Friday, April 28, 2006

O Captain My Captain

This is something I wrote a year and a half ago, in loving memory of my teacher, mentor and friend. I didn't hear of his passing until months after it happened, and I found out later that there had been a memorial service on September 29, the first anniversary of my father's passing. It seems appropriate to share this today, his 70th birthday.

As a sophomore at the University of Hartford, I found myself "undeclared", searching for something worthwhile and desperately trying to avoid some required course or another. I sat in on an American poetry class and thought, “This is for me. I can do this." I approached the professor at the end of class and asked him to sign a form allowing me to join the class. This professor warned that his was not a typical poetry class. “I’m afraid I’m a bit eccentric,” he cautioned. “That’s what I’m counting on,” I replied. I'd never spoken to a professor that way, especially one I was asking to sign me in to his already full class. But something about this professor and this class clicked. Three weeks into the semester he said, “I suppose it’s time I gave you an assignment. How about you give me a couple of pages on what you think of the class? Write about something you’ve read that you liked or didn’t like, what you think of your classmates, what you think of me…bring them to the next class and I’ll look at them.” I liked that he respected us enough as writers to ask for permission before reading aloud something one of us had written. “Just put a check in the upper right corner to let me know you’re ok with me reading this to the class.” I liked that he took the time to write thoughtful feedback on every paper submitted. These were not mere corrections in the margins, these were detailed notes typed out and stapled to each paper. By the end of the semester, I knew that I wanted to pursue a degree in English and Clayton Hudnall was the advisor I wanted to help me achieve that goal. “Are you sure you want to do this? You know you can’t make money writing poetry.” True enough. But I think he was happy I’d committed to studying something I loved.

We began writing to each other in the summer of 1992. What followed was a twelve year exchange of letters, cards and occasionally email, though he always said email was “disposable and not nearly special enough for a pal like yourself.” His letters came when I needed them, always with humor and affection. He was my link to academic life long after I received my degree and continued to advise me as I made my way in the world. We exchanged war stories about work, poems in progress for constructive criticism, and silly cartoons just for laughs. He wrote lovingly about his children and grandchildren, relishing their happiness. He sent postcards from his many vacations, reminders that he hadn’t forgotten me. He took to calling me “my guy,” and though I never understood why, I never questioned it. I figured it was his version of “kiddo”. Every letter ended with a list of books he had read or films he had seen and a request for what was on my list of must read and see. He mentioned being so pleased with a particular birthday or Christmas card that it was now in a frame (often in his bathroom!). He posed questions he was asking his current crop of students. He encouraged me to write, to read important books, to enjoy my youth and my life. Over the years, “best regards” became “fondly” and eventually, “love”.

What Clayton added to my life is immeasurable. He took me under his wing, shared the stories of his life with me, offered me his friendship and asked only “write when you can.” Well, my guy, this is where I all but run out of words. You changed my life and for that I am so grateful.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Reason # 783 Why I Live in Connecticut...

My brother and sister both live near my mother in New Jersey. My mom has keys to both their homes, as they have to hers. My mother is very close (physically and emotionally) to both my siblings. Sometimes I envy them. I said sometimes. File the following under "too close for comfort."

My mother was at my sister's house on Saturday. I guess they were going to run errands together and get my mother adjusted at the chiropractor. The details are a bit fuzzy. Anyway, my sister was taking a shower when she heard the door open. It was my mother. This is generally not a big deal because my mother is always busting in while my sister is in the shower to chat or use the toilet (I vividly remember her throwing open the shower curtain once while I was in there to ask me what I wanted for dinner), but this was different. As my sister was getting ready to exit the shower, my mother stripped down and GOT IN THE SHOWER with her. She said, "don't turn the water off, I'm going to take a shower too. I know we have to hurry up today." So my sister was all "what the fuck are you doing?" and my mom was all "what's the matter? I'm your mother."

