Hazel's only fifteen months old, but she already knows hundreds of words. She's my daughter, so of course I think she's a genius. She can say: awesome, yellow, up-down, tunnel, funny, and nose (which she likes to “honk”)—each word spoken in that measured, gleeful way of a new talker.
But she says “da-da” as she contentedly scribbles with crayons on the back of an envelope, or as she watches the cityscape recede from her car seat, or in the middle of the night as she stirs in bed. When she gets upset, sometimes she says it while pointing to her own chest, which inspires wonder and guilt in me. Does she hope I will save her from the hurt in there? Or am I the cause of her woe as I stand there, reaching out to take her up in my arms?
It seems strange to me now, but when I was a kid, there were three things my family did for entertainment: watch TV, attend big family barbecues, and go for drives. On the road, often it was just my dad and me. When I was eight or nine, I would climb into one of his rusting, mildewy Chevy vans and set out across the Skagit Valley mudflats, past fields of sweet corn, tulips, strawberries, potatoes, or peas depending on the season. I think he liked to drive because with the road humming and the radio blaring he could fool himself into believing he could go anywhere.
On our drives we went to the grocery stores and restaurants he sold tortillas to—not to make a delivery, just to talk. We stopped at butcher shops and flea markets, hardware stores and junkyards. Often we would end up bouncing down a gravel driveway to a large garage where pot-bellied men with grease-stained hands stood around some machine trying to decide whether they could fix it or would have to shove it off into the tall grass out back.
“I see you brought your assistant with you,” one of them would say, which would make my dad proud and jovial. “I got my right-hand man today,” he'd say, jostling my shoulders.
Our journeys often ended at my grandma's Mexican restaurant, which was just across a narrow field from our house. I would follow my dad through the restaurant's back door, past boxes and empty soda canisters and the bar backed against a cinder-block wall. He would weave through the kitchen, where the cooks peered through the order shelves to say to me, “Hey, it's little Bobby!” as waitresses slid past us, balancing hot plates or trying to pinch my cheeks.
He loved me best in those days, when I was his tail, his eyes and ears, his extra set of hands. As I grew older, he didn't understand why I didn't want to help in the garage or drive out to get some piece of junk from Alger or Clear Lake. He was one of eight boys who competed for their father's attention, and I think he became his father's favorite by jumping in the truck and going wherever it was going. But I was an only son. There were no favorites to be chosen. And even if there were, I don't know that I would have wanted to be one. So the older I got, the more I hid in my room with video games or a book and waited until my dad drove off alone.
Hazel has corkscrew curls that spring and bounce atop her head. When they first meet her, friends and strangers all say the same thing. They look at her hair, and then back and forth between my slightly wavy hair and my wife's straight hair, and ask, “Now, where did those curls come from?”
Hair aside, people often say she looks like me. They mean it as a compliment, which I'm supposed to accept with pride and modesty, as if I've worked my whole life for this. Truth is, I'm uneasy with the comparison. It makes me feel vain, as if I had set out to create a mini me. And I don't like to hear other people decide who she is before she gets to decide for herself. But most of all I don't like the idea that I might be responsible for something innate in her that she will struggle with her whole life. “Poor kid,” I sometimes mumble, trying out my wariness as a joke, but this only makes people uncomfortable, so I'm learning to simply smile politely and move along.
A friend once told me, “People have kids because they're curious.” They want to know what qualities will show up in this new person. He was trying to say that people are narcissistic, which might be true, but I think they're mostly naive. They think that having a child will answer questions, but the opposite is true. They raise new questions with every breath they take.
How am I like him? I think about that question more than I should.
I'm good with numbers, like to sleep with the windows open, and have an oversize appetite for sweets. I like people, but have a tendency to push them away. I get excited by big ideas, but struggle to see them through. I've never known a lot about machines or buildings or electronics, which is very much unlike him. And I'm not a joiner. I'm not someone who likes being part of the group. I'm also not as quick to anger or as exuberant with strangers.
