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Sunday, June 17, 2012

My Papá

I didn’t know I was about to ask the first really complex question in my life. I had little idea that the answer to my question would reveal to me, at a tender age of six or seven, a small window of a turbulent family past, a past that would haunt me for many years. 

Mami, why is Papá black?”

My innocent words rocked my Mami’s world, I sensed as her hazel eyes narrowed, glaring at me, with a mix of shock and disgust. I was puzzled. I didn’t mean to make Mami upset. I was simply noticing that my Papá’s skin was a dark complexion as compared to mine, which was the typical Hispanic olive tone, same as the rest of the family. Papá was darker, that was all, I was just curious. 

Mami was definitely disturbed. She appeared startled, trying to figure out how to answer the question.  

“He is black. But it doesn’t matter.”

Then I dared to ask an even more complex question.

“So, he is not my ‘real Papá’?”

My Mami’s face turned red. I knew now I was in trouble. I wished I had kept my mouth shut. But what would an innocent little girl know about the complicated world of the adults? 

“A ‘real father’ is the one who raises you,” Mami said, distraught. “Your biological father abandoned you and your brothers.”

Mami’s words were like arrows shot into my heart. That was the first time I remember being hurt, deeply in my young heart. I knew that was the end of my questioning, but I had now many answers to find. Not that day, not that year, but someday. 

My two brothers and I were raised by our grandmother Rosalba. She was the one we recognized as, and called, “Mommy” or “Mami” in Spanish. Her husband, Ulises, was our dear “Dad” or “Papá” as we called him. 

That day, Mami went back to her household chores, and I was left in a labyrinth of my fragile mind. A new world was opening before me as I now realized that my Mom was not really my mother but my grandmother, and that my Dad was actually my step-grandfather. In the meantime, my mother, Oliva, lived in Bogotá, “the capital” and “big city” where she found a better job to help to support the family. My mother would visit us about three times a year, but our relationship was more like if she was our older sister. In fact, we addressed her by her first name.

Once, I asked my mother Oliva about my biological father. She showed me a picture. I observed it was a picture taken in a park. There was my mother in her twenties, sitting next to a man—my biological father—and a little boy in between them. The kid was supposed to be my brother Alex. 

“Why did he abandon us?” I had to ask, I was still hurt. 

“He found another woman,” my mother said without any hesitation. 

Even if I never recalled anything about that man who gave life to my brothers and I, I sensed a void, and I kept asking the burning question. Why did he leave us? And I frequently came to the same conclusion.

He didn’t love us.

Papá was a great man. He worked hard to provide for the family. My brothers and I loved talking with him, and he seemed to always have interesting stories to tell. He took us fishing and swimming at the local rivers. He enjoyed taking us to the movies, especially if a western movie was playing, as those were his favorite genre. He taught us that “education was highly important,” even though he never completed grade school. He encouraged us to study and “be someone in life.” He taught me to read at home before I even went to first grade. He made the best rice pudding on earth. 

Papá was wonderful to us, and I never again mentioned or asked about my biological father, as I felt it would be like betraying our Papá, the one who raised and provided for us. But the small window would sometimes open during windy times in which I started pondering again where my biological was, what he would look like, what would happen if he saw me now, grown up. Would he feel regret for abandoning us? 

At age 21, I was a college student, and definitely an adult who needed to move out of the family home. 

Living in my own apartment, I was now independent and free to search for my biological father, and find answers to my heart-aching question: Why did you abandon us? I started wondering if it was a quest, or an obsession. But I was determined to find him and confront him face to face. 

I did my research which was not that complicated since my biological father had lived his entire life in the same town, and worked at the same place forever. I traveled three hours to the town he lived in. I located his workplace, a drug store, and I asked for him. An older man went to get him, and suddenly a man who looked just like my brother, Alex, showed up, looking at me with curiosity. 

“Can I help you?” he asked.

“Are you Mr. Gallego?” I asked, hiding my nervousness. 

“Yes. Why?”

“I’m Doris Gallego,” I exclaimed, and extended my hand to him. “Nice to meet you.”

His jaw dropped. He looked disturbed for a few seconds, and then he regained his composure.

“How did you get here?” He asked, blinking. 

“Asking!” I laughed nervously. 

“Well, can I invite you for a coffee?” he asked, motioning to the outside of the store. I don’t know if he wanted to avoid his embarrassment in front of his co-workers or if he wanted a private place where we could talk. Or, maybe, both. 

We walked to a nearby cafeteria. We talked awhile. It felt awkward. I almost regretted the encounter. There, in front of me, all I saw was a stranger. There was no connection, as though I didn’t have his genes, or his last name. The air felt suffocating, and I wanted to leave, especially when he explained he left us because my mother was a very difficult person. I didn’t question any further. At that point, I cared less about him, or getting to know more about him. He was truly no one in my life, or my loved ones’ lives. I was finished with my quest. 

A ‘real father” is who raises you, Mami’s words echoed in my mind. The man in front of me was not my father. Not even for a second. 

I said good-bye, and we never talked or saw each other again. But amazingly, from that day on, the turbulence that had convulsed my mind and my head, completely vanished. I thought again of Papá and how much of a father he had been since my earliest memories. 

