Dad

This is not my typical blog post. On Cinco de Mayo, we will be celebrating my dad’s 90th birthday. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share with you some of his amazing life.

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When dad was born on May 5, 1927 — 90 years ago — he almost died.

His mother, my late abuela, prayed to St. Anthony. If her son lived, she would offer him to God’s service and name him Antonio. Anthony.

Dad survived. And his life has indeed been of service to others. Interestingly, his namesake, St. Anthony, was the greatest preacher of the Middle Ages and one of the finest orators of all time.

Dad became this, too.

But dad wasn’t always this way. He was a first-generation Mexican-American who grew up in poverty. He was shy.

Because of his race, he experienced prejudice in South Texas. Many of his classmates weren’t pleased when he was named the high school’s valedictorian. Mexicans weren’t supposed to be smart.

Dad went on to study radio engineering and worked at Pan American Airways. While all this was happening, he and my mother, from Tennessee, were writing letters to each other and fell in love. https://mezuniga.wordpress.com/2015/07/12/a-love-story/ They married and started raising a family in Donna, Texas.

His career then morphed into television engineering at KRGV-TV in Weslaco, and he would often bring us as children there. https://mezuniga.wordpress.com/2016/04/26/fame/ With a growing family, dad needed more income and left the TV station to find better employment.

He took a job with the Philco Corporation where he worked as a civilian consultant to the military in South Korea. He was responsible for helping set up the first TV station in post-war Korea.

But we weren’t able to go as a family. South Korea was still considered a hardship area. So we stayed behind in Houston, with my aunt and uncle helping my mother with our care. Every day the mailman brought a surprise from Korea — dolls, silk kimonos, toys and books.

After a year, dad returned to the U.S. and the Philco Corporation transferred him to the Philadelphia area.

Among his many duties, he helped develop the high-resolution cameras, attached to an airplane, that detected the growing build up of missiles in Cuba — that led to the Cuban missile crisis. Dad also helped set up the TV monitors at NASA in Houston.

His work then took him to KYW-TV in Philadelphia as chief engineer during the time of The Mike Douglas Show. There, he met many movie stars and celebrities. https://mezuniga.wordpress.com/2015/07/07/kissing-shirley-temple/

During all this time, however, dad was also involved in much more. At some point in his early career, he took the Dale Carnegie course and discovered a gift — inspirational and motivational speaking.

From there, dad became involved in a program called Adventures in Attitudes and branched out on his own, giving lectures to help inspire others, to help them become the best they could be.

He offered talks such as “You were born for greatness, why settle for less?” and “The ABCs of greatness.”

His public speaking extended to the Crusillo movement, where he was one of two men to help bring this Christ-centered movement to the Philadelphia area from Spain.

Dad lectured around the world, not only for the Crusillo, but speaking about other spiritual and self-help topics in churches, schools, veterans’ hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, and to troubled youth. https://mezuniga.wordpress.com/2016/01/18/the-nellie-nobody-knows/

Dad’s sole desire was to help others and to serve. I remember him saying, “If only one person is helped and comes to know God, it’s worth it.”

Stories are told that healings happened when dad spoke. Emotional healings, but sometimes physical healings. After one of his talks, he counseled a woman who had cancer. After hearing her story, he told her she needed to forgive her ex-husband. She found it difficult, but she finally did, from her heart. Later, she reported to him that she had been healed.

Prior to one of his talks — an important one — he was seized with an uncharacteristic fear. While in the shower he heard Mother Mary’s voice: “Do not be afraid,” she said. “I am sending my angels before you.”

Dad wrote two books and recorded numerous CDs of his talks. He was not part of the digital age, but at some point, my hope is that I — or one of his family — will make these available via social media.

Throughout his 90 years, dad has helped countless people, given tirelessly, and helped his nine children along the way. He helped us move, provided money, offered counsel, prayed with us, cried with us, loved us, forgave us when we made mistakes. He went on to do the same with his grandchildren.

The stories are countless and if anything, dad himself was the consummate story teller — until his stroke four years ago. https://mezuniga.wordpress.com/2015/11/23/the-zen-of-caregiving/

That’s the day God took away the one gift dad cherished most — his speech.

