Memories of a man in his golden years
Roberto Maximiliano Garcia-Ortega. Roberto Garcia for short. Also known as Robert, Rob, and Robbie. That’s me.
I am what you would call a social misfit, a gauche greenhorn, a coarse horse. I have never been cool, not even as a child when all kids were given a pass for being “cute and funny.” I was an overweight child with unkempt clothes and a disheveled appearance, my pants were dirty or had holes in the knee pads, and my shirt was perennially untucked. I lost weight in my teenage years, and I learned to wear bellbottoms and platform shoes like the other boys, but I was inelegant with my dance moves and incapable of flirting with girls. As I have grown old, no one would think of calling me a hipster when I wear my ugly sweaters in public, even though I call them “vintage.” I am, decisively, uncool.
I wear my badge of un-coolness with pride and resignation, but I am not ignorant of the allure of being seen as a truly cool person. I have known and admired such a person since the day I was born. A person who I have always thought wiser than her years, a movie star in my eyes, ever ready for having fun, charming and gracious. She is elusive, appearing in and out of my life, but always connected to it. She is Cecilia, my oldest sister. No other name. Just Cecilia.
Many of my memories of Cecilia are recorded in the album of family photos that Mother amassed in our youth. We grew up in Asunción, Paraguay, and it was common for families in our gated neighborhood to hire professional photographers for big events. My mother’s albums contain a series of photos of Cecilia in her first communion dress, sitting regally on the living room sofa with her voluminous skirt spread out like a fan, surrounded by a semi-circle of family members. She is the focal point of the black-and-white photograph, and the rest of us are her faithful cast of admirers. You can also find photos of her through the years in various ballet costumes and pointe shoes. Cecilia, age ten, dancing en pointe, dressed as a swan. Cecilia, age eleven, posed to do a pirouette in her princess outfit made of twelve layers of tulle fabric. Cecilia, age twelve, in battement tendu, with her dark hair furiously pulled back into a tight bun, looking like Audrey Hepburn. I don't remember her dancing as being particularly skilled, but she knew how to pose for a great family photo that would stand the test of time. "Damn, I looked good!" Cecilia remarked the last time we looked through the albums together, as we put away the various memorabilia and knick-knacks that Mother had accumulated over eighty-six years, until her death.
By the time I had my first communion, money was tight for us in Asunción, so Mother didn't splurge on a series of photos like she had done for Cecilia. Instead, she bought me a suit that was two sizes too large, with the assumption that I would continue to grow and wear the suit for years to come. She also bought me a satin communion armband with a gaudy bow designed like a chalice. For good measure, she gave me a tie clip that matched the armband. She placed me in front of the photographer with my oversized outfit, accompanied by all the family members around me, and took a solitary picture. My eyes were closed, but there was no money to take another photo. My parents, grandparents, godparents, and my little sister Marcela (age four) are all assembled in the picture. There is, however, no image of Cecilia in the photo. She was not there as she had gone instead to a girlfriend's fiesta del quince (or quinceañera as most Americans call it, using the Mexican term for this traditional fifteenth birthday celebration).
I heard Cecilia pleading with Mother, arguing that she had a moral obligation to attend her friend's party. "What will the other girls in my school think if I don’t go to Maria’s fifteenth party? It's the event of the year! Besides, no one will care if I don't attend Roberto's communion. I'll still see him later tonight." To my surprise, Mother bought into it the argument. Never underestimate Cecilia’s persuasive powers to convince you that the sky is not blue.
"Guess I didn't make it to your first communion,” said Cecilia the last time we saw the photo while packing my dead mother’s things.
While Asunción is the capital of Paraguay, it is not a large city. It is not Paris or Buenos Aires, where you can get lost in the crowd and no one knows your business. Asunción is like a small village, a den of gossip and rumormongering, where everyone notices what you have done or left undone. When Cecilia didn’t show up at my first communion, word spread quickly, and questions were posed by the neighbors.
“Lucinda,” said Manuela from three blocks over when she saw Mother in el mercado picking up some smokes. “Escuché decir que … Cecilia was not present for Roberto’s communion.” Manuela had the uncanny habit of chewing on gum as she spoke, and of staring at you uncomfortably in the eyes as if every word she uttered was an accusation.
