Peeling away the layers of a family's reunion

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In 1970 when I was 12, my family visited the hilltop village in Spain where my grandfather lived until he left to wander the world as a seaman.

Our Iberian adventure marked Grandpop's first visit to his homeland in 40 years and the first time any of his American progeny saw the place we'd heard about all our lives.

It was a big deal for a family that spent its vacations on the beach in front of the Rideau Hotel in Ocean City. It was especially unusual for my parents, who'd grown up when Baltimore neighborhoods were true villages and Govans was foreign soil if you lived at the foot of Broadway.

Long before he guided us back to Galicia, in the days when he was a Highlandtown paperboy, my father had the first great adventure of his life. On a cold day in 1948, Manuel Alvarez did four things he'd never done before: He left Baltimore, rode a train, glimpsed New York City and met one of his Spanish relatives.

That alone would have been quite a day - a winter's day when he dressed in a pea cap and a new overcoat to make him look older than his 14 years. He had no idea that the only reason for the unprecedented journey was to smuggle his uncle - Basilio Alvarez Veiga - into the United States.

"Even when my father and his brother were hugging with tears in their eyes, I still didn't know what was going on," he said.

But once they'd arrived in New York, hopped a cab to the piers and climbed the gangway of "an old, filthy limey tub," the purpose of the trip revealed itself one layer of clothing at a time.

Basilio Alvarez was younger than his brother Rafael by four years and had a wife struggling to raise four boys by herself on a farm in Spain.

At 42, he worked as a ship's "fireman" on English tramp steamers and sent word that he would be docking in New York. His job was hot, hard and simple: hump coal into the boilers and keep it coming. There was a chance of something better through connections my grandfather had made on the Baltimore waterfront.

My father and grandfather climbed the gangway and made their way to a forecastle that slept four men. A toilet and showers were in the passageway. From a wire in the ceiling hung a bare light bulb. In the corner stood a wooden sea chest secured with a padlock.

Alone, brothers who had seen each other but once in 20 years embraced, composed themselves and got down to business. My father stood by as only a teen-ager can: staring dumbly, wondering what would happen next.

A strip show ensued - the men taking off their clothes and telling the boy to do the same as Basilio unlocked the sea chest.

"It was filled with new clothes that my uncle had bought around the world for his family," said Dad. "One piece of clothing at a time, they loaded me up. They did the same, but I could barely walk."

Stepping out of the fo'c'sle, the trio of walking wardrobes waddled their way up to the deck, down the gangway and into a lunchroom on the pier.

"They were talking in Spanish and teasing that the waitress was hitting on me - this teen-age kid all filled up with his uncle's clothes," said Dad. "By the time we leave the pier in the cab, I'm starting to get the drift - this guy ain't going back."

Uncle Basilio lived with my father's family on Macon Street from 1948 through 1952 between jobs on Bethlehem Steel ore ships that ran from Sparrows Point to Chile and Venezuela.

No more coal. Now he was a water tender on oil-fueled steam ships with better food and wages. He sent money home to Spain, got himself fitted with American dentures, watched movies at the Nemo Theater on Eastern Avenue and studied English at Patterson Park High School.

And finally, after nearly a quarter-century of exile, my grandfather - a lone, no-nonsense Spaniard in the bombastic whirl of his wife's large Italian family - had someone who truly understood who he was and where he came from.

In 1970, I met Uncle Basilio knowing nothing of his years in Baltimore, nothing of the burlesque my Dad played in helping him to a better life. That summer, on the vacation of our lives in Chapela, the good life was in great evidence, even to my adolescent American eyes.

Before he sailed for home in 1952, Uncle Basilio said thank you by buying my grandparents their first refrigerator, a Westinghouse.

The big white tub still hums in my basement, faithfully chilling glass jugs of water capped with corks my grandfather whittled when the bottles held wine. The tiny freezer gathers a hoary frost, and when it's time to clean it out, I repeat a ritual my grandparents always performed together.

Rafael and Frances Alvarez were frugal people who didn't go to dances and didn't spend their money in restaurants. The intimacy they knew occurred as he read the evening paper to her while she cooked; it passed between them as they defrosted Uncle Basilio's refrigerator with pots of boiling water.

Is it ridiculous for me to see this as romantic when I imitate their rituals by myself?

Today's writer

Rafael Alvarez is the author of Storyteller, published this year by The Sun. He is at work on a family memoir.

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