One of the earliest memories I have is going to my parents’ room around the age of 5 because I was too scared to fall sleep. My mom let me sleep between her and my father. Sometimes, if they were still awake, I would ask him to tell me un cuento. His cuentos were about his adventures as a mischievous kid in Cuba. The story’s climax usually involved him and his cousins breaking something or hurting someone (in the way all boys who run freely do). I always predicted the end of the stories: his return home and his father beating him. I liked these stories. I always laughed.
As I got older, I stopped asking my father for stories. My father took me to school every single day from middle school until the end of high school. On the ride to school, he told me stories. On the way back home, he told me stories. I never really listened to the morning stories because I was too sleepy. I never listened to the afternoon stories because I was usually thinking about drama with friends or boys. During highschool I felt too cool to hear his stories about how things were back in his day. Sometimes, on our drive back home, we would spot high school kids walking home. If their pants were below their waist, he would remind me how elegantly he used to dress despite the fact that he was poor when he arrived from Cuba. “I may have been poor,” he said, “but my pants always fit me.” Of course, this is my own politically correct version of his words.
My father stopped taking me to school when I started the university. I already had my car. My red Ford Focus. My dad still drove my brother, though. Since my father is handicapped, we all knew that driving us to school was what gave him a sense of purpose. Once my brother and I no longer needed him to drive us around, I know he felt a sense of uselessness. What was worse is that he could no longer tell us sarcastic and politically incorrect tales that always made us either laugh really hard or scold him for making a really racist remarks. My father isn’t racist really, but he knows that our generation is different. We (my generation is America) like to be polite in what he calls an hypocritical way. So, he just believes in saying it straight out as he sees it. I admire him for that. We all hide behind so much political correctness that we become censored out of fear. It’s a double-edged sword, I guess.
Now that I am in grad school and really thinking about narratives and stories, I wish that I could remember the stories my father used to tell me. Sometimes he told the same story twice, but changed some details, making the same story interesting and new. Sometimes, he would make up stories. When a friend once came over my house, my father used to talk to him about the military. My friend was in the military and liked to hear my dad’s stories. My dad knew that Jon liked his stories. Sometimes, he would spend over an hour telling him stories about his time in the Army, how use used to go deep-sea diving, shooting, sky diving. Things I never knew my father did, and things I’m still not sure he really did at all. But they made good stories. My friend liked hearing his stories so much that sometimes I would get angry at my dad for taking up my time. It makes me laugh now.
About nine months ago, I asked my father to write about his experience coming to the United States from Cuba. I was in Columbus and he was in Miami. And I told him that I was doing a narrative project and wanted to do it on his experience coming to the United States. I asked him to write down everything he remembered. At first he got excited. Deep inside, I know my father and I know he is dying for an audience. He wants to tell his story. He said, “Ok, I will write for you. When do you need it by?” I said, “In two months.” And he responded, “But Mami, it will take many many pages to write my story. I think I will just write about the many girls I met when I was young and handsome…but you can’t show your mother.” We both laughed. Something about telling his story both excited him and frightened him. I wonder if it writing would help him reconcile any bad memory. Or, if it would pry open old wounds.
He never wrote down the experience as I asked him to do. He is using his loss of vision as an excuse. Or perhaps it isn’t an excuse. Perhaps he really can’t see well enough to write. I don’t know. But I know that I don’t want his story to disappear with him. Other than my father, my family (mother, grandmothers, grandfathers, etc) never shared their past with me.
I like to think that life is just a collection of stories. Stories have beginnings and endings. Like moments in our lives. If I think too hard about some moments in my life, they become painful. Even the best memories cause pain because they are gone…When we transform them into tales, then we can manipulate them (like the details in my father’s stories that always change). As fantasies, we can rewrite or relive them. And we can continue living…