Dispatch from Puerto Nowhere

Robert Lopez examines what it means to be an assimilated American from Puerto Rico, and what was gained and lost in the process.

Robert Lopez | Longreads | October 2019 | 25 minutes (6,239 words)

For years I’ve been misquoting the late Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz without knowing that Milosz is the one I’ve been misquoting. I’ve done this, I’m sure, because I heard someone else misquote Milosz. I’m pretty sure this person did so without attribution, as well.

How far back it goes is unknowable, of course, but it’s akin to a literary game of telephone that is entirely without consequence or the least bit interesting.

What I’ve been saying is this: When a writer is born into a family, it’s the end of the family.

I preface this statement with the safe and inarguable, “A writer once said …”

I used to think Flannery O’Connor said this about writers and families, as it sounds like something she would’ve said.

It isn’t very scholarly or academic to say, “A writer once said,” but it gets the point across to students. I trot this misquote out whenever I’m trying to get my students to risk more on the page, whenever I see them pussyfoot around potentially interesting and dangerous material. I use the Milosz quote to give them license to let it fly, to destroy themselves and their families.

I employ any number of quotes and misquotes when I teach fiction and nonfiction writing to students. Babel, Hemingway, Faulkner, Chekhov, Didion, Pritchett, Hannah, Shakespeare, O’Connor, Borges, Stengel, Berra, Ray Charles, A writer, etc.

The actual quote from Milosz is: “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”

I like the misquote better.

There’s a finality to the misquote that feels apocalyptic, whereas the actual quote sounds softer. One can finish a coffee table or a deck. One lover can ask another, “Did you finish?” and it would be considerate, thoughtful. A diamond is finished as are countless other precious gemstones and earthly items.

A family finished can mean they’ve attained the pinnacle of human achievement. No reason to go any further, to go forth and continue with this mindless multiplying, for we have birthed a writer.

Of course, it could be an issue with translation, too, and there’s no accounting for that. And I don’t know where the quote comes from, if it was in a poem or essay or lecture or what. A google search doesn’t provide this information, and I will have to dig deeper.

***

The Lopez side of my family ended on its own and had nothing to do with any writer.

I suppose while I am still living and while my sister is, likewise, this particular Lopez family has not quite ended, not technically. But as I have no children presently and will not father any in the future, this Lopez line will die with me.

I am the product of assimilation, so I don’t speak Spanish and know nothing of that culture and heritage, not first- or second-hand anyway. I only know what I’ve read in books or seen in the movies.

My sister has two beautiful children, my niece and nephew. The connection I feel to both is deeper than blood, particularly the blood that runs through my own veins and arteries, Lopez, Cappozoli, Resciniti, DeLeon/Colon.

Chloe and Jake are Korean. My sister and brother-in-law adopted both of them as infants and I sometimes joke that they are part Puerto Rican, part Italian, too.

According to the 2010 US census, Lopez is the twelfth most common surname in the country, with 874,500 people sharing it.

I don’t know any of these Lopezes personally, though I’ve met one or two in passing, had conversations, studied expressions, and listened to words — what was between and behind them. I’ve seen the disappointment and disapproval when another Lopez learns I don’t speak Spanish.

If there was any hint of kinship it was once or twice removed and long ago, metaphorical at best, and perhaps only resided in the imagination.

Sixto Lopez, my grandfather, was born in 1904 in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico and died in November 1987 in Brooklyn, New York. In between he lived and worked in Brooklyn, fathered and raised three children, one dying before maturity.

He was Popop to my sister and me, not grandpa or grandfather and never abuelo or abuelito.

I think I remember seeing a photo of my father’s older sister, the one who died young. The photo was black and white and the girl was very young, between three and ten, and she had on a frilly dress. She may’ve been holding hands with my grandmother. I don’t know what her name was, what she died from, or when. I do not come from a line of storytellers and apparently I was never curious enough to ask.

It’s possible I was curious enough to ask but no one wanted to talk about it. It’s possible I was told these basic facts and have since forgotten them. I don’t think this is likely, though. There is so much I don’t know about the Lopez side of the family that I’d have to have suffered some sort of brain injury to forget so much of it.

Donald Barthelme said, “Fragments are the only forms I trust.”

