In His Image
In certain pictures, it’s startling. Whenever someone sees an old picture of my dad and remarks about how much we look alike, I smile and act really proud. Which is naive, because it implies that I had something to do with it.
Francis Cabang, Sr. was born in 1911, came to America in 1928 and worked his way up from a teenage filipino migrant laborer to what my friends have called a land baron. He owned a restaurant, several income-generating properties and at one time, at least thirteen cars.
Dad was always exactly who he was, which was the largest part of his magnificence. He was fiery, passionate, temperamental, stubborn and charismatic. He could be, by turns, explosively angry or cheerfully gentle. He could be a character, but in the best possible way. He was widely loved.
He had a true sense of theatricality. There were little tricks and parades he enjoyed, for his own humorous benefit as much as anyone else’s.
He loved wearing his beat-up straw hat and faded chinos, personally tending to the lawns and bushes that grew on his properties, having driven there in his base-model pick-up truck. He loved it when tenants assumed he was the gardener but not the owner, and he wouldn’t correct them. He loved it even more when, at some later time, they’d see him get into, or out of, his vintage Jaguar roadster. Then a week or so later, the Ferrari.
Yet he hadn’t built his empire for the sake of amusement. He and my mother made certain that my family never lacked for anything, because from the very beginning, that was what he felt he had to do.
The youngest of four children, I grew up in the OC, got the sports car I wanted for my 16th birthday (one of many, birthdays and cars), went to college, drank, played. I took everything for granted and didn’t learn much.
It wasn’t until I got older that I started to really feel his impact. After he died (at age 92) I started to feel him. I finally got his message: Do what you have to do.
For years I misinterpreted my father, figuring he was disappointed, that he had expected me to find my own fortunes by taking the same roads he did. Having little idea how and even less drive to do exactly that, I assumed I’d failed him.
Turns out I hadn’t failed him at all. I had only misunderstood him.
One of my earliest memories is singing along to Tom Jones records. I think I was three years old. One evening, for visiting friends, Dad set up a little stage in the family room, with a stand-up microphone and his prized audio equipment tuned to amplify my toddler's squeal over Tom’s actual vocals.
I loved to sing, and still do. Looking back on it, I see now that Dad didn’t just think it was cute, he wasn’t just sharing my high-pitched rendition of “Delilah” with the neighbors, he wasn’t just indulging his baby’s hamminess. He was, ultimately, showing me something.
Is this what you want to do? Do it.
He was like that with all of us. If we had a talent, he made sure we used it.
There was no mocking in my family, at least not the way I see in some families, which I find appalling. A friend of mine once said that whenever she sang in the car as a child, her mother would criticize her, tell her she wasn’t doing it right. Her siblings would imitate her, laugh at her.
To this day I forget that most people are self-conscious about singing in the car, and when I do it, I wince at the occasional jibe I get from a passenger I might be ferrying. Then I stop, quietly angered by the critique. I don’t do it to show off. I do it because I was always allowed to, and besides, Dad loved to hear it.
It’s a crime to deny those little freedoms.
Sometime around my late-twenties I started to write. Little essays, little poems, stories about people I knew. I can’t remember how I brought up the subject of “insecurity” to my dad, but I did. It was so rare that I ever discussed “feelings” with him; we just never had that sort of rapport. I hadn’t thought it possible.
“You just keep writing, son,” he said in his distinctive, gravelly bass. “I didn’t have the restaurant until I was thirty-six.”
That was the first time he’d ever shown himself to me in purely human terms, and I think that’s what he wanted me to see. That he was mortal, just like me.
When he died, the energy in the world completely shifted. Some say that a man only truly becomes a man when his father dies, and I think I’m getting the point. I’m at the age now that my father was when he met my mother, started his family. He’d already made his nest but was finally populating it, which was what he felt he had to do. He knew, early on, that he had to share what he’d learned and what he’d built.
I’m still trying to figure out what I have to do. In the meantime, writing is a good outlet for me, and with it I can share what I’ve learned with anyone who wants to know. Besides, he did tell me once, “You just keep writing, son.”
He’d known since I was a baby that I was never going to be a business man.
So thanks, Papa. This one’s for you.
I live contentedly, if modestly.
I have a good job and a cute little apartment, but budget and debt are as much a part of my life as freedom and celebration. My finances keep me fed, clothed and entertained, if only just.
The good thing is, I have the license to approve my own ambitions. I was taught that.
I think I was eight years old when I received what I consider the most memorable gift my dad gave ever gave me.
He told my mother he was going to the store, and I jumped up and down, the way I still do, and asked him to bring me back some crayons.
He came home with the crayons. Not the huge sixty-four-pack with its own built-in sharpener (that I was expecting), but the smallish sixteen-pack that came in a clear plastic box. Surprisingly, he had asked the store to wrap a ribbon around it, giving the tiny, otherwise ordinary parcel a touch of “occasion.”
Decades later, and having grown a little, I think I understand.
You have all you need, he was saying, to color your world any way you like.
That’s my gift to you.