Lesson From My Father
Written by
Marisel Vera
June 2011
Written by
Marisel Vera
June 2011

Countdown to Publication--Week Six

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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  • AGain, thank you for an insightful and important post. Understanding that our parents did the best they could with what they had and forgiving them for any sins of omission or commission is so important for our own development as adults, parents and as writers because of course understanding human psychology is essential to writing fiction that is relevant to real life. I'm just now reading all your posts and am very impressed and really appreciate your thoughtfulness.

  • Marisel Vera

    Thanks, Kat, I'm so glad that you appreciated it and thanks, Xenia, for posting your story.

  • Kat Friedrich

    This is a beautiful post and shows your admiration for his ability to dream - even in adverse circumstances.


    Marisel, I am an author, also  born & raised in Humboldt Park. Your post reminded me of a piece I wrote about what my father taught me (indirectly through his death).

    I was six years old when my father died. There was nothing unique or sad about being a girl with a dead father. Like many children, I grew up fatherless. In America, I was the norm, not the exception. I was ordinary; I was normal, but for years I felt incomplete. The remarkable part about my father’s death was not that I was forced to confront death at an early age, but how much it consumed my life, and ultimately inspired my dream of becoming a writer.


    Because I did not know my father, did not remember my father, his life was defined by his death. After my mother gave birth to my younger sister, my father disappeared from our lives. Whether he left of his own accord or my mother asked him to leave, remains to be seen since my mother refused to divulge the
    details. Later, there were rumors of other women, other children. I spent my life dreaming of brothers and sisters, sensing their presence out there somewhere, not quite grasping the meaning of such an extended family since my father never married my mother, nor the other women.

    A year before my father died, my mother married another man. Though I attended my father’s funeral, touched his hand in the casket, I temporarily forgot about him and began to accept my stepfather as my real father, even called him “Pop.”


    And then I got a hold of my birth certificate, which listed my real father’s name. Where it asked whether my birth was legitimate, the “yes” box was checked. I was what people like to call a bastard. Birth certificates from the ‘60s were very detailed. Twenty years later, the birth certificates of my children contained nothing about race, marital status or legitimacy, the latter of which had become a very significant detail for me.


    It was at this point in my life that the true obsession with my father began. I became consumed with wanting to know facts, details, memories. Although I had two sisters, I longed for a brother, and I begged for pictures of my father. I wanted to see him holding me, loving me. The only photo my mother was able to produce was a remnant of a faded color Kodak, my father’s face in profile, caressing a bottle of liquor, his first love. I held onto this tiny scrap of memorabilia like it was evidence in a murder. 


    I was about eight when I found out George Washington and I had the same birthday. When my mother told me George was dead, I cried.  “Mija, he died a long time ago,” she said. I couldn’t remember crying when my father died. Later, I wrote a story about sharing my birthday with “The Father of our Country,” which was published in the school newspaper. When kids looked at me like I was famous, I felt special for the first time. Later, in my eighth grade yearbook, one of my teachers, Ms. Finley, wrote, “I know that one day I will read a book written by you.”

    Throughout my childhood, I heard the statistics about children without fathers in the home: how they were more likely to drop out of school, become teenage parents, and get in trouble with the law. I began to write stories and poems about fathers, good fathers who stuck around, who only existed in 1950-60s sitcoms, the kind of father I never had. In addition to wanting a brother, I had four wishes: I wanted the wedding and marriage my mother never had with my father; I wanted my children to be legitimate; I wanted my children to have a father in their lives; and I never, ever, wanted them to have a stepfather. 

    They say high school is supposed to be the best time of your life, but for me, it was the worst. During these years, I filled my diaries with events of my unstable home life, my lonely school life, and my dream of living independently away from everyone. I became withdrawn, moody, and insolent. The only time I came alive was when I expressed my thoughts in writing assignments. It took years for me to realize that my alienation was due to the past abandonment and abuse. Despite this, I was a good student and proved the sociologists wrong. I graduated from high school, didn’t get pregnant, and didn’t go into a life of crime.