I’m not sure what constitutes a fragment when it comes to what I know about my family. What’s less than half a fragment? What’s part of a shard?

The family didn’t die with my grandfather, per se, nor did it die with my father upon his death 10 years later, but it had been as good as dead for years before any of the Lopezes started getting killed off.

Families are comprised of narratives, like history and novels. If there are no family stories, then the family ceases to exist.

Joan Didion said we tell stories in order to live. We could amend it by saying “to survive,” as well.

***

I don’t know anything about my grandfather. A few vaporous memories here and there, but nothing that would constitute a narrative and nothing at all definitive.

It would be one thing if I’d never met the man, if he were a ghost or legend. If he’d disappeared one day when my father was a kid, leaving the family to fend for themselves so he could sail around the world or hitchhike from town to town while working dead end jobs, or if he were a grifter orchestrating scam after scam, amassing and losing fortunes, over and again, and had another family or two in other parts of the country, maybe one in California, the other upstate.

Whenever I hear or read about someone describing a father or grandfather like this it seems romantic and enviable.

But I saw my grandfather fairly often until he died in 1987, when I was 16. He was always old, always home. He was always cooking a meal in the kitchen and eating it slowly in the dining room. I shared some of those meals with him and afterwards watched ball games with him.

Still, I have no idea who he was.

I don’t know if he had any brothers or sisters. I don’t know anything about his parents, don’t know their names or what they did for a living, or if they too were native to Puerto Rico or what. I don’t know if he left any family behind on the island, don’t know if anyone there ever missed him or wrote letters to him or called him on the telephone. I don’t know what he did for a living, though my mother says he was a longshoreman. I’d thought he was a painter, but I’m not sure why. I think maybe it was because I saw him once in a pair of paint-splattered khakis, something like what Jackson Pollock might look like after a day in the studio.

I think maybe he served in the United States Army or Navy, possibly as a cook.

I don’t know if he had any political affiliation or a particular ideology. I don’t know if he voted for Democrats or Republicans or no one at all.

I don’t remember ever meeting anyone from his family.

I think I remember that his American friends called him Eddie.

Apparently “Sixto” was too much for American tongues.

I’m not sure if this is assimilation, if all this was part of it. If to fully assimilate required that one believed the old country was old and left behind for a reason and we must never speak of it because we are Americans now, which means we speak perfect English at all times and never Spanish at home or anywhere else, and our history is the revolution and Valley Forge and the Battle of Gettysburg and four-score to seven years ago our fathers who art in heaven do highly resolve that these dead should not have died in vain, and to the republic for which it stands one nation under hamburgers and strip malls and cell phones with peace and justice for all rich people.

I’d sit in class and hear some social studies teacher say that we won the revolution, won the civil war, that we’ve never lost a war until maybe Vietnam, propaganda like this. They’d talk about slavery and emancipation and the Indians and Thanksgiving and I’d look around the room to see if anyone was actually swallowing this.

I never talked to my father about what it meant to be Puerto Rican. He never brought it up and I never asked. I never asked if he’d ever been called a spic and I don’t think I ever told him that I had.

I didn’t win the revolution or the civil war. I didn’t enslave anybody. I didn’t steal anyone’s land or systematically try to wipe out most of a continent’s population.

I only just got here, along with the rest of my family, from smack dab in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, an island called Puerto Nowhere.

I am the product of assimilation, so I don’t speak Spanish and know nothing of that culture and heritage, not first- or second-hand anyway. I only know what I’ve read in books or seen in the movies.

That’s the kind of Latino I am, how I was made.

***

“Families are always rising and falling in America,” said Nathaniel Hawthorne. We can amend to this one dying and disappearing, too.

I do remember getting home from school that November day in 1987, the day my grandfather died. I was a sophomore in high school, my sister an eighth-grader. Our mother was home when we arrived, which was unusual. Normally she’d have been at work, but her presence didn’t set off any sort of alarm when I first saw her and I wasn’t concerned or worried.

She broke the news to us in the foyer as soon as we entered the house and I remember trying to cry as a sort of appropriate reflex/response. I knew that was what you were supposed to do when your grandfather died; that’s what was expected. I’d seen it on television and in the movies, though I hadn’t known anyone who’d died up to that point, so I had no practical experience.