Mother was unmoved by Manuela’s words. That day, Mother was wearing a black dress, heavy red lipstick, and light perfume. Her nails were polished, and she was using her best red wig which, she claimed, made her look like Ingrid Bergman. Even if going out just to buy cigarettes, Mother would dress impeccably, so that people would notice her.
“Tu sabes como es,” said Mother to Manuela. “You know what it's like. Cecilia is the most popular girl in her school, and she had five other social commitments that day. I couldn't clip her wings. She celebrated the occasion of Roberto's communion later, with us, in a much more private and intimate manner."
I heard Manuela whisper under her breath “mentirosa maldita,” which means “[obscenity] liar.” Later that day I heard Mother complaining to Father, “Can you believe that cow-chewing woman questioning the whereabouts of Cecilia! What is this town coming to?”
"I suppose, maybe we did go against the norm," Father replied.
"And who sets the norm?" Mother asked indignantly. "Who gets to dictate it?"
"They, them, the crowd, the town," Father said.
"In other words, a dictatorship. What has this town come to?" Mother concluded.
We never did fully come to understand what Asunción had come to because, a few years after my first communion, we packed everything we could carry into five suitcases and left the country to live in New Jersey. Father, previously a friend and supporter of Alfredo Stroessner (the dictator and president of Paraguay for more than three decades) had fallen into bad graces. Due to a downturn in Father's business investments, he could no longer afford to pay off the military and bureaucrats that ran the country, so he decided to make a quick escape instead. Under General Stroessner, Paraguay’s security forces became so efficient at intimidating potential opposition figures that eventually fear itself — fear of arrest, torture, exile, and murder — became one of his prime levers for staying in power. When Stroessner and his regime had you in their crosshairs, it was best to flee than perish.
Cecilia was eighteen when we left Paraguay. I was thirteen and Marcela was seven. While Cecilia and I were only five years apart, Cecilia radiated a maturity and carefree spirit that seemed to transcend her years. Because she spoke fluent English (based on her very expensive private schooling in Paraguay), Cecilia was put straight into college, where she studied literature. She was able to afford college through a combination of scholarships, loans from friends and family, and money she earned. She worked as a telemarketer during the summers and as a Spanish tutor during the school year. Her students were well-off individuals who could afford the luxury of a tutor.
While Cecilia settled into the dormitories of the state school, I was made to repeat the sixth grade, although I had already completed that grade in Asunción.
In those days Cecilia was the epitome of an erudite, fashionable hippie. Her long tresses, which she meticulously straightened each morning with a curling iron, cascaded down to her knees, and she was often seen donning tight bell-bottom jeans and one of the many ponchos that the family had brought from Paraguay. Adorning her head was either a bandana or a white daisy, completing her image as the quintessential flower child, a look that I adored and envied. I couldn't help but love Cecilia for her vivaciousness and new-age groove.
Unlike Cecilia and her funky ponchos, I wore clothes that were always too large for me. Worse yet, unlike Cecilia’s bouncy locks, my hair was never smooth or silky. It has always been curly and frizzy. In my Asunción private school, the other boys called me “rulitos lanceros” which translates to “curls like spearheads.” As a teenager in the United States, my haircare routine was lacking, and either I didn't know how to wash and condition my hair or I simply refused to do it. As a result, my wooly tresses became curlier and crunchier with each passing day.
My parents paid no attention to my appearance as they were too busy with their factory jobs and attending to little Marcela. Cecilia was away at college, living the hippie life. One holiday, when Cecilia finally came home to visit, she was aghast by what she saw sitting on my head.
“How can you go to school looking like that?” she asked me in horror. “Do the other kids make fun of you when you show up with such hair?”
“They call me steel wool,” I told her.
Cecilia grabbed me by the hand and guided me to the bathroom sink. It had been a long time since my hair had been washed properly, so she set to work with strong clarifiers, a fragrant shampoo, and a silky conditioner. As she washed my hair, the water in the sink turned dark, and black from all the grease and dirt. Afterwards, she gently massaged my scalp, working out the tangles and knots, as if trying to heal a wound. “All better now,” she said. “All better, and ready to roar.”
Once we left the bathroom, Cecilia and I went out to the backyard. She lit a cigarette, and I used a towel to dry my hair. As she smoked, Cecilia scolded me, "You're rather lucky that rats haven't taken up residence in that hair of yours. You have to promise to wash it at least three times a week from now on."
