My Father Diego Pichardo
My Father, the Rockstar
Sometimes I’ve fantasized about meeting Elvis Presley’s daughter. I’d like to shake her hand and tell her, with a sigh, “Lisa Marie, girl, I know exactly how hard your childhood must’ve been. My father, Diego Pichardo, was also a legendary rock star.”
Except my father was a rock star minus the drugs and alcohol, minus the money, and minus the music.
But the fans? Oh yes. He had them all!
As a little girl, getting attention from Papi required waiting with patience for my turn. Everyone wanted a piece of him, because he had two extraordinary talents. First was making people laugh. For his fans’ delight and my mother’s despair, he could twist anything you said into a joke. Maybe, instead of a rock star I should compare him to a comedian—one who never stops performing.
My Father, the Comedian
Growing up with someone who’s joking all the time means you never know for sure what’s true or not. I remember a night when I was six and Papi drove us home from visiting my grandma. We rode over a gravel street, and pebbles hit the underside of the car, making a clinking noise. When I asked him where that sound came from, he answered with a straight face, “The ants are rioting, and throwing stones at us.”
I believed it without question for the rest of my childhood. Then, about twelve years later, it hit me. “Wait a minute! The ants are not strong enough to pitch stones! He must’ve been kidding!”
Anyone running a twenty-four-seven comedy show is doomed to repeat material. And my mother, my sisters and I had a huge dose of my father’s repetitive jokes, to the point of heavy sighs and impatient eye-rolling. Yet people who saw him sporadically couldn’t get enough of them.
But his popularity rooted in more than his sense of humor. His second gift was being a never-ending source of physical affection.
My Father, the Endless Source of Affection
Like flan, or tres-leches dessert, my father delighted the Latin sweet-tooth, but may’ve been too much to handle for American standards. To the unprepared audience, his gestures of affection could’ve been interpreted as bordering on physical assault.
Luckily, those different times and places protected my father from his innocence, which approached cluelessness. In today’s United States, he would’ve gotten himself in tons of trouble! I can imagine him accused of “sexual harassment in the work place”— he loved pinching and slapping butts to emphasize affection. I can envision his mug shot as “suspected child predator” for rubbing his five-o-clock shadow on the face of a friend’s kid—a teasing way to make children and adults squirm that earned him the nickname of “Tio Barba.”
“Tío Diego, give me a piggy-back ride!”
“Tío Diego, swim with us at the beach!”
“Tío Diego, let me climb on your shoulders to jump in the water.”
Children followed him around in herds, magnetized by the instinctive knowledge that he was one of them—a little kid hiding in a grown body.
He also offered nephews and nieces of every age (biological or not) the rare privilege of a loving paternal figure. In an alcohol-drenched Dominican culture, where most fathers were absent, chronic cheaters or physical abusers, my father stuck out as an alien phenomenon. Everyone warned me, my mother included, that if I dreamed of finding someone like him, I’d be disappointed. For the longest time, I blamed my unrealistic expectations of men as the real reason for my unhappiness in my first marriage.
My Father, the Best Hugger in the World
What else? Papi’s hugs were internationally famous. That’s no exaggeration; he had relatives in four countries, including Italy and Spain, raving about them. He mastered the art of squeezing you in his arms just tight enough to make you feel cuddled, but not so much as to cut off your breath. He didn’t try to pat your back or rub it. He would remain perfectly still, holding you for a while until any hurry or resistance you had to be hugged melted away.
And yet his delightful hugs had layers only someone who’d tasted them hundreds of times could detect. After the first few seconds, I sensed a restlessness in him, an eagerness that needed the hug even more than the recipient. Often, if he held me a little too long, I sensed a void, a vacuum cleaner, suctioning, feeding from my love. Under his facade of never abating joy, Papi was still the little boy who lost his father at age six. The reason why he’d become an endless source of affection was because he, himself, was a black-hole of hunger for affection.
My Father, the Orphan
Papi once shared with me the only memory he had of his own father. “One night, he came to play a serenade to Mamá. The dog barked, and then I heard him singing and playing his guitar. I scanned the darkness through the window until I spotted him, and he seemed happy.
“The next memory I have is of his funeral. I played outside with my cousins, pretending to drive the car of some guest. I wanted to honk the horn, or at least vocalize, pretending to do. But I’ve been told we were mourning and weren’t supposed to play any music. I wondered if a car horn counted.”
Years after the death of my dad’s father, my grandmother remarried. But for the time she remained a widow, raising five children alone, my father’s poverty and hunger stories could make Charles Dickens pale.
However, every time Papi and his siblings met, all their memories revolved around joy. They shared tales of roaming the countryside, climbing trees to gather mangos and limoncillos; swimming in the streams; stealing tamarinds and nísperos from neighboring farms. They even laughed about the stories about running away from their mother and grandfather’s frequent beatings—and from every other Juan in town who felt obligated to step in as substitute paternal figure, and hit them. The country community where Papi grew up had their own version of the saying “it takes a village to raise a child.” They believed everyone should spank everyone else’s misbehaving kid.