Probably about two or three seconds into this futile attempt at weeping I stopped, realizing it was ridiculous.

I remember my father coming home later that evening, having gone to Brooklyn to help his mother earlier in the day. I was nervous about this as I didn’t know what I should do or say and I didn’t know how my father would react. I asked my mother and she suggested giving him a hug and telling him you’re sorry.


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My father was always the strongest man I’d ever known, but I didn’t know if that strength would extend itself to grief. His arms were the size of my legs then and even his wrists were thick and muscled. It’d been only recently that I could keep up with him in a footrace, even though I was fast. And he was fearless, always the first to stand up for someone or rush to someone’s defense, particularly his family. But I didn’t know if something like that mattered when it came to trauma or grief. It seemed unrelated, beside the point. I didn’t know how any of it was supposed to work.

When he came through the door we rushed over to console him, and he was stoic and strong as he’d always been. Then I remember him walking into the kitchen and hanging his head over the oil burner that stood there. My father was then out of eyeshot of his children and I went into the living room to give him even more privacy.

I don’t know if I did it for him or me. Still, this gutted me, seeing my father like that, for the first and only time in my life.

As I type this sentence I am 47 years old, the same age as my father when his father died. All of it seems unbelievable and as far away as the moon.

I think I remember that my grandfather died in the bathtub. He’d been sick with prostate cancer that probably occurred and reoccurred, and by then he had grown thin and frail. I can’t recall if it was that night or sometime in the next week, during the wake and funeral, that my father said if the paramedics had attempted to resuscitate him his chest would’ve caved in.

Or that they did try to resuscitate him and his chest did cave in.

“No iron can strike the heart such as a period in the exact right place,” said Isaac Babel.

I had no emotional connection to my grandfather and I can’t say that I felt any sort of affection for him, either while he was alive or after he’d died. Like a lot of children I suppose I was somewhat afraid of older people, regardless of relation. His thick accent also kept me at arm’s length, as I had a hard time understanding him.

I had even less connection or affection for my grandmother, his wife.

For years I thought this indicated there was something wrong with me, but I never spent that much time thinking about it, either.

Maybe this also was a product of assimilation. Maybe if my grandparents had insisted my father speak Spanish and his children speak Spanish, and if they spoke Spanish to all of us and talked about Puerto Rico and what it’s like to live there as a second-class US citizen and talked about traditions and customs and food and music then something like a bond could’ve been forged.

Or maybe nothing would’ve fostered any sort of connection with them.

We’d drive out on holidays and the occasional Sunday to visit them in Starrett City, Brooklyn. My sister and I would sit in the backseat while we drove the length of the Southern State Parkway, which turned into the Belt once you hit Queens, which you usually did with great trepidation as the traffic was always murderous. That’s what people would say, they’d say the traffic was murder.

The memories I have of my grandfather are vaporous. Him pronouncing pumpkin pie in an exaggerated way, puffing out his cheek like Dizzy Gillespie at the beginning of each word. We’d visit them every Thanksgiving and this was his opportunity for doing this. Adding after the final chorus of the insipid Happy Birthday song, an ominous and hilarious coda …. “How many more?” I remember there was a standup keyboard in their apartment and I remember him playing the Godfather theme, “Speak Softly Love.” He also owned a guitar, but I have no memory of him playing guitar. He was a good cook, but I only remember him cooking pork chops with rice and beans or a turkey on Thanksgiving. His secret was laying strips of bacon on top of the turkey as it cooked.

***

Starrett City is a housing complex that opened in 1974 on a peninsula on the north shore of Jamaica Bay. It is located in the Spring Creek section of East New York.

From the beginning, Starrett City filled vacancies under an affirmative action racial formula in which 70% of vacant apartments went to non-Hispanic white families, and the remaining 30% went to minority families. In 1977, the minority makeup was 19% black, 9% Hispanic, and 2% Asian. (I imagine my grandparents were part of the 9 percent.) By 1979, the proportion of white residents had declined to 64%. At the time, most of the advertisements for Starrett City featured white applicants, but much of the resulting applicant pool was black or Hispanic. As a result of the quotas, black applicants who wanted apartments in Starrett City waited almost eight times as long as white applicants. By 1983, the complex’s 5,881 apartments were fully occupied, and three-fourths of the 6,000 families on Starrett City’s waiting list were minorities.