"I will," I answered, my voice muffled by the towel, and my face turned red in embarrassment. "I should be more like you," I told her.
"Don’t worry little brother, tomorrow you're coming with me to the hair salon to get a proper haircut."
It was 1975. The hair salon that Cecilia took me to in downtown Hackensack was relaxed and bohemian, decorated with tie-dye fabrics, vintage posters, a few plants, and a collection of sand and rocks. The music was loud and upbeat, with a mix of rock, folk, and some occasional funk and soul thrown in. They served coffee which the baristas brewed using a pour-over method. Clients like Cecilia came to the salon to feel relaxed and pampered, and to express their individuality and creativity through their hair. That is, if you have good hair. I did not.
As we walked into the salon, I felt like an extra on stage next to Cecilia. She fit in seamlessly, as if she were the lead in a play. I stood out like a prop man who forgot to leave the stage when the play started.
When it was her turn to be styled, Cecilia told her attendant that she only wanted her tips cut. “Nothing too heavy,” Cecilia told the girl cutting her hair. “Just give it a more free and windy look, do you know what I mean?”
“I got you. Groovy,” the girl responded as she continued to run her fingers through Cecilia’s long strands as if she was making love to them.
I wasn't sure exactly what having your “tips cut” meant, except that it had something to do with lifting the weight off the hair so that it could flow more freely in the wind. (Let it shine, let it flow.) I had tight, curly hair that was incapable of flowing in the wind, not even at hurricane-wind speeds. When Cecilia had offered to take me to the hippie hair salon, I had imagined that the hairstylist would magically transform my steel wool pad into the luscious soft locks that Ryan O'Neal sported in the movie Love Story. So when the stylist "consulted" with me as to what I wanted to be done, I expected to ask for "subtle highlights and soft curls." I even prepared my script, "lighten it up a bit man; nothing too heavy, man, you know what I mean?" But instead, Andres, who had a lit fag dangling from his lips and was drinking coffee by the gallon to cure his hangover from the night before, touched my hair with one hand, waived his other hand in dismay, and firmly declared to me that "you need an Afro." Before I could respond, Andres quickly snipped my hair for a few minutes, then used a pick to fluff it up, sprayed it with hair spray, and stuck me under a hair dryer for thirty minutes. That was my first and last time at a fancy hair salon.
As we left the salon, I couldn't help but congratulate Cecilia on her new cut, although frankly, I couldn't tell any difference. "You look groovy," I told her. "Thanks, Roberto," she replied with a chuckle. "I like yours too, but you look a bit like little Orphan Annie."
When we got home, Marcela asked how much I was charged for my haircut. I told her it was eighty dollars. She said I had been ripped off. Mother agreed with Marcela. “Un robo,” she said. But Cecilia protected me by chiming in, "Let it go, let it be. It’s all good in the end.”
The next day at school, I learned that the hairstyle I was now sporting on my head was affectionately called a Jewfro. Although several of my classmates also had variations of the Jewfro, their hair was always softer and more relaxed, and they dressed in a funky style, sporting tight-fitting bell bottoms and open-flower shirts that revealed chest hair adorned with either a Christian cross or a Star of David on a chain (depending on the wearer’s religious status and fashion preference for the day). In 1975, across the entire State of New Jersey, it was mandatory for high school boys to dress and look like roosters or cocks, prancing about and spreading their feathers. In reality, all those boys dressed in hip clothes felt alone and insecure. Especially me.
I couldn’t fit in at school, even with my unique version of the Jewfro. “Looking good Robbie, looking good,” some of the kids said when they spotted my new haircut, but I noticed their chuckling. Back then I went by the name of "Robbie." My birth name is Roberto, and it’s what they called me at home, but to fit in with my American peers, in public I referred to myself as "Rob” or "Robert." Everyone shortened it to "Robbie" because I was elf-like. Years later, when I was twenty-five, Cecilia convinced me to legally change my public persona back to Roberto. "Just dig who you are, man,” she said to me. “Don't be trying to fit in with what the squares want. Keep it real."
