The Keystone of the Family

“In my day … fathers and grandfathers didn’t involve themselves in the birthing process. Childbirth was strictly the domain of women.”


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The All Natural Birthing Center, a low cement building with every shade pulled down, squats in the center of Main Street pushing out babies proud as could be. My wife and I wanted the kids to use a real hospital, but they wouldn’t hear of it, and, as it turns out, our fears were unwarranted. Outside the whitewashed building, I try to force myself through the doors, pungent roses in my arms, but I decide to have another cigarette instead.

In my day, back in Costa Rica, fathers and grandfathers didn’t involve themselves in the birthing process. Childbirth was strictly the domain of women. My wife wanted me with her when she delivered both our boys, but I refused, and I still think I made the right decision.

I should be gracious, forgiving. Luke’s young, just 25. At least he stood by her, but his refusal to do the right thing grabbed my guts and twisted them. I raised him to be a better man. Where I come from, fathers teach their sons by example. Hadn’t I married their mother when I found myself in a similar situation? Of course, I did. There should have been no discussion necessary.

I was gentler with my sons than my father had been with me and my five siblings. He’d ruled the house with a velvet-gloved iron fist. We didn’t question his decisions, and we obeyed. We looked to him for reassurance and signs of approval, but Luke couldn’t care less if I approved of his decision not to marry the girl.

When I was a kid, my father would arrive home twice a day, at noon and at seven. He’d hang his black fedora on the hook by the door, amble into the kitchen, lean over and kiss my mother on the cheek. She’d cluck and fill a plate for him, a generous one with rice and beans, chicken and salad for lunch and a lighter meal for dinner. We always ate in silence. The simple kitchen, with its scarred wooden table and malodorous kerosene heater, changed simply by his presence, and, once he’d eaten and exited, this palpable change permeated the room like a perfume that lingers on a well-used bed.

One time — I might have been 9 — Papi had missed the evening meal, but my mother had leftovers covered for him in the icebox. Though she’d said nothing, my mother’s thin, pursed lips and deep concentration on her darning spoke volumes. Finally, we heard his step at the door, and she shooed us up the stairs. I hung back, hidden in the shadows of the stairwell.

Papi bounded through the front door like a young man, with vigor and something strongly resembling jubilation. I couldn’t tear my eyes away, so odd was his entrance. He held his hat high in the air and danced his way to my mother, taking her in his arms and swinging her about. He slowed the dancing, gazed down at her smiling face and then, without hesitation, planted a kiss on her mouth, a long, open-mouthed kiss that shocked me. I leaned out farther to behold this strangeness, but he spied me, broke the embrace and clapped his hands like a thunderbolt, sending me racing up the stairs. He’d won the local lotto.

But that show of affection was the exception. Normally, my father’s love was like tarnished brass, constant and strong yet cold and faded. I was the youngest, but we all knew he loved my eldest brother, Marco, the best. He’d confide in Marco, grabbing his shoulder and walking him around the garden away from us younger ones to tell him of big news in the town or plans he had. Of course, he tousled my hair, and even as an old man, would greet us with a strong handshake, but there was a distance between us. The only time he let down his guard was when he spoke of his own father.

Napoleon had arrived in Costa Rica straight off the boat from Napoli, a tall man with broad shoulders and a handsome countenance. In his stories, Papi always added that Abuelo, till the day he died, had a full head of black hair, just like I have today. The ladies found him irresistible, and he obliged them as much as possible, to my grandmother’s ire and frustration.

Abuelo died right before my seventh birthday, but I remember him well. My warmest memory is of him carrying me home on his shoulders from the annual festival in San David. Every January the family spent one entire day, staying well into the night, at the festival, dancing to live music, eating tamales and chifrijo, drinking naturales and watching the horse parade, which was the highlight. We children raced about to keep from having to stay put, and by the time the blanket of stars had covered the sky, we’d be exhausted. Abuelo would always lift me up, placing me on his shoulders as we walked to the car. I’d tower above the crowds, and loved the feeling of power it gave me. Eduardo, my closest brother, complained that Abuelo showed special favor to me, but Abuelo would laugh and slap my legs which hung down over his chest.

“He’s the baby!” Abuelo bellowed. “Of course, he’s special!”

