Archive for the 'Family' Category


Cousin #6

He has regaled us with tales of his paratrooper jumps and told us about digging shrapnel out of people and mentioned the tense brushes he’s had with hostile citizens of foreign countries. Of all of the members of my family, he has seen the most of the world – although much of it was through the prism of humanity at its worst.

Cousin #6 came to America as a child. He didn’t become a citizen until his second tour of duty in Iraq. His paperwork was lost twice, and when he reapplied a third time, he was told to report to the county courthouse for the exam.

“But I’m in Iraq,” he said to the civil servant at the other end of the very long-distance phone call. “I can’t make it to the courthouse.”

Strangely enough, Cousin #6 believed that getting shot at in the service of one’s country was adequate proof of his patriotism. But he was initially told that this was insufficient, and it took my mother’s intervention, and the connections she had in local government, for him to receive his citizenship.

A few years ago, Cousin #6 married a fellow soldier. I mean no disrespect to her military background when I say that she is truly adorable. His wife calls him on his newfound cockiness and the swagger that he has developed in adulthood, insisting that one reason she feel for him was his awkward charm.

“When we met, he was such a dork,” she says, and they both laugh.

I remember him as less of a dork and more of a hesitant presence. As a child, he didn’t project the quiet intensity of his brother, Cousin #3, or the charisma of his fellow troublemaker, Cousin #7. Instead, he came across as a boy who wasn’t quite sure of his potential. He had a mischievous steak, to be sure, but he seemed unwilling to call too much attention to himself, and thus avoided serious trouble.

He has caused us sufficient concern, however, in the subsequent years with his overseas postings. While no fan of the men who sent him to Iraq, he remains dedicated to the Army itself. A band of tags around his wrist serves as a memento of his friend who was killed in Iraq. Cousin #6 has no plans to put the item into storage.

After multiple tours of Iraq, he enjoyed a “vacation” in Afghanistan. Although he and his wife recently had a daughter, he is heading back to that godforsaken country as part of the latest surge. We all hope that he returns safely and never has to be shipped to another war zone.

If he does get deployed somewhere else, however, we all know that he will continue to be a great representative of our nation overseas. And of course, he carries our country’s best qualities with him always.


Cousin #5

The energetic personality comes through in her stream-of-consciousness emails and texts, which bring to mind ee cummings on ecstasy. One missive that I received from her read, “fear not! all is sugar and spice how are you!”

Somehow, between my obsessive-compulsive ying and her haphazard yang, we understand each other.

Cousin #5 just moved to Hawaii mere days ago. It’s a daring decision that marks not only a new chapter of her life, but the farthest westward expansion of our family.

Some might think it’s reckless to move to an expensive state in the midst of a recession, without a job no less. But Cousin #5 has a vision. She will not be denied.

Now, it’s true that over the years, her goals have changed and morphed as rapidly as her outward persona. For example, since her teen years, Cousin #5 has gone by three or four different variations on her name, each one lasting no more than a few years. I’ve lost track of which moniker she prefers at the moment (I actually think I’m one behind).

Similarly, her appearance, over the last decade or so, has gone from brightly attired raver girl to some kind of pseudo-sultana, Indian princess concept. Along the way, she ditched the leather jacket and bandana that made her look, in her words, “like a big dyke.” I believe there was also a neo-grunge phase in there somewhere that brought to mind a cute Latina lumberjack. Currently, she looks more like a hip grad student.

Despite her ever-changing image, her true personality has remained intact. She is the most extroverted member of the family, and her affection and enthusiasm for people is unstoppable. When greeting others, for example, she does not simply issue a hug or flash a pleasant smile. Cousin #5 lets loose with a shaking, high-energy embrace and sincere joy that implies she has been waiting her entire life for you to arrive just now.

As my wife says, “The woman is made of love.” And in the opinion of Cousin #3 (her sister), Cousin #5 “would take a bullet for any one of us. What a maniac.”

Befitting a person who is often upbeat, she usually looks happy and/or surprised, as if life itself is delighting her. However, if someone pisses her off or some unpleasant fact perturbs her, she scowls like an annoyed child who has been grounded once too often. At that point, she might spit out a quick “Dude!” that indicates her frustration.

