My Grandfather and Cuenca

I lived with Grandpa Felipe in Cuenca three different times that I can remember. You see, I was only eight years old when I went to live with him for the third and last time. This time was for about two years. It had been time for me to leave my mother, she had found another live-in housemaid job and kids were not welcome. So, she convinced Grandpa to take me for a spell, and I was put on a bus to Cuenca. This sheltered little city sits in the valley between the Andes in the south of Ecuador. In the early ’60s, Cuenca was small and naturally sheltered. Its people still spoke Spanish in a singsong with a Castilian accent.

Today, Cuenca has become the retirement mecca for both American and European retirees (the gringos). Great weather, low taxes, and low cost of living are the lure for the Gringos. And, several journals and blogs on the web are written about Cuenca, Ecuador, and its virtues. If you like small city living, living in a foreign country, affordable housing, affordable living expenses, and being far away from home, it is one of the better destinations for you.

For me, at a young age, it was being left alone by my mother and living with another relative once more. This pattern had been repeated so many times that my head was spinning. I had learned to be calm, resourceful, independent, and a great guest. I understood that this was a way to survive while my mother got her problems out of her system, and sooner or later, she would return to claim me. I suspect that the relative in question would write to her and demand that she pick me up. And the cycle would continue. She would ask another relative to take me so she could have her freedom and work at another live-in job. I’m not blaming my mother, she had to make a living, and without an education, the best she could do is get a live-in maid’s job. So, most live-in maid jobs demanded a single person. Hence, the little boy was left with a relative. I get the necessity for doing that; but, how do you explain to a four-year-old that Mom needs to leave you behind while she gets another job. You can’t because the child feels abandoned no matter what the reason was.

Back to Grandpa Felipe in Cuenca. He was a leather goods merchant by trade, and he would make belts, soccer balls, backpacks, briefcases, holsters and other leather goods for sale to the public. He had a storefront in one of the main streets in Cuenca and conducted sales and manufacturing in this tiny storefront. In the back, there was another room where he lived with his youngest son (Vicente) and his family (a wife and two small daughters). Imagine a room where five people lived, now I was the sixth, and the place felt crowded. My Grandpa used a corner of the room as a kitchen. The rest of the room was living space with two beds, a trunk, an armoire, a small table, and some chairs. The bathroom facilities (bathroom and showers) were a block away in a tenement house.

When I was a baby, I remember waking up in the babysitter’s apartment in the tenement. I was sleeping in a crib, and the room was lit by candles. The sitter noticed I had woken up and came over to pick me up. This memory was in the early ’50s when I was no more than six months old. I could not move and only remember the crib, the sitter, and the candles.

The second time, I was around five years old, and I remember the Sunday routine of dressing up for church. Going to Mass and afterward going to the local bar with my Grandpa. He would meet his friends and have beers, and I would get a lemonade. I would sit listening to the adults talk while I sipped my hot lemonade. Some Sundays, Grandpa would take me to a soccer match, and we would sit on the stands watching the game and drinking sodas. I also remember, my Mom came to visit and stayed for my first communion. I was small and remembered the day. The black suit I wore and the lunch party we had afterward. I Have a vivid memory of having a picnic and frolicking in the river.

The third ad final time, I was already starting 3rd grade, and I was enrolled at the Christian Brothers in town. I was a good student, and I was able to finish the year with honors. I had the highest achievement in third grade, and I was given a prize for the achievement. The Christian Brothers were very strict. Any infraction would be punished. I remember being kept in the classroom during recess because I didn’t know my catechism that day. We were physically punished for infractions or not knowing the lessons. A ruler would be used to slap a kid’s hand, palm side down, on the nails. You didn’t forget the punishment or the pain for a while.

While going to the Christian Brothers, I was preparing for my First Communion. We were instructed not to eat anything till we finished our Mass at 7:00 am. This was the first period at the school, and everyone attended. I would fast every day, and just before communion, I would faint at my pew. My teacher would carry me outside and make sure I was OK. This happened several times before anyone thought that fasting was the cause. I was a small & thin lad, and the fasting in the morning would lead to fainting spells. I was given special dispensation to eat before coming to Mass. The big day arrived, and we had our First Communion, and afterward, we had a nice lunch at a favorite restaurant. Finally, we finished the day with a pleasant walk by the local river on the outskirts of town.

I had a negative experience then. A stranger abducted me and raped me in the back of the church. I didn’t know what that was about except that it hurt a lot, and I bled from the encounter. Afterward, the man left me in an alley next to the church, and I had to find my way home. I never told a soul about this encounter as I was deathly afraid I would be punished for it. I can still remember the church, the man, the hurt, the blood, the shame. The whole experience is as vivid as if it just happened yesterday.

Just when I thought life was lonely, my uncle Gonzalo and his family moved to town. They got a big apartment just around the corner from our shop, and he set up shop at the next corner from my Grandfather. Uncle Gonzalo was also a leather goods tradesman, and I suppose he competed with my Grandfather for clientele. I was delighted to have playing companions with my two first cousins (Marcelo and Juan Carlos). Marcelo was one year older, and Juan Carlos was one year younger. We were the three musketeers and did everything together. We played, went to school, did errands, slept at Uncle’s shop to keep the burglars out, and generally knocked a great time.

When I finished fourth grade, my Grandfather’s fortunes changed. His biggest customer (The Cuenca police) canceled their contract and refused to pay outstanding invoices. He was destitute and could no longer afford to keep me. He wrote a letter to my Mom, put me on a bus to Quito (where my Mother was living at the time), and that chapter was closed. A new chapter was beginning, but that is for the next time.

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