Adíos Tata

Me and my grandfather, 1978

Me and my grandfather, 1978

My grandfather(we called him Tata) passed away in Novemeber, at the age of 93. The last time I saw him in December of 2013 he was enjoying watered down Scotch. However, the drinks I will always associate him with are two Chilean cocktails, the Vaina*(recipe below) and the Pichuncho. As both drinks require sweet vermouth, we’ve gone through a couple of bottles in the past week in his memory. I am glad that I got to see him last year during our trip to Chile. Even at that point, though he was lucid, he seemed a shell of the man he had once been. It was tough to see him so frail and slow. He had always been such an imposing figure, full of life and energy, even if his hearing and patience were getting worse over the years.

It makes me emotional to look back over the pictures of my grandfather and to realize I’ll never see him again. I think I knew it back last December when I broke down crying as we left his house after Christmas. I’m glad that we made the trip, and that I got to see my grandfather one last time, and that he got to see my kids. I also am glad that I got to see the house(my grandmother will probably move in with my aunt in a different city). That house was where my mom grew up, and where we would always come to at some point during our trips to Chile when I was growing up. Since most of that generation is gone, their house was the last remnant of the locales that used to be a home of sorts to me in Chile. I was glad to be able to consciously experience it, to see the various rooms and decorations and have them remind me of my past, to take pictures, to breathe in it’s smell one last time. It’s comforting to know that my grandfather passed away in his beloved house with at least some of his family there.

My grandfather could be a very difficult person at times. I grew up hearing stories about how he had been very strict and even abusive towards his kids. He got into the stupidest fights with his children and my cousins. I saw him demeaning my grandmother on many occasions. Even with my sister and me when we were in our teens, he would often try to pick fights, making racist comments, criticizing our music, or just being purposefully annoying. He also had all kinds of affairs, and even into his old age was trying to seduce the household help. He professed so much love for my grandmother, yet he often made her life a living hell, by being rude, dismssive, or berating her in front of other people.

Despite his mean side, he could be very sweet and charming. On one of my trips to Chile, during the winter break of my last year of college( Dec 1997), I went to see him and my grandmother after staying in Santiago with my aunt and cousins. I awoke to the sound of hammering, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I went into the huge pantry, and he was cutting corn cobs to prepare humitas (a Chilean variant of a sweet corn tamale) as a treat for me. I remember him and the way he could play cute and coquettish, especially when there were girls around. My wife and I were reflecting back on my grandfather and she remembered during out first trip to Chile in 1999, how he kept playfully flirting and smiling at her the whole stay, and how he insisted on speaking English to her, although his hearing wasn’t very good and he couldn’t really understand her responses. To me he would always recount the story of when I was about 2 or 3, and he had taken me for a walk on his shoulders and I kept saying hello to passerby’s and asking their name. He would light up with glee every time he told that story. I still remember when he came along with my family to visit me at college, and how a friend found him so cute because he was wearing vans along with his regular outfit. Growing up, him and my grandmother came out many times, and we did many trips, including one to the Grand Canyon(6 of us in a car for 5!).

He was also very good with his hands. He had been an engineer by training, and had even worked and lived in Sewell for many years when my mom was young. I have memories of him splicing in thumb switches into electrical cords, securing a ladder to my loft bed in high school, all sorts of little engineering and tinkering projects around the house. Maybe that’s where I got my interest in fixing things. His desire to fix things led him to have his house fixed after the chilean earthquake of 2010. I didn’t see the house, but everyone was urging him to move out and to sell the land. He absolutely refused and made it very clear that he expected to die living in his house. His stubbornness paid off well, he got his wish, and he also left my grandmother with the house to sell or rent so that she can be taken care of.

During that same trip with the humitas, we sat and talked for awhile one afternoon. After much time and several pinchuchos later, he got a bit tipsy and admitted to me that he had cheated on my grandmother, but that he loved her more than ever. It’s these contradictory sides of him that really make an impression on me. I guess it serves to remind me that everyone has something good in them, something to look for. Yet, also I think that it taught me that it’s not just enough to love your partner, or kids, you really have to make an effort to treat them and with respect for it to really count.

So I say a tearful farewell to my grandfather, thank you for nearly 40 years of memories. I will always keep a bottle of sweet vermouth around to celebrate you.

*his version of a Vaina, as gathered by watching my sister make them:
Enough for 4 people
4 shot glasses of sweet vermouth
approx 1 shot glass or less of creme de cacao (to taste)
1 whole egg
spoonful of condensed milk(to taste)

Add ingredients to blender(can add ice if desired), blend until frothy. Serve in champagne flutes and sprinkle a little cinnamon on top.

