I dedicate this part of my website to mi tia Cora, age 97, now living in Madrid, surrounded by family. Not knowing who they are, only feeling their love. Permit me to tell you my first Spanish mini story:
June, 10th 1930: The next day, the young girl, age sixteen, and her younger brother would leave for a land on the other side of the great Atlantic. Her father had taught her to speak the land’s language. He hugged her and said, “It will only be for two years, my Corita. Think of Spain as your homeland.”
Homeland? she thought, when Everything she loved would remain behind? Her small Colwyn home with its flower garden? Her school friends? Her sisters, her father, and her infant nephew? Her mother already left, three months before, by way of God in the bedding of the Holy Cross Cemetery. And of her infant nephew, her sister would say, “My God, Cora, the way you treat my baby, people will think you’re the mother.”
So it was on that night that she convinced her sister to let the baby sleep with her. Through the dark hours, she held him with great care where a transfusion of love mixed in their blood. It’s why the child can still feel her warmth. It is why this dedication.
I intend to post excerpts from my original manuscript. I think of them as mini stories with bygone family that I’ve gotten to know through my story. I brought them back to life with a new found love and understanding: Longhinus, that small insignificant illegal immigrant, my grandpapa, is now my hero; Feliciana, my grandmama, is my rose without thorns; Johnny, as an old street kid myself, it was easy to travel with him and write about his adventures; my beautiful aunt, who I will soon travel to see in Madrid for her 98th birthday. How I long to see her even though she will not remember me. All family members are real.The others may well have existed though not exactly as my mind sees them. But it is not how they looked but how they thought about life. I begin with my Spanish grandpapa. Though he died when I was just six months old, I have learned to appreciate and love him in these latter years of my life.
Un hombre pequeño, un gran corazón
(A Small man, a big heart.)
June 1st, 1930, Center City Philadelphia.
Each day, Longinus Bonificio Gonzalez knew he was closer. His body talked to his mind as if to prepare it: Weeks? his his legs said; days? his heart said; minutes? his pain said. He prayed it would not be before the 6th of July when the Festival San Fermi, the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, would begin. It had been his favorite day since childhood. A good luck day. It is why he chose it to send his children away–– to escape. Lately, he felt as if he too was being chased, not by the horns of bulls, but of those of El Diablo. He was determined to save three of his children from such a creature. The other two? One had joined the army, and one was wed to El Diablo. His youngest, Johnny, a wild street kid, was either running from or with the Devil. Longhinus was never sure. He came to believe that no one could save them but Dios. He had never been close to Dios, except now that he felt the touch of death. It is why he was desperate to save the lives of those who he and his Feliciana had brought into the world––ah, such a world. In addition, he had reached the point in his life when he felt the need to tell of his secret. Not the kind that time erases, but the kind that only law and justice can negate. The kind that can affect families.
It was a day of rest from his night watchman’s job as he sat at a white marble table that overlooked center city’s hectic life. Feeling and looking much older than his fort-nine years, he watched the traffic as if it were a mirage, as if his existence were a mirage. There were times when he believed it was his spirit that keep him breathing. That everything inside him was dead, except his mind. That breathing and thinking had allowed him to finish his job as a father. Food, sleep, joy had abandoned him as if he was contagious.Somehow, he had to survive long enough for his children. They were his life and he was sending them away. He shook his head in despair thinking of the words, destino, sino, (destiny, fate). They kept repeating in his mind like reoccurring indigestion.
His one fortune was that he still had his night watchman’s job. It gave him both a sense of gratitude and pride during such difficult times. His home, that he had labored so hard to keep, had become more like an empty dungeon. It is why he preferred the quietude of the Atlantic Refining Company. Gone was the comfort of his parlor, with its single glow, where enjoyed reading his afternoon newspaper, and translating its english words into his Spanish mind. Or the solitary bliss of his cellar, his refuge from a combative world, where he fit small sail boats in the bellies of wine bottles. or sculptured pine wood as knickknacks for his beloved wife. The men on the night shift at the refinery seemed to have more sympathy for his loss than that of his own family. And it made him realize that his children were also coping with the loss of a mother who had tightly woven their lives into her’s. He understood this, but still he was lost. In seeking solace, he even tried going to St. Mary’s church, but felt both hypocritical and uncomfortable having never gone there in the past.
