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Jitomates

“I wonder what it could be…” I think to myself. “Is it very expensive, this precious gift you’re talking about Papa? Priceless,” He replies, a gentle smile slowly forming on this thin lips. That’s my favorite smile. The one that hides something worth discovering. I know it because thats the same smile that would grow on his face when I’d ask him if I had gotten the toy at the top of my wish list. Or if there was a treat waiting for us at home after a long day.

I pause to gaze at his face. Hard lines cover his forehead, his skin tanned and weathered by the hot sun. Bushy brows framing his deep brown, almost black eyes. The eyes that seemed to sparkle every time Papa talked about something he truly loved. Like fast cars or futbol stars, or a new scientific discovery he read about. But they always sparkled the brightest not when he talked about something he loved, but when he was looking right at it. Like my mom. Especially my mom. Or our small house.  Or our land. Or even me.

We’re walking home like we always do after a long day of work in the hot sun picking tomatoes. I hate getting up early to pick tomatoes. In fact, I think that’s why I hate eating tomatoes now. This job is no fun, but every time I open my mouth to complain, Papa shakes his head, flashes a grateful smile, and says “A todo se acostumbra uno, menos a no comer.  So I may hate just about everything involved in working on a farm, but this I don’t — listening to Papa tell stories — all sorts of stories — while the sky turns a magical red and the sun slowly sets on the horizon. This time together makes me forget all of the early mornings, sore muscles, and tired, cramping hands.

Today Papa said that one day, He’s gonna give me his greatest possession. That I am going heredar it, inherit it. (Papa is old school, and speaks to me in Spanish a lot of times. I don’t mind it, and I usually answer him back in Spanish, but more and more I tell Him he needs to practice his English too.) So on our treck home, I begin to ask Him all sorts of questions. “Is it big? Small? Can I hold it in my hand? Do my friend’s dad’s have treasures like this too? When will I get it? Where did you get it?” Papa says that He will give me one clue every single day that we walk back home. Today, he said this, “It has taken me my whole life to gain.” And then he winked and starting humming one of his favorite rancheras.

Okay. Not the clue I was hoping for, but I can’t argue with Papa. He said one clue a day, and what he says always goes. I’ve learned that the hard way. I run to my room and pull out my favorite journal. I quickly unwrap it, taking off the rubber band lining the emerald leather cover. In my half-cursive, half print, somewhat haphazard penmanship I scrambled to write: CLUES TO THE TREASURE — DAY ONE.  Underneath this heading, I place a small bullet point — must be something really old.

I snap the journal shut and run towards the kitchen, the aroma of Mama’s cooking filling the house. My tummy grumbles, and I suddenly become aware that I’m starving! I can’t wait to see what Mama has prepared for us today (I secretly hope it’s mole; her mole is the best in the world.) The days go on, one by one. Time seems to go by faster when there isn’t anything particularly out of the ordinary happening, and the same routine repeats itself. Slowly my list of clues gets longer:

  1. It must be really old — Papa said that it’s taken him a long time to get it — and he’s kinda old.
  2. It’s been in the family for generations!
  3. Papa hopes I always keep it with me.
  4. It will make me strong.
  5. Rich people can have it, poor people can have it — really I think anyone can have it the way Papa describes it.
  6. It kinda sounds like a hidden treasure. Maybe when we’re done picking tomatoes we will go on a treasure hunt.
  7. I have to share it with others. Especially when I have my own kids Papa says.
  8. PAPA SAID NO ONE CAN STEAL IT FROM ME EVER. 
  9. This really special gift comes with other ones too (It might be a remote control car)
  10. It’s really important to Papa. He said he hopes it becomes super important to me too. And then He hugged me. (Also I think I saw a tear run down his cheek. And Papa never cries.)

I bend down to pick up a crumbled, yellowing piece of paper. Amidst the cleaning and packing, I stumble across an old list. It takes me a second, but then I remember; Oh yeah, that old silly list of clues I made. A pang of sorrow hits my chest, grief clutching at my heart still. It’s been three years since my Papa died, but the sharp piercing memory of loss remains the same. I let out a heavy sigh, and suddenly my legs feel too weak to keep running around the house, packing up box after box. I slump down on an old bed, hearing the metallic creak of the springs beneath me. I close my eyes and I’m instantly transported back to those days — the smell of tomatoes makes my stomach churn a little — and I reflect on the fact that I still avoid anything to do with those vegetables, or are they fruits?

It’s like I’m watching bits and pieces of my life unfold before me — quiet dinners in our small but cozy two bedroom house, Papa pulling out his Biblia, doing what he loved to do — sit and read. He was always fascinated by stories. I had only ever seen my dad cry twice. One was the day I graduated college, the other was day ten. I always called it day ten, because that was the last day in a series of days where Papa was telling me clues about some mysterious treasure he wanted to pass down to me. I remember the excitement at the end of each day, feeling like I was getting closer to finding out what the secret gift was. This day, he waited until we got home to tell me the last clue. And then he stooped down to hug me, and gently kissed my forehead. I don’t know if he ever knew, but I felt a small tear slide down his face. I never brought it up, even when I got older. I think there was a silent promise there, an underlying understanding, almost a sacredness to let it remain unsaid.

