Imagine this: I was 14 , seated at the dining room table with my Uncle Francisco in the Madrid apartment he shared with my Aunt Marie. A refugee from a miserable suburban adolescence, I had persuaded my parents to send me to Europe for a year to live with these relatives I barely knew.
The three of us had just finished a leisurely Sunday meal -- most likely a poor man's paella, i.e, a whole lot more chicken than shellfish. My aunt was collecting and cleaning the dishes and shuffling back and forth down the long corridor that connected the dining room to her tiny, tile-lined kitchen. I just sat there watching my uncle in his post-meal glow -- picking his teeth with a toothpick and pontificating. He began to sigh, leaning back in his chair.
"Bueno, bueno," he said. As contented at that moment as any man could be, he was nonetheless in the process of formulating words that he thought would help me survive the pitfalls and tragedies of life. And then they came.
"Gregorio," he said, pausing to think. "Gregorio," and then he picked his teeth a little more. "La vida," he declared, "la vida es una mierda."
Life is misery (more or less).
You might think that that was a horrible thing to say to a teenager. But I already had an inkling of what he meant. And he imparted this unhappy counsel with pleasure and with love.
I've been telling this story to friends for years now -- how many adults share that particular secret of life with 14-year-olds? -- but it wasn't until my tio Francisco passed away at the age of 80 on Wednesday morning at a hospital in the San Gabriel Valley that I considered all that it meant.
My tio knew from pain. When he was 9 years old, during the Spanish Civil War, his father, who was a noncombatant, was shot and beheaded by a cadre of village communists for the mere fact that he had money. Three years later, after the war had ended, he accompanied his mother to identify his father's decomposed body.
I don't presume to understand what made my uncle tick, but I believe that experience gave him a tragic view of life. But it didn't make him a dour or sullen figure. He was hardheaded; he complained a lot about the state of the world. But for all his pessimism, he found pleasure and consolation in people and things. He embodied that most critical of survival techniques, the ability to harbor contradictory ideas.
My uncle wasn't easy. He liked things the way he liked them. Finicky to a fault, sometimes he made his disappointment palpable, whether it was with people, restaurants or America. But at the same time, his contentment was born of many things. For one, he loved good food. At breakfast, he'd routinely ask my aunt what they'd eat for lunch. At lunch, he'd ask what she wanted for dinner. And particularly in his later years, after he and my aunt came to Southern California, he developed a love for gardening and cars.
At only 5 feet 6 inches tall, he was a slight man, but he carried himself imperiously. He was a strident political conservative who never lost his hatred for communists, rojos. Talk of politics could make his blood boil, and it wasn't wise to engage him in political debate.
Still, he was in no way a conventional man. A confirmed bachelor until he was 47, he finally married my father's sister, a left-wing child of the 1960s and the Chicano movement; she was 17 years his junior.
He loved to talk to strangers, particularly good-looking women, and even after he moved to the States, he didn't allow his nonexistent English skills to keep him down. He'd employed the same opening line he used on my aunt in 1973, "Hola, guapa." "Hello, beautiful." And if I happened to be standing next to him at the time, he'd expect me to translate for him word for word.
It's not surprising he used the line again and again because it was a spectacular success with my aunt. She met him in the elevator of a Madrid hotel on her first full day of vacation in Spain from L.A., and then stayed for 18 years.
In fact, he had a lot of repeated one-liners. "Gregorio," he liked to say, "vives como principe." "You live like a prince." And whenever I called after a long interval, he'd invariably ask if I had been "in [the city of] Leon," a phrase of his, suggesting that I had been hiding out, that I had disappeared.
This week, it was my tio who went to Leon. It happened relatively quickly. It was not exactly conventional. It was as unhappy as death can be.
On Aug. 21, he was at a Home Depot in Alhambra, and a man in the line behind him got impatient, and then angry. He knocked Francisco to the ground and ran. My tio's hip broke, and that was the beginning of the end.
As sad as all this is, "la vida es una mierda" isn't what I'd put on my tio's gravestone. I'd choose: Francisco Martino vivistecomo principe.