Remembering The Man Who Made It Look Easy

Today is Father’s Day, I know this because for the past few weeks, my email accounts and social media feeds have been clogged with gift ideas for Dad, everything from Omaha Steaks, to tech toys, and an assortment of supplies from the Art of Shaving.  Thank you Mark Zuckerberg.

It’s my fourth Father’s Day as a dad, but my mind isn’t on the latest Cool Base baseball jersey or another pair of running shoes, it’s on my Dad.

Growing up my parents hosted a Father’s Day cookout in their backyard that was both simple and excessive – especially after joining Costco.  Year after year my Mom and Dad produced elaborated spreads of all sorts of mouth-watering grilled foods, sardines and shrimp, Italian sausages, pork chops, and steaks, paired with beer, or pitchers of homemade wine and sangria.

This family tradition wasn’t always elaborate — it grew over the years.  I remember the four of us sitting at a picnic table in the yard. Dad grilled our meal on a stone barbeque grill he built with my uncle.  As the family grew to include daughters-in law, grandchildren and others, so did the menu.  Besides the food, I remember another thing about Father’s Day, he never used the gifts we gave him.  He always put them into a draw or the back of the closet, never to be seen again.

Sadly, I never enjoyed this event as a father, we spent my First Father’s Day in a nursing home as Dad battled Pancreatic Cancer during his last days.

My Dad was a craftsman, one of a lost generation of finish carpenters.  He was brought in to add a special touch to the corner offices and corporate boardrooms for Wall Street investment houses and Fortune 500 companies, and sometimes the homes of their top executives. I remember him being sent to work to in cities like Boston, Philadelphia, or San Francisco for a week of two.  Although he hated being away, it was the best way he knew to provide for his wife and family.

As a kid, I remember he had already left for work before my brother Bob and I had gotten up for school.  After work, he was always working around the house, or planning the next home improvement.  When Mom asked if he could put a stove next to the playroom Bob and I had in the basement.  He built her a kitchen, so she could keep an eye on us as she prepared dinner.

Now that I’m a father one thought keeps coming back to me, he made it look easier than I do.  He worked full time, raised two sons, and maintained a house without breaking a sweat. Working full time and sharing the parenting duties of one three-year old and takes up most of my time and energy.  These days I barely get to sit at a keyboard and write.

A few months ago, Cristian and I were out walking through the neighborhood when we saw Mrs. D.  She’s known me since I was a little older than Cristian is now.  I grew up playing with her kids.  After catching up on her kids and grandkids, we talked about Dad.  I remember telling her, “I don’t know how he was able to do it, he made parenting look so easy. He raised two sons, I have my hands full with one.”

Shaking her head, she smiled and said, “Don’t be so hard on yourself, you’re doing more than you think.  You grew up in a different time and things are different now.”  She nodded at Cristian saying, “When you were his age, parents had defined roles and one paycheck supported a family.  Nowadays both parents have to work and need to share the parenting responsibilities.”

Mrs. D gave me a lot to think about.  I kept returning to the advice a friend gave me when my better half was pregnant.  He said, “Do what your parents did and fill in what’s missing.”  That’s a tall order.

Dad wasn’t a big speech guy—his actions spoke more clearly than his words did.  If he made a promise, he kept it.  He was an old-school father—he didn’t tolerate tantrums—he ignored them.  He seemed aloof when my brother Bob and I argued back and forth, but he wasn’t.  He was letting work things out on our own.

Another lesson he taught took me years to figure out. It drove us nuts when Dad ignored the polo shirts, cologne, and power tools.  He used to tell us, “Don’t waste your money on gifts, I don’t need anything.”  I thought he was being proud, but he wasn’t.  For him spending the day with his children and grandchildren was the gift he wanted most.

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For Dad

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.

My Grandmother holding my Dad when he was 3-years old.
My Grandmother holding my Dad when he was 3-years old.

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.

My Brother Bob and I during our 1970 family vacation in Spain. I'm the little guy on the right.
My Brother Bob and I during our 1970 family vacation in Spain. I’m the little guy on the right.

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 blowing with his three grandchildren getting ready to blow out a pre-birthday candle.
Dad blowing with his three grandchildren getting ready to blow out a pre-birthday candle.

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.

Dad holding Cristian. He was the best gift I could have given him.
Dad holding Cristian. He was the best gift I could have given him.

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.