She focuses this dark side (which all of us have, no matter how optimistic) into displays of fearlessness. It was evident when she was a toddler, when a family outing to a scenic overlook took on a thrilling aspect as Cousin #5 joyously approached a steep drop. Her mother (Aunt #1) had to rush to catch up to her.

Cousin #5’s need to rebel was also clear as a teenager, when she scandalized the priest at Christmas midnight mass by accepting the wafer with a Gene Simmons-style waggle of her fresh tongue-piercing. It was, as she revealed later, the sole reason she went up for communion.

Christmas is more likely, however, to bring her usual affection and good cheer to the forefront. This is, after all, the woman who painstakingly created individualized photo albums for members of the family, with shots culled from our highlights and misadventures, and presented them as gifts. In our family, this remains the Christmas present to end all Christmas presents.

Thinking of others has always been her tendency. She spent days in post-Katrina New Orleans, helping to tear down waterlogged houses. And her fresh college degree is oriented toward helping children.

Now her journey takes her to Hawaii. She and her husband, a great guy who is as mellow as she is exuberant, will pursue their dream. It may be a while before I see her again, but I know there will be no problem staying in touch. In fact, at some point, I’m sure I’ll receive a message from her like this one, which I got a few years ago:

“I love you i love our family [what i really consider a real family) and thank u, i know you will always be there for us i hope you know the same goes for you yes.”

I could not have said it better myself.



Grocery List

My eye continues to heal up from surgery (see my previous post on this). But I’m still not ready to dive into lengthy posts. For starters, my double vision keeps convincing me that everything I write is twice as long as I intend it to be. Therefore, until my cornea, iris, and so on begin to behave, I’ll just recount this quick surreal conversation for you:

A few days ago, my wife and I are were shopping for something to bring to our friends’ house. They were having us over for dinner, and I thought the most logical thing was to show up with a bottle of wine.

I grabbed a Malbec that looked good, but my wife said that our friends liked only white wine. Now I prefer red, but I’m willing to roll with this. Still, I couldn’t resist the obvious joke.

“Why just white? Are they racist?”

“Yes,” my wife said. “And they eat only white rice and white bread and vanilla ice cream.”

“But that’s not your taste,” I said.

“No,” my wife said. “I like brown rice and wheat bread and coffee ice cream.”

She was lying about the last item, but I appreciated the effort. In any case, I think it’s obvious why she wound up with me.


Cousin #4

The word that got her was “sandpaper.”

There was nothing funny about the three syllables in and of themselves, nor did they have any hidden meaning or ironic subtext. No, the reason she laughed (with tears gushing and everything) was because all seven of us said the word simultaneously for no apparent reason while staring right at her. Cousin #4 flinched at our voices washing over her, then busted out in stuttering giggles.

As we explained to her later, I had made a bet with the other cousins that her default setting was to laugh. Cousin #4’s natural effervescence compelled her to smile at anyone who wasn’t actively furious (and few people are in her presence). So I suggested testing the thesis by saying, “sandpaper” at her and seeing if she laughed. She did, of course, but that may have been because we were so flash-mob  choreographed  about it.

I had first witnessed her tendency to be joyful on the day I met her, when she was a small child. She and her brothers (Cousins #2 and #6) were coming to America after the death of their father (Uncle #1). I sat next to her on the plane, vainly trying to answer her questions about the United States. She spoke only Spanish at that point, and my grasp of the language was abysmal. Furthermore, I was a teenager, and so prone to dismissing people with a curt snap, especially little kids who asked a million questions.

I wanted her to go to sleep and leave me alone, but conjugating verbs was beyond me, so I just said, “Sueno!” at her (which means “I sleep!”). Cousin #4 looked at me in confusion for a second, then laughed so hard that our fellow passengers wanted to know what was so funny. At regular intervals for the rest of the trip, she tapped me on the elbow, got close to my face, and shouted, “Sueno!” Then she laughed and laughed.

Her cheerful  demeanor  has carried over into adulthood, but this doesn’t mean that she goes through life giggling or is incapable of dealing with adversity. Indeed, as a child she had to deal with the murder of her father and assimilating to a new country, challenges that few of us will ever face. As an adult, she has raised two daughters, one of whom has special needs. Her marriage is currently under attack by the U.S. government, which is a long story and the subject of another post. It’s doubtful that anyone could be nonstop happy-go-lucky through all that.

