Happy Anniversary! Two years ago I launched I’m Not Grandpa—kinda sorta. I posted the Introduction, on September 26th 2014 and a second post shortly afterward. Esther and I were well into a high-risk pregnancy and my mind was elsewhere, so I took a break from blogging until after the baby was born.
Parenthood was overwhelming for this cranky old dad so it took me months to hit my stride as a parent and find my voice as a writer. Looking back I may have been overthinking it. The first few weeks of dirty diapers, sleepless nights, and friends stopping by to see the baby provided material, I just needed to sort through it.
Two years ago today, my second first post went live. A lot’s changed in two years. Entertaining a toddler requires more attention than a newborn—the sleepless nights and writers block are about the same.
Fatherhood and blogging are two of my favorite things—I’m learning as I go.
Here are some of my favorite posts from the past year.
Seven Things to Know Before Having Kids – This is my most read post. My public service describing the sacrifices parents make captured the attention of both parents and non-parents. If you are thinking of starting a family check it out here.
Parenting Against Memories of the Past – Being a parent means you get second guessed—a lot. This post is the result of a lot of subtle, who am I kidding about subtle, second guessing from our family elders. Parents learn as they go, grandparents and older relatives critique your new skillset. Oh selective memory is a wonderful thing. This post is the result of spending too much time with family, check it out here.
Five Signs You Need a Night Out – I wrote this while experiencing Cabin Fever. Spending the winter in a sensory-deprivation chamber changing diapers, watching Sesame Street, Pepa Pig and CNN’s coverage of the 2016 Presidential Primaries had me screaming for a night out. If you are parent who isn’t sure whether or not you need a night out, I posted this helpful guide.
Remembering Dad A Year Later – This change of pace post was written a year after my Dad passed away. I miss my Dad—he was old-school man of honor who spent years paying forward the kindness of an old friend named Viña. He was a man of simple pleasures, family, a backyard barbeque and a nice glass of wine. He made parenting look easy and taught me as much by his actions as he did with his words. Read about him here.
Am I the Only One with Sore Nipples – I write about my experiences in Mommy and Me Class. I channeled my parents as we explored finger painting, confusing orange goldfish and orange play doh, and debating whether or not a bringing a cooler full of light beer with me was a bad idea. Read about it here.
A year ago today my Dad passed away and I’ve spent the past week with an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. Whether it was driving past the nursing home where he spent his last days on the way to the baby’s My Gym Class or seeing images of him in a slide show at my niece’s Sweet 16 Party last weekend. Last Friday night’s torrential rain awakened more memories than expected.
I remember a painful conversation with Mom as I drove her home from the nursing home in a heavy rain. I told her the doctor said Dad developed pneumonia, and probably wouldn’t make it through the weekend. That was the best case scenario—the worst case scenario was he wouldn’t make it through the night. You would have thought a diagnosis of Pancreatic Cancer and three months of doctors and hospitals would have prepared us for this—it didn’t.
When my phone rang at 6am the next morning, Esther and I knew it was bad news. How many early-morning calls are good news? I felt numb calling Mom, my brother Bob and various aunts and uncles, informing them of Dad’s passing as I walked Chico. The conversations were short and quick, the numbness stayed with me a few months.
We spent the weekend after Dad’s passing decluttering Mom’s house, devouring cold cut platters, and reliving memories. I’ve always been amazed how people achieve saint-like status simply by dying. I’ve written about my Dad several times he was a good man with many wonderful traits—but he was no saint. We lightened the mood, spending parts of the weekend reliving stories of our favorite meltdowns or Mom and Dad bickering like George Costanza’s parents on Seinfeld. Fifty plus years of marriage will do that.
A lot’s changed in the past year, Esther, Cristian and I moved in with Mom to help out with the house and dealing with losing Dad. Esther and I do much of the former, Cristian handles the latter. The numbness is gone—it’s been replaced with sadness and regret.
I regret not asking him more about the Spanish side of my family tree, about his dad and his brothers. I never met them—they all died too young. I regret being a stubborn child who didn’t pay enough attention when he tried teaching me basic carpentry and household projects. I regret not thanking him for all he gave me, did for me, and for not saying I love you.
These days many people are concerned with their legacy. Once considered the domain of athletes and politicians it’s now a concern among many average people. Maybe it’s a product of the age we live in. I doubt Dad put any thought into his legacy, but he did leave one behind.
To the many carpenters, electricians and other skilled laborers, most from Galicia, the part of Spain he was from, Dad’s legacy was helping them with a well-placed phone call to an employer or union rep finding them a job or a union card shortly after arriving in this country. To him it was paying forward the kindness extended to him by a friend named Viña many years before.
Before writing this piece I thought about Dad’s legacy. Was it fulfilling the American Dream? He arrived in this country in 1956 with little more than the clothes on his back, a few dollars in his pocket, and a trade—he was a skilled carpenter. Over the next 60 years, he married, raised a family, built a home, saved a few dollars, and gave his children a better life than the one he knew as a child.
Although impressive it’s incomplete. As a father he taught me more by his actions and examples than his words. He and Mom were married for 56 years and sure they bickered a bit as they got older—show me an old married couple that doesn’t—but it was his genuine concern for her in his last days that touched me. He insisted I keep him up to date her latest doctor’s appointments, making sure she was taken care of.
Ever the doting grandfather, he waited 88 years for his elusive grandson. Seeing his hazel eyes light up whenever I brought Cristian to the nursing home was one of the few bright spots for me during his last days–but there were sad memories too. I’ll never forget him playing with his nine-month old grandson saying, “You’re beautiful! What a shame I won’t be able to see you grow up.”
Today we’ll honor Dad’s memory, with a memorial mass for him and Esther’s Mom Maria—she lost her fight with Pancreatic Cancer three years ago this week. After paying respects at the cemetery, I’m firing up the grill, serving up sardines and other grilled meats along with wine and beer just like Dad would do on any Sunday afternoon in July. I can’t think of a better way of keeping his memory alive.
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 the 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 abestos 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 1930’s 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’s 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 and travelled the world collecting experiences that would be told after Christmas dinner and many summer barbeques 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.
Sure enough one night there was a knock on the door and Dad and two others were taken away. Dad’s saving grace was he had a bank book and pay stubs with him. 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 Raymundo, who is an important person to our family. Raymundo is Bob’s Godfather, and when he married, Dad was invited to the wedding. At the reception he was introduced to a charming bridesmaid who 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 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.
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 because we didn’t have any more 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 like 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 the red meat, or 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, with Mom on one side and Bob on the other side reprimanding him. He had a mischievous look on his face that 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 to come. 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 rain storm. A friend later told me in her country they believe if it rains during a funeral, it’s God’s way of acknowledging receipt of a good man.
Huddled together under umbrellas we listened to the priest’s final prayers, but because of 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.