As a result, he felt nothing. Instead, he found greater comfort at the Holy Cross Cemetery where Feliciana rested, or even on the soiled concrete floors of his night watch where she had never set foot, but where he always felt her presence. For three months now, she had wandered from his life only to return, and crawl inside his flesh and bones: To hear the beat of her heart when he tried to sleep; to feel the stretch of his stomach when she smiled, or the jarring of his chest when she laughed.
A glass, and then a plate crashed to the restaurant’s ceramic floor. Utensils seemed at war––knives fought spoons and forks. Silver coins fell in metal boxes that opened imprisoned food. And Longhinus thought it sounded like a great concert warming up for a performance under the restaurant’s vaulted ceiling. On his Victoria at home he once had Handel, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, and others. He reasoned the Victrola with all of its composers were now in some hock shop along with others valuables from his home––silver ware, clocks, china, furniture, whatever would fill a mug of beer. Oh yes, he had tried several time to stop El Diablo from stealing his cherished possessions, knowing they were doomed to melt in hell. But each time his heart could not stand the heat. Even now, he felt the heat. It why he welcomed the restaurant’s clamor as it served instant meals for the hurried and the hungry. The revolving doors with people in and people out. Anything to cool his torment.
At only five feet four inches tall, he was considered a small man even by 1930 standards. His hair, the color of aging. His eyes, the color of grief made him look older than his forty nine years. He glanced at his pocket watch. She was fifteen minutes late. Si, he thought, more time to think. Overwhelmed by the unexpected, he no longer liked to think: The start of the Great Depression, the necessity of his daughter’s marriage––they were small things compared to the loss of his wife. He and his Feliciana had been sown together with the days and the nights of their years. Finely stitched with devotion, and embroidered with love. He could not think of her without the internal crying. He was not a crying man, never had been. He needed to be, and to live, until the Pamplona Bulls began their run.
His mood livened as he watched a young girl leave the restaurant’s kitchen carrying a coffee cup. She walked towards him. At a distance they waved to each other. At the age of eighteen, she had a shape that would turn the heads of both men and boys. Olive skin, dark brown hair and eyes blended with a sensual look. She walked with a confidence that belied her true nature of self-doubt. A thin vale of apprehension covered her face as if she was not sure of the reason for his being here where she worked as a waitress. When she got closer they both smiled. His face beamed with pride that his seeds had produced such a beauty. He got up as she approached the table, and pulled out a chair for her to sit on.
“Gracias, papa. Como esta?”
“Muy bien, Martina, y tu”?
“Okay … I think,” she sipped some coffee and lit a cigarette.
He shook his head. “I no like when you smoke. You know that.”
“I’m nervous … about your being here.” she put her lips to the cigarette and inhaled.
The smoke drifted in his direction. He fanned it with a show of annoyance. “Always, you high strung, like Spanish guitar. You make beautiful Flamenco dancer with that body of yours, si?”
“Oh, papa, you embarrass me.”
“You embarrass so easy”
“Why do we meet like this?”
“I want talk … just you.”
“Why not at home”? With a nervous drag of her cigarette, she blew it away from him.
“About you brother in law.”
The anger in his eyes caused her to look down at her cup.
She took a sip and pressed the cigarette on the saucer.
He wanted to reach out, take her hand and tell her how much he loved her. Wrap his arms around her and hold on until the end. Thoughts that he had never had before. Emotions he considered a show of weakness. That sternness showed strength while love hides in the heart.
There was an uncomfortable lull in their conversation. A daughter’s quick glances. A father’s riveted eyes. Sips of coffee that spoke for both of them.
Lately, Longhinus found himself reminiscing more: His youth, and the foolish things that were such a waste of young men. But more than anything, the mistakes of fatherhood. Yes, he had given that a great deal of thought about his children. Could he have been a better father? Each so different: Philip’s quite strength; Mary’s need to control; Martina’s sensitivity; Cora’s loving ways; and Johnny? How did he ever have a Johnny? Mi Dios. In retrospect, perhaps too late, he had treated them all equally, when they were neither equal or the same. Why wasn’t he aware?
