Monday, March 18, 2013

My Father's Side of the Family

I can't tell you much about my father's father, as I never met my paternal grandfather Steven Sandy. As far as I know, my father Warren only met him once. It's harder to describe my father's family as things were a bit more crazy on that side.

My father was raised by his mother Francis, who gave birth to him when she was 14. She was Mexican and lived in New York City with my father as a boy, moving back to Mexico City in her 20's to remarry and have another child, my uncle Carl, an architect who still lives there today.

After her second divorce, Francis and my father moved to the heart of Los Angeles in one of those big old wooden two story houses that used to be common in the area and like you see in film noir movies. It even had a basement, which was not something I ever saw in people's homes, growing up in the San Fernando Valley or in Santa Monica and West LA, where my mother's parents lived.

Francis was a very free spirit and loved to party. She had lots of friends and always brought strangers to family gatherings, who then became part of our extended family. She loved her friends and she loved her dogs. She was engaged to my "Uncle Bill" for all my childhood and into my teens, until she died when I was 18.

Ignacio William Walsh was one of the finest men I have ever known and he loved my grandma Francis, my father and me dearly. He was an Irishman and a "corn husker" from Nebraska and I have no idea how he ever hooked up with my grandmother, but he was always around and, as far as I can tell, totally supported her financially as she never worked a day in my life. Francis lived alone with her little white cock-a-poos in her big house and Bill had his own place nearby that everyone jokingly referred to as "sputnik" because it was up on a hill and it was the 50's and 60's.

Bill's house was a literal maze of magazines, newspapers and books and he always encouraged me to educate myself more than anyone else. He was also a very funny and gentle man, always smiling or laughing and telling jokes. I could see that he wanted to marry my grandmother Francis, but they obviously had some kind of arrangement and it seemed to work for them.

My great aunt Flo, Francis' older sister, was a devote catholic who went to mass daily (or so it seemed to me) and was always disapproving of Francis and everyone else, except for my Father, who they both adored. Flo and her husband Bob had no children and so I was treated rather special too.

I am 11 years older than my sister Susan, while my older half-sister Carol, from my dad's first marriage, lived with her mother and adopted father, so I was essentially an only child for most of my youth. My uncle Carl had two children, but they rarely came to the US to visit. When I was 9, my parents and I drove to Chihuahua, Mexico City and Acapulco, a trip that I will never forget and an inspiration for my travels here in Mexico today and for many years after college.

Flo and Bob lived with Frances and Flo's brother Fedencio (uncle Fed), who seemed to spend most of his time writing and publishing a newspaper about revolution in Mexico and was the first person to ever speak to me intelligently about higher mathematics and politics. Everyone told me he was a bit crazy, but I always loved seeing him and he would hug me and call me "chiquito", which means "little one". Uncle Fed was very short and I was already 6'3" by the age of 14 but he always called me that anyway.

Everyone on my father's side of the family was fluent in Spanish, even Bill. My mother and her side of our family (Gertrude, Otto, Lotte, Ellie and Paul) were all fluent in German. I studied more German than Spanish in school, which was handy in my mathematics studies in college. I am finally catching up on my Spanish now and I know that my dad's side of the family would all appreciate this if they were still around.

The food was always awesome when the two families came together at the holidays. Ham, roast beast, turkey and mashed potatoes next to mole, rice and frijoles. German chocolate cake and flan. Rolls and tortillas. There are few things in life that I miss, but I would give just about anything to relive one of those meals.

Francis used to drive my mother crazy at parties, always showing up quite late, which is normal Mexican protocol unless one specifies "English time". Once my mother tried to fool her and invited Francis two hours early and of course Francis showed up on time to my mother's shock and dismay. My mother tried to BS her way out of it and kept asking "where is everyone?" and pretending to not understand why everyone else was so late.

Francis died in a house fire. I'm not sure how it started and neighbors said that she had gotten out, but went back in for her dogs. They escaped and survived unharmed, but she died of smoke inhalation. I think she was still in her mid 50's.

Years later, Bill married one of Francis' best friends and we kept in touch while I was in college. He seemed very happy and would write jokes in all our letters. I think he had always longed to settle down and finally did.

I was very fortunate to have such loving grand parents, aunts and uncles.

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