Preface – This is one of my favorite posts. I wrote this as a new father reflecting on childhood memories of my Dad. I’m reposting it on what would have been his 90th birthday.
Becoming a father has made me a think a lot about my Dad. In my mind’s eye I relived memories of him seen through the eyes of a small child, teenager, and newly-minted Dad. He turns 89 tomorrow so I decided to write this post about him.
In his prime Dad was a small energetic man whose childhood was so much different than mine. Born in 1926 the youngest of five children in El Freijo, a small town in rural Spain. Since they were able to grow what they ate the family survived.
Dad and his older brothers Manuel and Francisco became carpenters out of necessity. Building and selling rowboats enabled the family to buy food and other necessities to survive. Through this difficult time my grandmother Mama Maria fed as many hungry children from other families as she could.
In 1936 a Civil War broke out in Spain taking an estimated 500.000 lives, including both brothers, I was named after Francisco. His father died a few years later, apparently of a broken heart.
Twenty years old with little opportunity or future in post-World War II Europe Dad joined the Merchant Marine. When he left my grandmother told him, go and try find a better life for yourself but remember if things don’t work out you always have a home to come back to.
In 1956, after ten years of travelling the world on merchant ships Dad settled in Camden New Jersey. I remember the colorful stories of his experiences shared with family sitting around a table usually with a glass of wine or cognac after holiday dinners. It took a few years and some of our own life experiences until my brother Bob and I truly appreciated Dad’s stories of Pre-Castro Havana or arriving in Argentina the day after Juan Peron was overthrown.
Dad moved from Camden to Spanish Harlem, and then to Brooklyn where he married. After starting a family Mom and Dad moved to Queens. He built the house I grew up in and where he still lives in 14 months of weekends and vacations.
Working hard to provide for his family, he rarely took a vacation, but when he did he made them count. We took 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 so most of my memories consist of my brother and I running through corn fields, 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.
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 like our grandmother spoiled us but one thing was missing—a grandson.
Collecting thoughts for this post I realized we have more in common than I originally thought. Besides being engaging storytellers, we are both the youngest child, share a sarcastic sense of humor and posses a stubborn streak. Don’t believe me ask my Mom or Esther. We also are the child who moved the family name forward another generation.
Dad doesn’t like receiving gifts, Christmas, Birthday, Father’s Day—his response is always the same. Why did you have to get me that? So last year on his birthday, I gave him a gift he could appreciate, I told him, the grandchild we were expecting was a boy. Words weren’t necessary, the Kool-Aid grin on his face spoke volumes.
That memory is special but it’s no longer my most precious, it was replaced when I placed Cristian in his arms the first time. Seeing his smiling face I truly understood how special a gift it was.