“Papa, this silence makes me nervous, what are you trying to say?
He raised his voice, “Diablo Jim, he live in mi casa. He thief. He steal from familia, always he drunk, he hit Maria. No love bebé. Is bad be here.” He clasped his hands to stop their trembling, instead, they trembled together. “Soon all is gone. Casa, everything.
Martina nodded. “It makes me sick, papa. He was so different when momma was alive.”
“Ha, I think he loved my wife more than his.” Longhinus gave a definite shake of his head, “No, that Jim died with you momma.”
“But, papa, his mother left him, when he was small, on Christmas Eve.”
“He had a terrible childhood.”
“So he give same to his bebé?”
Martina reached across, and took his hand. “Please, papa, don’t get so excited.”
He raised his voice, “He and his papa, Both Irish drunken bastardos.”
Martina gave a nervous look around, and whispered, “Please, papa.”
He slapped the table in anger, “What kind of life you sister will have, eh?”
“They have sex, and she thinks it love. Muy estupido.” He pointed to Martina, “You learn from her. Keep legs crossed until wedding ring, comprende?
“Comprende, papa.” Martina crossed her legs without thinking.
He leaned over with a confident smile, searched his daughter’s sympathetic eyes and lowered his voice “Is why I come today. I must rid him of our familia” “Divorce?”
“Ha, perfecto, but she not ready yet”
“What do you mean”?
“She no suffer enough, comprende.”
Martina nodded, “She loves him. She’s grateful he married her.”
Longhinus’ face became inflamed with anger, his voice louder, “Grateful? He Irish lush, he already married to beer keg … bastardo.” He struggled to breathe. “Can no be wed to both. “She never be happy. Never, you hear? He paused with a painful look, “Is no good for Bebé.”
Martina glanced around at the other tables.
People stared and looked away.
“Papa, please, your heart. People are looking at us”
He waved his hand as if to dismiss them. “Ha, they don’t give dam. Have own problems.” He breathed deep. “They hear my problems; they like theirs.”
“Have you talked to her about a separation?”
Longhinus frowned. “Mi Dios, what foolish question.”
“You know you sister. If I say no jump off cliff. She jump.”
He shook his head; half grinned, and lowered his voice. “Tonight, when he drunken sleep, I drive stake through heart.” He smiled at such a thought, and felt a moment’s relief from his torture.
Martina laughed, “Oh, papa, be serious.”
“Ha, you papa do it, but Diablo no have heart.”
“Then, what can we do. It can’t go on like this. I’m worried about you.” She took a cigarette, lit it, inhaled deeply, and blew the smoke away from him.
He understood her need for the cigarette with a slight nod of approval.
“For God’s sake’s papa, tell me. If it’s not murder, then what?”
“I sent letter to you uncle Felipe.”
Martina hunched her shoulders, and frowned, “I … I don’t understand.”
“I send you, Cora and Johnny to stay with Felipe, that is what.” He gave strength to his voice to show she had no choice. Her papa had spoken.
For a long moment she stared at him with an open mouth before she got up, and slow walked to a large picture window where she continued to stare.
He watched feeling her feelings. They had all been so close at one time. He took pride in being a caring father, and now he felt like a butcher cutting up his family, and selling off the pieces. A sharp pain streaked across his chest. Warnings that became more frequent. Warnings that told him he must hurry. Warnings that would soon laugh at small white pills. He was quick to place one under his tongue. They were not more than ten feet apart, but for him, it seemed like ten thousand miles. He could no longer put her on his lap; walk hand in hand to show her off to neighbors; take her for trolley rides to the zoo, the movies, to amusement parks. He could no longer had the power to make her happy––just protect her.
Martina returned, sat down, looked at him with tears in her eyes, and shook her head in loving defiance.
“You no choice,” he said. “Felipe will no say no. I buy tickets for boat.”
She gave a polite shake of her head as tears rolled from her cheeks.
“¡Por favor! You … you must go,” he said. The authority in his voice had been replaced with a pleading sound that shivered as if he was cold.