I orbited around the popular crowd in high school but I was never accepted as a member of the clique. In my junior year, I turned seventeen and I worked hard to get my driver’s license. After that, my parents would lend me the family car, a Volkswagen Bug, which I used to give rides to my classmates. In Paraguay, my family had owned a spacious Jeep that could fit the entire family and friends, but in America, we had to make do with a used Beetle that my father purchased from a friend, paying for it in installments. Even though the car had dented fenders and a window that wouldn't open, we considered ourselves lucky to have it, and I was glad to offer rides to my classmates. I was affectionately referred to as the "chauffeur" by some of the guys: "Hey, Robbie Chauffeur, can you take us to the mall?" I knew that they saw me as a useful tool rather than a cool friend.
Desperate to fit in with the gang, I came up with a plan to introduce all the senior boys to Cecilia. I was hoping that some of her coolness would rub off on me and that they would see me in a different light. The problem was that Cecilia rarely came home from college, so it was hard to find time to introduce her to any of my friends. Fortunately, one time Cecelia came down with a bad cold and was forced to stay home with us for nearly two weeks. Insensitive to her illness, I saw this as the perfect chance to finally introduce Cecilia to the gang and change my high school reputation.
I brought three of the guys over to the house and, as we walked in, we found Cecilia sitting in the living room. She was bundled in layers of sweaters, a robe with patches, and several pairs of socks on her feet. She was coughing and blowing her nose, clearly not feeling well. I saw that she was hunched over a tray stocked with a thermometer, cough drops, cold syrup, and dirty tissues. I made the introductions, "Guys, this is my sister, Cecilia. Isn't she cool?" In the middle of coughing, Cecilia mustered up enough energy to wave at the boys and respond with a raspy voice, "Keep on trucking dudes."
To my disappointment, the guys were not impressed. When we went back outside, I asked them, "So, what did you think of Cecilia?" One of them said, "She's fine," and another one asked for a ride. “Robbie Chauffer, the girls are waiting for us at the mall. Can you take us there?” My plans for popularity had failed.
When I came back home after the mall drop, I found Cecilia sitting on the living room couch, listening to Crosby Stills and Nash. She sang along to the lyrics in a hoarse voice: "Morning comes to sunrise, And I'm driven to my bed, I see that it is empty and there's devils in my head." Despite her stuffed nose and her struggles with the blankets to make herself warm, she retained a cheerful disposition. When she saw me, she gave me a sad smile and said, "I'm so sorry the introduction to the boys didn't go well."
I reassured her, "It had no impact on my popularity ranking. I'm still Robbie the chauffeur."
Cecilia laughed, and putting on her best flower child voice, said to me, "Don't worry about what should be. Let them be themselves and you be the grooviest you that you can be."
It was easy for Cecilia to dispel her hippie wisdom whenever she visited. She always seemed to be in a good mood, but she would never stay home for more than a weekend. While she was away at college, living her bohemian hippie life, the sorrow of having left Paraguay seemed to always be present at home, like one of the smog clouds that sometimes form from the burning Amazonian jungles and flow to cover Asunción. Although we had left Paraguay to escape a police state and the suffocating societal constraints of Asunción, we now found ourselves missing the closeness we had left behind. Every once in a while, I caught Mother in her bedroom, trying on different dresses in front of the mirror, and I could tell that she cherished the old days when she could dress nicely and walk to the local mercado to argue with the neighborhood gossip. I once asked her if she remembered those days in Paraguay, but she replied that she had no time for such memories. "Hijo," she said "we left that world behind, and it no longer belongs to us. Don't bring up old memories. They'll haunt you." She then begged me to let her go, as she would be late for her twelve-hour shift at the frozen food factory.
Father had earned a degree in economics in Paraguay, and he ran several negocios (small businesses) with friends and investors. Most of that was lost when we left Paraguay. His college diploma from UNA (the national university in Asunción) was not recognized by any American employer. Instead, he had to start from scratch, working at a factory during the day while going to school at night to get an American college degree. This process took years and aged him, but his job prospects did improve after earning a new degree. Mother, who had taught high school biology in Asunción, had to take on a job as a food quality control engineer in a frozen food factory in South Hackensack, New Jersey. She wore earplugs at work due to the constant noise of the conveyor belt assembly. She would come home at night and tell us that the conveyor belt had been hammering all the time. "Taca Taca Taca," she would sing, imitating the noise of the machines. We called it Mother’s work song.