He was more teary-eyed than a man of his generation was supposed to be, something I saw only as I grew older and witnessed how much a man can lose. I'm like him in that way too, which may have been why there were more than a few nights as a six- or eight- or ten-year-old, when my dad, his face tight with anger and shame, whispered loudly as I tried to stifle my sobs over something small and childish, “Shut up! You're embarrassing yourself.”
I already know that Hazel has a teary nature, even for a toddler. She wails when she sees thermometers, or if you tell her “no touch” in too urgent a voice, or even when my wife leaves the room unannounced. The rational side of me knows that her tears are normal, even healthy, and the intentional parent in me says I need to help her develop the skills to feel secure and confident enough to cope without tears. But part of me is embarrassed by her sobs and wants to tell her to be quiet. For a long time I thought my dad was a bully, but now that I'm a father I understand the helpless agony of seeing your frailties—the ones pointed out to you by your own father—being played out in front of you by your own child.
After my dad closed the tortilla factory because of his failing health, Denver began to claim a larger place in his imagination. I don't remember hearing a lot about Denver when I was a kid.
Maybe I wasn't paying attention. My father's past didn't matter much to me until I went to a liberal arts college in Oregon where I was surrounded by children of privilege. I felt out of place among kids with $1,000 bicycles, vacation houses on the coast, parents who were politicians or heads of large companies. My mom worked at Walmart and my dad collected disability insurance from the Social Security Administration. I was a nobody.
Except I had a story, or really my dad had a story. He was a migrant farmworker who had moved from the slums of Denver to the fertile lands of northwest Washington and had begun building a better life. In the sociopolitics of a college campus, this story about otherness gave me a kind of status.
Paradoxically, it made me feel as though I did belong. But the story was also a mystery. The more I read about poverty and privilege, the more improbable it seemed that I could be in college, especially when my family at home was still living check to check. Who am I to spend all day, every day reading books and talking with my friends about research, theories, ideas, and beliefs? Why aren't I working for the local Pepsi distributor, or in a big-box store, or in my uncle's restaurant?
I started asking my dad questions about the past and hungrily listened as he told the same stories over and over—stories that were hard for me to picture and unsatisfying to hear because they seemed vague and the narrative thread elusive. I decided I had to start doing research for myself.
The first time I went with him to Denver, we drove slowly through the streets, my dad craning out the window, trying to see everything. He showed me the high school he dropped out of and the smelter at the edge of the neighborhood where the creek once ran orange. He told me about how he and the other kids used to run from house to house, through yards and kitchens and garages, everyone on the block a friend or family. It was hard to imagine now. Although the day was sunny and mild, hardly anyone was out. And the houses didn't look like the kinds of homes where packs of children spilled out of front doors. Many seemed freshly painted and had immaculately landscaped yards. Compact Hondas, Subarus, and Toyotas, with maybe the occasional BMW or Saab, sat placidly in the driveways. And every house was fortified by a fence and wrought-iron bars over the windows.
What if my dad had never left these streets? The older and the more infirm he became, the more he liked to remember “the bad old days,” as he liked to call them. The mornings spent picking through trash in the alleys behind the broad, stately houses near Cheesman and City Parks; the cars and trucks he used to drive down Colorado Boulevard and the girls who rode next to him to dances. He got in fights; ate the best meals of his life in humid, dark kitchens, his mom or auntie watching him and smiling their approval; spent long, dusty afternoons with his blind uncle who liked to tinker with old radios. He missed this other life, longed to go back to when he was young, strong, and the world around him was too small for him to ever be alone.
I drove with him down Champa Street and we pulled up next to two boys riding their bicycles on the sidewalk.
“Hey, do you know the Castros?” he hollered out the window.
The boys stopped, looked at each other for help. It was clear they didn't know the Castros, but they seemed too caught off guard to ride away. The older one, a sturdy boy with light brown skin and short curly hair pushed forward, straddled his bike and asked, “What?”
