This was supposed to be posted last Tuesday but my travel plans precluded it, so here it is now with slight amendments.
On Friday I wrote about a dishonorable ancestor, Samuel Ladd. Today I’m writing about someone honorable instead. We recently celebrated Valentine’s Day and my wife’s birthday soon after, so naturally I’m thinking a lot about my wife (something I usually do anyway). I’m also thinking about her great-grandfather in Puerto Rico, an incredible man whose birthday was the day before my wife’s, and the unlikely path that led to my marriage.
“Abuelo,” as he was known to one and all (it means “grandfather” in Spanish), was born February 17, 1907 in a rural town in Puerto Rico, about 30 miles from San Juan. One of the things I find fascinating about him is the way his day-to-day lifestyle really has become a thing of the past in our country. Abeulo was well past 30, with a large family of his own, before he had a radio, telephone or car. In the rural Puerto Rico of his youth, as in many parts of the United States at that time, most roads were not paved and most travel was by horse or foot. He married his childhood sweetheart and they lived their entire long lives in the same small rural town where they were born.
It did not last long. The United States, officially at war with Spain since March of that year, had already blockaded San Juan Harbor and attempted to invade Puerto Rico. On July 25, 1898, only eight days after the new Puerto Rican governmental structure took force, American forces landed in Puerto Rico to a largely welcoming response. Within three weeks, Spain would cede Puerto Rico to the United States and the island would never again be the same.
In the late 1920s, when he was about 20 himself, Abuelo married a young woman he’d known growing up, Dominica. Over the next 15 years or so, they had ten children. Abuelo was a laborer, be it agricultural or in construction. During the Depression years he sometimes had to leave to find work, but he always came back to the country town he called home.
Abuelo and his family built, with their own hands, seven houses for them to live in, with Abuelo and Dominica’s house at the center. The Compound is next to a curve on a one-lane country road, with palm trees in abundance and coquís croaking all night long. There are lizards everywhere and chickens roam freely. Various of Abuelo’s descendants moved to San Juan, or to New York, Massachusetts, Philadelphia, Florida, Chicago, California, and other places. But to this day, The Compound is the center of the family’s universe and Abuelo lived there the rest of his life.
Throughout the year 2000 “Joe” and I became even closer friends. About a year after we first met, “Joe” told me he was going to Puerto Rico to visit his father and family, and to my surprise invited me to come. Thus it was that on February 10, 2001, “Joe” and I took off from JFK Airport on a trip that would change my life forever.
We landed in San Juan in the early evening, exchanging snow for 80 degree heat, and “Joe” told me he’d promised his sister we’d stop in at her daughter’s birthday party. They lived only about ten minutes from the airport. We entered the house and “Joe” introduced me to a bunch of very nice people, most of whom spoke little English. Though I had no way of knowing it, that’s when I met my future wife for the first time. I was in my mid-20s, she was barely in high school. She told me later that she thought I was an NBA player (I’m 6’3” and few people in Puerto Rico are that tall).
From the party we drove to The Compound, arriving late and going straight to bed. The next morning I met “Joe’s” father, who was living in Abuelo’s house. Right away they took me to see Abuelo, the patriarch and my real host. With “Joe” translating, he gave me a warm welcome and commented on my height as well (this would become a recurring theme with this family).
A few days later, my future wife showed up at The Compound, very early in the morning, with her mother and younger sister. “Joe” and I took off with them for a long day trip to the art museum in Ponce (my wife attended an arts-themed high school and is very talented), and to La Parguera in the extreme southwestern corner of the island. We arrived, after getting lost in the back roads, and went out on a glass-bottomed boat to the Bahia Fosforescente. When fish move in this bay, they cause millions of tiny organisms to glow in a spectacular light show.
The big event of that week, though, was Abuelo’s 94th birthday party on Saturday. This, to the family, was the event of the year. They came from far and wide, driving from San Juan and flying in from all over the U.S. There must have been over two hundred people at that party every single year. Preparations had been going on for days at The Compound, including the annual making of the pitorro. Pitorro is essentially moonshine, illegal homemade rum with prunes and other fruits in it. The stuff runs to an obscenely high alcohol content. Abuelo’s sons made it, only for family consumption, every year in the run-up to his birthday party. Then, on the morning of the big day, they buried the glass bottles in the ground (common practice to cure it), and dug up the previous year’s stash.
My wife tells me her own birthday always was overshadowed by Abuelo's, but in more recent years The Party became a celebration of Abeulo's birthday but also all the children in the family born in February.
For us, though, the story continued. In February 2009, the first year the big birthday party didn’t happen at The Compound, I was brooding in a Greenwich Village bar about the brand-new President Obama’s failure to push for a sufficiently-sized economic stimulus plan when Joe called. He was in the neighborhood and his niece, my future wife (though I still didn’t know it), was visiting from Puerto Rico. I found them in the basement of a store on Bleecker Street, where my wife-to-be was getting a Henna tattoo. We went for dinner, and she and I talked about a lot of things, including Abeulo. Later that week, I drove her and “Joe” to Newark Airport and she returned to finish college in Puerto Rico.
Six months later, in August 2009, “Joe” called again. This time his niece was flying into JFK; could I help him pick her up? (I was one of the rare people he knew with a car in New York City and thus a valuable friend indeed). I learned she had planned to study in London, and bought a plane ticket to New York solely to spend a few days visiting before heading for England. But the financial aid couldn’t go through without a visa, and the visa couldn’t go through without financial aid. The whole thing fell apart, and she was left with nothing but a one-way ticket to New York.
Fortunately she decided to use it, and “Joe” (who for years had been opening his home to various cousins from Puerto Rico) convinced her to stay in New York for a while. Since I had the car, they called me up pretty frequently and we went all around the New York area. At the time I was coming out of a break-up, a long distance relationship that had lasted three years. My now-wife and I spent so much time together, and got along so well, that we just gradually fell into a relationship. “Joe” was less than thrilled at first, but my future in-laws down in Puerto Rico were supportive from the start.
Now we’re married and everything’s great. “Joe,” who came around once he learned his sister wasn’t mad at him over our relationship, gave a wonderful toast at our wedding. Each year, on February 17, we call “Joe” on the phone and raise a toast (thankfully not pitorro!) to Abuelo. “Joe” thanks him for being such a great role model as a grandfather and family man. I thank him for making my wonderful wife and best friend possible, and for being such a worthy ancestor to my children. I’m glad, through all the twists and turns, that I had the chance to meet this great man almost nine years before my relationship with his great-granddaughter began.
Spanish colonialism. Slavery. American colonialism. World War I. The raiding of Puerto Rico's economy by U.S. speculators, including the first American governor, Charles H. Allen of my own Massachusetts, forcing Puerto Ricans to leave the island for work. Adultery. Bureaucracy. A bad breakup. A great many things that, in themselves, are bad played a significant part in my wife's existence, and in my wife and I coming together. When I think of how it all happened, and the political and historical events that drove the personal events, I remember that (even though we always must strive to reduce the bad) good things can come of bad.