Like Father …
I apologize for the lack of posts lately, but 2014 has not been the kindest of years thus far. My dad passed away on Wednesday, January 15, so my head’s been elsewhere. At first I thought I’d go dark and not post at all this week, then I decided a short piece on Dad was appropriate. Why an orange grove? Because as a very young man in the 1940s, my dad, Pedro, picked oranges in the groves surrounding Riverside … I could have easily shown cotton, grapes or some other crop, though; my dad’s family would follow them, picking, packing, then moving along to the next. In fact, he was born por este lado, on “this side”, in 1930 in Colorado, during one such trip … It was while he was barely out of his teens that he stayed in Riverside, along with brothers and cousins, picking oranges and making mischief. It was the time of zoot suiters and gangs, pachucas with razor blades in their sky-high ratted hair-dos, the Casa Blanca neighborhood their stomping ground. Dad always smiled while relating how la plebe, the riff-raff, would gather on the weekend at The Fox Theater in downtown, the shows often forgotten in favor of fights and high-speed jalopy chases; he would always marvel that he made it out alive … Dad left Riverside in the ’40s, settling in Temecula and working as a ranch hand on the Vail Ranch; he was now Pete. He would beam as he told stories about life in the bunkhouse, working with the horses and being a cowboy. It was while he worked on the ranch that he met my mother, Carmen, and they fell in love. She was 16, he was 24, in 1955 when they married. I was the soon-t0-arrive result.
Altogether my parents produced 9 children over 10 years. As a result, life was never easy when we were young. My parents struggled, we along with them; Dad seeking escape in a bottle. Later, he would reform completely, the result of a bargain he made with God: In exchange for healing my next-youngest brother’s terminal illness, he’d give up drinking. Overnight, it came to pass; life got better … My dad found a calling, helped build a church, became a minister. Eventually all us kids moved on, creating lives of our own and over time my parents fell victim to illnesses; Mom passed 19 years ago at age 54. Dad was never alone, however. After a nuptial near-miss with a lunatic, he lived with my sister, Julie, and her husband. At 83, after a long illness, he died peacefully in his own bed.
° ° ° ° °
As a kid, if you had asked me what my dad and I shared in common, I would’ve said not much. Now, however, all I see are similarities. I’m impatient by nature, as he was. I’m prone to stewing over problems rather than dealing with them openly; totally him. I’m given to sentimentality, but loathe to display it, just like him. I also have his spinal and heart problems; thanks, Dad. Traits I wish I’d inherited but didn’t: His dark skin, wavy hair; his ability to sing and play musical instruments; his mechanical understanding. Things I’m glad I didn’t: His name, his height, his anger … I’m definitely not a Pete; at 5′ 5″, I’m tall by comparison, and I never would’ve survived as a newspaper guy with his hair trigger temper. He loved little dogs, could be cruelly truthful when bestowing a nickname and never met a fart joke he didn’t like …
° ° ° ° °
He was never rich by any means, and barely had a grammar school education; he often felt unloved, unloveable. For most of my life my dad was not the type to say the words “I love you”; at least not that I can recall. But in the last few years, as age and infirmity merged and bowed him, Dad not only used that once-strange phrase, he said it with ease. Almost as surprising, I found myself reciprocating. On the day before he died my Dad was no longer able to speak … I told him I loved him several times and kissed his head, his hair still black mostly and remarkably full. He couldn’t speak but I saw “I love you” in his eyes.
California orange grove photo: from http://www.minervaclassics.com/railroad; a history of the Orange Empire Rail Museum, Perris, CA. Inset photo: Undated, likely Riverside in the 1940s; Pedro steps to the microphone with a tentative look in his eye, wearing clothes belonging to someone else. My favorite photo of my Dad.