Lost Boy. Found Man.
Updated: Mar 28
My father, like me, is a story-teller. Get him in a good mood when he's feeling particularly reflective, and he'll tell you stories that will make you laugh, cry or wonder how in the world he's even here to tell the story. After over forty years on this earth, I thought I'd heard every story that he had to tell. Yet, as he gets older, I realize there is always more.
It started with a fishing trip.
My father was born in 1946 in the small village of El Tigre, Venezuela that was devoid of any luxuries like running water and indoor plumbing. His mother, who was already in her late thirties, gave birth at home as was custom. His uneventful birth was registered in town several months later by an older brother who not so brightly listed the registration date as my father's birthdate, and with his name forever misspelled. The heavy Spanish accent compelled them to spell his European surname phonetically, thus creating a new family name and lineage.
There are few stories of his early childhood, including just how many actual siblings he has. His mother was a natural nurturer and often took in and raised other people’s children as her own, thus blurring the lines of who he was connected to by blood or not. His mother started having children at 15 years old. Therefore, by the time he was born, all children in his household were considered his siblings, no matter how they were connected. It was only later in my life that I learned that not every "aunt" or "uncle" was actually born from my grandmother, whom we all affectionately called "Granny."
The most prominent story of his early childhood, which arguably shaped the person he is today, began when he was just 6 years old. It's probably most prominent because it's his first memory, and it's most likely his first memory because it was so traumatic. The older he gets, the more he reflects on this time, dissecting it and analyzing its effects on his psyche as a man and as a father; the details becoming clearer with age.
On a clear day around 1952, his father informed him and his younger brother and sister that they were going on a fishing trip. At the time, they were living in Trinidad, an island off the coast of Venezuela. They had moved there a couple years earlier to seek better opportunities.
On this day, his father said they'd be taking a boat trip to nearby St. Vincent to go fishing and visit their older brother (their father's son from a previous relationship). Unbeknownst to them, their mother was completely unaware of this impromptu trip. Later, it was learned that the journey was taken as a means to hurt their mother. But no doubt, it hurt my father and his siblings much more.
Excited to go on this unexpected adventure, they had no clue of the struggles they would later endure. They arrived and were taken to the home of an elderly woman who was introduced to them as their aunt. Soon after, their father departed and said that he would return a little later. He never did.
At the age of 6, my father, with his 5 year old brother and 3 year old sister, were left with an aunt they didn't know and who was unprepared physically, mentally and financially to care for these young children. Missing their mother, they questioned whether they had been discarded and if their father would ever return. All they knew for certain was that they had each other.
When I was young, I remember hearing my father's stories of his time in St. Vincent, and they always had a comedic tone, the laughter with which he told each story did not belie the trauma these situations inflicted. There were stories of him crying himself to sleep after asking his aunt for food. She would beat them until they cried so hard, they'd tire out and fall asleep with empty bellies. I'm sure it was not the question or anything these children had done which prompted the beating but rather her frustration and shame in her inability to provide for them or give them answers to the many questions they had about their current situation.
My father tells of another time when his aunt managed to get a can of corned beef but was unfortunate that she lost the ever valuable "key" that was needed to open it. She dragged the children up and down the road screaming pleas to anyone who would listen for a key to open the tin because, without it, they would spend yet another evening hungry. Again, this story was told with laughter and without any indication of the devastation of the situation.
It was during his time living on that island, with his siblings and aging aunt, that my father learned survival. He learned the art of self-reliance. He filled his belly with food from the land like breadfruit, coconut or mango and went to school only because he knew he was guaranteed to get a glass of milk. As he grew, his clothes did not grow with him so what clothes he was lucky enough to get were either too small or too big, and shoes were a novelty that he wouldn't earn until he was thirteen.
No, life was not easy for my father and his siblings. And it would be eight long years before this ordeal ended, and their mother was able to locate where they were and bring them home.
Age and perspective allow you to see the past with a much clearer lens. When my father, now in his seventies, reflects on this time there's no more laughter. There's nothing funny about a child feeling abandoned, lost and alone. Now his stories strike a solemn tone that lets you know that it was the single most defining moment in his life, one that shaped who he is today. Each recitation of these events is like he's telling it for the first time, and it's clear that he's instantly transported back to that island and small shack. His recollection of the time and the wounds it inflicted are sharp and raw.
Those moments at night in the quiet when he laid there in poverty with only the sound of his hunger pangs; when the hatred for what his father had done was right on the surface, a skinny, knobby-kneed boy spoke to God. He promised that when he became a man, he would be different; he would always be there for his wife and family. He vowed he would be the protector and provider that he was deprived of, and his children would never ever endure the pain he was forced to.
My father kept that promise.
Dad, we are who we are because of you.