“As a musician you have to keep one foot back in the past and have one foot forward in the future,” said Dizzy Gillespie.

In 1979, the NAACP initiated a class-action suit against Starrett City Associates. The plaintiffs stated that the complex attempted to maintain racial quotas by selective approval of tenants based on racial and ethnic profiles. An agreement was made in May 1984 in which Starrett City Associates agreed to increase the minority quota by 5%, so that the ratio of non-Hispanic white to minority families was 65% to 35%.

I think I remember seeing a photo of my father’s older sister, the one who died young. I don’t know what her name was, what she died from, or when. I do not come from a line of storytellers and apparently I was never curious enough to ask.

Of course, I didn’t know anything about this when we would visit my grandparents on weekends and holidays. The people I saw walking the halls of their building or the streets surrounding it were as old as my grandparents so I thought it was a community for retired persons. Rather than an old folks home it was an old folks city, like what went on in Florida.

The people I saw were city people to my eyes, meaning they were white and black and brown, I think. Though perhaps too many were white, as mandated by the quota. On Long Island, where I grew up, everyone I ever saw was white — everyone at my school, everyone playing Little League baseball, everyone at the strip malls and chain restaurants.

Give us your tired, your poor, but no more than 30 percent.

***

The town I grew up in, Westbury, was entirely white south of Jericho Turnpike, and mostly black north of it, with a few real Latinas mixed in, ones who spoke Spanish and whose skin was a little darker than mine.

I’d like to say that once we came of age we’d drive over to the poor side of town where we’d chase after girls named Anita and Esperanza. That we couldn’t resist their dark eyes and hair and their shapely hips and the way they dressed and their fiery temperaments. We’d take them to dances and movies and their older brothers would chase after us with switchblades and billy clubs.

But, of course, none of this happened.

The black and Latino kids attended Westbury High School, the white kids W.T. Clarke, which I attended, and never the twain did meet except on basketball courts and baseball diamonds.

One vaporous memory … my father and grandfather and me in the park on the baseball field outside of my house. I’m maybe 7 or 8 or 10 years old and I’m hitting fungoes to my father and grandfather. A fungo is traditionally hit with a fungo bat, which is much lighter and thinner than a regulation bat and thus enables one to easily loft the ball into the air. Baseball coaches do this every day when it comes time for the outfielders to shag flies. My father was great at this and I became quite adept at catching sky-high popups by the age of 5. By the time I was a teenager I could catch the ball behind my back, which you’d never do in a game, of course. But after fielding thousands of these over the years, players become bored and you have to do tricks to keep yourself both engaged and amused.

On this day I wanted to hit, as I was always out in the field with a glove on my hand. And I probably wanted to show my grandfather that I could hit as well as I could field. But I couldn’t get the ball in the air on any of my two thousand attempts.

I can still see my grandfather trotting after a ball I scorched at him on the ground, a hot shot instead of a can of corn.

I remember feeling bad about this. He would’ve been in his mid-70s, and a man that old shouldn’t ever have to field a ground ball. I also remember my father admonishing me and shortly thereafter I had to hand the bat back over to him.

“No man over 45 should ever have to field a ground ball,” said Diego Goldstein.

I remember my grandfather’s fingernails, how there was a fold down the middle, as if they’d been bent inward. I think I remember my father’s fingernails caving in the same way towards the end of his life. As of today, this hasn’t happened to me.

My grandfather was probably five-foot-six or -seven, several inches shorter than my father. This led my father to believe that I’d continue the trend and shoot up past him. My whole life I heard him say, “He’s going to be a six-footer.”

I almost made it; fell short by only four or five inches.

My sister remembers our grandfather pretending to kill bugs on our heads. He’d squeeze those bent fingernails together and make a clicking sound on our scalps. I remember this, too. She remembers him making platanos, which I don’t at all remember. I do remember rice and beans, but that was the only Spanish culture/cuisine I was exposed to growing up. We had it at my grandparents’, but never at home.

