What an incredibly hard time it has been lately. A time of terrible anxiety, stress and sadness. I believe an an epidemic of mental illness and despair will follow, as we try to recover from the pandemic, and our new understanding of cultural violence
and racial inequality. A lot has happened in three months. And yet, I come out of it feeling grateful and I think stronger than most. And for this I thank my parents and their extreme level of grit and resilience. So today, on Father’s Day, I am writing about my father Xavier Lucena.
My father was not a particularly happy man. He was smart, practical, and possessed a wit that was both hilarious and lacerating. He was not always smiley, but he cultivated contentment. My parents were not a good match. Drawn together by the attraction of shared miserable childhoods, they didn’t have the tools to deal with the fallout from dysfunction. They just carried on, no therapy (it was the 50’s), and hoped to do better than their parents. My mom had church and her love of good appearances. She was also friendly, and talked to everyone. My mother is the grocery express line nightmare. My dad was a drinker and a weekend part animal. And then he stopped. I don’t know why; I wasn’t born yet, he just stopped.
There was ten years between my brother and me, and I believe we had different early childhood dads. My dad was the weekend, weeknight, any free time gardener. Without AA, or any help my dad replaced alcohol with roses. As a result my dad had no time or patience for those who couldn’t get their lives together. Discipline, self control, and choice brought him contentment and joy, and a garden that was a paradise to come home to , after doing a job that wasn’t totally fulfilling.
I realize now he was also an introvert who didn’t much like kids. His life work became creating humans he could stand to be around, and more importantly, achieving the total eradication of whining. To this end, my dad had a stock of annoying sayings. If we made a mistake that was too much like a previous error, he would smugly say, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it“, not helpful in second grade, infuriating in junior high, so true as an adult. He had savage and funny sayings in Spanish, (thinking we didn’t understand them, he tossed them around), they are gems, and not to be shared in a Sunday writing. :)
Most importantly, my dad believed in us. He believed my sister Amy and I were smart, capable and somehow better than other kids. He also thought we were the luckiest kids in the world and if or when we acted to the contrary the consequences were fitting and persuasive.
One hot summer day, when I was around eight or so I was bored. And I started the summer boredom litany, there’s nothing to do, why don’t we go anywhere, do something with me... and on and on. My dad didn’t offer me a million suggestions. Perhaps with his own difficult childhood floating through his mind, he looked round at books, toys, dolls and the swimming pool in back, and pointedly asked me if I was sure I had nothing to do. I was far gone, and I did not hear the tone; I for sure didn’t read the room, and was all in with a yeah there’s I nothing to do, and fix it, and hey, fix it dad.
Fix it he did. We lived on a quarter acre of land . We had flowers of all variety’s. We had apples, dates, pears, corn, and every veggie imaginable . My dad started grape vines on the fence so we could pick them from the ledge of the above the ground pool. And we had three mature peach trees, laden with fruit. These peaches were the dream, plump, juicy, sweet; Lucena peaches were the best. Organic deliciousness that everybody loved.
Everybody but Liz. I hated peaches. In fact, I hated everything about them: the fuzz, the skin, the texture that went to soft rot so quickly. The cloying smell, especially when they fell to the ground. Perfect and edible one day, smashed on the ground with fruit flies hovering and the occasional slug on the broken open skin leaving a slimy salty snail trail. The peaches were loathsome, and an enemy to bare feet.
Why all this peach talk, because the peaches were my dads solution to my summer ennui. After my sassy talk, I was handed a shovel, a bag and mercifully some gardening gloves. Out I went to pick up the mashed and oozing peach carcass’s in the blazing sun. I held my breath, turned my head, gagged dramatically. I knew my dad was watching and probably laughing. I perfected a technique for flipping the Peach in to the bag; a gratifyingly no touch solution. Hours later, and an infinity of peaches in my bag( read twenty minutes max, seven peaches), he called me inside. I got some water and the freedom to go do what I wanted. As I handed him the bag he said, “Only boring people are bored”. And he had the audacity to laugh again. But, I learned, and the next time I was bored I sat in a nook of a peach tree and read. :)
It occurs to me that my dad raised my sister and I like he grew his roses. He tried for near perfect soil, added lots of supplements and did things naturally. Xavier was organic before it was a thing. He experimented with garlic and egg shells to kill Japanese beetles (mortal enemy of roses). When that failed my sister and I picked the beetles off for small amounts of cash, and drowned them in buckets of dish soap, this is occupation is weirdly satisfying. My dado’s roses were incredible, thick stemmed, sturdy, unbelievably fragrant, long lasting, and held up to scrutiny and cross breeding. He had diaries of organic formulas and ideas for grafting. It is a great sadness in my life that those books went missing after he died, but I try to carry his “just go for it“ spirit in my own garden.
Every year on my birthday my dad would give me an enormous bouquet of roses and gladioli. To him this gift represented everything he wanted to give me beauty, a piece of himself and a clear result of hard work. Like his roses he gave us the good soil of education and belief in ourselves. He gave us the concept of working hard for results, and doing things right the first time. He believed in learning from mistakes and not repeating past history. My father believed that we were better than other kids, smarter, more capable and funnier. We could occupy ourselves, (my sister had her own peach-gate involving a bathroom mess).
Dad gave us permission to fail. He did not rescue us from situations we could handle ourselves. We were Lucena’s, we could do anything. We could rise above, power on, and feel sorry for the ignorant.
This was the important lesson from my childhood. We were the only Puerto Rican’s in our neighborhood. There was prejudice, and some not funny jokes. When I was allowed to go the five and dime store in town with a friend I was followed. A little brown girl would most likely steal. My father taught me that I should just feel sorry for those people, they didn’t know better. They were not Lucena's.
It must of hurt my parents to see these slights happen to us. My sister and I were not taught Spanish to shield us from the bullying my brother experienced. But my parents inherently knew that they could not control other people, but they could teach us to control our reactions. And they knew of course, that racism for us was nothing in comparison to what happened to African Americans, so they didn’t make a big deal over these slights. We were taught we were better, we were the Lucena girls so rise above and lead by example.
So, on this Father’s Day, I feel gratitude for this man who perhaps was not totally cut out to be a dad. My front garden is a tribute to the fully realized idyll he created in our front yard. He took me to garden shows, and gave me fun tools. My dad created little fairy nooks for me, he let me over water and make mistakes so I could learn. He was an experimenting, seat of his pants Gardner, and I am the same. My sister and I are readers, and non whinging humans, we are rarely bored; a greater gift has never been given. My father loved us, believed in us and thought we were the best, we were his Lucena girls.
Little Gianna Floyd told us her daddy changed the world. My father changed my world. So, Happy Father’s Day to all of us. We all have someone who changed our world, we all have someone who made our life better. This is the spirit of the day, let us live it, and work to change the world together.
And to those who are heartbroken today, I send my love and peace. You are heartbroken because the love you feel is important, and mattered, the loss may be huge but love is bigger still. My father died over thirty years ago, I still miss him, but am now just grateful for the beautiful memories. Let yourself cry and grieve. Then stop, and give yourself the gift of humor and remember the funniest story about your dad...
I still hate peaches.