Chapter 64: His Father Again.
I knew almost nothing of my father’s childhood. I knew he had been poor in Portugal. I knew he had gone to work at the age of eight in a sardine cannery. The sardine cans ended up covered with olive oil. His job was to dip the can in sawdust and then, with a brush, clean the can off. He demonstrated his brushing technique to me. I knew his father had been a cobbler.
That was about all I knew of his early life. He never talked about Portugal. It was as if his life had started when he came to America. Whatever happened before that had been erased from memory.
When I was growing up, I did not realize that all his stories were about America and that there were none about Portugal. But as I got older, I took note of the omission and felt it was rather odd. I wanted to know about those early days, about his father, about his family, about his experiences. I knew that he had an inner reserve that would not be breached by direct frontal assault. So I tried to entice him into reminiscing by priming the pump with artfully designed innocent questions. And I waited for the proper moment, when his stomach was full and he was relaxed.
He looked at me blankly. He never heard me. He always talked about something else. Once when I would not acquiesce in his sudden deafness and pestered him, he turned on me in exasperation and said sharply, "What do you want to know that for?"
I made no headway, so eventually I gave up. He simply did not want to talk about it. But one day, he did talk. He was in his eighties then. His voice was husky with age.
I was home, visiting from California. It was a balmy summer day. I spent the afternoon at my aunts’ house a few blocks away. My mother and my sister had gone out on a duty call, admiring someone’s new baby. My father was left home alone.
It was late afternoon when I walked into the house. My mother and sister were still out. The house was absolutely quiet. There was no sound. I couldn’t remember it ever being that quiet before. He was sitting at the table. He sat in shadows. There were no lights on. The sun was sinking behind the New Bedford Cotton Mill. A fresh breeze was coming through an open window and slightly moving the curtains.
I sat down beside him. He didn’t seem aware of me. His face was set in utter desolation. He was a man beyond reach, beyond love and family, beyond human relationships, alone, the last man on earth. Was he contemplating human destiny? Was he aware of some level of existence that could only horrify?
"My mother die when I was eight," he said. "We were very poor. I had many a meal of just a piece of stale bread, nothing on it, and a cup of coffee. But not coffee like here, with milk and sugar. Just black coffee, very strong. That was the whole meal, bread and coffee.
"But my mother die. My father married again, a younger woman. She was not old enough to be my mother, more like a big sister. But she did not care for me. Or for my two brothers. ‘Brats,’ she called us. Well, I can’t blame her. Soon she had babies of her own and she had her hands full taking care of them. You cannot expect her to take care of somebody else’s kids.
"So she was always yelling at me. She didn’t want me around. One day she said to me, ‘What are you always hanging around the house for? You big sissy!’
"So I took to staying away, to avoid her. I would leave early in the morning and come back in the dark. Sneak in to my bed.
"But my stepmother–I never got a kind word from her–not even once.
"Then I took it into my head to come to America, so I began saving money to that end. I had a jar under my bed, and when I got a coin or two, I would put them in the jar. So I saved and many months later, I had the jar almost full. One day I reached under the bed for the jar and could not find it. It had been moved. I got on my hands and knees and looked under the bed and found it. It was empty. I took the jar to my father and said, ‘What’s this?’ "‘Yes, I took it,’ he said. ‘I need the money more than you do. You know, it is customary, when the father gets old, the son gives him a kick in the ass. Well, I’m going to give you a kick in the ass first.’
"But eventually I had enough money to pay for my passage over here. I was to take a train to Lisbon, where the boat would be. My last day there, I packed my valise and my father walk with me to the train station.
"He seemed sad.
"‘I don’t think I’ll ever see you again,’ he said. ‘I don’t think you’ll ever come back here again.’
"I looked at him but I didn’t say anything."
Then he stopped talking. Just a few brief sentences. That was all I had of his early life and that was all I would ever have.