My grandfather was right about many things. He called the World Series winners many years in a row, how we’d put a man on the moon, Nixon – he knew things, or he was an excellent guesser. His 86 years of experience included both good things and bad, the good things being what he shared with his grandkids. Besides his love of chess, he loved making us laugh. He would take us into his lap and point to his mustache. We’d go to touch it, and he’d pretend to bite our fingers. My father did that, too, come to think of it. We’d break out into a fit of giggles.
“Your father was a pain in my ass,” he said in Spanish. “Always up to no good.”
My dad replied dryly, “I was the best, and you know it. It was Delia that kept you up at night.” Aunt Dee happened to be the oldest and most headstrong of the bunch. In fact, all the relatives in my family had their relation’s name superglued to their first name. Cousin Andrew. Uncle Joe. Aunt Nina. It was 4th of July, and we had an annual picnic on my grandfather’s property in Riverview. Everyone tried to make it each year because we got tired of seeing family only at weddings and funerals.
It was a modest home, with the lot’s length much longer than its width. He and his second wife lived there with their giant German shepherd named King. That dog was a beast. I remember many days sitting in the screened-in front porch, playing chess with my grandfather, King at his side. I was barely 11, but I remember him telling me, “I will win in three moves.” I’d stare at the board and concentrate as hard as my little pea brain could go. Pawn. Knight. Pawn. Bishop. Knight. Bishop and checkmate. Chuckling, he’d get up from the table leaving me to wonder what happened? I had planned all my moves ahead of time, not anticipating the effect of his moves. This was a life lesson.
Outside we had scachatta (a cold Italian pizza) from Housewife Deli in Tampa, home-made everything else: macaroni salad, casseroles, sides, desserts. Oh, those heavenly desserts! Italian and Spanish desserts are pieces of heaven that drifted down into our midst. Watermelon was usually what we had last of all, but we kids would get sticky and messy, and we got hosed down. Laughing and running from the hose, my grandfather tried spraying us as we’d zoom by, just like dogs do when they get excited.
The fire pit would be set up and set ablaze, and we’d line all the chairs around it. Mosquito spray had been invented after my grandfather grew up, but we had the green can going around anyway. He said he would talk to the mosquitoes, and they would just fly away. We were absolutely mesmerized by what he said. As kids we loved to hear the stories, whether it was about cigar making, music playing, or fishing. We could never tell if they were true or just made-up stories. I guess at the time it didn’t matter to us. Most of it was in Spanish, but it was a mixture. Spanglish is a real thing. My relatives used English, and he’d reply in Spanish. This was the way I learned most of my Spanish words. And learned later in life Cubans spoke with slang when I took a college class later in life, and I didn't recognize many of the words.
Sometimes the discussion was about current events, adults talking about whichever president was bothering them, medical mishaps, sports teams, plant advice, and all the good things the cousins were doing in school and outside. Who made the baseball team, who made straight As, who got a science fair award, who got her license. Most of the time we were rewarded with a handful of jellybeans from the house, or a shiny quarter or two. We loved the recognition as much as we loved playing in the water on a hot July day.
Both sides of my family were part of the tobacco trade early in Florida history, from Cuba to Key West and then Tampa. Prior to radio being commonplace during World War II, my father read the newspaper in Spanish while sitting on an elevated shelf while the women cut tobacco leaves and wrapped cigars on long tables. Parts of my family fished and caught crabs for food when the Depression was going strong, and many still enjoyed fishing after all those years. I had never been on a boat where they caught the big fish. We would ride around in the pontoon boat on a small lake my Uncle Carlos lived on, and that was the extent of my boating experience.
I didn’t know the difference between a ship and a boat, sails, types of engines, none of that. I was a Floridian who didn’t know many water stories. I wanted to hear more of what they experienced on the ocean. Did they see mermaids? Did they ever see the moon and the sun together? Could they see the bottom of the ocean? Is treasure real? These are the things 11-year-olds really want to know. There are all sorts of stories, and I needed another story from him.
“Grandpa, did you ever hear stories about the ocean from when you were growing up?” I asked.
“Well, there are a lot of shells. And fish,” was his reply.