My sister remembers that their apartment on Pennsylvania Avenue in Starrett City was 4-H, and the aroma of our grandfather’s cooking when she went through the door.

I loved to watch my grandfather eat. It’s as if he made love to the food, gently caressing the grains of rice back and forth before inviting them up and onto his fork. To this day I’ve never seen anyone eat like him, nor have I’ve seen anyone take as long to finish a meal. The rest of the family would leave him at the table to go off into the living room and he would sit by himself for another 15 or 20 minutes.

Of course, now I wish I’d stayed behind. Asked him questions, about Puerto Rico and his life there, when and why he emigrated to Brooklyn, where and how he met my grandmother, if anyone had ever called him a spic or how often, what he did for a living, what he wanted for his children, what he wanted for me, my sister, etc. I can think of a million questions now.

I might’ve been able to save my family had I done this.

V.S. Pritchett might’ve said of short stories that they are glimpsed out of the corner of the eye in passing. I tell this to my students all the time, every semester.

What I don’t tell them is that it’s true about so much else, that it’s true about everything. I don’t tell them anything about my family, about my grandfather and how he died when I was 16 and I didn’t know him at all, and what’s more, that I don’t know anything about him, either.

I actually do tell them that it’s true about everything else, that we walk through the world and see very little of it and know even less, but they don’t believe it.

I always eat too fast, every meal.

I say emigrated from Puerto Rico because Puerto Rico has never been a part of the United States.

***

I asked my sister what she remembered of our grandfather’s death. She mentioned our father getting the call at home. I told her what I remembered and she said yes, I was right. That he wasn’t home when he received the call and we only saw him later after he’d already been to Brooklyn and did whatever he did there. She started laughing at her mistake and then mentioned him hanging his head over the burner, too, which served as corroboration for the both of us.

She said, “Your own childhood is one big fallacy of false memories.”

My sister said she remembers talking to our grandfather on the phone, said it was much harder to understand him that way than in person. She said she remembers that he had a banjo.

He didn’t have a banjo. He had the guitar. I never heard him play it, or I did but I don’t remember.

I remember that he hated Henry Fonda. I don’t know why, though I can imagine why someone would hate Henry Fonda.

No one wants to see some rich guy playing poor Tom Joad’s blues in every picture, or a Mexican priest or some other kind of do-gooder.

But he also saved that Puerto Rican kid from Lee J. Cobb and the chair in “Twelve Angry Men.”

Maybe Sixto hated Fonda because he did that, because he saved the Puerto Rican.

Maybe he hated him because he represented a kind of American that had nothing to do with Sixto.

I remember him saying that if we crossed our eyes and a fly happened past, they’d get stuck like that forever.

My sister and I both remember hearing stories of how he tried to turn my sister into a right-handed person when she started exhibiting left-handed tendencies.

Here’s a memory …. We are all sitting in the living room at their apartment in Starrett City. In this case it is everyone except my grandmother, who is doing something in the kitchen, which is separated from the living room by a wall that stops halfway into the hall. I am on the sofa or couch or loveseat with my sister and father and mother and grandfather. The television is on, probably tuned to a game of some sort. In the summer it would’ve been baseball. My grandfather was a Mets fan like my father and me and we eagerly tracked the exploits of Strawberry and Hernandez and Gooden.

Everyone is preoccupied with something. My father is reading a newspaper, likely The Daily News or The New York Post. My father read three newspapers cover to cover every day, the other being Newsday, a fine Long Island publication.

Back then The New York Post wasn’t quite so objectionable and horrifying, as this was years before Rupert Murdoch bought the paper.

This is where we say that it was a different time, a different place, a different culture. We say that Sixto Lopez was born in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico in 1904 and we’re talking about machismo and traditional gender roles and subservience.

I remember my father saying reading the Sunday Times was like a college education. But I didn’t see a Sunday Times until I was in my 20s. And I was the first person in my family, either side, to go to college, my sister the second.

I’m unable to paint a picture of the scene beyond this. My mother might be reading a book; I don’t know what my sister is doing. I can’t describe the furniture or the walls or the décor, as I cannot recall any of it.

