Unsung Heroes (Free Verse Poem from Of Pain and Ecstasy: Collected Poems)

Most of my output to date, and all of my books with traditional publishers, has been non-fiction. That is where I live as an academic. As much as I enjoy my research and writing which is overwhelmingly in the area of law throughout more than a quarter century, poetry and fiction are at my core as a writer. My output in both is relatively meager to date, at least the portion I’ve collected in my little self-published books and decided to share with a few readers.  But there is more of me in both my fiction and poetry than in my combined “serious” works.

Below is my longest free verse poem to date and a work in progress to which my dad and mom will be added in the fullness of time.

 

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UNSUNG HEROES

From Of Pain and Ecstasy: Collected Poems (C) 1978, 2011 Victor D. Lopez


Although I stand on the shoulders of giants,
I fail to see much farther than the bridge of my nose.
The fault in mine. The shame is mine.
For I am unworthy of you, my beloved dead.

Emilio (Maternal Grandfather)

Your crime was literacy,
And the possession of a social conscience,
That made you yearn to see your beloved Spain remain free,
And prevented you from suffering fascists lightly.

You did not bear arms,
For you abhorred all violence,
You did not incite rebellion, though you
Rebelled against the foreign and domestic enemies of freedom.

As best I can tell you were an idealist who,
In a time of darkness,
Clung passionately to the belief,
In the perfectibility of the human spirit.

You would not abide the lies the regional papers carried,
And translated news from American and British newspapers,
About the gathering storm,
Sharing the truth freely with all who would listen.

You gave speeches, and wrote speeches delivered by others, in support of a doomed
Republic collapsing under the weight of its own incompetence and corruption.
You were warned by friends of your imminent arrest and offered passage back to the U.S. or to
Buenos Aires where so many of your friends had already found refuge.

But they would not get your wife and nine children out,
And you refused to leave them to their fate.
They came for you, as always, in the middle of the night,
These cowards with stern faces hiding behind machine guns.

They took you prisoner, not for the first time, to the Castillo de San Anton,
A fortress by a most beautiful, tranquil bay,
Where they tore out your nails, one by one, and that their
Gentlest caress while they asked you for names.

You endured, God knows what there, for months,
And were sentenced to be shot as a traitor at La Plaza de María Pita.
But the Republic had friends, even among the officers of the fascist forces,
And one of them opened your cell door on the eve of your execution.

You had contracted tuberculosis by then, yet, according to grandmother, you
Managed to swim miles across the bay in a moonless night, to safety in the home of
Another patriot who risked his life and the lives of his family to hide you in
His cellar and made a trip of many miles on foot to find your wife.

He found your home and told your wife of your unexpected reprieve,
And asked her to send some clothing and some shoes to replace your dirty rags.
You eldest daughter, Maria, insisted in accompanying the stranger back on foot, taking
Clothing and what provisions she could quickly gather and carry to you.

From time to time you accepted the hospitality of an overnight stay
In the attic or hay loft of a Republican sympathizer as these were not hard to
Find in the fiercely independent Galicia under the yoke of one of its own.
But mostly you lived in the woods, with active guerrillas for years.

You lived with all the comforts of a hunted animal with others who would not yield,
Whose greatest crime consisted of being on the wrong side of a lost cause.
I hope it brought you some comfort to know you were on the right side of history.
It brought none to your wife and none to your youngest children.

As you paid your long penance for your conscience, once a month or so, after some
Time passed, you visited your wife and children. You were introduced to the little ones
As an uncle from afar. They did not know the bearded wild man who paid these visits
In the middle of the night and left wearing dad’s old, clean clothes.

The older ones, Maria, Josefa, Juan and Toñita, all in their teens, told the little ones
That their “uncle” brought news of their dad. The younger children, still wearing the
Frayed cloaks of their innocence, accepted this, not questioning why he stayed in
Mom’s room all night and was gone before they awoke the next morning.

Your grief at playing the part of a stranger in your own home, of not embracing your
Children on whom you doted, one and all, for their protection and yours, as there were
No shortage of fascists who tried to ply them with pastries and candy,
Seeking to use their innocence as a weapon against you.

Your parents were relatively wealthy business owners who farmed the sea but
Disowned you—perhaps for your politics, perhaps for choosing to emigrate and
Refusing to join the family business, or perhaps for marrying for love in New York City
A hard working girl beneath your social station in their eyes.

You lived just long enough to see Spain delivered from war,
Though not freed of its chains.
You were spared the war’s aftermath.
Your wife and children were not.

No books record your name. Most of those who knew you are dead.
Yet flowers have long perpetually appeared on your simple above-ground burial site in
Sada that holds your ashes, and those of your eldest son, Juan, and second-Eldest daughter,
Toñita, who died much younger than even you.

