I was eight years old when my father purchased the house. We had been in the states only a short four years. Both Mom and Dad had busted their humps after arriving here from Cuba with basically only the clothes on their backs. Through hard work – each had at least two jobs – and determination and sacrifice they were able to finally, for the first time in their lives, own their own home.
I think I was as excited as I was sad. Yes, I now would have a big house with a yard and my own room, but I also had to leave my school and friends from the old neighborhood. We had moved into a different part of town, away from everything that I had become accustomed to in Little Havana. Calle Ocho; the barbershop my grandfather used to take me to; the ice cream parlor that sold churros; El Globo supermarket where everyone already knew us and the cashier lady always gave me a candy. Everything had been a short walk away in Little Havana.
Now we owned a home in a neighborhood where there was nothing but other homes. There were no supermarkets nearby. There was no bakery around to make you hungry with the smell of Cuban bread every morning. No 5 & Dime stores where Abuelo could buy me tops and plastic soldiers. Everything was too far to walk and I would never be allowed to go by myself to get mom sugar or cafe like I used to at the bodega by our old apartment.
Still, I now had a back yard and a front yard. Trees to climb or fall out of. My very own place where I could catch lizards with a blade of grass like my grandfather had taught me. I now had a place, I thought, to play catch with my dad.
But I never really did get to play much catch with my father. He was always working, and when he wasnt out at one of his jobs he was busy turning the house into a home. There was always something to do at the house. Fix a window, paint a room, plant la mata de cirhuelas, repair the leak under the sink.
I guess maybe my father felt bad that he couldnt always teach his son how to throw a curveball or catch a pop-up. I guess maybe since he knew he didnt have much time to play with me he felt the only time we could have together back then was when he was working around the house. I became his assistant, his right hand man, by default.
I didnt really do much as the right hand man. I was too young to do any real work. But I was there when he needed a hammer or a 3/4″ open end wrench. I was the paint brush cleaner and the beer fetcher. I learned what a philips screwdriver was and the difference between a wood bit and a concrete bit. I may not have been able to hit a homerun or finish off a double play, but I knew something more valuable. Dad had taught me how to do things. Of course, I didnt know it at the time, but my father had given me perhaps the best lessons any father can give his son. I had learned how to work. I had learned not only the how of it, but the why: the value of hard work.
There was nothing better, to me, than standing there over a completed task with my dad, a task that had taken hard work and determination to finish, and look at each other with a sense of accomplishment.
“We did it, Papi!”
“Si, mijo. We did it.”
There was nothing better than that. No moment greater than having my dad mess up my hair with his huge, strong hand as we stood there admiring the connection for the new washer or the new gate for the side of the house or the hole in the ground where we had just removed some ugly tree.
“Now put away the tools and go inside and take a bath,” he would always say. “If your mother sees you this dirty we’ll never hear the end of it.”