I didn’t grow up celebrating Father’s Day in any meaningful way. I didn’t love or even like my stepfather, so I have no memories of the holiday as a child.
Memories of my own father were dim at best, since I had last seen him when I was four or five.
My American mom rarely spoke of him. When she did, she either teased me about looking just like him, or pointed out something awful he or his mother had done, which justified getting the hell out of her marriage and Mexico, where she was married and where my sister and I were born.
I wrote my college essay about those distant memories of my father, and questions about my identity and where I fit into American society. Not long after I sent in my acceptance to Yale, I told my mom I wanted to meet my father again.
Resigned to the inevitable, my mother broke her long silence and reopened contact with my father and his family.
In the beginning of August 1989, a few weeks before I started my freshman year of college, my father arrived in the Philadelphia International Airport. My mother, sister, and I stood at the gate, waiting with bated breath to meet this man who had flitted like a shadow across our lives.
As my father walked down the arrival ramp, I studied him. His skin was brown, and his black hair was thinning, hairline receding. His nose was aquiline, a masculine version of my own. He walked with a rolling gait with his shoulders slightly hunched, walking as a shy or introverted person might, both of which he was. He was neither tall nor short, though I remembered him with the graceful build of a slim matador. He spoke English with a heavy accent, and his voice was deeper than I expected.
“Hola, Queenie,” he greeted me, using the nickname he had bestowed on me when I was a tiny child, making my stomach flip flop unexpectedly.
Over the next fifteen years, we attempted to rebuild a relationship that had been destroyed by the ravages of time and resentment and international immigration law. It was a messy seesaw, particularly as I tried to navigate the loyalties to the mother who raised me, and my intense desire to know my father and understand who I was.
My father and I would become alternately frustrated and angry as we struggled to understand each other, yet we kept trying. He took me to visit and experience some of the most remarkable places in Mexico, including the pyramids of Teotihuacan, the Museum of Anthropology, the Basilica of the Virgen of Guadalupe, the magnificent Zocalo of Mexico City, the poetic island of Janitzio with Patzcuaro on the mainland, and the beautiful colonial cities of Guanajuato, Morelia, Queretaro, Taxco, and San Miguel de Allende, to name a few.
He took me to Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta, where I ate fresh seafood and ripe mangos dusted with chile and salt on a stick, and drank icy coconut water straight out of the fruit. My father did his best to introduce me to the cultural and culinary treasures of a country that was my birthright, and it transformed me.
In spite of his best attempts to put on a good show, my father was not well. He never had been. Unable to work in a traditional profession as his younger siblings did, he lived simply and subsisted on a small income from my abuelita. His hoarding and alcoholism and bouts of severe depression created physical and emotional walls that were difficult, if not impossible, to surmount.
By my early 30’s, I had come to accept that he would not and could not be the kind of father I had always dreamed of. With that realization came a sense of peace. I went to visit after Christmas one year, and several aunts and uncles and cousins gathered at my Aunt Lupita’s house one evening to break the traditional rosca de reyes bread and see who found the tiny plastic toy baby Jesus inside. (The person who finds the baby is on the hook to host a tamale party the following month).
After enjoying bread and Mexican hot chocolate, everyone quietly disappeared. My father and I sat companionably at Aunt Lupita’s hearth, a crackling fire warming the cool January air. He smoked a cigarette as I sat in a chair next to him as we gazed into the flames. We didn’t talk, nor did we feel the need to.
A few months later, I called my abuelita’s house and my Uncle Tito answered the phone. He told me that my father had Stage 4 cancer of the bladder and bones. The news had surprised the entire family.
Stunned, I packed up my apartment in NYC, threw my belongings into storage, and flew to Mexico. I vowed that he would not be alone when he died. Two weeks later, I was there when he took his last breath, white curtains fluttering in the cool breeze of the Mexican night as his spirit flew to freedom. He was 61.
Now, all these years later, I sometimes catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and see my father glancing back at me. I draw my breath and laugh a little.
I never celebrated Father’s Day with my dad, but somehow, it doesn’t matter anymore.