Vanessa Garcia talks about the power of storytelling.
For those of us that spent a lot of time with our grandparents growing up, we know what a treasure cove that can be. Most of the time, it means having kind wisdom by your side, guiding you, like a constant Yoda, lighting the way.
My family is Cuban, so we all live together, or near to each other all the time. My mom, sister, and I have taken to calling this phenomenon Generational Nesting . Sometimes, it means too many cooks in the kitchen or not enough space in the bathroom. But, much of the time it means: stories. Stories, stories, and more stories, which make the nest an expandable net of knowledge and love, ready to catch you, even when you move beyond it.
Among the best storytellers in my family was my grandfather. When I was around three, I started baking bread with him. While we baked, he told me about his life; our roots. Baking with him was like receiving the puzzle pieces of our history, which finally came together when I was 22 and he was 80, the autumn we decided to go backpacking across Europe together. Literally, with backpacks strapped on our backs, we travelled, and I thread together the tale he had started to piece-out for me as a kid.
Here are four things I learned from the big mamma bird of our nest, my grandfather:
Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover, or a Soul by Its Skin:
You’d never know by looking at him that my grandfather had survived three tyrannies. He crossed the pyrenes mountains on foot at 13, escaping Franco’s Spain, only to find himself a foster kind in France with his brother, having soon to escape Hitler on a ship with Jewish kids, fleeing for their lives. Just when he thought he’d made a forever home with his brother and new wife in Cuba, in came Fidel Castro, another dictator. He fled again. His brother, not so lucky, was captured by the Cuban Gulag; imprisoned on the island for over seven years. My grandfather fought for all those years to get his brother out…and he succeeded. Papan, which is what I call my grandfather, liked to tell me never to underestimate anyone because you never knew what was inside. He was living proof of that.
Papan could have quit at any stage in the scenario I just painted above. He could have stopped running. But he didn’t, because he was running toward the light. A light he eventually found. He brought his family to the United States, to freedom. Though some have built up a thicket of cynicism around the idea of the American Dream, my family is living proof that it still exists. My grandfather never had to tell me: “Don’t give up,” his story just showed me how not to give up. Because of it, I persist, even in the hardest of circumstances. I call him up and I move forward, always toward the light.
Think for Yourself:
As a teenager, I decided to take off the cross I wore around my neck and started calling myself an agnostic. My grandfather, who, mind you, called himself an “anarchist” and “agnostic,” for most of his life, wrote me a letter. In that letter, he told me to make sure that I was choosing to think for myself and not following a herd through my actions. He told me I was about to go to college, where group think would be all around me, and I had to decipher what my own thoughts were after digging deep into information. It’s no wonder that a man who had watched so many minds taken by extremes of the right and left would teach me to maintain, at all cost, a mind of my own.
Make it Joyful:
A life like my grandfather’s had all the makings of a tragedy, but, instead, it turned out to be a joyous masterpiece. My grandfather sought the light at the end of every tunnel because he was an optimist, because he believed it was there – inside every human and at the end of every path. The image I hold of my grandfather is laughter. Seriousness when we needed to pay attention to detail, and laughter the rest of the time – a lightness of spirit that carried us all through, and still does.
My grandfather’s life was an incredible one. But, and this is perhaps the final lesson linked to the first – every life is an incredible one. Every human is a treasure cove. The older you get, the greater the luster – we have only to seek and ask. It’s important to know the story of those that came before because the first markings of our tortoise shells, the first threads in our tapestries, belong to those that nested us in their arms, passing along generations of rich humanity.
About the Author
Vanessa Garcia is a Cuban American multidisciplinary screenwriter, playwright, novelist, and journalist/essayist — who has written and worked for Sesame Street, Caillou, We Are Family, and Dora the Explorer. She’s the author of the novel, White Light, which won an International Latino Book Award and was one of NPRs best books of 2015. Her first picture book for children, What the Bread Says, launched in October 2022.