Deconstructing My Grandfather Ricardo Vargas
My mother once told me that when my grandfather was about 14 years old, he had a nervous breakdown. I thought, “well, that explains a lot.”
The man was complex, complicated, moody, loving, cruel, with flashes of brilliance that I suspect my small town was too small to understand. He married young, like it was customary at the time, and had over ten children. It’s hard to wrap your mind around having and raising so many kids, but according to my mother, he was well, capable, and supportive before he succumbed to a mental illness that affected all of us for generations. She fondly remembers her childhood, when he was a taxi driver and used to buy them clothes in Santiago. But that, too, just like youth, was fleeting.
Supposedly he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, but after numerous years of reading about mental illnesses, I’d concluded that he was bipolar. We were wrong. The man was afflicted with schizoaffective disorder–a comorbid combination of both.
During my short time in my pueblo natal, Sosúa, I remember he’d go months, sometimes years, without leaving his house. He was a hoarder of broken electronic devices–some of which he found and would fix without former training.
My grandmother would send either my uncle Kelvin or me to bring him food, and occasionally my uncle Abelito would bring it, too. Then something would spark in his brain and he’d be all over town leaving traces of himself. He was the town’s designated loco and we all carried that Scarlet letter with him. I especially did, since I was a hypersensitive ragey kid.
He was fond of Christianity, religion, but wasn’t loyal to one single denomination–or perhaps he was enamored with all. As he’d attended every single church in town: Catholic, Pentecostal, Jehovah’s Witnesses, you name it, the man was omnipresent. He got along well with the small Jewish community of refugees that flourished in the island after they were given land, loans, and livestock to start anew during the 1940s. He worked for them for some time, too.
Like most Caribbean men of the time, el machismo was ingrained in him. The one still rampant and wreaking havoc today. I’d wonder why the man never pulled out and why he’d put my grandmother through so much stress. Pull out game: Weak AF. In all seriousness, he was infatuated with my grandmother. His obsession and jealousy were legendary. Well after their divorce and in his 60s, that loco enamorado would bring a band to play her serenatas while he loudly narrated his undying love for her, right in front of her timber and zinc house she’d gotten from their separation. The dark side to that suffocating love was an absurd jealousy that dumbfounded us all.
My grandmother has always been a very kind, friendly, and hospitable neighbor, friend… and that rubbed my grandfather the wrong way when it came to the men who visited. Our door was always open and many people would visit her, to the chagrin of my grandfather. I remember one time she served coffee to a good friend of the family, the legendary René, before she offered him some and he went ballistic, but first, he stuck his dirty hands in the sugar container. René fled, like he always did, while my grandmother would land an onslaught of insults on him. That was years after their divorce. That poor woman deserved better.
The last time I saw her, she’d confessed that she made a mistake by marrying him. I felt it. I understood it. After they had several kids, one day something must’ve hit him, fanaticism, criticism, who knows, but he told her to put on something nice and bring the kids along so they could get married. She was pissed but went along. I suspect the trauma bond she formed with the man was too deep to surgically cut off. Oh, but her family tried, though. Her mother, especially. She hated his guts. I told my mother that I suspect it was because she was a slave to her family, helping raise siblings that were older than her, even, and my grandfather came and whisked her away–only to condemn her to a lifetime of motherhood of over ten children, and all mostly men, too. Tragic, but she never lost her footing or epic sense of humor. A psychic once told her she’d be a slave for her entire life, just like she was in her past life, and all she could say was “coño” and then went on about raising her children. The psychic was right.
A few of my grandfather’s children resented him–didn’t speak to him for years, right up to his death. But he had his favorites. My mother, my uncle, Kelvin, my aunt, Dolly, and me, as he saw me as an extension of my mother, I suspected. Besides that, I believe he was fond of us because despite all of himself, we were kind, respectful, and servile toward him.
When he was out and about, he was generous and servile, too, but there were moments of gleeful cruelty when he’d go out drinking to drown whatever demons plagued him. Those demons were usually mal de amores because my grandmother wasn’t receptive to his advances, so he’d take it out on the world, and sometimes his children, too.
As children, my uncle Yvan, who is ten months younger than me, and I, were taken by the old man, and we would escape from under my grandmother’s falda to hang out with him. He’d parade us around town, buy us queso and morir soñando. He’d given us two puppies, one for me and one for Yvan. Canela was mine. She was a brown, beautiful pup. He told us they drowned in the latrine at his home, but most likely he gave them away. I guess that was, in his mind, easier for a child to comprehend. I was especially fond of animals and the trauma of losing her was carved into my brain. I was barely five then.
Speaking of drowning, during one of his drunken amargues, he took Yvan and I to the beach and was teaching us how to swim, according to him, but his methods were suspicious, as he’d grab us and thrust us into the water. We’d run out of it crying, wondering what had gotten into the man. I really thought the man was trying to drown us and so did my grandmother, who told me, decades later, he was angry with her for some reason so he was trying to hurt us to hurt her. He would laugh between whees. Men truly are horrible creatures, but he was my grandfather and I loved him despite those moments. I even rationalized that he wasn’t truly trying to drown us because he really could’ve done it if he’d really desired so, but we were swung unto the orillita, and the water barely got up to our bellies. That was his story and I believed him. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here, today, telling you his story. This story. But I could be wrong.
I’ve always had a complicated relationship with men–a love and hatred for them and their enablers. Be them absentee or present. That all started with my grandfather, Ricardo Vargas Morrobel. He was the first father figure that I ever had. He passed away a few years back, and today, like many days before, I remember him: complex, complicated, moody, loving, cruel, with flashes of brilliance.
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