Still, every time I see her, she maintains her composure and optimism. She relies upon her faith (maintaining ties to our childhood Catholicism) to get through these horrific times in which we live. And perhaps most impressive, she is still able to laugh.


Cousin #3

The incident so outraged our hometown that hostile letters to the editor appeared in the local paper. Writers were split over whether it meant the apocalypse or merely Armageddon, but at the very least, they agreed that it was a sickening travesty that delivered a sucker punch to the gut of God himself.

And much of it was the fault of Cousin #3, who was about ten years old.

Understand that Cousin #3 has always been an assertive woman. And like all bold women, she has been attacked for this trait by a society that would prefer females to be meek. Fortunately, like all bold women, she doesn’t really put up with anybody’s shit.

The reason for the outraged letters to the newspaper were because Cousin #3 and her sister, Cousin #1, had just become the first altar girls in the state and, quite possibly, in the country. This straying from Catholic dogma is what upset so many religious purists in our hometown. Of course, the controversy died down soon enough, and I don’t know if my cousins ever knew that people wrote in to condemn their actions (by the way, if they read this, they know it now).

Of all my relatives, I believe that Cousin #3 is the closest one to me in terms of personality. Perhaps this is not a collective compliment. We have both been accused of cynicism and even abrasiveness, as if these were not appropriate mindsets — perhaps even virtues –  in 21st-century America.

For example, when one of the cousins had a heart-rending breakup with a longtime girlfriend, Cousin #3 said, “You’re better off without her. You might think I’m an asshole for saying that. Well, I guess I’m an asshole then.”

Actually, Cousin #3 wasn’t being an asshole. She was just being ridiculously straightforward, assessing the truth as she saw it and passing it along – not out of maliciousness but in the hopes that it would set our grieving cousin free (by the way, this approach had mixed results).

For such directness, a relative once referred to Cousin #3 as “the girl who eats scorpions for breakfast.” The phrase is much prettier in Spanish and, I believe, meant as a compliment.

This is not to imply that Cousin #3 is some kind of high-maintenance woman in perpetual attack mode. On the contrary, she finds joy in many of the simple things in life, such as her traditional mayonnaise sandwich (just bread and mayo, nothing else).

And she doesn’t demand attention or that people kowtow to her. When her parents hosted a grand feast for her quinceanera, for example, Cousin #3 lounged in her white dress like a young hipster bride, slamming Mountain Dew and accepting congratulations. There was no pretense or vanity on display, which for a quinceanera is pretty damn rare.

She’s also willing to kick her ego to the curb to help others. This was most telling when she worked in a homeless shelter, stumping many of us who couldn’t figure out how her well-known disdain for humanity translated into compassion for society’s weakest.

Along those lines, her fondness for animals knows no bounds. I asked her once if she preferred the company of animals over humans. I was expecting one of her flickering grins and a quick dismissal of the question with her trademark “Whatever…” But she looked me right in the eye and said, “Absolutely. Animals don’t lie to you or cheat you or get greedy or hold grudges or…” And I had to cut her off before she denounced the entire human race.

But the animals, in turn, appreciate her interest in them. The day after my wife and I were married, we had a party at my in-law’s farm. Cousin #3 walked up to the fence to greet the horses, who approached her. They were nervous around strangers and rarely got that close to anyone new. But they knew they could trust Cousin #3. When they whinnied away before she could pet them, Cousin #3 took it a little personally. But then I pointed out that the electric fence was on, and they didn’t want to get shocked, and she felt better. Her focus on the horses caused her to dismiss the fact that she had been perilously close to receiving a jolt herself.

But such fearlessness has been on display before. It’s led, however, to a few mysteries. For example, years ago, she managed to get hit by a bus. I still don’t understand how that happened. I mean, she was standing on the curb and everything. How could a bus just wallop her? All I know is that she was knocked down and injured.

But like all other attempts to make Cousin #3 stay down, it failed. Eventually, she got back up again.


How to Quit Smoking

When my grandmother moved to this country, she was a multipack-a-day smoker. My mother and aunt were naturally concerned that their mom was on her way to an early, hack-coughing, phlegm-coated death. So they asked her to stop smoking.

My abuela rejected their request with the scorn of someone who has lived to old age and uses that fact to dismiss other people’s opinions. Thus blocked, my mother and aunt hit upon an effective, albeit ethically dubious, workaround.

