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A Basque-American Memoir
Publication Year: 2011
Published by: University of Nevada Press
Title Page, Copyright, Dedication
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I needed to tell a story, and the story turned into a book. This book is about a surprise trip that I made with my seventy-eight-year-old father to his native Basque Country in 2008. Dad had first left Spain in 1948 to escape Francisco Franco’s repressive government, but now a timely return was important—his...
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Sister Mary Kathleen’s ghost towered over me, looking sternly German, to declare my deception an outright lie. Her spiritual counterpart, Sister Dennis, a soft, chubby redheaded Irish nun with rosy cheeks, agreed and then warmly hugged me. Early in life, these two had lined my moral high road with psychic...
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In a bed of straw, a ewe lay on her side, stomach bloated, heaving up and down in painful rapid rhythm. Plumes of warm air billowed from her snout like a steam engine. Her long ears drooped around a black face, and glassy eyes, dull and empty, teetered closer to death than life....
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I awoke in Mungia’s Palacio Urgoiti to Dad blowing his nose. To say “blowing his nose” mistook a fire hydrant for a garden hose. Every morning for eighteen years, I had woken with such regularity to his explosive olfactory horn that my biological clock had molded to it and now I wake each morning at the...
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Dad remembers very little from age six. But like many of his generation, he instantly pulls out shards of memory from a single day in one of Spain’s most epic struggles of the twentieth century. So many Basques, no matter their vantage in April 1936, similarly extract splinters from a single day to add fullness...
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“I could tell,” I affirmed. “Amaia took my picture with her and showed it to us right after. Tía Anita looked at the picture and said, ‘Who is this?’ Amaia told her, ‘That’s you and your nephew,’ and Amaia pointed at me. Then Tía Anita looked at me and twisted her eyebrows—same way you do—and she asked me,...
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A quiet old nun had secretly opened a schoolhouse in Lekeitio. The regular school had been closed soon after Franco’s victory and turned into barracks for troops. The new school was a single room, packed with ten or twelve long tables with chairs on all sides and children of varying ages sitting in them. Dirt...
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We had traveled twenty miles west of Bilbao toward Laredo on Spain’s northern coast. After our stay in Gernika, I looked forward to exploring new scenery, architecture, and small hamlets that grew more Spanish and less Basque the farther west we drove. The buildings slowly lost red clay roofs in...
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In 1910, Dad’s father, Mariano, boarded a ship bound for America where his only brother, Vicente, had established himself as a reliable ranch hand, the masterful sheepherder, horseshoer, calf roper, fence builder, barn fixer, and...
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As long as I had heard them, the songs seemed heavier than air, weighed down by decades or centuries of history and identity and culture, war and peace, love and life. I often sat in meetings, listening to managers drone on and on about the virtues of their company, trying to convince me to partner...
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After Dad and Mom married, he bought the Blue Jay Bar across the tracks about two hundred feet from the Star Hotel. He built a small apartment in the back with two bedrooms, bathroom, and kitchen, fraying carpet, worn furniture, and a black-and-white television with nonfunctioning rabbit ears. Anything...
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The high-altitude romp through Los Picos de Europa had drained Dad. After arriving in Palencia, we ate an early dinner while watching Barcelona trounce a foreign team 4–0 in a televised soccer match. The meal took three hours as we waited for the cook, dishwasher, and waiter to get their fill of highlights...
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Ana Mari Arbillaga stood with her back to us, arms raised, fingers snapping. During her workday, she cooked at the Nevada Dinner House, one of three Basque restaurants in Elko, and then on weekends she turned into the patron saint of Elko’s Basque heritage—dance instructor, seamstress, Basque-to-...
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Eight days of our Spanish trip had made Dad tired. He slept well each night, took his heart pills, and napped each afternoon, but the riding, walking, and visiting wore down his seventy-eight-year-old body....
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Had dressing and dancing in red sash, scarf, and beret been my only torment, I might have swallowed the ancestral obligation without a word. But moving by my sixth birthday from the Blue Jay Bar to a small sheep farm on the outskirts of town gave me responsibilities that tested my loyalty as a good son....
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Nearly two hundred miles placed me and Dad beyond Palencia, Torquemada, and Burgos and a stone’s throw from Mondragón, where Tía Pilar, Tío Pedro, and Cousin Amaia lived. The road wound like a serpent through the Pyrenees foothills, passing red clay cottages and taverns dating back five centuries. The...
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I enrolled at age nine in the Big “E” 4-H Club as a natural extension of the various sheep activities of our farm—feeding, birthing, shearing, and butchering. I loathed joining up, never really enjoying the beasts or caring enough to show them in front of a live audience. But my older sister had signed up two years...
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Tía Pilar persuaded us to stay another night with her and Tío Pedro. We had no arguments to countermand her forceful reasoning. If chastity had kept her from embracing the convent, she nonetheless had mastered the subtle power of guilt as a mature, well-practiced Catholic. She combined the best parts of...
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These words greeted me weekly as I grew up. Dad placed his limitations at a hundred sheep, the size of our herd. Given a second lifetime lived through me, Dad allowed his ambition to expand tenfold, perhaps because he had more faith in his children, or because half his life was chewed up by coming...
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Southeast of Elko on Lamoille Highway, no more than seven miles, the road summits and reveals a majestic panorama of purple-hued mountains called the Nevada Rubies, not unlike the Pyrenees of Spain. Farther down, the road reaches the town of Spring Creek, and then turning deeper south into rolling...
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I loved that woman, so warmhearted and full of light and goodwill. At seventy-four years old, she still saw life and the world through a child’s eyes— simple and adventurous—never casting off the joy and innocence that so many shed early in life in exchange for cynicism and doubt. With her, all was...
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Three months after Tía Juanita, Chapo died at age eighty of a heart attack. His son found him lying on the couch, fast asleep. The family asked me to write the obituary for the local paper, which I sadly did, penning each heavy word and thinking of a hundred others to describe this small man who had been...
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When undertaking a first book, the greatest hurdle is self-confidence. Can I write a book? If I do, will the writing be good enough? Do I risk personal embarrassment from lack of skill? I don’t avoid challenge merely to avoid failure, not at all. On the contrary, I learn a great deal from my failures, but I...
Page Count: 168
Publication Year: 2011