My Father, the Man Who had Done it All.
I still have trouble keeping straight all the stories I’ve heard about my father’s labor history. As a little child, he took care of a cow, and an unverified source told me he also worked as a limpiabotas (a shoe-shiner). As a young man, he drove a taxi for a while. He worked in a car shop for a bit. He served as a radio jockey some other time. He managed a movie-theater. He once had a job where he rode a motorcycle across town carrying movie-reels back and forth between two theaters so they could share them (I laughed when I read that in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wow. Because my father had that job for real!)
I even learned Dad was a policeman in his early twenties, but it had been just a scheme to infiltrate him into the armed forces during his years as a revolutionary. Oh, yes, did I mention his phase fighting the Dominican dictator Trujillo, when he ended up in jail and almost got killed? And his participation in the 1965 Dominican Civil War, when, in a statement of rebellion against the US intervention, he stole an American Military Jeep while angry American soldiers chased him shooting bullets at him?
Phew! And most of that happened before he met my mother. Then, he went back to school and became a teacher who taught high-school Math and French for years—a beloved one. He also became a devoted man of faith, working with my mother in Catholic youth and family ministries, and later on teaching couples communication skills to save their endangered marriages.
Then one day, after much financial struggle, he sacrificed his calling of teaching on behalf of better income so he could afford an education for his daughters. That’s how he ended up his last career, banking and finances. Though even that one came with a couple of re-inventions.
Friends and family used to attribute Dad’s eclectic history as the reason he’d slipped so nicely into family life. He had all his adventures done at a young age and got it all out of his system before he settled down.
And boy did he settle!
My Father, the Smitten Man
I’ll never forget that day, near their twenty-year anniversary, when, gazing at my mother with adoration, Papi startled me by clapping and then waving his arms in the air, exclaiming, “I still can’t believe she said yes!”
Friends and family used to say that my mother tamed him. He preferred to joke that she “gave him back his honor,” the phrase used in the DR to refer to when a woman of dubious reputation finds a decent man to marry her, after which she can re-enter society. It was the equivalent of a modern-day man bragging about being a “Manwhore.”
And that was why he couldn’t conceive someone would misinterpret his too-long hug or pinch as malice. He was smitten with my mother and, even if reflex flirting came with his charm, he had no eyes for anyone else.
I always suspected my father loved my mother more than she loved him. Every time he told the story of when he fell for her decades back, his eyes would shine, and he’d get that silly smile of adoration. He claimed she was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen, but she was also the smartest and most eloquent woman he’d ever met.
My Father, the Writer, and Inspiration for Writing
But don’t take my word for it. Here’s a fragment of his own writings about the day they met, translated from Spanish.
“Her eyes were two lighthouses I’ll never forget. When they fixed on me, her plump lips bent into a clear smile that blindsided me. I wasn’t sure if I could classify that smile as innocent or mischievous. Her lustrous black hair fell to her shoulders and bounced as she walked extending a hand to shake mine. Her swinging, graceful steps allowed me to appreciate the beauty of her curvy body.”
My parent’s romance story seemed extracted from a “friends to lovers” trope, and it tinted forever my definition of love as a young woman. He was the young Casanova and experienced womanizer; and fell for her precisely because she was the only woman who seemed immune to his spell. He worked for two years to win her over, worming his way out of the friend-zone.
As a little girl I accepted the double standard without questioning it. My father received applause for his wild youth of collecting girlfriends, often dating two and three women at the same time. My mother, on the other hand, received praise for being the ultimate pure woman. Not only did she arrive at her wedding day a virgin, she had never had a boyfriend before my father. No one in the world could claim having kissed her before him or after him. In Dominican words, “She had no tail anyone could step on.”
And that was the impossible standard I’d tried to replicate in my first marriage.
But that’s another story…
If you feel this writing ended abruptly, you’re correct
This is a fragment of a memoir I’ve been writing for years. I decided to share this peek because, if my father were alive, today November 13 2022 it would’ve been his eightieth birthday.
Unfortunately, my father didn’t even celebrate his seventies. He passed away two months short of his sixty-eight birthday. The story of how that happen is still unbelievable over a decade later: While driving in a Dominican highway, a stray bullet from a drunken stranger hit him straight on the head.
I’ll skip my urge to turn this essay into advocacy for weapon responsibility. I’ll just say that, after the sour days ruling out murder, the statistical improbability of this absurd event almost served as a consolation. Perhaps it was all destiny, “his day to die.” Like Dominicans would say, “What kills you is the date on the calendar.” Maybe it was all a soul contract made before his birth, to go quickly and painlessly and join my mother in heaven.
Or perhaps it was the last joke of the eternal comedian. What an irony, to go like that, for a man who survived persecution, civil war, and a Hollywood-worthy chase by American soldiers.
Whatever it was, I’ll end this reflexion with the same words I said in his eulogy. I feel nothing but gratitude. During the time I I had the privilege of having him, he gave me more love and happiness than most daughters receive in a lifetime. He may have lived only sixty-eight years, but in that time he lived more than many other men who make it past one-hundred. ❤️