She took his hands, held them tight to stop their trembling. “No, papa. It is why my sister needs me. Besides, you are sick. Send Cora and Johnny. I will stay.”
He stared at her with damp eyes, and knew she was right. He knew before he told her. It is why he only bought two tickets for the passenger ship to Santander. She loved her sister too much to ever abandon her … and now the bebé. She thinks it is also her’s.
“Oh, papa.” She took a hanky and dried her eyes.
“Jaunito, “what I do? He will run away … again.”
“I’ll speak with him, papa.”
“He wild like Cabrera bull.”
“He’s just about fifteen.”
“He steal, fight, have gang. Police, they chase him always.” Longhinus lowered his head, and shook it to relieve its pain.
Martina got up and put her arms about him. With lips that quivered, she said, “Oh, papa, Johnny is big and strong. He’s more man than boy.”
“He good and bad.”
“More good, papa.”
“Puerto is other end of world … near Africa. He no stay.”
“Cora will need him, like Mary will need me.”
He nodded, and sipped some cold coffee. He was not a wasteful man with things he loved––his coffee and his family. Both of which were half gone. There was a long silence before he reached in his pocket, took out a small gray pouch, and put it in Martina’s hand. “Here,” he said, and tightened his lips in resolve.
Martina’s eyebrows arched with curiosity as she weighed it, “It’s heavy. What is it, papa?”
“Is gold coins. Put in bank. No let Diablo get. Save.”
“Gold? My God. But …”
He put a twenty dollar bill in her hand.
Her eyes and mouth widened, “But, why? It’s so much. You don’t…”
“Just do. I give also to Corita and Jaunito to save.”
“Johnny will spend it.”
“I give his gold to Corita. Money to Juanito. He gamble on ship. Sailors teach him. He lose. I was sailor, a fogonero. I know.” He kept nodding as if he could tell her much more about men in the belly of ships.
Martina got up, went behind her father’s chair, and put her arms around him. You will miss them. I will miss them, papa.
”Still nodding, he said, “Also, I need tell you something else.”
Martina put a hand on her chest, took a deep breath, sat down, looked at him, and said, “What … what now?”
“Not even you mama knew.”
He nodded, “Un grande secret.”
Her fingers hurried to get a cigarette from its pack. Two fell to the floor. She ignored them, and lit a third one.
Longhinus looked amused.
She waved the the cigarette at him, and said, “Please, I can’t take any more, papa, tell me.”
“I jump ship.”
“My God, you’re an illegal immigrant?
He shrugged, leaned towards her with a sly grin, and said, “I fool America: Bankos, jobs, people, even cemetery, no? Ha, is good country,” he paused, “but too many Irish, si”? He took her hand, “Marry good Hombre español, you hear you papa?”
Martina cried, “Oh, how I love you papa.”
People looked and stared.
She didn’t notice.
Cartas Entre Dos Hermanos
(Letters Between Two Brothers)
April 2nd 1930. Puerto de Santa Maria, Spain.
My Dear Brother Felipe.
I hope this letter finds you and Trini and the children in the best of health and spirit. I wish I could say the same for my family. Life has not gone well since Feliciana’s death. Mary’s Irish husband has become a thieving drunk. Everyday something is missing from our house. His father is also a drinker. They are not like our Spanish family with our sense of caring. God will judge them one day and I hope He shows no mercy. But enough of their wickedness, it is my family that I need to protect. I would be forever grateful if you would accept both Cora and Johnny into your home for a year, or two, until I am able to find a way to cope with this problem. As you know, I have taught all of my children to speak, as well as read, and write in Spanish. My daughter Cora is a sweet girl who is sixteen years of age. She is my favorite, and it breaks my heart to send her. Johnny is fourteen years old. He is physically mature for his age. He is intelligent, and learns quickly, but like most boys his age he needs discipline..In addition I have explained our customs and the history of our people. Accepting them into your home would further their education, and give a linkage to our families. At the same time it would remove them from this terrible environment, and expose them to the Spanish values we both share. You would have my permission to use the same discipline on them that you use on your children. Of course, if you do agree, I will gladly pay whatever cost you deem necessary for their care. As you know, I have done well here in America, even during this devastating depression. I still have a good job with a major Philadelphia Company, and I am sustained with my real estate investments. Money will not be a problem. Many thanks and please give my love to Trini and the children.