Abuelo would then take off with his long stride ahead of everyone, pointing out constellations to me and making up stories about the stars. Abuelo talked on any subject, but his favorite stories to tell and my favorite to hear were about the old country. He filled my head with castles and volcanos and the bay that still called to him. I could smell the sea and feel the hard shake of his father’s hand as he bade his son goodbye, never to see each other again. We marched down the darkened road, and I felt the quake of the ship as I rocked from side to side astride his shoulders. I imagined his shoemaker father with his bushy white mustache, and even glimpsed his father’s father — a shoemaker himself — and I felt comforted by the tales of his family, my family. Comforted and safe.

With my own sons, I never gave raising them any thought. You don’t turn boys into men; they just grow into them like slick tadpoles grow into capable frogs. Besides, child-rearing wasn’t my job. My job was to bring in a paycheck. Janet and I had been surprised by the pregnancy and rushed to marry, and life suddenly became a whirling tornado of exhilaration one moment and torture the next. I have no regrets, don’t misunderstand. I loved my wife, still love my wife, but a man, a young man, is not meant to be so settled, so tied to one woman. I often felt I’d failed her. I was only human after all and tended to favor my grandfather in certain pursuits more than I did my father.

I enjoyed my sons, but they came so quickly, one right after the other, that soon my wife and I did not act like lovers, just partners. Her domain was the house, mine the outside world. She was American.

I could no more stay in Costa Rica than I could plant my feet in the ground and grow banana leaves. Like my grandfather Napoleon, I had to explore, see new places, and I answered a friend’s dare to go to the United States. We were to go together, but as fate would have it, he stayed in Alajuela, backing out at the last minute. I traveled through all of Central America, spending a night in each capitol as the borders closed at sunset. I explored Tikal and Chichen Itza, Puebla, and Mexico City. Finally, I made my way to the U.S. border and crossed, running with a pack of others, there must have been 30 of us. I saw three caught by la migra, but they didn’t come close to nabbing me. Ironically, within a year, I was married and nabbed, instead, by love and responsibility.

Janet, my wife, was my first woman in the States. Blond, with wide hips and a quick smile. We laughed our way through the language barrier. Words were not necessary when you felt the way we felt for each other. We made love incessantly. Five years later, with two children and a recent miscarriage, we rarely found time to smile at each other.

“I’m having my tubes tied,” she told me after one particularly nasty day with the boys. I’d already learned that a particular tone meant it was useless to argue.

I rolled the news over in my head, nevertheless, and watched her washing dishes at the kitchen sink. I said nothing.

“I mean, God forbid you should get a vasectomy.”

I felt kicked in the gut. That tone. That insinuation that I should lose my manhood simply because my wife told me to, but I checked my anger. She was tired. She didn’t want more kids. I understood. I thought to rise and wrap my arms around her, but she looked so cold, so distant, that I hesitated. I went to her anyway, and, as expected, she did not respond to my touch. I kissed her cheek then left the room. We never spoke of it again. And we had no further children.

The boys grew fast and strong. I worked construction but tried to save time for their baseball games. I could see their talent, their intelligence, but they were like night and day. Luke was brooding and passionate about all things political while Jesse, the younger, was a quick-witted jester who kept the boys in stitches and the girls in love.

I taught them soccer, and they taught me Frisbee, but we didn’t talk much. I was more affectionate to my children than my father had been with us, but the boys began to balk at my attempts to rub their backs or give them a quick hug, shoving me away if they thought I’d touch them in public. I stopped trying with Luke, but Jesse didn’t seem to mind my affection, though he always seemed to hug his mother more than me.

Last winter, Janet and I picked up Luke to drive him to Christmas dinner at my wife’s sister’s house. He informed us that he didn’t approve of our gas guzzler, and, by the way, he was going to be a father. He and Ashley were expecting. I said nothing because Luke was hardly ready to handle a child. Janet filled the silence, asking about specific dates and if he had any plans. His reply? June and none.

“But you’re out of college,” my wife said. “You have a good job. Don’t you love her?”

“Of course, I love her.”

“So marry her,” I said. “You need to marry her.”

“No, I don’t. We don’t believe in that.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. I scowled at him in the rearview mirror. “Of course, you’re going to marry her. You do the right thing!”

My wife put a hand on my arm, and I shut up, but I was furious. What kind of man puts a woman into that situation and leaves her hanging? We rode in silence till we reached the house, awash in white Christmas lights. By the time I placed the car in park, Janet had made a decision. She turned to Luke.

“Don’t say anything tonight, honey. Give us some time to digest this, okay?”

We piled out of the car and marched up the winding walkway as if going to a funeral, but once the door opened and happy faces greeted us, Luke made his own decision, giving everyone the good news as soon as he greeted them. His mother and I were mortified.

