El Ombligo/ The Belly Button
Father’s Day always brings back wonderful memories of making construction paper cards with ties on the front cover in school, which my father graciously accepted each year with a loud laugh and a bear hug. He kept each one in his dresser drawer, underneath his neatly folded tank tops and underwear. Also there, were two family photo albums, encased in yellow plastic sleeves, memories of my brother and I as toddlers, and my mother sporting her bell bottom jeans and beehive updo . I would follow him to his dresser, and watch as he carefully placed the new card on top of the others in the drawer and I noticed a tiny box with a pair of little white shoes. “¿De quien son esos zapatos de Pedrito o mio?” “Whose shoes are those, Peter’s or mine?” I asked. “Deja eso ahi por favor. No le pongas la mano” “Leave that alone please. Don’t touch it.” He told me in a calm yet stern voice. Although I asked every year, it was not until third grade that I decided I would risk being punished by my father’s thunderous irate hollering and heavy hand.
Since I was the youngest and the only female child in my immediate family, I was always home and very accustomed to entertaining myself after school. As my mother cooked one afternoon, I raised the volume on the television that was religiously tuned to the inappropriate, yet entertaining, series Three’s Company every afternoon. I quickly made my way to the dresser opened the drawer and meticulously pulled out the little shoe box trying not to disturb the military style order the tank tops and underwear were in. I removed the lid and examined the infant shoes with wooden soles and three buckles that ran up to the ankles. In the right shoe was what appeared to be a small piece of old fried bacon wrapped in a bit of cotton. My mom had Peter’s bellybutton preserved in his photo album next to his hospital wristband. Mine was in a heart shaped plastic box along with a pink index card that read ‘It’s a girl!’ along with a pair of baby teeth that were set as earring with gold and onyx.“Whose belly button is this?” I wondered as I closed the mysterious little box and tried to place it in the exact position I had found it in.
That evening my father came home from work. I ran to get his house slippers as I did every afternoon, but this time I made sure I was extra polite. He looked exhausted and annoyed as he mumbled about his boss, his hard life, the never-ending bills, and whatever else had gone wrong that day. After dinner and a cool glass of ice water, his mood improved and he would sit in his rocking chair and read El Diario La Prensa. All was good in our apartment until he went to get his clothes ready for the following miserable day at work.“¿Quien diablo estaba buscando en mi gabeta?” “Who the hell was looking in my drawer?” his voice roaring down the apartment hallway like an approaching storm. “No fui yo.” “ It wasn’t me.” My mother answered as she poked her head out of the kitchen doorway and shot an unsympathetic look into the living room where I was sitting watching a rerun of One Day At a Time. My widening eyes and clenched hands must have given me away. “Peggy, ven aqui” “Peggy, come here.” I heard as I attempted to peel my sweaty back from the plastic covered sofa. I walked over to him cautiously. “¿Tu estabas buscando por mi gabeta? “Were you looking through my drawer?” my father asked as he stared at me for any hints of lying. “Si, porque yo queria saber si esos zapatos eran mio pa’ yo ponerselo a mi muñeca.” “Yes, because I wanted to know if the shoes were mine so that I can put them on my doll.” I lied hoping that he would take pity on his poor little girl who had no one to play with. He took a deep breath, opened the box and gently repositioning them. As I searched his face for a scowl or impending danger, I noticed his gaze was set on the tiny shoes and he told me they belonged to a little girl he only saw once.
Years later, after pestering my mother about the shoes and the little girl, she told me that my father wasn’t always a good man. Unclear as to what that meant, I continued to harass my mother until she finally told me that when my father was a young man he had a daughter. I knew he was married before and that I had half sisters and brothers but this little girl was present before that marriage. She detailed how my father went to visit her a few weeks after he learned of her birth from a vendor that traveled between towns. She was born in a small two-room house about a half mile away from where he lived in the small rural area. He searched for himself in her face, tried to remember every detail from her soft hair to her pursed lips and gave his former lover the money he carried with him at the time. Rejected by the young woman’s family who were desperately trying to cover up this shameful occurrence, and who were not impressed with my father’s meager wages and pitiable attire, my father was asked to leave. Knowing that she was never to see him again, she walked him to the door and secretly gave my father the little girl’s shoes. On his way home, he examined the small dark and dry piece of umbilical cord and wondered if she knew that it was in the shoe when she gave it to him.
When my father returned to visit his daughter about a week later, he learned from the widow who lived next door that the family had moved to an undisclosed part of the neighboring town and that he should not try to contact them if he valued his life. Later my father added that he tried to find her, because no amount of drinking could rid him of the void he felt, but he learned that in a last effort to right a wrong his former lover had married and left the area leaving behind her reputation and no forwarding address.
My father, who accepted my daily tea party invitations and drank endless cups of tap water from hot pink plastic princess cups. Daddy, who cleaned my feet with rubbing alcohol each night to ward off illness. The man who made good on his promises of buying me a bicycle with training wheels in exchange for a straight A report card, even if it meant he had to work overtime. Papi, who at bedtime read to me from the book of John in Spanish and taught me to pray to Santa Barbara. My dad, who when I became pregnant at fifteen, wiped my tears with calloused hands and made me promise to finish school without yelling once. This man, my father, may not have always been a good man. Nevertheless, despite all his errors, casualties, mistakes, and faults, he was and continues to be the greatest example of a father, and he still has the little box with the ombligo, the belly button, in the right shoe.
Mi Padre Pedro Robles
Peggy Robles-Alvarado is a Puerto Rican and Dominican educator and writer who inspires triumph and embodies strength. Her incredible rhythmic energy paired with her “raw truth style” has seduced audiences with verses relating to identity, sensuality and spirituality and has made her the recipient of the 2012 “Mujeres Destacadas Award,” a recognition given annually by El Diario-La Prensa to the most outstanding women in the Latino community. Her first book, Conversations With My Skin, was awarded second place in the category of Best Poetry Book in English in the 2012 International Latino Book Awards. In 2013, her second book Homenaje A Las Guerreras/ Homage To The Warrior Women was awarded second place in the category of Best Bilingual Poetry Book and Best Cover Design. Peggy also received the 2012 Womyn Warrior Award presented by Casa Atabex Aché, a center that provides holistic and alternative healing techniques for the self-empowerment of women of color.