And yet, dad still speaks with his eyes and his smile. He is still there, giving. How?

He helped me learn in the deepest way, as I help care for him, that loving service to others is the greatest gift we can give. I now know this in my being as never before.

So this Friday on Cinco de Mayo — Antonio (Tony) Zaragoza Zuniga, true Mexican-American that he is — will mark 90 years of a life well lived. And on Saturday, May 6th, his family and friends will be there to celebrate him. They are arriving from all corners — Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, California, from next door and a few blocks away.

We will honor dad at a party with Mexican food, Margaritas, mariachi music, laughter, family stories. And we will cherish him. We will love him.

Gracias, Papi. Por todo.

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A legacy of love

Stories can be lost. Especially stories about our heritage.  I wish I had asked my father — before he had his stroke two years ago — more about his parents. Now, many details are missing and gone. And I will never know.

But I have salvaged something. While going through old papers in my father’s office, I found this piece he had written about his father, mi abuelo, my grandfather. I have rewritten some of it, but the message remains the same. Here is that story.

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grandpa enrique

My grandfather Enrique Zuniga

My grandfather was born in Mexico in the late 1800s — and orphaned. When he was five years old, he was adopted by a couple who owned a bakery. They forced him to sell bread on the streets from early morning until late at night. He was told he could only eat one piece for his lunch and the rest he had to sell. If he came home with bread he had not sold, he would be whipped and sent to bed without supper.

With tears in his eyes, he would sit by the street curb, crying and begging people to buy his sweet breads because he knew what would happen if he didn’t.

Fast forward — and much of the story from his childhood until his adulthood is missing — my grandfather came to the United States. He lost two wives to death. My father and his brother were born from my grandfather’s third marriage.

By the age of 40 my grandfather had opened a chain of small grocery stores throughout South Texas, the forerunners of today’s supermarkets. He was a generous man and financially helped at least 500 people throughout that area to start their own small businesses.  Perhaps because of his own childhood, he also loved and helped children. For years at Christmas, he gave gifts to the boys and girls in the small town of Donna, Texas.

In 1948 my grandfather was dying of cancer, and my father saw him cry for the first time in his life. “He was crying not because he was slowly dying,” my father wrote, “but because he would no longer able to give the gift of joy to all the children in the town at Christmas.”

When my father was 10 years old, my grandfather told him this:

tears_from_heaven“If one day when you are grown up and away from home and you feel alone, betrayed, abandoned and forgotten by the whole world, don’t be afraid to cry. Go ahead and let the tears splash on your clothes or on the ground. These will be tears of relief and a new awareness in your life … more importantly, these tears will be from your heart …”

But after my grandfather died, my father didn’t cry. “I just felt my father had lived his life to the fullest and had earned his reward,” my father wrote.

A month after the funeral, my father took my mother — pregnant with me — to her hometown in Tennessee. After a week there, he told my mother he needed to walk and pray. She suggested a hill behind her parents’ home.

“I sat under the shade of a big tree overlooking the beautiful green pastures and the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains,” my dad wrote. “Then I began talking to my father. And I really felt he listened and responded. So I cried and cried and cried. And I thanked him for all the lessons he had taught me. I felt free and ready to go back into the world and share everything I learned from him — starting with the great love he had for humanity.”

My grandfather died a few months before I was born. How I wish I had known him. How I wish I had asked dad many questions about him. I know so little.

But this I do know. A legacy of love runs deep through our family’s lineage. It pulses like a heartbeat, borne from an orphaned boy forced to sell breads on the streets of Mexico. A boy who could have taken any road, but through God’s grace was moved to make something of his life and to offer compassion and service to others.

love never failsThose many years ago, he told my father this:

“Don’t ever forget, son, that it makes no difference where life or destiny takes you. Always remember that what you do for yourself will die with you. But what you do for others lives on forever.”

My father took those words to heart. Through his inspirational/motivational talks, he helped countless people to grow spiritually, healed others and saved lives. Now, he is no longer able. But what he did for others lives on.

When the time comes for dad to go home to God, I will remember my grandfather’s words. I will cry. My heart will break. And I will pray to carry his legacy of love forward to the world.

Gracias, mi abuelo, Enrique. Gracias, mi padre, Antonio.