So here I stand, six months later, in front of the All Natural Birthing Center, roses in my hand. To my relief, I see Jesse approaching, juggling a massive stuffed panda bear almost as big as himself. He grins from ear to ear.

“It’s a gift Salvador can grow into. What are you doing out here?”

I take another drag on my cigarette. Jesse waits for a response.

“You go in,” I say. “Go ahead. You want to take these?” I hold the roses out to him. “I’ll see the baby later.”

He grabs my arm. “You’re going in.”

The strength of his grip surprises me, pisses me off. I don’t have a problem seeing the baby, but Luke had defied us, refused to marry this girl he professed to love. I hadn’t spoken to him since Christmas, and a wall had grown between us.

I yank my arm free and turn away. “When I’m ready.”

“Hold it right there, pardner.” Jesse grabs my shoulders and turns me back toward the building. “This is your first grandchild, and you are going to welcome him with all the love and cariño a grandfather is supposed to show.”

I glare at him. This is not about the baby.

“Who will show Salvador the way? You have to know where you come from to know where you’re going? Isn’t that what you always said?”

I stare at Jesse. That was my grandfather’s line.

“Who’ll teach him about the old country and the Festival of San David? Napoleon and Napoli and that night you caught your dad kissing your mom? Nobody else can do it.”

I want to say that no one ever listened to those old stories anyway and that Salvador would be a 21st century kid, through and through, but all I can do is mumble something about not being too good with babies.

“Papi, you have to welcome this baby into the family.”

“I will. In my time. Besides, your mother’s in there.”

“You have to do it.”

“There are plenty of people welcoming him already. Why me?”

“Because you’re the oldest! You’re special.” His eyes twinkle at his joke. As the baby of the family, the “youngest” line had always been Jesse’s favorite line of my Napoleon story.

“Papi, your reach stretches five generations.” He holds his arms out letting the panda drop as if of no consequence. “To your left, live the memories of your father and grandfather. To your right, live the dreams of your sons and your grandson. And you stand in the middle, the keystone of the family. The crux.”

A lump forms in my throat. I try to cough it away.

Jesse draws me close and hugs me hard.

“He needs to marry that girl,” I say into Jesse’s shoulder.

“That’s a discussion for a different day.” He pulls away, rubs my shoulders and guides me into the center.

We stop at the information desk, Jesse flashing his award-winning smile at the clerk. She smiles back and points down the hall. “Congratulations!” she calls out. I hardly hear her.

Ashley’s door is open and cries go up when Jesse enters, his arms full of the oversized panda. “Oh my God, Jesse,” I hear my wife say.

Then I enter carrying my roses and everyone looks at me. Then the moment passes. They come back to life.

My wife rushes over. “Oh, isn’t that sweet!” She rubs my back, pecks my cheek, and takes the flowers before I know what’s happening.

Ashley is in bed, holding the baby. All I can see is a shock of black hair. Both my boys had been born with thick hair like that.

Luke is on me before I’ve gotten my bearings. He holds out his hand to shake, which I take, but he draws me in, and we end with a hug. I exhale, my heart still thumping.

“Come meet your grandson,” Luke says, taking my elbow.

Ashley holds the child out to Luke who takes him, then turns to me with the baby in his outstretched arms.

I back up, shake my head. “No, no. That’s okay.”

My wife is beside me, her hand on my back, pushing me forward. I stare at the baby who has a face like a cranberry. Luke puts Salvador in my arms. He weighs the same as a blanketed bundle of feathers. I peer into the dark deepness of his eyes, and he stares back without reaction. And there it was, something that clicked between us just as something had always clicked between my grandfather and me.

I look up to find everyone smiling at me.

“He has your hair,” my wife says.

That had been one of the first things she mentioned when the boys were born.

“And that same blank stare,” Jesse said, making everyone crack up.

I smile back. I don’t know what to say. And I really don’t. I’m filled with so much love for this little one, my mind racing with thoughts of who he will be, and filled with a need to protect and guide this youngest member of our family.

“He’s beautiful,” I murmur.

I glance up at Luke and catch him and Ashley in a stolen kiss, him rubbing the top of her head, while everyone is looking at me. Luke sees me and straightens. He claps his hands for no reason, and I wonder if he remembers the story of my dad winning the lotto. He grins widely.

I smile back.

And the wall I’d felt between us for the past six months vanishes. In its place was this little baby, this Salvador. The youngest of the family.

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