My great grandfather had the sheer luck of having the 2nd easiest wedding anniversary date when he married my great grandmother 60 years ago. The day before his birthday, January 21st. (My mother has the title of easiest, albeit not as favorable, date to remember: her birthday is Tax Day, April 15th.) I’d like to think he thought to himself that marrying my great grandmother was the best birthday present he could ever ask for. Those are my words, not his, but I don’t doubt that the sentiment has crossed his mind. Their marriage of 6 decades is nothing if not a true testament of patience and selflessness, two things of which I would imagine would begin to come into play deep into those 52×60 weeks of living together. And, any spouse can say, their marriage hasn’t been either easy nor perfect.
I looked up to my family as I’d imagine many children my age would look up to their adults, as perfect, completely without defects. Such were my naive thoughts of the world that I placed my family in an exclusive category of excellence in my mind. As if they were exempt from the blemishes of human behavior. Children born of wedlock and deception could never reach the high, ivory towers where Ana and Arturo, my GREAT grandparents, resided.
But, if life is anything at all, it is also a delayed, ironic wrecking ball. That ball came around my 10th birthday. We were having our traditional birthday dinner and my cousin Janet had come down from Chicago for the weekend. I always saw her as my very own Shakira. Outspoken, larger than life curly hair, rebellious nature, a penchant for dancing, and a laugh that could melt ice. But she also had a fiery rage that could melt steel when confronted with the poor motherfucker that messed with her cubs. She would have killed, and re-killed, for any of us given the opportunity. And that rage was turned internally.
Janet had been on the phone with her sister Nancy. I could tell she was about to rip someone because she would use a very curt, but powerful No at the start of every sentence. That brevity and intensity of the word increased tenfold every time it escaped her lips.
Of course, I wasn’t supposed to hear the contents of the conversation. The little angel of the family shouldn’t be exposed to the toxicity of real life. Funny how the assumptions came from both ends. How could I, innocent, 10-year-old Mauricio, understand what a child born out of wedlock is? Or what infidelity is? For a 10yr old, I knew a lot about failed marriages.
Bastards were not uncommon in my family, at least from my mothers side. Infidelity, as I would later discover, ran pretty deep with the XY chromosomes of the family. At my uncle’s funeral, 4 women had introduced themselves as his late wife. My grandfather also had a family on the side, 2 daughters that only called him twice that I know of. Once when he had a heart attack, and the second time when he passed away.
But at that point, I didn’t understand. I knew there was a small crack in the foundation that I had made up in my mind of my great grandfather’s image. And as the conversation continued, and my understanding blossomed into adulthood, the pieces soon connected. And I found out that my great grandfather had an affair, a child, heck, a whole other family, that I would probably never meet. That his ‘other’ family had tried to reach out to him, but for fear of persecution, he had kept them locked away in the ill crevices of his heart. Their existence would only reach the surface in the slightest of cues. A longing gaze at his pocket watch, a sudden urge to grasp his suspenders, a twitch at the most innocuous moments. He kept his secret in the stars, far from anyone’s grasp, until one day the heavens fell upon him.
I still don’t know their names, nor even where to find them. I just know that they exist. Somewhere in the world, perhaps even close to his cozy apartment in Bogota, his sins live on, possibly scorning the father who was never there. It’s difficult to think that someone can see your hero as a villain. But it happens more often than we think.
Still, old habits die hard, and that respect for elders clause was still very much ingrained, as much as I wanted to judge him. When I called my great grandfather today, I pushed aside the small talk that is typical with our conversation and chose to ask him, in his own words, some advice about long-lasting relationships. Of course I know how blatant the irony in this. But who better than a man who knows he has wronged to tell you what to do to make things right, Right?
For a man who is 86 years old, he sounded well. Though I know his body was not, his mind was still very much in tact. He had given me his usual ‘How many girlfriends do you have now?’ opener, his way of asking if I’m in a committed relationship.
He had a few gems to say about his 60 years of marriage:
He told me to be very picky. The woman that will stay with you for the long run is the woman who is:
1. One of strong values and ethics
2. One who doesn’t see herself for everything she lacks and
3. One who will see everything about you and still want to be with you.
His advice was based on what the woman should be about in the relationship: caring, understanding, patient, loving, all key words that any brief Google browse can muster up. I was eager to hear what qualities a man should possess, but the thought never came. He only mentioned that a man must support his wife.
The topic of trust came up, and my ears began to perk. When asked about infidelity, there was no hesitation in his voice. I had asked him if I should forgive her if she was ever unfaithful, to which he replied absolutely not. He said, I quote “Esa clase de gente es mejor ponerlas al lado” That type of person should best be put aside , “y ni siquiera gastes tu tiempo” Don’t even waste your time. When I heard this, I felt like I needed to press him more. I asked him “But no one is perfect. What if I really loved her and I knew that she made a mistake?” His reply: “If she really loves you, she wouldn’t need to find something else in someone that she could have found in you.” He continued “You know you have found the one when she is there for you throughout the good times and the bad. She will forgive you and give you no reason to feel any type of jealousy. She will be the one you are proud of saying, “That’s my wife.”
When he finished, I took a long pause to let his words marinate. I thought about what he didn’t say, as well. He never mentioned what one, as a man, needs to do to maintain a relationship, only that he must choose a woman who will love him and take care of him. How a marriage works both ways, sacrifice, giving in, those didn’t come up. And as he told me about infidelity, unbeknownst to him that I knew about his illegitimate child, I couldn’t help but feel dissatisfied with his answer. To think so harshly of someone who cheats knowing that he himself is a cheater, was this self-hate? Or hypocrisy? Is this one of the many antiquated double-standards that was so common in the times of uber-Machoism? When men ruled over women and their place never extended beyond the household? Maybe it was neither. Maybe the guilt of being unfaithful made him understand how important is. I know what you’re thinking: That’s like asking an obese man about taking care of your body. WTF?
Or maybe this is me trying to make a grandfather a superhero again. I know he isn’t perfect, and my family is far from being a model for healthy relationships. But through everything, I still love him and see him as some sort of patriarch in my discombobulated, gnarled family tree.
(All names have been changed to protect identities)