“The Castros. They used to live around here,” my dad said, but the boys just shrugged and rode away.
A week or two ago, my daughter started saying her name. Now she refers to herself in the third person when she sees her reflection, or the possessive when she wants to claim her boots or a toy.
The proud father in me is astounded by her precociousness, but it's also strange to hear this tiny person refer to herself as if she were her own imaginary friend. Hazel eat. Hazel laughing. Hazel's coat. Hazel's shoes.
What does she know about herself beyond an instant reaction when she puts something in her mouth or bumps her head or splashes water? Day by day I can see her self forming. But how has she not always been herself? Or am I the keeper of her self—the observer, interpreter, and rememberer who will form and hold onto her in my head until she can claim her self for herself?
I know my dad was proud of me and couldn't help bragging about my accomplishments, even if he only half understood them. He would talk me up to friends and family, and I would have to come home and explain how small these achievements really were. In his mind, as a migrant son whose only choices in life came from the strength in his arms and back, I must have been a strange and baffling creature. He could have decided that there was no part of him in me, that we were too different. But he didn't. It was just the opposite. Even if he couldn't articulate it, or never thought it consciously, I think he saw me as himself if history and circumstances were different.
He's not wrong. His genes are my genes, recombined to form a me that is unique, but also made up entirely of him and his father and his mother and the people who begat each of them, generation after generation, in Mexico, in Spain, in Arabia or Rome.
How is history any different? Aren't the stories I know, and some of the ones I don't, encoded somewhere inside me like strands of DNA that combine and recombine with moments from my life? Isn't this also my inheritance: the time my dad nearly drowned in an irrigation ditch, the day his father left Mexico for good, the droughts my father's father's father endured on the ranch he built with his brothers? All of these moments—those remembered and those lost to time—are connected to a long chain of inherited meaning that, like a scientist with a microscope, I'm just beginning to understand.
Around our house we have pictures of family, some of whom Hazel has never met and never will meet. My wife takes her around and points to each person and says his or her name.
The other day she was in her high chair when she suddenly began pointing and waving her hand excitedly, saying, “BobBobBobBobBob.”
At first I didn't know what she was saying, but eventually I traced the invisible line from her pointing finger and saw a picture of my dad that I hardly ever notice.
“Is that your grandpa Bob?” I asked, pointing to the picture.
“Yeah,” she said, nodding her head as if she'd known him her whole life.
3 comments have been posted.
Hello Dan, The fact that children look similar to their parents is not a surprise. They share fifty-fifty the genes of their parents, but in an entirely different combination and often with recessive genes predominating. So you are not your father's genes, but rather only partially so. Grandchildren share surprisingly few genes with each of their four grandparents. Go back five generations and there is very little commonality. Genes only provide the template whereas our environment from the womb to our demise is what shapes how we act, what we believe, what makes us "who we are". Each person's environment is truly unique made up as it is from trillions of variables over which neither we nor our parents have much control. This fact is why the first two years of life are so important. It is during this period that the parents have the most input on our environment. So bravo for whatever it is you and your wife did during your daughter's formative years.
James Luce | January 2015 | Peralada, Spain
Dan, I only knew bits and pieces of your life...mostly of your life with your beautiful wife, proudly shared by your in-laws. Your heartfelt, breathtaking essay was an absolutely endearing, eyeopening peek into the real you. Thank you for sharing. Hazel is a lucky girl to have such a thoughtful, loving father. "It's in the genes".
Jacque Burkhalter | April 2014 | Arlington, wa
Wow Daniel that was truly an insight into your life and your dads. Yes he would be proud of you. So is your mama and your aunts uncles and cousins. The only thing I could add is express your love to your love ones while you have opportunity we are not guaranteed tomorrow. Your dad loved you unconditionally, as you love your daughter. Thank you for sharing that!
Rhonda Rivas | April 2014 | Clarksville , TN