The summer I was ten-years old, a beautiful young woman from Guatemala visited my family for several weeks. Her name was Ana and her skin was the color of my father’s perpetual sunlamp tan. Her eyes were blacker than the olives we ate out of the can. Ana was 18 and her goal that summer as she put it was to “espeake Engleesh good” and see New York City.
Of all the places in the United States to be an exchange student, Ana came to West Hartford, Connecticut. Although she lived with another local family, she somehow found her way to our house and we spent a lot of time together. I don’t remember eating supper without her for those three months. Whereas the five of us had always fit perfectly in a Howard Johnson’s booth for the “All You Can Eat Spaghetti” nights, that summer the same booth easily accommodated the six of us. “No soda,” Dad declared every time we sat down. “Pero leche con chocolate?” Ana had bargained chocolate milk for my sister Carol, my brother John and me. “No estan acomstumbrados,” my very annoyed mother said to her. We weren’t used to such a rich drink. But with Ana around we could get used to anything.
By his own reckoning my father figured that he had Carol, John and me “late in life.” I knew my dad was older than other kids’, but each time he pointed that out it made me anxious that he was close to his death. Even as a child I preferred to think of my father as old-fashioned rather than just old. He was a man very much of his century—the 20th century. He was ten-years old when the stock market crashed and the day he graduated Yale, France was on the brink of falling to the Germans in the Second World War. At the age of 21, he knew he was going to war as a newly inducted ensign in the United States Navy.
My mother thought of herself as a world away as he set sail to run guns and butter for the British to and from Greenland. She was only five years old at the time. But 20 years later she emerged from the Bay of Pigs in Havana and met Dad.
A few years after ultimately witnessing the Second World War from his perch on a supply ship in the Pacific, Dad went on to Latin American and Guatemala in particular. “I love the Guatemalan people,” was his default toast when I was a kid eavesdropping on one of my parents’ parties. When he made that toast his voice was already laced with whiskey, his liquid sunshine. When he made that toast at Howard Johnson’s, our giggles were verging on squeals from the sugar we never had otherwise. Ana only smiled and said a very soft, “gracias.”
When I was a teenager, I saw my father chasing his whiskey with a beer and chasing his beer with a whiskey. He mostly played that game of tag in his closet. My father of the toasts and cheers and national anthem sat on the floor among his suits and wept as he drank from his tarnished silver flask.
“A world war was easier to bear than being married to your mother,” he’d say before he passed out on his bed. This was years after Ana had changed our lives that summer. After he drank sangria out of a crystalline pitcher and poured drinks for guests that had started coming around again the summer of Ana. “I love the people of Latin America. I love each and every one of you,” he’d say.
Ana was a celebration. Ana was a party. At one of my parents’ Saturday night fiestas where the food was South American potluck, the guitar music flamenco or Cuban and the poetry—some of it original and most of it as syrupy as the flan laid out for dessert—my father brought my younger sister Carol down to the party. “La Españolita,” he bragged. I watched through the banister railing, behind bars because of my plain Americana looks, as he practically waltzed my sister around the party and pulled Ana next to them. “They could be sisters,” he said, swiftly replacing me.
I was born out of my parents’ love and their lies. My mother lied to my father about her menstrual cycle on their honeymoon. My father lied, telling himself that he could leave Mom forever when the honeymoon was over. The only truth was that my mother left Grossingers pregnant. She was once confided to me, “With your father so old, you were supposed to be the only one.” But after five years of losing track of her cycles, my mother’s three children badly outnumbered her. She felt trapped by us and struck out in a fury like hot molten lava gurgling beneath the sea. She railed that she should have had abortions with all three of us.
If the summer of Ana were a painting, it would be the color of her skirts that were so bright against our browning summer lawn. The shawls she gifted to us at the start of her visit reflected the colors she wore—red and orange and yellow weaving studded with tiny mirrors in which I glimpsed my reflection. Years later I took up weaving in high school for the soothing motion. I never ventured further than grays and whites and dark blues and my pieces were nothing more than ragged wall hangings with no beginning or end. Each time I harnessed myself to the loom, I thought of the intensely colorful shawls Ana had given us. My father had talked about Guatemala’s lake Atitlan, pretty country, was all he’d say when we kids asked about his travels there. My father loved me as much as Carol, as much as Ana as I pretended to row with the loom.
In the only picture I saw of my father taken in Guatemala, he wore billowing khakis and a pith helmet that predisposed him for adventure. Dad also spoke a gringo-shellacked Spanish that was as much a souvenir of his travels in Latin America as was the heart-shaped box embroidered in red and blue thread that sat atop his highboy. I’d take off the lid and try on his thick silver ring stamped with his initials KHB. By the time I knew him, this felt to me like the ring of a monarch. Or a dictator of a small Latin American country. My father had been both to me in my childhood.
Long before we made room for Ana in that Howard Johnson’s booth, I believed with all my heart and soul there had had to be some truth to my mother’s midnight rants. “Our bank accounts are empty. You’re sending some woman money,” she screamed. She said Dad’s best friend D knew about the child. “Traidor. Los dos.” Traitors—the two of you, she screamed. I strained to hear more from my bed, but there was nothing, not after Dad told Mom it would be best if she just left things alone. Things? What things, I wondered. What child? I thought.