One day I saw him sitting in his favorite chair, writing something. I was an eager freshman, ready to set off for my next adventure in life: college. In my rush and excitement, and in my desire to make my parents proud, I mustered up all of my feigned bravado, and swallowed hard. How could I tell my Papa that at the same age he set off for a new country, I, going four hours from home, was feeling a little bit terrified? (actually I was feeling a lot terrified, and my anxious stomach was in knots.) He got up from his chair, went to his desk, took a small wooden box, patted me on the back, and winked at me. Te acuerdas mijo de los dias en la granja del Señor Jim? 

I looked down at a small wooden box. Te la queria dar antes’ pero estaba esperando el mejor momento. Ten’ mijo, creo que ahorita mas que nunca lo necesitaras.  Engraved on the inside was the word fortitudo. Treasure in latin. My dad was always wanting to study Latin and Greek, so it made sense. I run my fingers across the beautifully crafted box. I regretfully think about how I possess not even half of the handy skills my dad had. He could paint, draw, cook, and fix anything and everything. His carpentry skills were unmatched, and his gentleness and patience is something I doubt I’ll ever possess.

College came and went. Like a checklist, I crossed off what every good son hopes to accomplish: I studied hard, I got a job, and slowly I went to visit home less and less because I met my now wife. She enchanted my parents as easily as she won me over, and two families became one. Papa loved her as his own daughter, the daughter he never had. She loved to accompany him on walks, and they talked for hours about his favorite subjects: medicine, science, religion, and the animal kingdoms. Losing him was hard for all of us, especially Mama. Now that Clara was expecting, we needed a bigger place to call home. Clara never complained about having my mother come live with us. Since her parents were far from her back in Italy, there was a small hole in her heart that was filled by having my mom in our company. Plus she will be so much help with the baby, oh it’s just perfect. She waved her arms in that characteristic Italian manner, and set off to busy herself. That woman never stopped.

My mind wandered back to the box. What happened to it? There was something very characteristic about the Gutierrez family. Once we got an idea in our head, we stuck with it like a stubborn mule until we accomplished it. My mom always rolled her eyes and said we were ideáticos, but I preferred to think of it as a creative energy. More than once though, I found myself painting into the wee hours of the morning, taking on new projects, or discovering a new brand of something that claimed to be the best (and then buying twenty of everything, even if I didn’t need it. Hey, you never know.) I felt that same eccentric energy enter my body, and I decided then and there, in the middle of a disastrous mess of a house, that I was going to go find my dad’s old wooden box.

A brow full of sweat, 12 opened boxes, and several frustrated complaints from my wife later, my hand reached down into an old pile of forgotten books in our old office. I pulled it out, and in the excitement of having found it, I somehow managed to fling it across the room. Crap! Thankfully, because most of our floors were either covered in bubble wrap or something else, it had a cushioned fall. I walked over to pick it up, but noticed that what I had always thought to be the bottom piece of the box actually opened up into a new compartment. Granted I had never really bothered to examine it much, especially not after Papa died. That’s weird. I never noticed it before. Hmm… 

I find myself smiling. Even after his death, my dad continues to amaze me with his genius. I shake my head a little, but suddenly my heart stops. I carefully open the bottom compartment, and a white piece of paper is enclosed in it. My hands start to sweat, and the thud in my chest becomes louder. With shaky hands, I begin to unfold the letter, his classic, smooth cursive appearing before me:

Querido Hijo,

Se que has estado esperando con ansias descubrir el tesoro que te he prometido dar. Primero que todo, quiero decirte lo mucho que te amo. Quiero que sepas que todo lo que tengo siempre sera tuyo. Que todo lo que hago, es para ti y para tu mama. Y ojala para los nietos que tendre, si Dios me da esa dicha. Te he estado dando pistas, y ahorito te las quiero explicar…..

1.) Entre mas conozcas a Dios, mas lo tendras. 

2. Yo lo recibi de tu Abuelo, y mas de tu Abuela. Lo aprendia de ellos todos los dias. 

3.) Deseo que siempre la cargues contigo, en lo mas profundo de tu corazon.

4) Esto te dara un fuerza, pero no una fuerza que puedas ver. Te hara fuerte para enfrentar las dificultades de la vida, y te alientara cuando te sientas debil y abandonado. 

5) A nadien se le prohibe tenerla. Pero entre mas la tengas tu, mas rico te sentiras.

6.) Quizas tomes tiempo para encontrarla. Por eso te dije que esta escondida. No todos tiene ojos para verla. 

7. Entre mas la compartas, mas la tendras.

8. Es un tesoro que nadien en el mundo te puede quitar, auque aveces dudes mucho que la tengas, o te sientas que tienes muy poca. 

9. Este tesoro siempre viene acompañado de mas: si la tienes, multiplicara otros tesoros en tu corazon.

10. Toda la vida, he intendado transmirtela. Es los mas importante que podrieras aprender de mi, tu padre, y es el  tesoro mas grande que te pudiera dejar. Con esto, tendras paz, tranquilidad, amor, esperanza, paciencia, sabiduria, y entendimiento. Con esto, aprenderas a ser un buen hombre, y algun dia, un buen padre. Siempre recuerda que lo tendras que darselo a tus hijos, no con tu palabras sino con tu ejemplo.

Lo que te dejo hijo mio, es lo mas precioso que tengo. Lo que me dio la confianza de luchar contra cada obstaculo para darte lo que jamas soñe tener para mi, 

And there, at the bottom of his letter, were two words,:

la fe.

Tu padre que te quiere mucho.


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