I clashed with my parents in those days, in silent rebellion. I couldn't understand how they could continue working so hard at factory jobs without ever complaining. I was frustrated with them as I wanted them to miss the past as I did. Instead, I saw my parents struggle and age in the United States, and slowly let each happy memory of Paraguay slip away as if they were tears that needed to be shed one by one and left forgotten.
When I was feeling angry with my parents, I would call Cecelia by phone, for comfort. I would call her late at night when I knew she would be in her dorm room studying. Once when I called, I could hear a record of humpback whale songs playing in the background. "What is that?" I asked her.
"It's a symphony of sea echoes made by humpback whales. It's a new record that's popular at school recently," she replied.
"I love it. How did they get those sounds?"
She explained, "The whale songs are sung at such low frequencies that humans can't hear them. They were recorded by underwater microphones that amplified the low frequencies so they could be recorded. It's a beautiful sound, isn't it? It’s like a love ballad, a choir of moans and cries in the water. A duet between the sea and the whales."
"I'm glad you're having fun listening to that. I'm here fighting with Mother. She drives me crazy sometimes. Why is she so stubborn and cold-hearted sometimes?"
Cecilia thought about it for a while, then she answered, "Roberto, think of it like the whale songs that we cannot hear. It's the same with Mother’s feelings these days."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"We don’t know the inner truths and daily realities of other people, just as the depths of the ocean conceal the songs of the humpback whales, so the depths of the human mind conceal a person’s innermost thoughts and feelings. Let her be, little brother. Unless you know her truth, let her be."
By the time I graduated high school and entered college in New York City, Cecilia had already graduated from her college and had moved to Washington D.C. to work for a non-profit. She moved into an old Victorian row house in Dupont Circle that had been broken up into six small apartments. Her apartment, which had previously served as the master bedroom for the Victorian house, was small, but it had a large bathroom with a deep bathtub and intricate tiling, making it the best room in the apartment. In those days, Dupont was not the gentrified village that it has become over the years. The only people that lived in Dupont were college students, college grads starting off their careers, and the bums living on park benches. Only a few blocks were livable and everyone knew to stay away from Logan Circle, which, day or night, was the spot for men to pick up prostitutes and junkies to do their drugs. Mother was horrified by the neighborhood, but Cecilia was enamored. She fit right in with her hippie clothes and adopted what she considered a healthy way of eating. She found a market in Tysons Corner where she could buy unpasteurized eggs and non-homogenized milk, which she deemed as better options than the milk and eggs that you could buy in the supermarkets. "That market stuff is too processed," she said. "You have to bring it all back to nature."
One year when I was still in college, Marcela and I decided to take a train to visit Cecilia in D.C. for a long weekend. Cecilia showed us all her favorite haunts, from the flea market finds in Union Market to the paintings she treasured at the National Gallery of Art. She even took us to her favorite farm in Tysons Corner where we bought the contraband unpasteurized and non-homogenized products, under strict orders from Cecilia that we would not tell Mother about it. In the evenings, we sat in the bathroom of her apartment and drank cheap red wine from a Gallo bottle. We smoked cigarettes and listened to Donna Sommers singing “I love to love you baby” mixed in with Jim Croce crooning “If I could save time in a bottle.” Cecilia dispensed droplets of her wisdom throughout the night. Marcela and I fell asleep, as Cecilia sang the tunes of the Sage, James Taylor: “the secret of life is enjoying the passage of time; any fool can do it; there ain't nothing to it."
After our long weekend, Marcela and I returned to New Jersey. Cecilia waited with us at Union Station for the train to arrive and entertained us with some of her new-age wisdom. Marcela was fussing because the train was late, but Cecilia calmed her down. "Remember, the universe is always conspiring in your favor," she told Marcela. "And don't forget to be present at the moment." I nodded, taking Cecilia’s words to heart. Marcela just laughed, thinking Cecilia was joking. Finally, after two hours of waiting, the train arrived. As we boarded, Cecilia pulled out two brown paper bags from her oversized Mexican shopping bag. “I have a surprise for each of you,” she told us. "I made you lunch to eat on the train."
