25 August 2006
My mother openly volunteers information about my father, my biological one, for the first time. She’s sitting beside me on a plane, 30,000 feet over the state of San Luis Potosi in Mexico.
I never met him. My mother divorced him before I can remember.
It’s been maybe 30 years since I’ve spent this much time alone with my mother, away from my step-father.
My biological father was from Veracruz. He was a folk dancer, she says. They met at a dance, she was taken with him; he was 25, she 15. They married and I was born 7 years later.
He had been traveling in Houston where she grew up and her family lived. He was fair with light brown hair and blue eyes, she pointed out. (She and her family were more typically dark and Mexican-looking.)
He was an orphan, she goes on. His name was Victor Manuel Perez. He had been raised by an uncle in San Antonio. When he was two, both of his parents were killed in a car accident, leaving him and an older sister in the care of relatives.
We are on the way to a little backwater town called Ciudad Valles, a hundred miles or so west of Tampico. My father, the step one, is there in intensive care after driving off a 700 foot embankment only a few days before.
This is my mother’s second trip to Mexico in the last few weeks. She was in the car with him when it was forced off a remote mountain highway by an oncoming truck. The car turned end over end, over and over, until it came to rest in the cactus. It was raining, almost dark, and had it not been for a nearby farmer who saw the accident and called for help, they both would have died there and their bodies probably not found for a very long time. No one on the road stopped to help or even report the accident, and once off the road they were invisible to any passing traffic. My step-father was unconscious and bleeding profusely. My mother, we learned later, tore ligaments in her arm and injured her back, but miraculously that was the worst.
When the car stopped rolling, she said, it was still running and started to smoke. Somehow she had the presence of mind to turn the ignition key off.
They were on a vacation car trip to visit some of my step-father’s distant relatives in central Mexico. My step-father is eighty-five. A dumb thing to do, many in the family kept repeating. But as far as we could tell, the accident had nothing to do with his age. “He should have gone without mom, at least,” they said.
I didn’t say anything. I just marveled at the strangeness and familiarity of it all. I didn’t even know the story about my real father’s parents until just now. And here my step-father just about kills himself and my mother.
I have been obsessed with Jews and being Jewish in my work as a philosopher without fully knowing why. I have a dim memory as a boy of some ribbing by older girl cousins who seemed to struggle to preserve family secrets they knew about me. They made allusive, vaguely comprehensible remarks about my “real” father. I think they whispered to me that he was a Jew.
This last mystery about him perhaps I should clear up. Perhaps. Was he a Jew? There have been several significant migrations of Sephardic, Ashkenazy and Crypto-Jews that passed through Veracruz, dating from the time of the Inquisition to the early twentieth century.
My biological father had an alcohol problem. “A nice man, but a drunk,” I think is how my mother put it. That’s why she left him.
“Nice” is not the first word that most family members would use about my step-father, but he is not a drunk.
Shortly after the accident my sister went down and whisked my mother back to Texas. My step-father, at that time, was too unstable to be moved.
But my mother wanted to be with him and we had to get him back closer to home as soon as possible, so I came down from Seattle to help with arrangements. Now I’m flying to Mexico beside my 73-year-old mother, her arm in a sling.
The accident was written up in the local Ciudad Valles newspaper. My sister showed me the front page article and the photo of my step-father, unconscious and covered in blood.
I look out the plane window. I don’t know where my grandparents, as a young couple, died. But it may have been not far from where we are going, the eastern-most slopes of the Central Mexican plateau where the coastal plain begins, and not that far from Veracruz. Maybe it was on the same road? Maybe I am a half-Jew?
I have never been inclined to drink. I have imagined that I know why people do drink, though. Instead, I have been compelled to ask questions that I pretty much know the answers to—more silent queries or pokes at the world than questions.
I don’t dance. My mother would never have met me at a dance. She might have said, “A nice man, but he thinks.”