My father ‘s silence turned my mother into a compulsive storyteller. And her stories were accusations about the life he had led before he married her. “Did you know your father had a wife before me,” she’d state without the cushion of a “Once Upon a Time” context. I suppose my caffeinated, betrayed mother didn’t know what else to do in front of that yawning void where, long, long ago my father must have had a life of passion and self-determination. As for me, the only thing I could do at age ten was to sit still, very still and listen to the echoes that silence carried. I heard stories calling to me in those echoes, the same faint outlines of narrative that, along with the light from a single lamp on a nightstand, streamed from under my parents’ closed bedroom door.
The sky outlined horoscopes. The sea carried messages in a bottle. That scattered information fed into the plotlines of my mother’s stories.
Digame una cuenta, Mama. I asked for my stories after I tried unsuccessfully to fall asleep on my own, in the middle of the night when I knew I needed my mother’s single-breathed stories to lull me to sleep. During the summer of Ana she told me the story of a little boy who was separated from his mother in a busy market. A policeman found the boy crying for his mother. When he was asked what his mother looked like, the boy said she was the most beautiful woman in the village. And so the pretty local women gathered together in a makeshift beauty contest, but none of them was the boy’s mother. Suddenly the boy broke loose and embraced a wrinkled, toothless woman. “This is my mother,” he said triumphantly. The story was one of the ways my mother worked hard to ensure my loyalty, to ensure that I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world, to ensure that she was the only mother in our family.
And then there was the recurring story of a girl who would one day walk up to me and introduce herself as my sister. “And she’ll want money,” my mother warned. I had a white Buddha-shaped coin bank that was almost full and I wasn’t keen on sharing my savings with a girl “only half of the way to being your sister.”
The fact that life was not full of dramatic moments my mother tried so hard to will—the before and after alterations to an autobiography—disappointed her and me. No one would ring the doorbell with suitcase in hand to claim she was our long lost relative. She’d simply slip into our family under the guise of a visiting student.
Like the Hojo’s booth, our ’65 Chevy Malibu expanded to fit six as well as it did five. Three in the front bench, three in the back seat. But usually we were four in the back. My sister migrated onto Ana’s lap and miraculously that quelled Carol’s motion sickness. Like all of her visits that summer, Ana simply appeared on Sunday afternoons to come along on our weekly trips to my grandparents in New Haven. “Why does that india always have to go with us?” my mother hissed at my father on those Sunday mornings. I don’t remember him answering her.
Ana sipped chicken soup at my Grandmother Bolton’s waxed dining room table and said, “Abuela, I’m wishing to bring this back to Guatemala with me.” She accepted roses from Grandpa’s bushes and he teared up when she carried bunches of them in her arms like a bride. “Why you crying, Abuelo?” Ana asked. I see her touching his arm, kissing his forehead. Did Ana know she was his granddaughter too? If she did, she never said a word about it.
Forty years later I had a spectacular moment that sliced life into before and after. Yet for all of the hunches I had and the hints arrayed before me over the years, for all of the sleuthing I fantasized I would do to arrive at this moment, I only had to knock on a door for my revelation. Here’s how it happened: I googled D, my father’s friend, and the relevant e-mail address came up in seconds. When we met in New York City he said how sorry he was my father died. I told him I had just two questions: Was my father in the CIA with him and was Ana, the girl who so bewitched me that long-ago summer, Dad’s daughter.
Yes, and yes. This was sky-splitting news that rearranged the cosmos. This news was well-earned confirmation for my virtual and real gumshoe travels. It was well-earned clarity for my research. It was the night sky, eventually healing, and sprayed with stars. It was the sea as calm and reflective as glass. It was truth—pure and simple that matched key facts. My father was a CIA agent in Guatemala and during his time there he fathered a daughter whom I believe was Ana.
I never saw Ana again. I never asked my father about her. D would only add that my father was an honorable man. “Guantanamera” strummed in my mind. That song of quintessential Cuba may have been my mother’s but the first lines belonged to my father:
Yo soy un hombre sincero de donde crecen las palmas. Y antes de morir me quiero echar mis versos del alma.
I’m a truthful man where the palm trees grow. And before I die I want to share these verses of my soul.
After the summer of Ana my mother frequently accused my father of loving that india more than his own children. But I loved Ana the most, too. Ana in her gold high-heeled sandals, her long wavy hair and twirling skirts. My father always made his way to stand next to her as if it might be the last time he would see her, his sad brown, brown eyes more watery than usual. I still see the Dad and Anna flipping hamburgers together in our backyard. The dying summer light of an August night silhouettes them.
When I was born my mother vividly remembered that my father shook when he held me. He told my mother that he couldn’t believe that babies were so small, yet so complete. “Let’s bring her up, not throw her up into the world,” he said. Perhaps this would have been his wish for Ana as well. When my daughter was born, my father’s hands shook from Parkinson’s disease. He cried when he held my daughter and I told him that I had named his first grandchild Anna, after his mother. His eyes glazed with tears and his voice a whisper of a whisper, he said “A beautiful name.”
Deeper into his illness he cried out for Ana and Anna.