I wrote this essay for my father.
I suppose dads have to think about money all the time. So I’m going to talk about money, and what it means to me. There are a couple of things that instantly come to my mind – advertising billboards on the highways, commercials on high-volume at relatives’ houses, Starbucks and their silly upcharges, my high-end makeup phase. I also think of Camille Rowe’s French beauty routine and the Vogue models who talk about the exploitation of women and their defendant, the fashion industry. I think of Americans who celebrate all the glorious affluence they have inherited from their daring pious forefathers, gathered around the thanksgiving feast, feigning a sober awareness. The very next day they claw at each other like ravenous wolves for television screen deals. I think of how easily my own list of wants could grow into a dragon’s hoard – a fancy perfume, a trip to Paris, an Anthropology wardrobe, a full ride to the college of my dreams, the book that is inside me on The New York Times bestsellers.
I keep thinking about money, following the green paper path beyond my own time. I think about my mother and her memories of her Big Pa and Grandmother’s house. All the candy she could eat, all the coke she could drink, all the coins she could fit inside her pockets. Every Christmas a display of abundance, Barbie dolls beyond what she could fathom – their outfits and cars and endless plastic fabulousness. But, of course, she never got the Barbie McDonald’s set – the one with all the tiny individual food items and the Golden Arch scaled down to the skinny blonde’s size. She watched a lot of commercials about that one, though. For all the success in show business that her Christmas tree displayed year upon year, there was always something unacquired, something that Barbie’s life wouldn’t be complete without. It was a childhood of living vicariously through the doll with pink high heels, the doll with white skin and blonde hair, the doll with legs and arms and torso sculpted to perfection. Mom always told me how much fun she had playing with Barbie, all the many adventures she had with her and her sister Jaimie, but she never wanted me to have Barbie dolls of my own. When I came along Mom turned off the commercials and dismissed the icon of an American girl’s dream, thanking her for her time.
Now I follow the green path beyond my mother’s time, to her own mother’s. Brenda Clements was the only girl of Kelly and Dorothy’s four children. She talks about being the only one who couldn’t play outside and get dirty with the other children, having to sit quietly with her hands folded on her skirt while her mother visited with Aunt Helen. She talks about having no air conditioning, about long road trips in a cramped car with the sweat leaking out of their pores, dampening their hair and flushing their cheeks. She talks about fooling around in church and getting a whooping for it. The old generation believes they had the simple needs and the simple times. A simple need to be quiet while the boys play. A simple need to stay off the playground so underneath the skirt won’t show. A simple need to be pretty, the prettiest, in fact. A simple need to be a perfect housewife. After all, it is simple enough to put on an apron and do up your hair and sweep the floors. It is always simpler to stay silent.
I go back even further, to my mom’s mom’s mom. Dorothy Jean Clements grew up in the times when John Steinbeck’s Joad family was caravanning through the United States all while starving to death. Her father was a fruit peddler, and he always brought the bruised apples back home at the end of the day. There was always something to eat. Dorothy also liked to slide the neckline of her shirts down her shoulders a bit when her father wasn’t looking. She didn’t think she was as pretty as her sister but everyone now agrees that she turned out to be the prettier one after all. She never left the house without lipstick on.
I don’t like to go much beyond Grand Dot’s time, when I start seeing cotton fields and slaves bent over them. The face on the paper dollar suddenly looks up at me and with a strange twist of its lips gives me a weird smile, one that reveals fangs. I see backs scarred from the whip in the name of putting that dollar in the pockets of those who never stooped down to help up a man. I see the ghost of a little colored boy who died without a doctor’s help long ago. He is pleading with me not to see him as the wolf’s cub, pleading with me not to see him as one who will tear and steal and kill when the claws grow in if he isn’t kept chained. I hear his people singing “Didn’t Old Pharaoh Get Lost”.
Then the sky clears and the clouds roll back and the descendant of that same colored child comes and takes his place on the paper dollar, becoming “a ten-dollar founding father”. The nation takes a step closer to the heavens. The immigrants sail in greeted by the Lady of Liberty, sunlight reflecting off the glimmering sea and sunning their hopeful faces. One of them my father. He comes in from a foreign land, from a woman of power. The muscles strapped around my bones come from her. He comes, reads, and writes. He comes, works, and marries. He raises three daughters and a son. He probably could have become a hotshot at anything he wanted to do, but instead he did better things. I’m not talking about all his degrees. I’m talking about vicious cycles breaking, crumbling down by the might of his mind. His father wasn’t around when he was growing up, but mine was. My mother did not have a good father, but I have a good father. My father’s legacy is a microcosm of what is to come. He is a founding father indeed. I hope to someday break the cycles of abuse and poverty for other children as he did for me, to do it by the power of the Lion as he did.
I believe in the redemption story not because my father told it, but because he modeled it. My grandmother Edilma Toro, when she was four years old, sold empanadas with another person’s child on her back, in a city far from home, every day. Her mother did not love her, but she survived anyway. When she was sick in her bed in our house she told me about my father, her little “Joncito”, playing the guitar and singing songs while wearing his older sister’s shoes. Now her voice is gone and she cannot tell me stories anymore, yet she is able to say “Amen” to Dad’s prayer. I see the redemption everywhere. It’s in everything around us and it’s as real to me as the sun. May it always be present in our lives, until the time when money and skin colors and women’s suffrage and poverty cease to divide us.
2020 has been a difficult year for our nation, but we hold onto this, our legacy.