My earliest memory of Abuelo is him saying “nariz!” “nose!” “ojos!” “eyes!” “cara!” “face” – I must have been all of four years old, sitting on an itchy red blanket, trying desperately to please the man who greeted me at the airport with a secret bag of M&M’s that I didn’t have to share with anybody.
His Spanish lessons didn’t fall on the most fertile soil because I also learned from his visits and from our many visits to relatives in Miami that that Spanish was the language of adults. Spanish was the language of stories “I wouldn’t understand” and things I shouldn’t interrupt. My Spanish was (is) so atrocious (despite passing college Spanish) (despite passing PhD level reading comps in Spanish, y'all) that my Abuela – whose English was broken at best – begged me to only speak English to her.
So maybe I didn’t learn Spanish from Abuelo.
I learned other things.
I learned to be useful.
Abuelo came from Cuba to the US in the 1930s and went to business school in New Orleans then returned to Cienfuegos to join his father in the almacen he owned. For most of my life I thought “almacen” meant store but when I returned from my first trip to Cuba with pictures and asked why his store had no windows he explained it was a warehouse. Abuelo’s father bought barrels and large lots of things like oil and flour and turned them into smaller sized offerings which they then sold to smaller rural stores out of the city.
With their profits the family joined the Cienfuegos Yacht Club and built their dream home in Playa Alegre. With all that said, Abuelo was clearly a member of the capitalist class that Castro targeted for elimination.
I knew when Abuelo fled from Cuba in 1960 during the time that businesses and properties were being nationalized under the reform laws. He started a small store in uptown New Orleans where the family worked and lived until the second time an armed robbery convinced them that being a small business owner right there and then, was an unacceptable risk. Risky financial situations were not OK for a man who had in the last four years lost his father (heart attack), his business and his dream home in Playa Alegre, Cienfuegos.
Risks like “staying open after being robbed at gunpoint” were not OK for a man responsible for supporting a family in New Orleans (wife, three kids, and Cuca, who is family we can’t explain, and also cooked) and the family he left behind which included his mother Emilia, his unwed sister Lourdes, his sister Josefina (whose husband was in jail) and her four kids JulioJose, Teresita, Eduardo, Miriam.
When he left in 1960, everyone expected the “Castro situation” in Cuba would end quickly.
It did not.
Abuelo worked at GE (General Electric) in the mail room for 20 solid years of his life. I have heard family rumors that once upon a time he received mail sent slyly to GE that he brought home and was meant to forward to a friend who would whatever whatever and it had to do with the Bay of Pigs. But my young uncle, 5 or 6 at the time, opened the letter and I’m still not sure how the story ends with it being resealed or Abuelo meeting with the CIA handlers he never told me about.
I admire that he chose to be useful, even in that small quiet way.
I don’t blame Abuelo for retiring as soon as he hit his 20 years with GE. He lost everything twice and kept going, collected his pension, left New Orleans and moved to Pompano Beach to be closer to his daughter and his sister Josephina who escaped Cuba with three of her children. To this day I cannot imagine the torture they faced in leaving her other son Julio Jose -- who was of military age and couldn’t leave – behind. He joined us after the Mariel Boatlift 1980, but that’s for another story. Stick with me here.
Even after retirement, my Abuelo could not stop working.
He had to be useful.
He worked in our family hibiscus farm, he clipped articles and advertisements for corporations, he volunteered at hospitals and never stopped taking care of his family in Cuba.
The hardest years of his life were the ones that came after Abuela jumped into the sky in 2007. It wasn’t unexpected but it was a shock to the root of his being and he spent the next ten years yearning for her, yearning for his mom, yearning for somehow feeling home again.
Hard times and increasing challenges didn’t stop Abuelo from working.
In his last years he was too frail, too exhausted to continue his 40 and 50 hour week volunteering at a hospital. He could no longer safely drive, no longer safely handle getting and sorting and counting his medicine and dealing with housekeeping alone, and reluctantly moved to a gated community full of active and also much less active and quite invisible “older Americans.”
I’m not sure but I think he might have been the first Cuban guy there. I did hear from a most reliable source that when he was served lasagna and he said it was “la mierda” and the staff giggled and thanked him for teaching him how to say lasagna in Spanish. So there’s that.
In his last years, despite degenerating eyesight and arthritic hands, Abuelo was driven to contribute, driven to make money, driven to win the lottery, driven every day to get up and do something good.
Abuelo made pictures.
He didn’t paint them, he didn’t print them.
No. That would cost money and cut into his profit.
He was an entrepreneur, not an artist.
For hours and hours and days and weeks and months and years, my Abuelo flipped through page after page of glossy magazines and catalogs tearing out the best pictures.
After that he would place the pictures in one of many assorted consignment-store-bargain frames my mom brought him. He then sent boxes of framed pictures to nephews and daughters and friends who offered the framed picture for sale at flea markets and etc. and brought Abuelo back envelopes of cold hard cash.
I cannot tell you exactly how or where or even if the hundreds and hundreds of framed pictures sold, but I can tell you this: Abuelo never ran out of two things: love, money, and things to do – clearly a legacy worth emulating.