Excerpt from The Flavor of our Faith

We climbed over the thick white tombs in Puerto Rico like ancient hills waiting to be discovered. Tropical flowers adorned the all white cemetery, packed with statues and large cement vaults with marble covers. I stepped up and down from box to box, searching for my grandfather's name, despite my father's insistence that I'd never find it. "We buried him in the dirt," he repeated, "We had no money for a stone.”  I continued in search of a marker, or a sign… something with his name on it. Among the tight clusters of marble and stone, we found a few patches of dirt, but the simple crosses pressed into the soil bore other names.  

Finally convinced that they had covered his site with another, I shrugged off my defeat and prepared to leave. Yet when I  turned to call my father, he was standing among the statues like a lost child. I knew his thoughts as he stood there alone. He had returned to the days of bare feet, long walks to school, and the little wooden house with a roof of sugarcane leaves. I also recalled those stories, and with images no longer vague, I walked beside him in my mind.

I observed a man I never knew return home with a large bundle of wood on his shoulders.  It was the same bundle he'd left with in the morning hoping to sell. He threw the heavy sack of wood on the ground, and, on his hands and knees, wept over the scattered pieces. My grandmother, young and beautiful, consoled her husband, easing him into the house to drink coffee. Seeing the wood left on the soil, I thought of the two children they would soon bury.

My grandfather worked even harder after the death of his children, always looking for a way to earn money. He constructed a stove in the back of their home with large heavy stones, and sold cakes and loaves of bread for a penny each. As he worked to feed his remaining family, he encouraged my father to work hard in school. "When you graduate sixth grade, I'm going to buy you a pen," he promised. He died before he could see his son graduate and offer him the promised gift.

The discipline of hard work was passed to my father. After high school, he cut sugar cane, sold wood, helped his mother cook and looked after his brother and sister. As a man, he continued to work hard, so his own children would never understand hunger. 

The poverty of his past, which had taken away so much, returned to take one last thing.  Surrounded by stone memorials meant for other families to see, my father stood there with nothing.

"He was a good father," he said, as he noticed me sitting quietly nearby, "He worked hard all his life to take care of us."

 I looked at this living memorial, and realized that my father himself was my grandfather’s stone. The life and death of his father were not only engraved in his memory, but had formed him into the man he now was--a good father, a hard worker, a wonderful cook, a money saver, a man who returned to school when he finally had the time, and graduated seminary at the age of fifty eight. I wish I had thought of my grandfather's promise when my father marched down the aisle wearing his cap and gown. I would have bought him a beautiful pen.