It is a very modest one-bedroom apartment. There might be a clock on the wall, something cheap and probably garish. There is no art on the walls, perhaps a framed picture or two of my grandmother, as she was extraordinarily vain and asked for her picture to be taken more often than anyone I’ve ever known.

This was well before the age of selfies, a word that makes my fingers choke as I type it out.

My grandfather very quietly whistles, a pretty note full of vibrato lasting no more than two seconds. I see his cheeks flutter.

Two seconds later my grandmother appears. She stands in the entry to the living room and listens as my grandfather asks for iced-tea.

I look around to see if anyone was paying attention, if anyone caught this.

No one flinches, no one looks up. I’m the only one privy to what’s happened. I think I remember feeling glad of this, relieved. It wouldn’t have to be discussed. I wouldn’t have to say the sentence out loud.

He had her trained to come when he whistled.

Of course, I was appalled, awed, dumbstruck.

This is where we say that it was a different time, a different place, a different culture. We say that Sixto Lopez was born in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico in 1904 and we’re talking about machismo and traditional gender roles and subservience. We talk about class and education, the woman’s place in the kitchen and apparently at the beck and whistle of her husband.

“A woman’s place, right there now in her home,” said Ray Charles.

My grandmother, I didn’t care for her, not in any respect. Aside from the tedious narcissism she was painfully dull and entirely dim-witted. She wasn’t mean spirited, nor was she generous or warm. She was peculiar in a thoroughly uninteresting way.

“He was a zero with shoes,” said Jackie Jr. about Christopher Moltisanti in “The Sopranos.”

I know it’s in bad taste to speak ill of the dead but then there’s Ezra Pound who said, “Fundamental accuracy of statement is the one sole morality of writing.”

She wouldn’t sit in the front passenger side of a car because it was the death seat. Instead, my sister, her granddaughter, would take the seat while she remained safe in the back.

My sister would’ve been a teenager at the time, my grandmother in her 80s.

I don’t know if she realized the absurdity of this.

It makes me wonder if, when she learned of her son’s death in August, 1997, at the age of 56, she thought, Better him than me.

I could go further, but then there’s empathy and causality and context, although perhaps it’s too late for all of that.

It was a different time, a different place, a different culture.

“I have sinned, Lord, but I have several excellent excuses,” said Henry Fonda in War and Peace.

“Stories are like icebergs and subways, most of it is beneath the surface,” said Hemingway.

***

On the other side of the family, the Italian side, the gender roles were somewhat similar. At the end of a Sunday dinner, all the men would remain at the table while the women buzzed around the kitchen, doing the dishes, clearing the table, getting ready to serve the coffee and dessert.

I never saw any of the men whistle for the women, though. Still, the roles were established and immutable. The women waited on the men and the children.

The brilliant and groundbreaking television show, “The Sopranos,” demonstrated this more than once throughout the run of the series. The Sopranos depicted a rather typical Italian family in New Jersey, save for the father’s role as a mob boss.

One telling scene had the daughter, Meadow, eating breakfast at the table while her mother, Carmela, emptied the dishwasher in the kitchen. After downing the remaining fruit juice, Meadow shakes her empty glass at her mother, a signal that she wants more and her mother is to drop everything, go to the refrigerator, retrieve the fruit juice, cross over the kitchen into the dining room to refill her glass.

This was a maneuver I saw more than once growing up.

“You know how to whistle, don’t you,” said Lauren Bacall.

This is where I come from. A man named Sixto Lopez, who whistled for his wife to serve him.

He said he was homesick for Puerto Rico sometime during the last year or two of his life. This I remember. I don’t remember him ever talking about Puerto Rico, what he was homesick for. I don’t know anything about Mayaguez, other than what I’ve read on the Internet.

I don’t know if he and my grandmother ever visited Puerto Rico once they’d moved to Brooklyn.

“Democracy dies in darkness” — the Washington Post said that.

“Families die in silence,” — I said that.

The love I had for the members of my immediate family, father, mother, sister, was profound, deep, and superstitious. I was always afraid that something was going to happen to my parents, that they’d get killed off in a car accident. I’d have to say, “Be careful,” to them on their way out the door, otherwise they’d wreck and my sister and I would be orphans.