Turning inwards for warmth

parents

From the onset of autumn and up to the New Year are perhaps the most nostalgic time of year for me, perhaps even a bit melancholy although I really love this period. The chill in the air for some reason makes me think of my childhood and all the holidays. I actually remember my first week in Australia as an exchange student. Despite the buzz and excitement of the first few days in sub-tropical Sydney, the chill in the air at night in Canberra felt comforting. The cold makes me think of being at home with my parents over the school breaks, watching movies and reading. Just that joy of being at home and feeling snug and secure. Even as an adult with my own kids, I could still get a sense of that by going to my parents’ house during this time of the year. I could feel snug at home(usually we would light the fireplace), watch movies, and for a short period feel taken care of and not have to be the caretaker. I could forget my worries for a bit and imagine I was a kid again.

The refuge that was my parents’ house is gone as my parents are going through some sort of separation. It’s a long story involving feelings of neglect, my mom’s attraction to another man, two years of couples therapy, and the discovery that the contact never ended and my mom declaring that she is in love with this other man. It’s been a few weeks since the latest round of events unfolded, so at this point I think I have really removed myself from the situation. At first I was mad and felt lied to by my mom. However, I’ve come to realize that there is nothing I can do. My mom doesn’t want to seem to end her affair and my dad feels too betrayed to want to do anything regarding the relationship. They are still living in the same house, but I’m not sure how long that can last.

Dealing with both of my parents together has been stressful. They put on a good front (they were last over for Halloween) when together in public, enough that I get fooled into thinking there is some hope. However, at some point I hear about what is going on at home and I realize that it is hopeless. If I put aside my wishful thinking I can sense the tension between them. My dad is hurt and angry, despite his claims that he is fine and “more calm” than when the affair first came to light. My mom seems uneasy and to me dangerously delicate, almost as if this world she inhabits could come crashing down at any moment.

I feel a bit stuck. I don’t want to cut the kids off from seeing my parents, but going to their house is no longer comfortable for me. Beyond the immediate sadness of seeing my parents separating after 40 years of marriage(apparently the Divorce rate for those over 60 is rising), I get hit hard by the little things. One that really gets me is thinking about the bunkbeds at the house that we finally assembled a few weeks ago with my dad. My mom bought them earlier in the year and the girls were so excited. Now I wonder if they will ever be used again. I just imagine those beds in an empty house. It represents a lost memory for the kids, one that they never got to really form. What other experiences with both of their grandparents that I had imagined will never take place now? Obviously they can still do things with my mom or dad, but sadly it probably won’t be with both of them together. We even had to re-shuffle our trip to Chile this December. Now it’s basically going to be two separate trips, one with my dad and another with my mom. I have so many treasured memories of trips and events that my sister and I had with my parents that I had wanted my children to have some of their own with them as well.

The positive result of this mess is that it has helped me turn in towards my own family. That sense of lost opportunities for the kids has made me feel so protective and so loving towards them. It’s something about their innocence and vulnerability that really pulls at my heart. I’m not perfect but I’ve tried to be much more patient with them and not get annoyed as much. I’ve tried to spend more time with them doing stuff they want to do. I want them to feel loved and to keep them as safe as I can from the hurts that I can control.
I’ve also gone to my wife for support and help during this period. I’ve tried to let myself be open and share my concerns and feelings with her ( I tend to be more of a silent brooder). I’ve also been reminded by all this to not take her for granted. A lot of my mom’s frustrations over the years are based on my dad’s bad habit of cutting off conversation on certain topics. He does it to my sister and me as well, so I know how off-putting it is. I think I have that tendency as well. I don’t know what the triggers for my dad are, but I know that for me, I would often shut down if I felt I couldn’t explain something, or if a question by my wife pointed out a flaw or made me realize I hadn’t thought something through. It’s more of a self shame process, but my wife feels it as punishment towards her. I’m trying to remind myself that it’s okay to not know everything and to let myself feel that frustration of not knowing or discovering mistakes. I’m also trying to let my wife know how much I love her, leaving short messages at random times during the day when the feeling hits, trying to be gracious when she asks for small favors, doing small things that can make a world of difference.
I may not be able to change what is happening with my parents, but hopefully I can spare my kids the hurt of having their parents separate. By working on my own marriage, now and always, I can hopefully avoid the pitfalls that plagued my parents. As long as we are alive I want the kids to always feel that we can offer a place of comfort and love, a place where they can be warm on a cold night.