Your wife has joined you there, in a place where
Honor, goodness, decency, principle and a pure,
Broken heart,
Now rest in peace.

Manuel (Paternal Grandfather)

They also came for you in the middle of the night,
But found that you had gone to Buenos Aires.
The Guardia Civil questioned your wife in her home,
Surrounded by your four young children, in loud but respectful tones.

They waved their machine guns about for a while,
But left no visible scars on your children,
Or on your young wife, whom you
Left behind to raise them alone.

You had been a big fish in a little pond,
A successful entrepreneur who made a very good living,
By buying cattle to be raised by those too poor
To buy their own who would raise them for you.

They would graze them, use them to pull their plows
And sell their milk, or use it to feed their too numerous children.
When they were ready for sale, you would take them to market,
Obtain a fair price for them, and equally split the gains with those who raised them.

All in all, it was a good system that gave you relative wealth,
And gave the poor the means to feed their families and themselves.
You reputation for unwavering honesty and fair dealing made many
Want to raise cattle for you, and many more sought you out to settle disputes.

On matters of contracts and disputed land boundaries your word was law.
The powerless and the powerful trusted your judgment equally and sought you out
To settle their disputes. Your judgment was always accepted as final because
Your fairness and integrity were beyond question. “If Manuel says it, it is so.”

You would honor a bad deal based on a handshake and would rather lose a
Fortune than break your word, even when dealing with those far less honorable
Than yourself. For you a man was only as good as his word, and you knew that the
Greatest legacy you could leave your children was an unsullied name.

You were frugal beyond need or reason, perhaps because you did not
Want to flaunt your relative wealth when so many had nothing.
It would have offended your social conscience and belied your politics.
Your one extravagance was a great steed, on which no expense was spared.

Though thoughtful, eloquent and soft-spoken, you were not shy about
Sharing your views and took quiet pride in the fact that others listened
When you spoke.  You were an ardent believer in the young republic and
Left of center in your views. When the war came, you were an easy target.

There was no time to take your entire family out of the country, and
You simply had too much to lose—a significant capital tied up in land and
Livestock. So you decided to go to Argentina, having been in the U.S. while
You were single and preferring self exile in a country with a familiar language.

Your wife and children would be fine, sheltered by your capital and by
The good will you had earned. And you were largely right.
Despite your wife’s inexperience, she continued with your business, with the
Help of your son who had both your eye for buying livestock and your good name.

Long years after you had gone, your teenaged son could buy all the cattle he
Wanted at any regional fair on credit, with just a handshake, simply because
He was your son. And for many years, complete strangers would step up offering a
Stern warning to those they believed were trying to cheat your son at the fairs.

“E o fillo do Café.” (He is the son of the Café, a nickname earned by a
Distant relative for to his habit of offering coffee to anyone who visited his
Office at a time when coffee was a luxury). That was enough to stop anyone
Seeking to gain an unfair advantage from dad’s youth and inexperience.

Once in Buenos Aires, though, you were a small fish in a very big pond,
Or, more accurately, a fish on dry land; nobody was impressed by your name,
Your pedigree, your reputation or your way of doing business. You were probably
Mocked for your Galician accent and few listened or cared when you spoke.

You lived in a small room that shared a patio with a little schoolhouse.
You worked nights as a watchman, and tried to sleep during the day while
Children played noisily next door. You made little money since your trade was
Useless in a modern city where trust was a highly devalued currency.

You were an anachronistic curiosity. And you could not return home.
When your son followed you there, he must have broken your heart;
You had expected that he would run your business until your return; but he
Quit school, tired of being called roxo (red) by his military instructors.

It must have been excruciatingly difficult for you.  Dad never got your pain.
Ironically, I think I do, but much too late. Eventually you returned to Spain to
A wife who had faithfully raised your children alone for nearly two decades and was
No longer predisposed to unquestioningly view your will as her duty.

Doubtless, you could no more understand that than dad could understand
You. Too much Pain. Too many dreams deferred, mourned, buried and forgotten.
You returned to your beloved Galicia when it was clear you would not be
Persecuted after Generalisimo Franco had mellowed into a relatively benign tyrant.

People were no longer found shot or beaten to death in ditches by the
Side of the road. So you returned home to live out the remainder of your
Days out of place, a caricature of your former self, resting on the brittle,
Crumbling laurels of your pre Civil War self, not broken, but forever bent.

You found a world very different from the one you had built through your
Decency, cunning, and entrepreneurship. And you learned to look around
Before speaking your mind, and spent your remaining days reined in far more
Closely than your old steed, and with no polished silver bit to bite upon.

Remedios (Maternal Grandmother)
Your husband died at 40, leaving you to raise seven children alone.
But not before your eldest, hardest working son, Juan, had
Drowned at sea in his late teens while working as a fisherman to help
You and your husband put food on the table.
You lost a daughter, too,
Toñita, also in her early teens, to illness.
Their kind, pure souls found
Their way back home much too soon.

