Most of the year we lived in Washington, DC, but every summer we’d travel to Spain. From the moment we disembarked in Seville, my father’s demeanor would change. He’d look purposeful. “The finca will be yours one day,” he’d always say.
Finca. The word raises your lip and wrinkles your nose, exposing your teeth in a snarl on the last syllable. It also encapsulates the pride that was so central to my father’s identity. Ranch, the English translation, doesn’t quite capture it. Finca has classist and colonial undertones, carrying with it the echo of a flamenco guitar.
From the front porch of the house, which we called the chalet, red and gold soil sloped through oak trees. The road snaked half-hidden between hills, toward the village three kilometers away, where my father had managed to survive when other children had starved on the meager rations imposed in the years after Franco came into power. He’d robbed birds’ nests, breaking quail eggs open over his mouth, or trapped animals and cracked their skulls.
He and my mother had met in Madrid, where she’d been visiting as a perk of the US-based travel agency she worked for. It was easy to imagine how they’d fallen in love. Unlike most Spanish women at the time, my mother wore a bikini and wasn’t afraid to hike mountains and go spearfishing. My father’s ferocity, when he controlled it, doubled as an alluring sense of confidence. He was handsome and multilingual and played the guitar. After he came to the States on a tourist visa, they married, and within a few years, he’d saved enough money working as a translator to buy the land in Spain.
At the finca, rabbit blood darkened my father’s sleeves, and brown resin cross-hatched his pantlegs from the rockrose bushes he circumnavigated with his hunting dogs. He wasn’t a drinker, but in the evenings, with one hand tucked down the front of his pants, he’d sip manzanilla de Jerez—his favorite sherry. We’d never seen anyone else’s father stick their hand down their pants when they felt proud, but it was a behavior he indulged in no matter how often our mother asked him to stop and act civilized. Some of his other quirks included outdoor urination and pulling over for fresh roadkill, to supplement the rabbit meat we ate for dinner.
“When something belongs to you,” he always told us, “you must take care of it.” So as our school friends from DC traipsed around Disney World on their summer vacations, we painted the walls of the chalet and scraped the sun-blistered varnish from the wooden window frames before applying a new coat. My brother fixed barbed-wire fences to keep out trespassers. I mopped the porous, clay tiles in the dim hallways, milked goats, cleaned stables, and removed stones from the carril—the dusty road that led from the main street to the back entrance—so they wouldn’t shoot out from under a wheel of our station wagon and nick the windshield.
When I grew strong enough to hoist the saddle, I rode the horse we called la mala—the bad one. She was bad because she always swung her muzzle around and tried to bite you when you weren’t looking. After lunch, when everyone took their siesta, I’d risk her bites and ride aimlessly along the carril, daydreaming about some vague, happy future, in which I radiated the power of a wealthy landowner. With la mala’s tail whistling through the air, smacking flies against her legs, I sat tall, pretending I’d already commandeered the status that would surely come with owning my father’s land.
The summer I finished college, after my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and my mother left him, we took long, silent walks together on the finca. A tree near the orchard produced violet figs of unparalleled sweetness. Rabbits darted through the underbrush. The irises of owls glinted in the old station wagon’s headlights when we drove home from my aunt’s house in the village. Lavender bushes grew wild near the lake where he’d once held our heads under water when my brother and I were learning to swim—he’d laughed when we thrashed and came up gasping for air, our eyes wild with fear.
We didn’t talk about my mother that summer. Any reference to her, even the most casual, elicited the dark, menacing look I’d spent my whole life trying to avoid.
“See that star?” he said one night as we sat on the turret patio.
“Which one?” I asked.
“There,” he said. “Three in a row. The biggest one.” I looked where his pointing finger blocked the nighttime phosphorescence. “The brightness we’re seeing now left that star 450 light-years ago. We’re looking at the past.” In any form, the past felt disorienting.
In my late 20s, I tried to live on the finca with my first husband, a man my father had encouraged me to marry because “he’s probably the best you can do.” Women were valued even less in the world he grew up in than they were in mine, and I think he was trying to be helpful. He’d often commented on my looks being subpar compared to my mother’s, so it’s possible he thought I just didn’t have what it took to attract other suitors.
My first husband and I had visions of forging our own utopia far from adult pressures and responsibilities. He wanted to make movies and be famous; I wanted to write novels and be loved. But the hunters from the village ignored our No Trespassing signs, and every morning, we woke to the sound of gunshots. Once, a lamb got caught in a barbed-wire fence and died before anyone noticed. Its mother wandered the hills for weeks, bleating desperately, while the scent of death enveloped us at peculiar moments, carried on the shifting breezes.
I fought regularly with the man my father had encouraged me to marry, and he withdrew into the turret. When my father arrived that summer with his new wife—an Ecuadorian woman who’d worked as his typist—I was at my wit’s end, emotionally and financially. I’d invested all my savings into repairing the water pump and fixing the electricity. My brother had contributed what he could, but it hadn’t been enough. Our inheritance was costly.
“This house has potential,” my father’s wife said cheerfully after she’d set herself up in my mother’s old bedroom. “The kitchen needs work, and the bathrooms need retiling.”
“She acts like this is hers,” I told my father later. We were watching the sunset from the terrace, where the breeze discouraged mosquitoes, while my then-husband drove my father’s wife into town.