They told her that smoking was illegal in America.

My grandmother, who spoke no English, was in disbelief. What kind of place was this America?

Keep in mind that this was in the days before Spanish-language cable channels or radio programs. And considering she had just moved here and that we were among the few Hispanics in the city at that time, she had no outsiders whom she could seek out to confirm this shocking fact.

She had to quit, her daughters told her, or the cops would bust her. My grandmother refused to believe this at first, and she pointed out that she saw people smoking on the street.

“Yes,” my aunt said with great patience. “They are breaking the law.”

My mother added that the smoker was taking a grave risk, analogous to stealing a car in broad daylight. My grandmother didn’t want to stick around for that, lest she get caught up in the imminent police raid. So she went home, finished the last pack that she had brought with her from El Salvador, and went cold turkey.

Years later, when she was long off cigarettes, my grandmother learned that the whole thing had been a lie. Of course, she was pissed off, and she sputtered threats and issued oaths and sent everyone in the family to hell.

But she still hasn’t started smoking again.

Granted, this technique only works on recent immigrants who haven’t learned English yet. And even then, most immigrants have an instant community that they can join or websites that they can check out or any number of opportunities to discover if their well-meaning children are lying to them for their own good.

It’s a completely different world today, in large part because immigrants like my grandmother have come over in greater numbers and with more of a drive to know what the hell is gong on in their adopted country. So maybe the anti-smoking trick isn’t effective anymore.

In any case, my home state is considering a ban on indoor smoking, which many other places have already adopted. I’ll have to ask my grandmother if she thinks it’s a good idea.


Aunt #2

I know little about my other aunt, except that she died in a hail of gunfire. I never met her, and I’ve only seen two or three pictures of the woman in my life. She was killed with her husband in 1981, when the civil war ravaging El Salvador was in full, game-on effect.

Aunt #2 was not targeted for death, as opposed to her brother (Uncle #1), and had tried her best to stay out the homicidal mess that had engulfed that country. But logic tells us that a war that killed tens of thousands of people could not have been confined to soldiers and guerrillas. My aunt was among those civilians who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The details of her murder are sparse, vague, even contradictory. News that comes out of El Salvador is often like this.

But the story I heard was that Aunt #2 and her husband were driving down the road near their village. The couple’s destination or errand remains unknown. They came upon a government roadblock that had simply not been there the day before. Whether they failed to slow down quickly enough, tried to run it for some unfathomable reason, or just made inappropriate eye contact has never been determined.

The soldiers opened fire, and the truck skidded off the road. The couple, shot multiple times, died in each other’s arms. When my family claimed the bodies, the soldiers admitted that they had made a mistake, and they offered a curt “lo siento” for gunning them down.

The murder left their only child, Cousin #7, a two-year-old orphan. He soon came to America, where my mother adopted him. In an ironic twist, he now lives in El Salvador (more on this in a future post).

And that’s basically all I know about Aunt #2. To be sure, I’ve heard bits and pieces about her over the years. I’ve heard that she was a bit of a wild child and a gifted fabulist. I also heard that she loved fire ants (of all things) and could sew well. But I could be wrong about all of these things.

My grandmother rarely speaks about either of her murdered children. They are not even ghosts to her. They are reference points to a long-ago life – one that has a tenuous connection to the old woman living in the cold American Midwest today. In my presence, my abuela has acknowledged her dead son and daughter only when pressed, and she refuses to clarify or elaborate or instigate any discussion of them.

Similarly, my mother can offer only scattered information. When Aunt #2 died, my mother had not seen her in years – such are the gaps incurred within immigrant families. So she can offer only scant insight into her little sister’s life.

As such, my conjectures about her personality or the strength of her character would be misplaced. And after my experience writing about Uncle #1, I’ve learned that even well-honed family stories can buckle and alter over the years. The facts get smudged when the principles are gone, and honest attempts to portray people accurately (which is what I’ve attempted) sometimes lead to mistakes or disputes.

In truth, for most of us, it is only a matter of time before we exist only as a mysterious name and some fleeting snapshots, long-distant ancestors reduced to a jumble of letters in a box on the family tree.

So I stand no chance at capturing the vitality of Aunt #2, about whom, as I’ve said, I know little. Instead, I will offer this most basic of eulogies: rest in peace.

October 2019
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