it up.
I remember how proud he was when Bob joined the Navy and making him promise not to get a tattoo before he left for basic training. Years later when Bob and his wife Alicia were building their dream home, he insisted on installing the kitchen cabinets. He didn’t trust anyone else to do it.
As for me, he had my back when I changed my major from business to photography. Before my senior year, one of my professors let me use his studio for a photoshoot. For a third-year student, this was like hitting the lottery. I needed someone to help me bring props from home to the Manhattan studio, Dad, drove me in.
This trip was everything he hated. After work, he liked to watch the evening news with a beer and unwind, but off we went. We headed to Manhattan on the Long Island Expressway in rush-hour traffic to the Midtown Tunnel. In those days there was no E-Z Pass so you had to throw quarters into a basket to get through the tollbooth.
I handed Dad ten quarters and he missed the basket. Rushing out of the car and scooping up quarters, amid the sounds of honking horns, and screaming motorists was rough. I could only imagine him venting to Mom when he got home.
Driving through the tunnel, he turned to me and said, “You picked a field I know nothing about, so I can’t help you. If you were a carpenter or electrician I could teach you and introduce you to others who could look out for you. Just remember this, if you need me for anything, I’m there, and remember you always have a home with us.”
Dad became a grandpa when my niece Katie was born, he waited 74 years. Two years later a second granddaughter, Jenny was born. Bob and I immediately noticed he was different as a grandfather than he was as a father. This wasn’t our strict old-school father, he was a doting grandpa. He adored his granddaughters spoiling them as our grandmother spoiled us but one thing was missing — a grandson.
As he got older Dad didn’t like receiving gifts, Christmas, Birthday, Father’s Day — his response was always the same. “Why are you wasting your money, I don’t need anything.” So last year on his birthday, I gave him a gift he could appreciate.
Taking him to a doctor’s appointment I told him, “Esther was having a boy — you’ve got your grandson.” Words weren’t necessary — the smile on his face is my second favorite memory of him. My most precious memory of him was putting Cristian in his arms so he could hold his grandson for the first time. His smiling face showed me how precious a gift it really was.
As you get older, things are taken away from you, that’s how life is. First, your doctor may tell you to cut down on red meat, or red wine. Then you are no longer able to do tasks you were able to do when you were younger. Like, fix a leak in the roof.
I remember when the roof leaked, Mom convinced Dad, who was in his late 70s to let Bob fix it. She reasoned, “he’ll come by on Sunday, bring the girls, we’ll barbeque and have fun.” Dad agreed — a little too quickly. So when Mom left to do some grocery shopping, Dad took out the ladder.
I arrived late but remember Dad sitting at the picnic table in the backyard. Mom was on one side and Bob on the other side reprimanding him. The mischievous look on his face said, “five minutes more and I would have gotten away with it.”
Then your friends and loved ones start passing away. Over the past ten years, I’ve attended too many wakes and funeral masses. Some losses hit harder than others but none are easy.
Dad loved a good story so it’s only fitting his funeral gave us one we’ll be telling for years. Leaving the church the skies became cloudy and turned dark gray upon arriving at the cemetery. The light drizzle we felt upon getting out of our cars became a driving rainstorm. A friend told me if it rains during a funeral, it’s God’s way of acknowledging the receipt of a good man.
Huddled together under umbrellas we listened to the priest’s final prayers. Due to the slippery conditions, it wasn’t safe for anyone to climb onto the platform and place roses onto the coffin. The family took turns tossing them towards the casket but they all fell in the mud. It was bittersweet but due to the circumstances understandable.
Mom sat with my Godmother in Bob’s car holding their roses during the rainstorm. Restricted to a walker, she was unable to make it through the mud to the gravesite. Looking at us upon returning to the car, we knew exactly what she wanted.
Turning to me Bob said, “Mom asked us to do this, so let’s do it right.” Taking their roses we marched through the heavy rain and mud without umbrellas. Climbing onto the platform we placed our roses on his casket and said our goodbyes to Dad.
Although I’m sad Dad is gone, I comforted that he’s gone home. Home to the parents he loved, home to the brothers whose lives were taken too soon, home to the sisters who doted on their baby brother. I’m sure he’s sharing wine and sardines and swapping stories with those who passed before him.
I remember arriving at my uncle’s home during vacations. After the hugs and kisses on both cheeks, like they do in Europe, Dad told his sisters, nieces, and nephews, I missed you. We are going to have a great time but remember one thing, I won’t be here forever. There will be a day when I have to leave. When that day comes I don’t want to see any tears because we were lucky enough to share this time together. That is as apt an analogy for a six-week vacation as it is for 89 years of life.