    At 18, I fell in love with the first guy who fell in love with me. He too, was broken by the abandonment of a parent: his mother. A year later, I married him, mostly to escape a stifling life than to be a wife. Most of my wishes came true. I got the wedding and marriage, my children were legitimate, and I never gave them a stepfather.  (At 30, I almost did, but my fiancé cheated on me six months after we got engaged. It was a blessing in disguise. Later, I learned he got HIV a year after our relationship ened. It was enough to scare me into celibacy—literally. But that’s a whole other chapter.) 


    My children had their father for only the first few years of their lives. By the time my daughter and son were three years and 20 months old respectively, their father and I went our separate ways. My ex-husband, perhaps psychologically marred by his mother’s abandonment, became estranged from his children. This,
    more than the divorce, broke my heart. It was hard to ignore the relentless studies about children without fathers in the home and the stigma of single mothers. Over the years, my children’s father called and visited less frequently until he disappeared altogether. I wondered what was worse: being physically and permanently abandoned by a father who will never be able to answer my questions, or being emotionally abandoned by a father who lived in the same city but won’t pick up the phone to speak with his children for months at a time.

    When I was 31, I went searching for my father’s grave because my mother claimed she couldn’t remember where he was buried or when he died exactly. Even my father’s birth date was a mystery, something I hoped to learn when I received his death certificate from City Hall. But instead, my father’s certificate of death
    licited more questions. Scrawled by the coroner’s hand, under parents’ names, social security number, birthplace, usual occupation, was “UNK” for unknown. His age at the time of his death contradicted with his age on my birth certificate. The most shocking entry was his marital status: married. Because I knew my parents never married, I wondered if he was married before my mother, during or after. My mother pleaded the fifth. The only known facts were that after an eight-day hospital stay, my father died of cirrhosis of the liver on March 25, 1967 at 7:10 p.m., and that he was buried at St. Matthew’s Cemetery. But it didn’t matter. Regardless of when he was born, whatever kind of man he had been once, his life, for me, would always begin and end with his death.


    Armed with flowers, I went to the cemetery, unsure of what to expect. Surely I would feel nothing for a man who died so long ago, who was hardly around when he was alive, who left me with nothing but a name on my birth certificate. But I needed closure, I needed to see his name on the marker, or tombstone, to confirm that he had really lived, and now was really dead. But when I got to the cemetery, there was no marker, no tombstone, not even a stick poking out of the ground. I was overcome with emotions I couldn’t explain. I cried, I prayed, I talked to him, and then I cried some more. I laid the flowers to rest on the spot where the marker should have been. Because it was important to me, because she loves me, and because I was broke, my sister paid for the marker for our father’s grave. It, and our father, meant nothing to her—or so she said. But she returned to the cemetery with me when the marker was in place. Once again, I was emotional; my sister appeared bored. The marker contained all that I knew about him: his name, his death date, and the word “FATHER,” a word heavy with contradiction. No, he had never been a real father to me, but he was my father. I felt some sense of closure but something was still missing.


    Aroundthis time, I enrolled in college part-time. The only classes I enjoyed were the ones that emphasized writing: English, journalism and creative writing. In between research papers, I wrote constantly, whether it was an editorial to a newspaper or magazine or a story for a contest. A short story was published locally one year; another won a fiction contest, then a couple of essays were published online. Along the way, I started writing my “Great Puerto Rican-American Novel,” the story of a woman who comes to grips with her father’s abandonment and death after the suicide of her brother. It was a veiled account of my own “relationship” with my father. I spent almost six years writing and revising it in between work, school, and raising my children. I found an agent who loved the story; however, it was rejected by four publishers; one major publisher expressed interest—if I changed the format to their specifications. I refused and set it aside.

