There was a Mexican comedian that my father used to like to watch. I was never quite sure of his real name; I just know he used to call him Cantinflas. I don’t remember any of his movies—I was too young—but I do remember that my father used to laugh a lot when he watched them. On a whim, I decided to track down some of Cantinflas’ material to see if I might learn something about my father by reflecting on the pathos of a performer he greatly admired. To my surprise, I found that this man, Cantinflas, encapsulated in his humor one of my father’s most deeply held sentiments: “El mundo debería reírse más, pero después de haber comido.” [In English, “The world ought to be laughing more, but only after it has eaten first.”]
And laugh my father did. He was a very funny man and good-natured too, someone who fully accepted the cultural ideal of “the American dream.” His father emigrated from Jamaica and his mother from Puerto Rico, but his purpose in the world—at least as he saw it growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s—was to see to it that he would make out just a little better than his parents did. I often wondered, how did he think he was doing on that score? But that was always a hard question for me to answer because my father never talked much about his family. Yet in a way, I suppose, he didn’t really have to. Since his understanding of what it meant to be alive had always been far more clearly communicated by his actions than by his words, all one needed to do at anytime was examine how he laughed and how he ate, so to speak, to see the goodness he brought to our family and the love he brought to everybody who knew him.
I remember our house in Bohemia, our weekly trips to Times Squares Stores to buy 45 rpm records, and when I was nine, a trip all the way to Sam Ash in Manhattan to purchase one of my very first 33s. All this is indicative of how my father operated, how he saw the world. Anything that a person wanted, that person can receive—if he just works hard enough for it and knows the arrangements to make to receive it. A quirky notion that my father was possessed of was that in order to show just how hard-working he really was he had to go out to eat. This was fun for us as kids as any kid might imagine because we used to drive all the way to exit 40 on the Long Island Expressway to eat at Howard Johnsons, up route 110 to Huntington on our way to Pancho Villa and to Mott St. in Manhattan to eat Chinese food in Chinatown. By the time my youngest brother was born, my father wanted a house where each of us could have our own bedrooms and a good school so that, well, we would be optimally poised to do better in our lives than he and my mother were able to do in theirs, that is, when the time would come--when we would be old enough to strike out on our own and my parents established enough to maintain whatever standard of living they had managed to attain.
And here the time has come, though by now Cantinflas is a distant memory and the laughter has faded into silence. Still, God brings peace and he has brought my father peace, a peace that they say surpasses all understanding. And here another one-liner comes to mind, one my father believed which reads as follows: “Porque donde esté vuestro tesoro, allí estará también vuestro corazón.” [In English: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”] My father’s heart was a private matter, an enigma that he kept to himself, but one, I have come to see, that he could not keep from God. When he was 42, he had had his first heart attack that required triple bypass surgery just to keep him alive. We had to drive all the way to Lady of Lourdes to see him. Little could any of us have known that over twenty years later his sixth grandchild would be born in that same hospital—and that he would live to see her! As his sickness got worse and the maladies compounded, my father accepted that it wasn’t one’s treasure that made a person’s heart what it is, but rather their heart that made the treasure what it is. This took some time but as his body gave way his spirit began to soar, until in the end God decided to take him. As I tell my kids, where God takes people when they die, I do not know, but I can say that my father will be sorely missed. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.