Your faithful brother, Longhinus
He never mentioned his heart or his dwindling financing for fear it would influence his brother’s decision. It gave him a feeling of guilt though he considered it the lesser of two evils. Besides, he reasoned, who is to say that his heart will not outlast his son-in-law’s liver. He smiled at the thought as he addressed the letter, and placed it in a basket for the company’s outgoing mail.
May 2nd 1930: Mary was surprised when the mailman delivered the letter. It had been a long time since they received a letter from Spain. Her face creased with curiosity as she read the return address. She went to the parlor where was reading the newspaper, “Papa, “Una carta de españa.”
Oh?” He dropped his paper to the floor, cut open the envelope, and read it: My dear brother Longhinus, I received your letter with much regret. As you know we have the Guadalete River and the Atlantic Ocean at our doorstep. In addition I have a large concrete block I need to get rid of. Send your son in law instead of your children and your problems will be over. But of course I will help you. I know how difficult it must be for you without Feliciana. She was such a magnificent woman. My son Pepe is now eight years of age and my daughter Maria Cruz is four. Your son and daughter, being several years older, will be a good influence on them. Perhaps they could even teach them to speak English and form life long partnerships or our families.
Mary interrupted, “It’s from your brother, isn’t it, Papa?”
“Si,” he said, and kept reading: We will share what little we have with them. As you know I have just recently opened my own bakery. I had to borrow a large sum of money to buy a corner property for the store plus the baking equipment. Anything that you can afford to send will be good. We have a large old house where they can each have their own bedrooms, and as long as I have the bakery they will not starve, eh?
“What does he say, Papa?
Do you recall the baked goods that we enjoyed as children? The bollo buns, the long bread called pelera, and the sweet Swiss breakfast cakes that we would fight over for the largest piece? Surely you must remember our favorite, the tiny picos crackers with which we stuffed our pockets. And how we would eat them like peanuts. I make them now in my bakery with my new electronic equipment. They are baked with great pride and nostalgia. When I taste one of the picos, I often think of you. I could never say no to you. You are my brother, and I love, and miss you. The blood of our departed parents flows through our bodies, as ours flows through our children. Our families are one, Longhinus, please send them.
“Papa, I want to read it.”
But they must be prepared for our way of life. As you know, Puerto is a small conservative town and from all that I have heard it will be a more restrictive environment for them than in America. In addition I work long hours and I expect my family to conform to my rules. Perhaps both Cora and Johnny will be of help to me. I look forward to receiving them into my household. Please telegraph me regarding their arrival dates so that I can make arrangements to meet them. Again, my family and I grieve for you. Please take good care of yourself, my brother
Truly Yours, Felipe
“Paaapa! Give the letter.”
“Aquí, para bien de dios.”
Mary read the letter, and stared at Longhinus with an open mouth.
He looked into her eyes filling with tears and felt her pain.
“Papa, we must talk, comprende?”
He took a deep breath, smiled, and nodded as if it was all he was able do. He was too tired to explain the obvious: The reason for her marriage; the terrible change; his need to protect his family; the weakness of his very breath.
“You are sending them away because of my husband”?
Longhinus pointed to the floor, the walls, and ceiling. Si, they need be free from this.”
“Para cristo bien. Don’t play with me. You know what I mean.” His hand trembled as he pointed to the interior of the house, “They once parts of heaven. Now they purgatory. Soon they burn.”
“Are you blaming me, papa”?
He gave a slow shake of his head. “You sick with love. Is an old disease, si?
“I could leave here.”
“Where you go”? The bebé? No. You stay till casa burn down.”
“But why send them so far away, papa”?
“In España they learn bueno things for later in life.”
“Si, Jaunito learn, how you say …?”
“Si,. Felipe muy discipline. I can no do in America.
Mary shook her head with regret. “And all because of me.”
“He, Maria Cruz, he.” Longhinus leered at her. “He walking beer keg.”
She took his hand, and said, “If momma were alive, he would be fine”
“Mi Dios, if you mama alive, they not go España. Hock shops not have our furniture.”