Later in life you would lose two more sons to tragedy, Paco (Francisco),
An honest, hard working man whose purposeful penchant for shocking
Language belied a most gentle nature and a generous heart. He was electrocuted by
A faulty portable light while working around his pool.

And the apple of your eye, Sito (José), your last born and most loving son, who
Had inherited his father’s exceptional looks, social conscience, left of center
Politics, imposing presence, silver tongue, and bad, bad luck, died, falling
Under the wheels of a moving train, perhaps accidentally.

In a time of hopelessness and poverty, you would not be broken.
You rose every day hours before the dawn to sell fish at a stand.
And every afternoon you placed a huge wicker basket on your head and
Walked many, many miles to sell even more fish in other towns.

Money was tight, so you often took bartered goods in
Exchange for your fish, giving some to those most in need,
Who could trade nothing in return but their
Blessings and their gratitude.

You walked back home, late at night, through darkness or
Moonlit roads, carrying vegetables, eggs, and perhaps a
Rabbit or chicken in a large wicker basket on your strong head,
Walking straight, on varicose-veined legs, driven on by a sense of purpose.

During the worst famine during and after the Civil War, the chimney of your
Rented home overlooking the Port of Fontan, spewed forth black smoke every day.
Your hearth fire burned to to feed not just your children, but also your less
Fortunate neighbors, nourishing their bodies and their need for hope.

You were criticized by some when the worst had passed, after the war.
“Why work so hard, Remedios, and allow your young children to go to work
At too young an age? You sacrifice them and yourself for stupid pride when
Franco and foreign food aid provide free meals for the needy.”

“My children will never live off charity as long as my back is strong” was your reply.
You resented your husband for putting politics above family and
Dragging you and your two daughters, from your safe, comfortable home at
Number 10 Perry Street near the Village to a Galicia without hope.

He chose to tilt at windmills, to the eternal glory of other foolish men,
And left you to fight the real, inglorious daily battle for survival alone.
Struggling with a bad heart, he worked diligently to promote a better, more just
Future while largely ignoring the practical reality of your painful present.

He filled you with children and built himself the cross upon which he was
Crucified, one word at a time, leaving you to pick up the pieces of his shattered
Idealism. But you survived, and thrived, without sacrificing your own strong
Principles or allowing your children to know hardships other than those of honest work.
And you never lost your sense of humor. You never took anything or
Anyone too seriously. When faced with the absurdity of life,
You chose to smile or laugh out loud. I saw you shed many tears of laughter,
But not once tears of pain, sorrow or regret. You would never be a victim.

You loved people. Yours was an irreverent sense of humor, full of gentle irony,
And wisdom. You loved to laugh at yourself and at others, especially pompous fools
Who often missed your great amusement at their expense, failing to understand your
Dismissal, delivered always with a smile, a gentle voice and sparkling eyes.

Your cataracts and near sightedness made it difficult for you to read,
But you read voraciously nonetheless, and loved to write long letters to loved ones and friends.
You were a wise old woman, the wisest and strongest I will ever know,
But one with the heart of a child and the soul of an angel.

You were the most sane, most rational, most well adjusted human being
I have ever known. You were mischievous, but incapable of malice.
You were adventurous, never afraid to try or to learn anything new.
You were fun-loving, interesting, kind, rambunctious, funny and smart as hell.

You would have been an early adopter of all modern technology, had you lived long
Enough, and would have loved playing—and working—with all of my electronic
Toys. You would have been a terror with a word processor, email, and social media
And would have loved my video games—and beaten me at every one of them.

We were great friends and playmates throughout most of my life.  You followed
Us here soon after we immigrated in 1967, leaving behind 20 other Grandchildren.
I never understood the full measure of that sacrifice, or the love that made it
Bearable for you. I do now. Too late. It is one of the greatest regrets of my life.

We played board games, cowboys and Indians, raced electric cars, flipped
Baseball cards and played thousands of hands of cards together. It never
Occurred to me that you were the least bit unusual in any way. I loved you
Dearly but never went far out of my way to show it. That too, I learned too late.

After moving to Buenos Aires, when mom had earned enough money to take
You and her younger brothers there, the quota system then in place made it
Impossible to send for your two youngest children, whose care you entrusted
Temporarily to your eldest married daughter, Maria.

You wanted them with you. Knowing no better, you went to see Evita Peron for help.
Unsurprisingly, you could not get through her gatekeepers.  But you were
Nothing if not persistent. You knew she left early every morning for her office.
And you parked yourself there at 6:00 a.m., for many, many days by her driveway.

Eventually, she had her driver stop and motioned for you to approach.
“Grandmother, why do you wave at me every morning when I leave for work?”
She asked. You explained about your children in Spain. She took pity and scribbled a
Pass on her card to admit you to her office the next day.