    Thenone evening, two women appeared at my door claiming to be my long-lost, dreamed-about sisters. They too, had been searching for their father’s grave. They produced birth certificates almost identical to mine, with one exception: they carried our father’s surname, while my younger sister and I bore his mother’s maiden name. I noted that one of them was born the same year I was; the other, the same year as my sister. There was shock, apprehension, laughter, and strained hugs. They told me there was another sister, older, and there was even a brother; the brother I had always wished for. He had been murdered the year before. I thought about the brother in my novel who committed suicide. After they left, I called my sister and mother on a three-way. While my mother was surprised, she was not shocked. She had known about them all along, told me their names before I could tell her.  “So they found you,” she said. While there was more closure, even more questions resurfaced, questions my mother still didn’t want to—or couldn’t—answer.

    Bored one night, I began browsing through my novels-in-progress and came across a 10,000-word manuscript about a woman and man who, disillusioned by love, search for something deeper. The father died in this story too. Nine months later, a more spiritual, in-depth, 120,000-word novel evolved. In October 2003, I
    submitted the manuscript to a publisher; one month later, I was offered a two-book deal. Ironically, the head of the publishing company turned out to be my former agent. Some people call it coincidence; I call it fate. The rest, as they say, is history—or rather “my-story.”

    To this day, my mother still can’t understand what she calls my “papi syndrome.” How else could she explain my need to know him, why the tiniest details of his life were so vital. How else could she explain how I could write a whole book about a man who was hardly in my life, who I remembered nothing about, when it was she who stayed, struggled and sacrificed to raise my sisters and me. I told her that that feat alone should explain why his existence— or lack thereof—was significant to my life. I misinterpreted her incomprehension
    as jealousy. In honor of her 63rd birthday, I wrote an essay for her to commemorate her return to Puerto Rico. Upon receiving it, she called and told me she was moved to tears. But not enough to talk about my father. “One day,” she promised, “I’ll write it all down.” Then she added, “I’m not a writer like you.” I told her I wasn’t looking for a masterpiece; I just wanted the simple truth; just the facts, Ma, just the facts. For her 65th birthday, I sent her a pretty journal to make her confessions easier. She has yet to start writing. 


    Occasionally I regress, wonder what my life would’ve been like if my father had lived; I can’t imagine it could have been any better. It would be too psychoanalytical for me to think his death was necessary so that my life could turn out the way it did. On the rare occasions when I find myself lamenting my father, I think about God and I find comfort in the thought that He will never abandon me, unlike the man who left me years ago, the man I once believed was my real father, the man I never called “Papi.” I have come to see God as my real Father. 

    Ratherthan say I shattered the myths about single motherhood, I’d like to think I did what I had to do for the sake of my children. I guess my father did what he had to do at the time for his own sake.

    In spite of everything, I am successful and happy. I raised two great children. I obtained two college degrees. I earn a decent living, and own my own home and car. And I have realized my dream of becoming an author.

    I am still ordinary, still normal, but now, I feel complete. I am complete.

  • Marisel Vera

    Thank you both.  I remember once hearing Oprah lament about what a terrible mother she'd had and Maya Angelou told Oprah that her mother had done the best she could at the time. As people, it's good to forgive, but as writers, I don't know if it's such a good idea to forget.

  • Deb Colarossi

    okay.. this was incredible. really. and  I also like what  Love Babz said. 


    I learned different things from my birth father and my stepfather. Some of which I like to forget , some of which I know has made me who I am today. I have to remember grace. The gratitude for and grace. Always. 

  • Love Babz

    I learned from my father that real love does exist.  And if I wanted real love I had to become real love. I had to let go of pain, despair and hopelessness.


    My father was a terrorist...an abusive, child molesting monster. 


    And yet in your story Sister Marisel, I see hints of my story and family...commitment to education, strong family ties. There is a commonality to our lives that is rich, unique and bonding. I liked the way you spoke of your Father so lovingly...recognizing that he did the best he could with what he had.  That is a beautiful thing.