“Jim will change Papa. He needs more time. He has a good side.”
“Ha, el Dorado is hot on one side and cool on other?”
She began to cry.
He waited knowing how much his silence bothered her. That she could challenge words, reason, anger, but not silence. That tears were a form of surrender. A pleading without words. Knowing that without words she could not twist the truth to her own liking; lead him in the wrong direction; or blame the innocent and forgive the guilty. Things he never taught her. Things that came with birth, he believed, like hands and feet.
They stood looking at each other as if it were a duel; he with his silence and she with her tears.
It always amazed him how quick she could switch her strategy: from aggression to retreat. He was use to it. She had taught him something about women that his Feliciana could never do … like not to argue with wet emotions. That such womanly things could only be ignored or consoled at best. That in truth, they were weapons: small pellets to penetrate a man’s mind: larger ones for his heart. But now, it was different; she was a woman in need, a wife and mother in need, a daughter in need.
He put his arms out to her.
She cradled herself in his chest and shoulders and wept as if she was in a crib crying out at a cold world.
And he understood: A woman torn between two men; one who took and one who gave; one who abused, and one who protected; one who cared for her, and one who cared for himself; one who made love and one who gave love; one who had given her a child, and one who had given her life.
Her anguish flooded in his ears, wet his shirt, and drowned his resentment. He patted her head the way he did when he could rock her in her arms..
“They will have dos families now,” he said.
“España will enrich their lives.”
“Mi Maria de la Cruz, be happy for them.”
But I will miss them. ”
“Cora,” he paused, “and at times, Jaunito have been a great joy to me”
“And me, papa”?
“At times, just as I have been to you, no”?
“But what about Johnny”?
“What about him”?
“He is so wild”
“Not in Puerto.”
I send them at the end of school, in Junio.”
“Cora will miss us, papa, but not Johnny.”
Longhinus grinned, “No. Jaunito miss more”
“No, Maria, “he freedom.”
Mary laughed. “But Cora will miss the baby.”
“Let baby sleep with her on last night, eh”
“Si, Papa. She would like that”
“Yes, Maria Cruz”
“What about Martina. Why isn’t she going”?
“She want be here with you and bebé. She muy … how you say?
“Si, that word, gracias.”
“Oh papa, Jim is so different than you”
“You wanted hombre different than you papa, eh, Maria Cruz? One no tinker in cellar putting little boats into bottles, eh? But you got is worse. A drunk who crawls into the rectum of speakeasies, and slithers into their bootleg bottles, ah such waste, such terrible waste”
“That is not so papa, I would cherish a man with your principals and dedication”
“As long as you could control him, eh? You must be in charge, you know that, don’t you”
“I take after you, papa”
“I suppose so, we are much a like. That is why we fight so much. You are always trying to control your papa. Daughters cannot control their papas by fighting––only by smiling. You never smile.”
“I cannot control him with smiles, papa”
“Because you cannot control the drink with smiles”
“Then, what do I do papa?”
“We each have choice to make. I made mine. It is why you brother and sister go to España. As far as you husband, he weak like his padre. But you … you are strong mujer like you mamma. He never be match for you. It no save marriage, but you survive. He doomed to place deeper than cellar. No let him drag you down there, Maria Cruz.”
Upstairs, the baby whimpered. It allowed her to escape her papa’s words.
11/18/12—Last week, this time, we were in Madrid, Spain with our Spanish family. Seven of us and twenty eight of them. One big loving group. Rene and I will never forget it. We hope to return again. It was a grand luncheon that included excellent food, and mucho bottles of wine to celebrate our families’ coming together. My granddaughter, Kristina, flew in from Rome which made even more special as was my son Jim’s first visit to Spain. My daughter, Missy, who speaks Spanish was our ring leader. Jerry, my son in law, was all smiles. He loves Spain. Some of us had never met before. Others we knew when we were much younger. It was a very special occasion. Mucho gracias to our Host and hostess, Paco, and Corita. Rather than make this sound like a travelogue, I used my poetic license to describe what I saw and felt.
El Almuerzo (The Luncheon)
They called it a luncheon, I say it was a Fiesta.