You met her there  and she assured you that a visa would be forthcoming;
When she learned that you made a living by cleaning homes and washing clothing,
She offered you a sewing machine and training to become a seamstress.
You thanked her but declined the offer.

“Give the sewing machine to another mother with no trade. My strong back and hands
Serve me well enough and I do just fine, as I have always done.”
Evita must have been impressed for she asked you to see her yet again when the
Children had arrived in Buenos Aires, giving you another pass. You said you would.

You kept your word, as always. And Evita granted you another brief audience,
Met your two youngest sons (José and Emilio) and shared hot chocolate and
Biscuits with the three of you. You disliked and always criticized Peron and the Peronistas,
But you never forgot Evita’s kindness and defended her all your life.

You were gone too quickly. I had not said “I love” you in years. I was too busy,
With school and other equally meaningless things to keep in touch. You
Passed away without my being there. Mom had to travel by herself to your
Bedside for an extended stay. The last time I wrote you I had sent you a picture.

It was from my law school graduation.
You carried it in your coat pocket before the stroke.
As always, you loved me, with all of my faults that made me
Unworthy of your love.

I knew the moment that you died. I awoke from a deep sleep to see a huge
White bird of human size atop my desk across from my bed. It opened huge
Wings and flew towards me and passed through me as I shuddered.
I knew then that you were gone. I cried, and prayed for you.

Mom called early the next day with the news that you had passed. She also
Told me much, much later that you had been in a coma for some time but that
You awoke, turned to her without recognizing her, and told her that you were going to
Visit your grandson in New York. Then you fell asleep for one last time.

I miss you every day.

Maria (Paternal Grandmother)
You were a gentle, genteel young woman swept away by a man
Thirteen years your senior who gallantly courted you,
Riding proudly atop his great steed, and who offered you
Safety, security, his good name and his heart.

He gave you four children—two boys and two girls—and left you,
And them, just before the Guardia Civil came for him. You told them that
Your husband had emigrated to Argentina and was an honorable man.
They questioned you but left empty handed and did not trouble you again.

For the next two decades, you managed your husband’s affairs,
Continued with his business for a time,
Grieved the death of your youngest son, Manolito, to meningitis,
And found comfort in your lot, which was better than most.

You were a proud, prim, proper, handsome woman,
With large, penetrating, deep blue eyes.
Though you were not the a radiant beauty like your older sister,
Who died young but whose beauty long outlived her in the eyes of many.

But you were beautiful, and turned more than your share of heads in younger days.
And you fondly recalled all the good, young men from good families who courted you,
Whom you kept at a proper distance through your virtue, wielded like
A great shield; yet you took no small pride in recounting their attentions.

You were kind, generous, and self sacrificing. And you were strong, though this
Trait was not encouraged of proper women of the time. You were a
Good friend, and though you could appear as aloof as a queen walking among her
Subjects, you had many close friends among both rich and poor.

Though you were proud, you tilled the soil and grew potatoes, beets, beans,
Cabbage, artichokes and many other vegetable in your ample garden,
Picked apples, lemons, pears, figs and many other fruits for your family,
From your fruit trees, milked your cows, and raised chickens and rabbits.

Your pride sustained you through the tough times, and you took comfort from
Your illustrious relative, José Sánchez Bregua (1810-1897), the distinguished
Four-star General, Commander in Chief of the forces of Spain, and War Minister whose
State funeral was the first moving picture shot in Spain.

Your memories of a gentler past colored by both real and imagined glory,
And your overly strong pride in your children, grandchildren and family,
Rescued you from loneliness and the unpleasant realities of life,
And condemned you to remember the past at the expense of living the present.

The last time I saw you, you were as strong and lovely as ever, with perfect
Posture, and every hair in place.  Your eyes were still clear, and your smile as
Gentle and reassuring as it had always been.  But you did not know me, and spoke to me of
Your son and grandson in New York of whom you were so proud.

While dad and I sat next to you, you told us both about ourselves and of
Sánchez Bregua, and of your many suitors when you were young, and of your
Virtuous friends, and of your husband’s good name, and of his standing in the
Community, and whispered not a word of pain, of loneliness or of self-sacrifice.

Your soft voice spoke only of pleasant things I’d heard many times before that belied Y
our strength, your mettle, your life deferred, your wounds covered over by the only
Salve available to you—pride—and by the unshakable knowledge of who you were
Without a moment wasted in the pointless contemplation of what might have been.

Dad and I left you for the last time, contentedly fussing with your old sewing
Machine, the same one on which you had made your children’s clothes, and taught
Your two daughters their craft. You did not recognize us, but chatted politely and did
Not notice our tears when dad and I said what would prove to be our final good-byes.

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