I spent the entire train ride looking out the window, enjoying the passing scenery. The train was moving at such a fast pace that all I could see were brief glimpses of houses, buildings, and farms whizzing by. The blur of colors and shapes rapidly passing by blended with the constant movement of the train, creating an almost meditative momentum. I felt myself relaxing as I watched the landscape fly by, lost in thought and some confusion.
Marcela felt sick from watching out the window and soon vomited from motion sickness. After about an hour, we opened our brown paper bags to find sandwiches carefully wrapped in tin foil. Cecilia had even included a note that read, "reuse the tin foil." The sandwiches were prepared with whole wheat bread, tofu, tomatoes, and alfalfa sprouts. Cecelia had made the tofu from scratch, using nothing but organic products. It was white and thick like ricotta, but it smelled foul. Marcela took one sniff and remarked, "This is disgusting. I'm not eating it." And she threw her sandwich in the garbage. I acknowledge that the tofu smelled bad, and as a general rule, I don't like tofu. But it was a gift from Cecilia, so I ate my sandwich slowly, chewing it for hours as I continued to look out the train window. As the passing scenery continued to mesmerize me, I felt that there was sadness in me. At first, I couldn't tell if it came from the prospect of missing Cecilia when I returned home, or if the sadness was being fed by something else. I knew I would miss her in the coming days, but then I realized that I have always missed her. We were two souls on separate paths who occasionally met and enjoyed their shared interests and vast differences. As the train rocked and rattled, I thought of the American dream that Cecilia had now made for herself in Washington, and all I could do was repeat, "What about Asunción? What about Asunción?" sang in accompaniment to the hypnotic beat of the train running on its tracks.
As time went on, I came to know more about the history of my country. I realized that Paraguay's police state had left a lasting impact on us, and I understood why my parents had fled. The idea of Stroessner as a benevolent dictator was nothing more than a myth. The atrocities committed by the Stroessner regime are well-known, but less understood is the psychological toll it took on the population. Our neighbors in Asuncion, who had grown up under Stroessner's dictatorship, were accustomed to judging one another; it was a byproduct of the state's control, which had trained all of us to blindly follow and not question. There could be no Cool Cecilia in Paraguay; not in those days. Not the Cecilia I knew.
Over the years, there have been ups and downs in my relationship with Cecilia. After college, I moved out of the house and didn't visit my parents very much. Marcela was the only one that stayed in New Jersey, and she became my parent's caretaker as they aged. Cecilia and I became satellite planets that orbit the sun. We both married and divorced, and moved from one state to another several times pursuing our careers. We kept in touch with each other, but not on a daily or even monthly basis. Recently, the tables have turned and Cecilia is the one that lives in New Jersey (happily retired), and I’m the one that lives in D.C., working for a non-profit.
I met up with Cecilia last week. It had been several years since I had last seen her, and I couldn't help but notice that she had aged. She was dressed elegantly, her black poncho adorned with a golden embroidered shoulder pad that caught my eye. I imagined that she had purchased it from a high-end store like Sacks or Neiman Marcus, where only the chic and expensive can be found.
As we chatted and caught up on old times, I wanted to bring up the past and ask her about those days. “Do you remember how carefree you were when we were young? You were always gone, doing your own funky thing, while the rest of us struggled at home.”
Her eyes dropped and, for an instance, her self-assuredness seemed to melt. “It was all an act," she said. "You don't know half of what it was like to live with nearly no money in college. Smoke and mirrors my friend, conjuring and faking it." Her lips were smiling, but her green eyes turned dark, as they do whenever she is wounded.
“Did you know," she continued, "that I used to send some of my tutoring money to Mother and Father when I was in college?"
"I didn't know," I told her as I felt my face turn red in anger and embarrassment for having thought for so many years that she had somehow escaped the family struggle.
"Little brother," she whispered. "Don't worry about it. No one really knows the details of another person's life. We are all humpback whales, swimming alone in the vast ocean, singing our own songs, and hoping someone else will hear them. And when you hear and learn that song, maybe you will think it’s groovy and beautiful."
I nodded, because at times like this, I'm Robbie again, and I don't know what to say. Cecilia smiled, and added, "By the way, the outfit I'm wearing today comes from a thrift store in Hackensack. I'll take you there someday.”
January 20, 2023
© Ernesto Beckford 2023
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