As my sister said in the resulting phone message to me: "NO ONE should have to endure this."
My sister considers this taking a hit for the team. The team being my brother and I. Needless to say, everyone at my sister's house now locks the door.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Sister, I see you

If you've been reading the comments that often accompany my postings, then you might have noticed that I'm not really writing this blog all by myself. There is someone else filling in the blanks and elaborating on who I am and where I come from on these "pages." My sister, Maria (Cuban Code Name "Ia") has twelve years of stories, scenarios and family history on me. I welcome her input, because I'm learning more from this than I would from waiting for my mother to be tipsy enough to spill the beans about anything. And because she's my sister. I can't think of a better person to cheer me on and help me out.

All of the people around us they say, "Can they be that close?"
Well, yes, we can be. My sister was a second mother to me. I say was because she now has two lovely children of her own and I'm grown enough to see her as something other than a mother figure. Being the only other girl meant looking after the baby (me) when our parents weren't around. In order to not to miss out on the action of being a teenager, she and our brother (who's comments on this blog I am still eagerly awaiting) would take me places I probably had no business being. I recall a lot of hanging out on Bergenline Avenue. Then again, my parents took me to bars and social clubs, so there's no one person to blame for my affinity for barstools. If my memory serves, my siblings taught me how to properly defend myself when some of their friends would tease me (NOTE: The Abreus do not endorse teaching a five-year old to give "the finger." It just so happened that I was very comfortable using it when necessary. NEVER at school or church, just on the street. God, that sounds terrible). I am known among some (or one) of these people as "Senor Lopez."

If my father was the gold standard for a sharp dressing, then my sister was my personal style icon. She always looked cool and elegant no matter where she was going. And she would buy me nice things to wear too! Does a little girl need $70 white patent leather shoes for First Communion? Probably not, but I got them anyway. I believe my father's reaction was the Spanish equivalent to "Say what?!?!" This would serve as an important lesson for the rest of my life. Good shoes are very important (and sometimes very expensive). My sister worked at Schlesinger's, the local department store, so she got a good deal on clothes for me. Did I mention she worked in the boys' department? Yeah, I had an Izod shirt in every color. My favorite was the pink and purple striped polo that I would wear it with my pink Osh Kosh overalls. (Jealous?) Ia would do my hair for school and special occasions like Prom, too (yes, I had long hair once and no, I'm not ready to show you a picture). I had the Princess Leia buns, the Princess Leia loops, the Bo Derek corn rows (there is no place for those beads in the second grade, by the way) and all sorts of other braids and ponytails. My sister was also responsible for all but two of my Halloween costumes, from Kindergarten through Senior year of high school. Sadly, I have not been properly costumed since.

It was my sister who deposited me at the University on that scary first day (she wanted to take me home as soon as she "met" my roommate, who was yelling at her parents for forgetting the Ralph Lauren pillowcases), who took the phone call after I lost my virginity, who called to tell me about my father's cancer. Oh, yes, we're on the phone quite a bit. She's been there to talk about boys (the good, the bad and the crazy), clothes (what shoes with this dress?) and everything in between (what the hell is happening on All My Children?) At our best, we talk every single day and at our weakest, we average two or three calls a week. A lot of the calls now open with "guess what your mother did now?" or some news of the kids.

My sister spoiled me, in her own way. She bought me books (A&P had a series of Sesame Street books once, she bought me every last one), let me read her fashion magazines and stay up late to watch television (the Honeymooners was "our" show). She protected me when my parents would fight, came to my gymnastics meets and school plays, listened when I needed it and always encouraged me to believe in myself. When people tell me they think my sister is a good mother, I think to myself, "she had a lot of practice."

Some people worry about turning into their mother, I'm hoping I turn into my sister.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

It Happens Every Spring

I tried to call my mother when I got home tonight, but there was no answer. My guess is she was down in the rec room of her building, playing bingo and winning a fortune off the other "senior citis" or at least enough to get to "the AC" (Atlantic City) this weekend. "Oh well," I thought, "maybe she's watching the game, so she wouldn't really be listening to me anyway." No one in my family can truly focus when there's a game on, so don't call, you'll just get frustrated. My next thoughts were of "Yankee baseball," immediately followed by one word, "Daddy."