I felt stupid. But I also laughed at the encounter with Mr. Gallego, at his expression when I said my name. I left that man behind in his town, and he was now out of my mind, or my worries. He was never part of my life, I realized, so I wasn’t, and hadn’t been grieving for any reason. Papá had filled that place, with love and care. 

I wondered if my brothers and I broke Papá’s heart when we asked questions about his African-descendant features. He never said one word. He was a wise man and knew that it was merely children’s observations and curiosity. We never cared about skin color or matters of ethnicity, we were not raised with such preconceptions. Papá continued giving his unconditional love. Mami passed away almost twenty years ago. Papá has remained faithful to her, and to their memories. I’m thankful for having Papá with us. He is now facing health challenges. My brothers and I make sure to visit and talk with him often, and to let him know how much we love him.

This morning, I woke up knowing I had to make an important phone call. I dialed a number I have saved on my contacts. 


“Hi, Papá!”

“Oh, hi Mija!” That’s a slang for “mi hija” which means, “my daughter,” a common expression in Spanish. “God bless you” He never fails to give me his blessings every time we talk. That’s part of our Hispanic culture. 

“Thank you, Papá. Happy Father’s Day!”


Mariette VandenMunckhof-Vedder said...

Dearest Doris,

Happy Father's Day to you and you fond memories of a TRUE Father! What a great story and so true. It will help answer lots of questions for others who are soul-searching for the very same.
May God bless this loving Papá.
Love to you,

Anita said...

Doris, your story touched my heart. What a loving father your Papa is.

Judy said...

A lovely story.

Unknown said...

Your experiences almost mirrored my own, except I never came face to face with my biological father.
Thankfully I had an uncle, who we called "Tata," Spanish for tata abuelo,or great grandfather.
Why we called him that, since he was only 5 years older than my mom, I have no idea except that it is a term of endearment and respect.It's my tata that I remember (God rest his soul) on Father's Day.

Mimi said...

what a wonderful story. I don't think your papa' minded that you asked about his african heritage because, in fact, that is what heritage he has. Never saying anything might have been worse. I am glad you found your biological father and set all that longing at rest.
And you are lucky to still have Papa'!!!

Mimi Torchia Boothby Watercolors


A very moving post Doris, I suppose when we're young we all get inqusitive much to our parents embarrasment, I couldn't understand why all the other children had dads and I didn't......he passed away when I was three so didn't really know him.


Anonymous said...

Your Papa is indeed a "true" father. Yes, it's the "hands on" that makes each of us a true father or mother.

This is a lovely story, as all of yours are, and I'm SO glad you shared it -- and I'm glad to be back, connecting with my dearest blogger friends. Also, I just found the review you posted of my memoir of Amazon. Thank you! I appreciate your taking the time to do this. It isn't a book that has appealed to everyone, a few have hated it, and me; and some like you have cried through it. Yes, there was much sadness in my life, but also much joy; and I did survive! You also did survive some disturbing news in your life, but because of the person you innately are you turned the revelation into a total positive, thus putting you on the path to become the kind, caring social worker that you are today -- with so many awesome stories to share!

Bica said...

What a wonderful person your Papa is, Doris, and how lucky you are to have had him in your life.

It's good you had closure with your biological father, and with that, the realization of how fortunate you were to have Papa in your life.

God Bless him.

Rita said...

I'm glad you met him, so that you could put that to rest and forget about him.

What a wonderful set of true parents you had. I pray for your Papa's good health. You can see the love in that family photo!! :)

Karin said...

What a precious story! Thanks so much for sharing!

A Plain Observer said...

So many things in this story are worth commenting and thought provoking. A black man in a white family was very rare in our days. Glad you grew up noticing that skin color is just that.

sometimes memories are best left untouched or...unmade. We tend to disappoint ourselves when we pursue them. The fact that the man justified his abandonment by blaming your mother is outrageous. Obviously, you all were better off. You had Papa.

Amrita said...

Doris you have a REAL loving father.

Beautiful family photo. Thank you for sharing

John Paul McKinney said...

Thank you for sharing these beautiful memories. Your sensitivity to others is obviously bred in these early encounters. It seems as though God must have been preparing you for the special work you do.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful Papa you have.
I also like the explanation Mami
said to you. A real Father is who raises you.

Indeed he did and loved you.

Papa filled your life with himself. How very blessed you have had this man in your life. I will pray for his health. Your dear sweet Papa.

Mom of 12 said...

Awesome story! Happy Father's Day!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Doris .. what a lovely story - an innocent child asking a question out of the blue - as kids will do .. and your Papa such an integral part of your life - and I'm so pleased to read he is still with you .. and that you were able to talk to him on Father's day ..

This is a post many should read .. and I hope they do ..

With thoughts to you and your family .. and thanks so much for posting about your love for your Mami and Papa ... Hilary

Mary Aalgaard said...

Very special story. Very special parent.

raballard said...

Thanks for the kind words on my blog. I am now following your blog

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

Hi Doris, thank you so much for sharing your story with us. Your father/grandfather sounds like a very wonderful man, and I enjoyed learning more about him.

Kathy M.