Father’s Day got me thinking about what my father taught me about writing, a lesson that I still value even though he passed away twenty-five years ago at age 54.
He was fastidious about personal hygiene and the moment he came home from work, he went straight to the bathroom, to wash off the grime of the factory. He could never completely get rid of the machine oil banked in his cuticles, regardless of how hard he scrubbed with the special Amway soap my mother bought from her brothers.
Papi’s mercurial temper often charged the atmosphere at home with the tense stillness of waiting—for his anger to explode or for something to happen to defuse it.
My father left Puerto Rico with a 5th grade education and the dream to return with enough money for a finca where he would grow coffee. Instead, he came home exhausted and frustrated to a family of eight in a four room apartment. But, when one of Papi’s dreams failed, there was always another dream. When as teenage girls, my sisters and I turned out to be good bakers, he talked about opening up a bakery where we would sell flans. We girls weren’t very excited about that one, and were glad when it didn’t pan out. Another time, he invented a machine that would ease the laborious, time-consuming task of making pastelles—a Puerto Rican specialty somewhat similar to Mexican tamales—and this didn’t evolve into a business either, but for years, relatives would ask to borrow the monstrous contraption. The machine is now a forgotten relic better suited to a museum of Puerto Rican migrant industry than the floor of my mother’s pantry.
My father bought a standing blackboard and set it up in the living room. On weekends, he taught us the Spanish alphabet and corrected our pronunciation. He was so happy to be sharing his love of Spanish and it pained him that we preferred English.
Papi was proud to be Puerto Rican and a jíbaro. The only jíbaros we kids knew were relatives in ill-fitting summer clothes right off the plane from the island. But his pride led me to discover my Puerto Rican heritage and to research what it meant to be a jíbaro. And it led me to the writing of my soon-to-be published novel IF I BRING YOU ROSES.
More than once when Papi had been particularly harsh in his discipline, I heard my mother ask my father if he didn’t care whether his children loved him. He would always answer no, he only cared that we respected him. Each time, this answer brought terror into my heart. How could a father not care if his children loved him? Did he mean it? He was so hard on us, so quick with his hand. Yet he went to the factory every day and every penny of his paycheck went to supporting his family. I learned that this was a kind of love. He wore the same ugly plaid sport jacket to every event, whether funerals or family parties. He gave up cigarettes because my mother didn’t like him smoking, and gave up going to the bar with the uncles on Friday nights because she didn’t like that, either. This too was love.
He taught himself to read and write English by the daily paper and the volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica delivered each month that he had subscribed to from a traveling salesman. But because the foundation of his early education was so poor, he couldn’t progress beyond factory work. Yet that never stopped him from trying to better himself and from championing education for his children. He even encouraged my mother, who had been a gifted student and had graduated from high school in Puerto Rico, to go to college and earn a BS in Social Work. This from a man who was master of his household and who believed that the duty of his wife and four daughters was to serve the men in their lives.
From my father, I learned that human beings are complex. I learned to think about why people do certain things, to ponder why we still love them when they disappoint us, and to wonder when they make sacrifices that astound us. I learned to be analytical, to empathize, to have compassion—all traits crucial to every writer who seeks truth.
She Writes Amigas, What did your father teach you?
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