I wasn’t satisfied with that plain answer. “There’s gotta be a good story somewhere. Tell us something you remember.”
He popped open a beer. “Sailors had many superstitions. These sailors were at sea for long stretches of time. Women on a ship were bad luck. The only woman on board was the figurehead carved into the front of the ship.”
“That’s not fair. Women should be allowed on boats.”
“Ships. And these were just the things they believed back then. Women would distract the sailors.”
“Some superstitions are still followed today, even on small boats. Like no bananas,” he stated and took a sip of his Old Milwaukee.
“Bananas? Those aren’t dangerous.”
Grandpa said, “You could slip and fall. And carrying cargo of fruit from one continent to another was good business so they had to be careful.”
“Plus,” added Cousin Paul, “It wasn’t appealing.”
We all groaned at that awful pun. I looked at my grandfather, a grizzled old man, silver wire-rimmed glasses, white hair around the side of his head, and hands that had seen a lot of work in his life. He continued.
“Another thing was whistling in song or for the fun of it. It was bad luck to whistle on a ship. Anyone caught doing that was brought back to shore.”
“I learned about no whistling on stage, too,” Cousin Sharon said. “I wonder why whistling is so dangerous.”
“Probably because many signals for the sails were done through whistling and knocks. Maybe because pirates used those for secret signals to one another warning other crew members before coming up behind other ships.”
My head perked up. “Pirates?” I exclaimed, “How do you know that? Do we have pirates in our family?”
Grandpa looked straight ahead and took a deep breath. He was ready to tell a story. “Most of our family came from Matanzas, Cuba, and so did your mom’s. Between there and the Florida coastline there was much trading going on from South America to the States.” He paused just a moment, and said, “I had heard my great grandfather was one of them.”
“Oh my gosh. What did he do? Was he a famous pirate?”
“No, just a run-of-the-mill crewmate from a ship called Los Pícaro. It was one of the last of the pirate ships in the area before the Mexican-American War. That was sometime in the middle of the 1800s. After that, the American Navy was so big it eliminated pirating in the Gulf and Caribbean.”
“What was his name?” I begged to know.
“I remember my grandfather called him Viejo Bernardo.”
I was hooked now. I had to know more. “Did you grandfather have any stories?”
“Just one that I remember. I’m old now, my memory is a little hazy. He talked about his father seeing a green light on top of the sun at the end of the day. It would flash for moment, and then it and the sun would disappear. He would say that’s a bad thing; that meant a soul came back from the dead by a deal made by Diabolito and the Demonio.”
My Aunt Cookie cut in. “Aye, Viejo, you’re scaring the kids. They’ll have nightmares. No more talk of the devil.” My aunt steered the conversation back to the new station wagon she got for the kids. Marshmallows on sticks danced near the fire.
My grandfather’s story resonates with me today, almost 50 years later. There’s the explanation for my obsession with pirates and their ships. When the full-scale replica of the Golden Hind, Francis Drake’s ship that was the first to circumnavigate the world, came into our port, I was there when it opened to tourists. My honeymoon was on a working tall ship; we sailed to British Virgin Islands and Norman Island where the book Treasure Island is based. It explains why I don’t collect shells at the beach, only sea glass and rusty bits of metal, perhaps from pirate ships of the past. All my bodice-ripping books featuring romanticized sailing captains with their damsels in distress books are about pirates and privateers. Even my Zodiac sign is a water sign. Most of all, I am most calm when I’m in the water, whether it’s an ocean, gulf, lake, or river, or on a cruise. A pool or a rainstorm would suffice. I feel whole, complete when I’m in the water. My entire being is imbued with the concept that I might have pirate blood in me.
I still have many questions about my grandfather’s story. Does the soul that comes back return as he was or as a baby? Can the soul be chosen? Who makes these deals? Why had no one ever mentioned this story before? To this day I’ve been trying to find that elusive green flash that appears to hover over the sun for just a second, either at sunset or sunrise. My husband thinks it’s fake, and we’ll never see it. But I keep looking and taking the photos. I plan all my moves now, anticipating the effects of both my legacy and my fate on the horizon.