My Father's Ranch

A Daughter Wrestles with Bittersweet Memories and a New, Looming Threat

Alicia Muñoz

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.”

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Alicia Muñoz, LPC, is a certified marriage counselor. She’s a contributor to Counseling Today,, YourTango, PsychCentral, and Her first book, No More Fighting: 20 Minutes a Week to a Stronger Relationship, is available now.

This blog is excerpted from "The Inheritance," by Alicia Muñoz. The full version is available in the November/December 2018 issue, A New Generation of Clients: Is Therapy Keeping Pace?

Illustration © Adam Niklewicz

Topic: Cultural, Social & Racial Issues | Families

Tags: 2018 | Couples & Family | Cultural identity | Cultural values | Cultural, Social & Racial Issues | divorce | divorces | Families & family life | family | Family Matters | grief and loss | healthy relationships | home | loss | love | love and relationships | parenting issues | parents | Parents & parenting | relationship issues | relationship problems | separation and divorce

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