Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Grandfather Alberto's Brother Manuel ("Macho")

We who knew Grandfather Alberto in his later years remember him as funny and lots of fun. When he was young, however, he was considered the "sourpuss" of the family: serious, driven, dependable, the bedrock of the family. It was his older brother Manuel García Valdés ("Macho") who was happy-go-lucky, whimsical, spontaneous and lovable, as all ne'er-do-wells are. Their father "Mipa," whose personality was closer to that of his younger son's, adored his namesake Macho; he alone could make him laugh, and transform him, for the moment at least, into an accomplice in his folly. Paternal love in its extremes is rarer than maternal love in its extremes. If his mother had not died in childbirth, it is certain that Grandfather Alberto would have been her favorite, as he was the best reflection of his father. But it was Mipa who raised his sons, and though he was good to all his children, there was never any doubt about which was his favorite.

When Macho needed money, which was frequently, he would wrestle his father to the ground and take it from his pockets. One New Year's Day, Macho showed up at his father's house with a huge fish wrapped in newspaper, a gift for Mipa's santo. (Saint's Day). His father was extremely pleased. "But wait, papá, you are forgetting something. My name is Manuel, too, and it's also my santo today." That fish cost Mipa a hundred pesos. And, naturally, when grandfather stopped by with his gift — a watch, a car, a house, I don't remember — Mipa's first words were: "Did you see the big fish that Macho got me!"  

Grandfather Alberto's conversations with his father were often steered by Mipa into that perennial subject: what could grandfather do for his brother? He had always done a lot for him; for that was one way to win his father's love. It was decided one day by Grandfather and Mipa that Macho's special attributes, his outsized personality and genial manner, his cockiness and charisma, ideally suited him to be — the proprietor of a circus. As they correctly surmised, Macho jumped at the idea (perhaps literally). So grandfather bought him a circus. The scion of the Counts de Baynoa had found his calling at last as the Cuban Barnum.

The main attraction of the "Manuel García Circus" was its "caballitos," or merry-go-round. It was customary to charge children a nickel for riding on it. Granduncle Macho would charge them a nickel if they had a nickel, but if they didn't he would let them ride for free, all day long if they wanted. That he was the most popular man in his neighborhood can hardly be doubted. It was that which gave him satisfaction and fulfillment. Solvency was never a concern for him. Becoming a great success was a responsibility which he gladly delegated to his younger brother and Macho was always grateful to him for having relieved him of it. Macho was content to live his life one day at a time, doing every day nothing more than what that day required, convinced that everything would turn out for the best at the end, as it usually did for him. Until the day that it didn't.

At age 38, Macho was struck down with appendicitis. Eighty years ago this was a very serious condition with a very high mortality rate. When peritonitis set in death was almost certain. The only hope was an experimental serum that had been developed in the United States and was not available in Cuba. At an astronomical cost, grandfather secured the serum and had it flown to Cuba in a private plane within 24 hours. In fact, he acquired enough serum for two patients, for there was another man in the hospital who was also dying of peritonitis and could not afford the medicine. That man was saved. Macho died.

The experimental drug was not penicillin, which was still some years down the road. What it was I do not know, nor whether it contributed in any way to the other man's survival. Grandfather, at least, seemed to think it did. Real life, unlike the movies, does not guarantee a happy ending. For one thing, God in the movies is a much better actor and infinitely more providential. 

Macho's funeral mass was attended by hundreds of people. The church itself was packed to capacity and the mourners overflowed into its environs. Especially conspicuous were the large numbers of children (not all of them his own). A friend of Grandfather Alberto's remarked to him that it was his brother who should have been the politician, for he had never seen such a spontaneous (that is, unpaid) demonstration of public mourning.
Many who offered their condolences to Mipa, who was beyond all consolation, told him that he should take comfort in the fact that he had another son who represented his family's future and his country's. After a while, he could take no more of this, and turning to grandfather for sympathy, blurted out: "Don't they understand that he was the son I loved most!" Grandfather replied, "Yes, father, I know."

For several years after Macho's death Mipa and grandfather busied themselves tracking down his stray offspring. Macho had been irresistible to women (his type usually is), and with his travelling circus had sown his seed far and wide. But it was girls that they found not the rumored "lost son" that would have gladdened Mipa's heart in his last day.

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