Growing up, I never imagined that one day I would write about the odd way my life intersected with my father’s in the early predawn hours of our family living room. As I would stretch out on the short pile rug in the darkness for a daily long-distance run, he’d already be sunk deep into his barco-lounger underneath a brass lamp reading novels in Spanish. It’s funny now that I think about it: 4:15 in the morning, and he’d have his book up in one hand and his dictionary in the other. He was an anal compulsive college professor, incapable of passing up on a word that he didn’t know. I remember the pungent smell of his coffee and that frayed robe that must have been older than I was. The only thing he showed me was the bottom of his socks, crossed up at an incline on the vinyl. I could have been invisible. Man, I couldn’t wait to get out the door.
But I think I inherited much of his insanity. Later, I began reading the same novels he did when he was finished with them. And surprisingly, he seemed impressed with my new-found interest, occasionally encouraging me with these academic platitudes like “You have to finish what you start,” or “If you want to truly learn the language, you have to immerse yourself in it.” I cheated though. I would go out and buy the English version and read it first, and then read the Spanish version. It’s a lot easier that way. You develop a better feeling for what’s important and leave the dictionary on the shelf. I read Isabelle Allende, and Laura Esquivel, and Pablo Ignacio Taibo II, and my only rule I took from my dad is that when I started one, I finished it no matter how long it took. Some times it would take months. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for example. The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait took me a long, long time. After all, it was a lifetime of experiences of an incredibly complicated woman.
One of my favorite entries is the “Origen de las Fridas” where Frida reveals her secret friend. She writes of a time when she was just six years old and alone, and she used to stand up to the window pane of the family house on Allende Street in Mexico City and breathe gently on the glass. As her respiration clouded up, she would take her finger and draw an imaginary door, and dance right through it because waiting for her on the other side was her only friend in the world: Her other self. The other Frida! Together the two of them would spend their afternoons sharing their inner-most secrets. I must have read this part time over and over, this poor, lonely girl suffering from polio with the wasted muscles and deformed foot making her life happen.
Not only did Frida inspire my imagination but she challenged my courage as well. Up until then, I never felt up to matching my father’s expectations, but if Frida with all her problems could touch upon another world, I could reach out to a manic college professor. So one year while I was in Mexico City teaching in the public schools, I wrote my father a letter in Spanish and invited him down for a visit. We took an afternoon to visit the Blue House in Coyoacan. Frida was born there and lived most of her life in this house until she died in 1954. It’s been turned into a museum, and you can walk through the courtyard and the bedroom and her art studio, everything preserved exactly like it was. My father, enthralled, spent a lot of time in the kitchen and dining area. He took notes how she decorated her walls. He tried to identify each of the plants in the courtyard.
Letting him do his own thing, I eventually ventured into Frida’s bedroom. The bed and the furniture were cordoned off, and I was standing there in line waiting my turn to look at her bookcases when I found my self leaning on a glass case. It was like a display counter on the opposite side of the room. It came up to a few inches above my waist, and when I leaned down to see what was inside, I saw underneath the glass a book open for anyone to read. Now my eyes aren’t very good, and for me to read what was printed I had to bend down to the glass, and I suppose I was a little bit excited because I was breathing hard. When I wiped away the cloud of my own respiration from the glass surface, this is what I read: “Origen de las Fridas. Debo haber tenido seis anos cuando vi…”
That freaked me out. “Origen of the Fridas. I must have been six years old when I saw...” When she saw her secret friend. I knew it. Right out of my father’s copy, I must have read this page dozens and dozens of times. I realized the pain she must have suffered when she wrote it. I mean right there in the same room was the special easel mounted to her bed that enabled her to paint while lying down. The year she wrote this entry she had endured the incredible desperation of seven spinal operations. I thought of a lifetime of clots and chloroform and needles and painkillers, but what I remember most is my father’s hand, his fingers long and bony against my shoulder blade. Not a word was spoken between us, but strangely I sensed a special understanding. After all, he must have read the same passage over and over as I had.
I’m not sure if I will ever understand Frida’s art or speak Spanish the way I want to, but as I think of her running her finger across that glass, I feel a tear slide down the side of my cheek. My father is dead now: without warning, he suffered a massive stroke shortly after taking a daily afternoon walk. All that really remains of our relationship are his books in Spanish up on my shelf. It occurs to me now – he passed so suddenly – did he ever consider the life he passed on to his son? Would he have cared about my writing? Here in this empty, cold room in Mexicali, maybe I understand something of Frida’s loneliness. Maybe I know a little about pain. I know for as long as I live, my father is never going to read these words.