“You’re reading too much into it,” he said curtly.
“Dad, if the land really is ours, I need you to put it into writing.” My jaw hurt. I tried to keep my emotions in check.
“Sure,” he said, raising a glass of manzanilla to his mouth. Although his Parkinson’s could still pass as clumsiness, the trembling was getting more pronounced. “I’ll look into it.”
For the rest of their visit, his wife seemed to sidle up to my father whenever I was trying to catch him alone. She’d step between us, patting his arm or running her fingers through his hair. I wanted to be happy that he’d found a companion at his age and in spite of his physical condition, but instead, I felt jealous and threatened.
When I returned to the States the following year, after divorcing my first husband and applying to graduate school in New York, I saw even less of my father. He grew obsessed with his upcoming retirement plan to make the finca his permanent residence. Every time I emailed him to say I was thinking of catching an Amtrak to DC, his wife responded for him, saying it was a bad time, or my old bedroom was being renovated in preparation for renting the house, or I should wait until spring when the weather would be nicer. Sometimes I tried to reach my father by phone and got his voicemail, or his wife picked up and said he was taking his siesta, or had gone deer hunting in West Virginia with one of his buddies.
Then one morning, while I was having breakfast in Brooklyn with my new boyfriend, I got an unexpected phone call from her. “Your dad’s in the hospital,” she said. They’d failed to install a banister at the top of their new mahogany staircase. She’d been at work when he’d lost his balance with nothing to grab hold of. The fall had been long and hard. He’d suffered a stroke.
At first, I visited him every month. He couldn’t move, speak, or eat, but I got him to chuckle once by pointing at my teeth, which he’d always said were too big. “Look, Dad,” I said, exaggerating my smile, “I’m a horse, la mala!” His wife didn’t understand the reference. From the moment I entered the house until the moment I left, she said things that upset me, in part because I feared they were true. You need to take care of him; Christ expects children to make sacrifices for their parents. By the second year, I visited every three months. Sometimes, his face turned red when he saw me, and he appeared to cry, without tears or sounds. Daughters who contribute to their parent’s medical expenses are the ones who enter the kingdom of heaven. By the fourth year, I visited every six months. He stared into space. You should be here, keeping him company; it’s your duty. In the end, I’d go a whole year without a single visit.
Over the course of my father’s decline, my life improved. My boyfriend and I went to therapy and I began to see my past more clearly for what it was. We moved in together and got married. This time, marriage was different. We worked through two miscarriages. The night our son was finally born, I called my father from the hospital and listened to the heavily accented, pre-stroke voice I hadn’t heard in years: it instructed me to leave my name and phone number on the answering machine.
“Dad, your grandson was just born,” I said breathlessly. “A healthy baby boy!”
I’m not sure he ever got the message.
Whenever I interacted with my father’s wife, she seemed overwhelmed and put out. Her anxious, singsong monologues routinely drained my voicemail storage, referencing her special relationship with God, making financial assistance requests, and offering assessments of my character. I found it easiest to bury the guilt I felt and avoid communicating with her altogether. Eventually, my brother and I relinquished our legal claim to our father’s US assets, his retirement savings, his 401K, and his DC house, but that didn’t satisfy his wife or quell her fears.
Six months before my father died, one of his caregivers opened the front door and allowed me to see him. His wife was at work.
“Hi, Dad,” I whispered, kissing his forehead. It felt unnatural. He’d never been good at demonstrating affection, and I wasn’t very good at it either. “I’m here.”
He sat in a wheelchair in the living room, his white hair askew over hollow cheeks, and stared straight ahead, past my face. His eyes had a strange luster to them, reflecting a faraway light-source. He didn’t seem to recognize me. Then he lifted one hand in a slight gesture, as if he was back on the finca terrace in his blood-stained shirt, his legs spread wide, holding a glass of manzanilla. Somewhere in there was the boy who’d cracked open quail eggs when others had starved at the heart of a hot, red land.
After the funeral, his widow left me a message. “My lawyer will be contacting you about the finca,” she said sweetly.
My brother and I hired our own lawyer. The legal battle was lengthy, costly, and tedious. In the end, the land was divided equally among the three of us. I, my brother, and my father’s widow each own one-third of the carril, one-third of the chalet, one-third of the oak trees and the rabbits, one-third of the jagged rocks and red dust, one-third of a decrepit turret patio under a phosphorescent night sky.
Although it’s been five years since my father died, and more than a decade since I’ve been to Spain, I can’t work up the courage to visit. For now, I make do with listening to flamenco music and practicing Andalusian folk dances in my living room as my son looks on—half-intrigued, half-bemused. He’s not sure what his mother is doing and I’m not really sure, either, other than finding something in the music and movement I need to feel complete.
Fin means “end” in Spanish, but the finca is endless. I’ve thought of a thousand ways to get myself out from under the weight of it, and yet nothing I come up with gives me the peace of mind I crave. It’s mine and it’s not mine. I can’t relinquish it or claim it. It’s like the radiance of stars reaching me from 450 light-years away: it’s ancient history, but omnipresent.
ILLUSTRATION BY ADAM NIKLEWICZ
CategoriesFirst Person Families
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