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My Favorite Posts from I’m Not Grandpa’s First Year*

Sono 1Wow I can’t believe it’s been a year since I launched I’m Not Grandpa—well sort of.  My first post, the Introduction, went live September 26th 2014 followed by a second post about a week later.  Unsure of the tone and voice and being deep into a high-risk pregnancy I put blogging on hold until after the baby was born because my mind was elsewhere.

Cataloging experiences between naps and diaper changes I started writing at the end of February.  Memories of Esther’s pregnancy, our first days as parents, and unsolicited advice from all directions poured from me like poop out of a diaper.

With three posts in the can and halfway through a fourth I published my second first post (the first two were warmupsand asked friends to check out I’m Not Grandpa when the fourth post went live.  Imagine my surprise when parents said they could relate to it.

Fatherhood and blogging are new experiences, I’ve enjoyed both, but I’m still learning.  I made a list of my favorite posts.  Click on the links below to check them out.

home 1

Esther’s Pregnancy—Nine Months in a Few Paragraphs — This is the most popular and shared post.  Published by The Good Men Project, I wrote about my surviving the wife’s pregnancy.  Written strictly from the male point of view, more than a few friends told me how relatable it was.

My response to anyone suggesting we name our child Brooklyn
My response to anyone suggesting we name our child Brooklyn

What’s in a Name? — You found out your having a baby?  Congratulations!  What a tremendous feeling, until you realize you have to agree on a name.    It’s not as easy as you think.  Men and women have different concepts of what makes a good name.  This is my favorite post.  If you are debating baby names this post is a must read.

Dad playing with Cristian on his last birthday.
Dad playing with Cristian on his last birthday.

For Dad — I wrote this the day before my Dad’s 89th birthday as a birthday gift (he hated receiving Christmas, Father’s Day and Birthday Gifts).  Written from the perspective of a newly-minted Dad, he made it look easy.  At the time none of us knew he was suffering from pancreatic cancer.  He passed away three months later.  This post was the frame work for his eulogy.

One and Done — I was 50-years old when Cristian was born meaning he’s probably going to be an only child.  I wrote about my concerns.  The response I received from single-children parents was overwhelming.

Déjà vu All Over Again  — After Dad passed away we moved in with Mom to help out.  Moving back home is difficult under any circumstances—doing it with your wife, baby, and diaper-clad dog is a sitcom in the making.  We miss you Chico.  Settling in I experienced Déjà vu.   Mom and Dad moved into the same house with two young children 50-years earlier.  This post shows a few changes in the years between both sets of Priegue parents moving into the same Cape Cod House in Queens.

Baby 2.0 – Your Survival Guide — My intervention post to any parent thinking it gets easier after your child’s first birthday.  Published by The Good Men Project this survival guide lets you know what to expect.  Don’t worry you can join a support group—they meet at most local bars.

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My First Father’s Day

Dad with Bob (left) and I (right) in 1972.
Dad with Bob (left) and I (right) in 1972.

It’s Father’s Day, that Sunday in late June when fathers around the world receive gifts of ties, cheap cologne and handmade cards then crack a few beers and fire up the grill to celebrate.

In our family, Father’s Day evolved over the years.  In grade school, Dad usually got a card, made in school as a project.  When we got older, Bob and I chipped in and bought him a gift, which usually was placed into a drawer or closet, never to be seen again.

As the years passed Father’s Day evolved into backyard cookouts of sardines, a Spanish thing, grilled shrimp, Italian sausage and juicy steaks, chased with lots of wine.   As the family grew, Bob became a Dad, the spread of grew as well.   You never left Mom and Dad’s house hungry.

Dad watching Cristian play.
Dad watching Cristian play.

This is my Father’s Day as a member of the club but my mind is not on traditional gifts of cards, polo shirts, ties or scratchies, scratch-off lottery tickets, the traditional Puerto Rican gift for any holiday, or backyard cookouts, it’s on my father.

Two months ago Dad was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer.  A month ago, he was given two weeks to live.  A priest gave him last rights and funeral arrangements were made, but he’s still here.  That doesn’t surprise me—he’s always been a fighter.

I’ve spent the past two months in hospitals, talking to doctors and fighting with supervisors when I felt he wasn’t getting the proper care.  I’ve dreaded late-night calls, those were usually bad news.  “We are moving him to new room and putting him on oxygen” or “we need your permission to resuscitate him if it’s necessary.”

The only bright spot of the past two months has been bringing Cristian to visit Abuelo in the nursing home. Seeing the glint in Dad’s hazel eyes and the smile on his face gives me unspeakable joy.

Although I love my son, my first Father’s Day is will always be bittersweet because I know it’s my Dad’s last.

Dad with Katie
Dad with Katie

 

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