I had to have been scarred by a movie or television show I’d seen as a child. Which is why I always had to make sure that any fights or quarrels were resolved before anyone left the house. The guilt that the character or characters lived with afterwards seemed oppressive and unthinkable.

I never saw any of the men whistle for the women, though. Still, the roles were established and immutable. The women waited on the men and the children.

And my mother is also somewhat neurotic, the neuroticism bequeathed to her from her own mother, so it is somewhat genetic.

I’d line up for a corner jumper at the basketball courts in the park across the street from my house. I’d say, This is so everyone in my family will be okay,” and let it fly. If I missed the shot I’d take another, repeating the same line. I couldn’t leave until I made the shot and saved my family. I’d do this when disposing of paper in a wastebasket, as well.

But this love and insanity didn’t extend beyond the immediate family, the nuclear family, which was a term that confused me for years as a child.

I never worried about my grandparents. I never feared losing them, never looked forward to seeing them.

This might have nothing to do with assimilation or everything or something to do with it or it might speak to who they were as people, though you probably can’t separate any of this.

There’s nothing for me to look back on when it comes to my grandparents, only shards, fragments.

I can’t look back because there’s nothing to see, because it’s gone, because it was always gone.

I saw that my father respected his father, but only tolerated his mother. His relationship to her was obligatory, particularly after my grandfather died. My father was always big on obligation and never shirked any sort of responsibility.

But he didn’t like his mother and I couldn’t blame him, obviously. He never said it out loud, of course, but we all knew.

***

My father died ten years after his father did, on August 29th, 1997, two days before my own 26th birthday.

I spent most of 2007 keeping an eye out for falling safes.

“Don’t die until you’re dead,” said Yevgeny Yevtushenko.

For years I was petrified that something would happen to my father. He had high blood pressure but wasn’t one for self-destruction at all. He hardly ever drank and quit smoking in the early 70s. He was athletic and stocky, not overweight or unhealthy. He loved food and could eat, but that was his only vice.

Still, even as a child, I’d linger in the hallway after going to the bathroom in the middle of the night. I had to hear the sound of him breathing while he slept before I could go back to bed.

I never talked to him about what it meant to be Puerto Rican. He never brought it up and I never asked.

I never asked if he’d ever been called a spic and I don’t think I ever told him that I had.

In the wake of my father’s death I’d visit his grave often, every week. I did this for at least a year or two. I remember the feeling of seeing the temporary marker replaced by the headstone, probably a month or two after the funeral. Seeing his name, the same as mine, Robert Lopez, on a grave. How it somehow made it official and permanent.

I’ve only been to the cemetery once in the last 10 years, as I live in Brooklyn and he’s buried on Long Island and I don’t own a car. But I imagine that even if I did live closer I’d visit his grave infrequently, perhaps once a year, on his birthday.

This is what happens over time. You get used to the loss and absence and you don’t visit cemeteries anymore or as often.

When I say you I mean me in this case. But I’m sure it applies to other people, too, in theory.

I haven’t been to my grandfather’s grave since his funeral and I have no memory of that particular cemetery. I remember his wake, hugging my father and seeing his eyes well up, but never spill over. I remember my grandmother as a sort of zombie, until the last hour of the second day of viewing, when she finally broke down and wept.

I’m planning to go out to the cemetery in a couple of weekends. I’ll look at Sixto Lopez’s grave. Maybe I’ll say something out loud. Maybe I’ll tell him about this essay, this book I’m putting together. Perhaps I’ll say something about my sister and father. I probably won’t mention my grandmother.

My father was the product of assimilation and I don’t know how he felt about it. He was born in Brooklyn in 1940 and grew up and lived there until it was time to take his young family out to Long Island.

The only Spanish I can remember him speaking was when he’d recall his time in Panama, serving in the army. He was there in November 1963 and went on high alert after President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on the 22nd.

“Language is the only homeland,” said Czeslaw Milosz.

He’d mimic one of his Southern comrades while they were out on the town, invoking a colorful drawl, “No hablo Espanol, Senorita.”

Me, neither, Senorita.

Me, neither.

* * *

Robert Lopez is the author of five works of fiction, of which the most recent are Good People and All Back Full. A new book, A Better Class Of People, will be published by Four Way Books in 2021.

Editor: Sari Botton