I am my father’s daughter. Or so I am told. You have his eyes, his nose, his temper, his lips. We grew up in a house of mirrors where polished metal replaced tacky wallpaper, and I still couldn’t see his reflection in mine. Lacan’s mirror apprehension theory claims that infants, up until a certain point in development, cannot identify their own reflection despite being able to recognize their parents. It was the Christmas before my third birthday where my father dressed himself as Santa and (unintentionally) instilled my short lived trauma of men with beards. I didn’t recognize him then, but surely after, there would come the time I wouldn’t be able to unrecognize the similarities between us.
When I was a child, the sound of car doors meant he was home. With tiny feet tapping along the cold hardwood to the door, I could barely grasp the handle, pressing my ear on the window, listening for his car keys to jingle. When I was six, we crammed my banana bike in the trunk of his silver Chevy, drove down to the boardwalk where the air smelled of brine, the fisherman were our friends, his jacket was patched: USS Wainwright. Commissioned in ‘66 he said. I didn’t know then, and I couldn’t notice if I wanted to. I carried on with grass stains convinced that everything was fine. Undoubtedly, that naive state of mind surely vanished with time, however. I learned to curse in Portuguese: our native romance language. Coffee was brewed no longer for two, and our neighbors never knew what to say. I still remember how the wall shivered as his picture was stripped and the stomp of his heavy heel vanished from the hall.
Leaving is not easy. My father, Helder Manuel Vieira Barreto, is a strong man, but that doesn’t mitigate what felt like punishment when we watched him walk away, claiming a new home on East Main Street. I wanted to be strong like him; smiling as I entered the apartment that housed furniture from our very first home. It was the worst type of nostalgia, but neither of us would acknowledge that. When I was twelve, he unboxed an old notebook. I remember pages decorated with the names of foreign places: Albufeira, Ipanema, Laos. Curious, I crammed my head with history books. I then read that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is said to affect relationships. That’s when it started to make sense. Often, I wonder what kind of man my father would have been had the Navy not stolen his mental stability, had he been more sand instead of stone. But then again, I fear that my father would not be the same man I seemingly replicate to this day; the man who taught me to love unconditionally.
Experience ingrains itself, creating permanent change. Perhaps that is why my father often admits There is no room for regret. Life is too short, and I may regret that this life has gone by too fast, but in a world of opportunity, there is no looking back. He does look back, nonetheless, to cherish past memories. When I asked him to share his most vivid moment as a young adult, he did not recount the fifty-six days on Tonkin Gulf where his Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays were spent training and storm watching across the ocean. He did not illustrate the impact of bombing day and night while patrolling Da Nang Delta in Vietnam. We are taught to believe that these soldiers hold on to the past, that they relive their service through night terrors and triggers. Although I’ve never personally witnessed him fall subject to the stigma of a war veteran, I am aware that the memories may very well still live and breathe within him. He’d rather not feed them.
Instead, he shares with me stories of the Old World. Born in Guia Monte Juntos, Algarve, my father’s childhood was not easy. His father left him for the Western Hemisphere and his mother died shortly after that. He was an orphan adopted by the grace of his grandparents, and he was raised by their traditional ways. Portugal, in the 1950s, took pride in their coastline. That is to say, fishing was a normality, and my great grandfather instilled within him a love for the beach, thus, instilling that same passion within me. After the divorce, my father would treat me and my sister to dinner on the beach. Oakland was our armistice; the second our feet hit the sand, we ran like wildfire. That sense of bliss became our new sense of home where we could escape the constraints of arguments that once painted our parents’ faces. Collecting seashells, I would imagine my father in a similar position: the sun has just risen, the bakery is preparing fresh bread, and the smell of cha com leite wafts from the kitchen. My father pulls the steel cage of sheets off from his body and walks a couple blocks down to the beach. His grandfather has already assembled the boat, and they sail out into the Atlantic to begin fishing. My great-grandfather is also a veteran, and he shares stories of the First World War. He traveled from Portugal to England to the fight the Germans, learning how to beckon women for a kiss in English. Miss Kiss was the first spit of English my great-grandfather taught him, and part of me believes my father couldn’t get enough of it, almost as if immigration was inevitable.
Again, leaving is not easy. My father’s journey to America began with his father who had already been in the United States for several years, not even returning upon the death of his wife. The transition was troubling, especially for a teenager who didn’t speak nor understand much of the new language. Back then, sticks and stones and slurs were equally capable of hurting an individual, specifically my father who was still learning to love the one who initially abandoned him, the one who embarrassed him as a method to instill supreme respect. It’s no surprise that my father resented him, that he left home early as a way to escape what he perceived to be his father’s ignorance. Yet in the end, there was a resolution, although I was spared any detail apart from his admittance: “He is my father,” he said solemnly to me, “ and I forgave him, almost a little too late. When I was younger, I thought I knew everything…I never wanted to speak to him, but when I was older I wanted to talk about the world with him.”
I witnessed this progressive growth within my own relationship with my father. In my confused youth, I didn’t understand the divorced and blamed him for “damaging” our family. I wasn’t aware of the past nor the chain of events that have influenced his behavior, holding him accountable for his actions, despite though those experiences being mostly out of his control. Not until I was older, did I reach out to him with love and compassion. I always knew my father to be “stubborn,” but that temperament is rooted in his Portuguese disposition. He grew up in another country, during a different time period and raised by a single-minded generation. The more I fought against his intractable characteristics, the more I began to emulate them. He has told me, You cannot change what you cannot understand. Instead, I chose to embrace them.
Growing up with different cultural norm and customs, my father had difficulty fitting in; as do I being raised by two first generation immigrants. He was the first white man I’d ever known to experience discrimination in the land of the free, and hearing his stories have helped me combat again the racism I encounter on behalf of my own brown skin. I am told I wear my father’s face, and quite possibly, his stone gaze is what has saved me from the intimidating remarks that have been thrown my way over the years. In fact, my father has taught me much, and a lot of his lessons were coached through his actions. That is not to say, however, that his spoken advice isn’t honorable. He has told me to value my education, to work hard so the dream lives on, to be respectful and to love family first. The list goes on. Although I take his words to heart, I value them more so because he has shown me the importance of doing such. He makes a conscious effort to reminds us that he loves us‒a quality trait that I cherish.