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.

Parenting Overseas (for two weeks)

My youngest daughter and my grandparents

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, At times I’ve felt a bit ambivalent at times about the whole concept of parenting. Sure there are good moments, but those tend to be quickly forgotten when the hassles and stresses of parenting come roaring back. I’ve felt somewhat redundant as a parent at home, perhaps this leads to my ambivalence? In my more gloomy moments I feel my sole contribution is bringing home money(grant is running out, so for how much longer?). The kids go to their mom by default since she does such a good job with them, and I often feel useless and ignored. However, for two weeks this past December, I had the amazing opportunity of being the sole parent to my kids while on vacation in Chile. That experience changed my idea of my abilities and enjoyment of being (at least under ideal conditions) a parent.

The reasons I went without my wife are several and complicated, but a major factor was the desire to be the sole parent to my kids. I thought it would be an opportunity for me to bond with them. My family (mom, dad and sister) were coming along, so I felt that this was the rare chance to not only give the kids the chance to learn more about their family origins, but to do so with support. I had considered doing a trip just with my wife and kids, but I felt a bit nervous about getting around Chile on our own. Despite the fact that my parents are separating and knowing that other than Christmas and our last weekend my parents were not with us at the same time on this trip, the thought of having at least one of my parents and my sister around was reassuring; I could focus strictly on the parenting and not on the “survival” aspect of the trip. Not that Chile is hard to get around, in fact it’s quite the opposite, but it made me feel more comfortable.

The trip itself was wonderful. We arrived in Santiago and stayed at my aunt’s for two nights. We saw some of my dad’s cousins and his sole remaining aunt. Then with my dad, aunt and sister we drove south to the Lakes Region in the south of Chile and stayed at amazingly kid friendly accomodations in Lican Ray. The kids got to see a volcano up close, go swimming, and of course play at the playground(they LOVED that playground). From there we drove back up north to meet my mom and spent Christmas with my grandparents (my mom’s parents). From there we drove to the beach town Algarrobo, home of the largest pool in the world (although we didn’t get to see it because it’s a private resort) and stayed at my mom’s cousin’s beach condo for about 4 nights before coming home.

For me there were several aspects of the trip that made it truly wonderful. First was seeing how resilient and adaptable the kids were. Before going on this trip, the idea of longish car rides with the kids had been pretty scary. We’ve done long trips a couple of times, but tend to avoid them. Here, at home, my oldest daughter is prone to start whining and complaining after 15 minutes in the car. My wife actually thought I was being irresponsible for planning the trip with long car rides. During the trip to the south, we were driving about 4 hours each day. There was some whining, but I found that it wasn’t too hard to distract the girls by playing a game or putting on a movie on the portable DVD player. They even were fine when our rental car broke down on the side of the road and we spent several hours waiting for a tow truck and cab. We ended up turning it into an adventure, playing near the railroad tracks, watching movies. Even trying to squat while peeing was an adventure for them! Importantly, throughout the trip they were fine. They weren’t traumatized by the time in the car and once we reached our destinations were full of energy and ready to go.

Interestingly, spending all that time with the kids made me appreciate them more. Before this trip, the thought of spending 24 hours a day for 2 weeks straight with the girls would have probably been overwhelming. However, I found I really enjoyed it. Granted, we were on vacation and we avoided any major illnesses, but I still had to manage minor flare-ups and and bouts of tiredness. I found that I really enjoyed being able to soothe them, and being the person they went to when they needed something. I also feel that I gained a better sense of their individual personalities. My younger daughter was so outgoing and chatty and friendly to everyone she met. My older daughter’s resilience surprised me as did her sharing and observational skills. I also loved how good they were to each other, taking turns, sharing toys and objects, playing together; it was just a joy to watch. They also have such a great sense of humor. My dad is still in awe of how well the girls did on the trip.

I also got to be the person standing up for the kids. There weren’t that many chances that I felt I had to step in and make changes to plans because of the kids, but on the few minor occasions that It was required I was able to, and I felt fine doing it. I also think I was able to accurately judge how much the kids could handle (the car break down being a case in point). I’ll even go as far as to say that I think I did a really good job as a parent (I almost never say I’m good at anything). It was empowering to feel good at something for once, and to get such positive feedback from the other adults around me.

I’ve also gained much more appreciation towards my family, which makes my parents’ separation harder. Everyone was present and helpful, but my dad and sister really did an amazing job. My dad was fantastic at getting us around and making the necessary arrangements, and was also available to help with the kids. My mom was creative in finding ways to entertain the kids, especially over Christmas at my grandparents house. My sister was the best aunt a kid could ever hope for and the best sister I could ever wish for. She was such a huge help with the kids. She was always there for me, and could take care of one of the girls if I had to attend to the other one. She helped me entertain them during the car trips, and was just a soothing presence all around.

Spending time with my grandparents was also very special. My grandmother has been in love with my girls since they were born. She got to see them nearly four years ago, but my youngest was only a few months old at the time. On this trip, we were at the house for almost 3 days and they are old enough to interact with her. The kids spent a lot of time running around the house exploring the rooms, but they also spent a lot of time with hanging out with grandparents (my youngest particularly). My grandmother got to practice her English with them, watch TV, just spend time together. My mom later told me that my grandmother was ecstatic after their stay and even weeks later can’t stop talking about them or showing pictures to her friends.

For me spending time with my grandparents feels like coming full circle in some way. They have lived in the same house my entire life and it has always been kind of a base of sorts during my trips to Chile, the sole exception being our trip right after the 2010 earthquake because it was being repaired. My grandparents are both in their nineties and are beginning to show their age, as is the house. During my last trip, I was convinced that I would not get to see them again. The chance to share my grandparents and the house itself with my kids was important. It was a joining of two very important parts of my life, my kids and the family in Chile. I don’t know if I’ll get to see them or the house again, but I take comfort in knowing that I got to spend one last Christmas with them and the kids and that my grandmother got to enjoy her great-grandchildren.

Coming back has been a bit harder. Almost immediately the girls have gone straight back to wanting “mommy” for everything, even to the point of telling me to go away since they don’t want me. I don’t take it personally, but it’s still hard at times. They’ve also reverted back to the usual whining. My wife and I had some issues to sort through, I think stemming back to me asking to take the kids without her. I’ve also noticed that my patience and engagement is not what it was on vacation. Obviously it’s more stressful at home with school and cold season, but beyond that there is something different. Thinking about it some more, I wonder if the reason I enjoyed “parenting” so much was that it was my sole focus during the trip. At home there are usually a million competing things I want to do or feel I have to take care of and I’m often tired and feeling rundown. It’s harder to be patient or fully pay attention if I feel something pulling me away. During this trip, other than having arranged the main destinations I didn’t have an agenda. I brought along my wetsuit in case I got to so surfing, but I didn’t make it a priority and was not upset that I didn’t get to use it. At least for those two weeks, focusing on the kids, and mostly putting my wants aside was somewhat liberating. Being so attentive to them I guess I couldn’t help but get to know them better and gain a better understanding of who they are.

In the end, I hope the girls look back on this trip fondly and that they learned a bit more about the Chilean part of their heritage. Now that I’ve had the practice, I’d be happy to do it with my girls and my wife. They asked several times during the trip if we could come back with mommy so I know the enjoyed it at least. It’s been a few weeks since I’ve been back, but I hope the memories and the discoveries about myself and my girls will stay with me for a lifetime. At least for now, even though I get stressed out a lot at home, I don’t feel so ambivalent about being a dad anymore.