Over the course of his life, Domingo Abreu-Fuste was many things to many people: husband, grandfather, friend, compatriot, lodge brother, dental technician. He was my daddy and so much more. A brief catalog of who (and what) he was to me:

Sharp Dressed Man: (check out the photo!). While most men shed the suit and tie on the weekend, my father saw Saturday and Sunday as the opportunity to throw on his finest. Unless we were going to the beach or the Palisades, he was "dressed." He owned a closet full of suits (I specifically remember a grey one) and enough ties to, well, when he passed away, my mother handed us a bag full of ties so that the men in the family could each wear one. Everyone at the service could have worn one, there were so many. He'd let me help him get ready most of the time. I was his little valet, picking out a tie or cologne. My scent preferences were Polo or Halston for Men (NEVER Bowling Green by Geoffrey Beene, ugh.) I'd button the top button on his dress shirt and help him into his suit jacket. Then I would stand on the bed behind him to make sure everything looked right. Forget about Cary Grant and George Clooney (for just a moment), THIS man set the bar for how men should look, for me anyway. He took his jeans to the dry cleaner for crying out loud! No wonder I nearly burst into tears at the Men's Wearhouse last weekend while suit shopping with Mike. All those beautiful suits. I couldn't take it. I bought my very own grown-up suit last weekend, too (at Filene's not Men's Wearhouse, smart ass). It's grey with a pink lining. He'd love it.

The Originator of Bling: I don't remember ever seeing my parents wearing wedding bands. I'd have to double check with my siblings, but I believe they didn't have them on when they were removed from their home in Cuba, so the rings probably still belong to the government. Once they were settled in the states, they made up for it, big time. My father loved a good piece of jewelry and was as tasteful as he could be about it. Rings, bracelets, necklaces, watches. How many watches, you ask? My mother wears one, my siblings and I each have one and there are probably more waiting to be given to my nieces and nephews when they are old enough. The highlight of his collection? A thick gold chain with a "pendant" of Saint Lazarus. And when I say pendant, I mean it was the size of a parakeet. Believe it.

Iron Chef: Although he didn't cook at home very often (an occasional Sunday lunch after a late night at the Club), my father was an excellent cook. His dental lab was equipped with a stove in the back room, in order to "cook" the molds, so it wasn't unusual to walk in and find a pot of something good (steaks, fried pork, spicy goat) cooking on the burner right next to the dentures (fear not, amateur health inspectors! Many of us have lived to tell the delicious tale.) My father was known to entertain friends who stopped by his office after regular business hours with a cold beer and a hot meal. The game would be on, of course, which leads me to...

Superfan: "Reggie! Reggie!" Those words, as chanted by her husband and children, drove my mother up a wall throughout the late seventies. Poor woman. All she wanted was to watch her Spanish soaps (Christina Bazan, anyone?) in the next room in peace. Since there was no chance of that ever happening, my mother eventually came to her senses, gave up the soaps and gave in to baseball, specifically Yankee Baseball. Generally speaking, my father was what I like to call a tri-state loyalist. We lived in New Jersey, so he rooted for all the area teams (Giants, Jets, Devils, Rangers, etc). Whether or not he even understood football and hockey was irrelevant. And yes, he even rooted for the Mets in '86, but we all know that if one must choose between two evils, one must always choose to root for the team that's NOT BOSTON. But his love for his Yankees, well, that's a different business altogether. Whenever the Yankees won a championship, any championship, my father was first in line at Modells the next day to buy a t-shirt and a hat. No fair weather fan was he, oh no! My father suffered and celebrated through every season. When my parents moved into senior housing and discovered they might not be able to get the YES network and watch every single game of the season, my father walked up and down Bergenline Avenue to every TV and electronics store until he found someone who could provide him with his Yankee fix. Champions or not, in sickness and in health, Daddy remained faithful to the pinstripes. I remember watching the Old Timers game with him in the hospital shortly after his first surgery. When we moved him to the nursing home for treatment, the only thing he really wanted was to be able to watch the games, so we got him a TV and a radio, so he could watch in English but listen in Spanish. He held on until the post-season and let's just say my siblings and I made sure he went into the next life prepared. My father's love for his team lives on in his children and grandchildren. I don't think it's any coincidence that Aaron Boone hit that dinger on October 17th, two and a half weeks after my father's death (also my sister's wedding anniversary). I like to think it was my father's gift to us. He was telling us that as long as the Yanks are playing, he'll be around.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Think I Better Dance Now

