Friday, July 06, 2012

My Abuelo

Copyright Monica L. Shulman

My grandfather passed away earlier this week.  He was a man of few words but whenever he said something, he made it count.  He was a humble person who admitted his faults and didn't really acknowledge his virtues.  He lived for others and always put his family first.  When he was just over 40 years old he and my grandmother picked up and left the only home they knew, a tiny village in eastern Cuba, with their five kids in tow and came to New York in search of a better life.  They were going to join one of my grandmother's sisters who was already living in New York with her daughters.  They were seeking the American Dream and they were ambitious and brave.  I can only imagine how scared they were but their courageousness and optimism clearly outweighed whatever fears must have plagued them.  When they arrived in Manhattan he refused to accept any help from the government and even though it was May, I learned from my uncle that the only thing he asked for from the Salvation Army were some winter coats for each member of his family in preparation for the winter months ahead.  He always worked at least two jobs at a time and somehow put my mom and her siblings through school and even bought a home two years after they arrived in the US.  My mom says that when they weren't working he and my grandmother would take them all for a walk to explore the city.  I have a picture of the seven of them in Central Park the year they arrived here and I can't make out where exactly it was taken because the city looks so different and quiet.

I often peppered him with questions and his short and to the point answers always inspired me to not only ask him more but to really think about what I said before I said it.  He was a man who taught more by example than anything else and many of my memories include him sitting at his dining room table weighing clothes and bottles of aspirin and other random items to put in the bags he would take to Cuba on his yearly visits to his family.  To my extended family in Havana and the tiny village where my mother was born he was a king and practically a patron saint.  I think I learned more about him on that trip than I had ever known before. 

His legacy includes five children, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren and we are all here because he and my grandmother had a vision and a hunger for a better life.  He loved to spend time with his family, he loved to drink and smoke, every time my grandmother made him a cup of coffee he would take a sip and say "mmmm" like it was the best thing he ever tasted, he loved bright colors and he loved to work.  One time years ago I was holding his hands and I told him I loved how soft they were and he got upset, and I think offended, and said that it was because he didn't work with his hands anymore.  He was in his late 70s at the time.  He encouraged me to get as much education as possible, both academic and otherwise and he told me I should always travel even though he never really visited any place new himself.  He always talked about how important it is to vote and to speak your mind.  I think he was so proud and happy to be here even though he missed his family in Cuba and worried about them and everything he knew they were/are going through there.  He changed so many lives and now he is gone but he touched so many people that I feel like his memory and heart will live forever.  Knowing that makes me feel a little better.

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