Ever seen the movie Girls Just Wanna Have Fun? Sarah Jessica Parker (post Square Pegs but pre-Sex and the City), Helen Hunt (post Quarterback Princess but pre-Mad About You) and Shannen Doherty (post Little House but pre-90210) play the new girl in town, her wild child friend and the hunky dude's sister, respectively. They come together to get SJP and the hunky dude a spot as the new regular dancers on Dance TV. Blockbuster stuff right? Did I mention Jonathan Silverman is in it? I know, brilliant. Anyway, the great thing about this movie (for me), aside from inspired casting, songs that get stuck in my head (Orbital B-Bop? COME ON!) and dance numbers that would make Debbie Allen weep from shame, is when SJP gets that far off look in her eye, twirls one of her massive ringlets around her finger and says "I love to dance..." Now that's something I can get behind!

My earliest memory is of Gene Kelly dancing in the fountain at the end of An American Paris. From that moment on, I was hooked on movies, dancing and movies with dancing. Musicals are great because you've got to suspend your imagination enough to believe that someone could burst into song at any moment. (John Travolta singing Sandy in Grease ? Totally works. Tony singing for Maria and only one girl coming to the window is a little harder for me to believe. At my high school, if you yelled "Maria", fifty girls would turn around.) Gene Kelly always delivers, especially in An American in Paris (that scene when he's teaching the French kids to sing and dance? Magic). But, like most people, I tend to remember him singing and dancing his heart out through rain soaked streets. It never gets old for me. I smile just thinking about it. There's a story Stanley Donen (director of Singing in the Rain) told about how after he screened the picture for Leonard Bernstein, Bernstein said the famous scene was "an affirmation of life." That's what it's all about, right? That's how I feel, anyway.

There was always music and dancing going on when I was growing up (West New York is basically the polar opposite of the town in Footloose). My father played music all day long and he would sing along with his favorite songs. Sometimes he would pick me up and dance me around too. He and my mother would dance at events and watching them together was bliss for me. It was easy to see what a good time they were having. My siblings would practice their dance moves with me before going out with their friends. They used to throw me around like a rag doll and I loved it. The parties at my parents social club were all about eating, drinking and dancing all night long. (You've not lived until you've seen Orlando Pega pick a handkerchief up off the dancefloor with his teeth on New Year's Eve. Women swooned! Ok, maybe they were just concerned that he was having some sort of attack.) Memorial High School dances were the place to be on a Friday night. We would dance in big groups to the same music being played in New York City clubs. Everyone had a turn in the circle to show off their moves, while the rest of the crowd clapped and cheered (Go Artie! Go Artie! was the most common shout out. That boy could dance!).

I still try to dance a little every day. Obviously, full-on musical numbers aren't an option, but I don't need much, really. The right tune on the car stereo will do (I don't drive, so I can flail in the passenger side at will). If I'm at work and feeling silly or trying to get a reaction from a coworker, I'll do a little George Jefferson hustle (not as scary as it sounds, I swear). I dance at home all the time, sometimes just to get Mike to crack-up, other times because the ipod kicks a little Prince my way while I'm cleaning up the kitchen. It feels good, it's free and someone is bound to laugh, even if it's just me laughing at myself.

Would I feel this way if my first screen dancer had been Fred Astaire? Hard to say, maybe I'd be smoother, more controlled on the dancefloor. I do believe that there are Gene Kelly people and Fred Astaire people. I'm a Kelly person. I love that he made it seem like you could be so lost in the moment that singing and dancing in the street would be considered a normal reaction to falling in love or getting a job or being on shore leave. I think that everyone has a right to that sort of moment from time to time without judgment. Maybe not every day, but once in a while, it couldn't hurt to get out there and show the world your moves.