About a week ago my girlfriend and I celebrated the birthday of her deceased father, Ramiro. The sincerity of her love for him and the multitude of vivid stories she tells about his mannerisms, beliefs, and approach to life add up to being almost like having met the man in person.
What I find most memorable about these accounts is that he was possessed of a quiet, stoic dignity that I’ve observed in people across the full spectrum of socio-economic status.
The tale begins when his Visa was sponsored by the wealthy Flanagan family. He came to America knowing no English, owning almost nothing, and became their gardener, handyman, chauffeur, and housekeeper. In other words, the stereotypical live-in servant from the third world.
Yet he took a great deal of pride in this work. No task, however menial, was unworthy of care, attention, and skill. Nearly every day, even in the sweltering heat, he would dress in his best workman’s clothes to pull weeds and clean gutters. People would stop in the street and take pictures of his superlative garden as it slowly wove its tendrils through the iron gates of the family’s estate.
The world turned, and brought the usual cycle of growth, aging, maturation, and death. In time the Flanagan matriarch found herself a widow. But his family and her’s had been raised together and had grown close. Throughout the years Miss Flanagan had evidently developed a certain fondness for Ramiro. There came talk of marriage.
In the end he decided against the union, for fear that the influx of extreme wealth would change him and his progeny for the worse. He chose instead a life of productive work, adherence to a breed of Old World manners in desperately short supply these days, and the dignity that I’m fascinated by, as immovable as a granite rock.
In films and movies the wealthy are often portrayed with an almost cartoonish sophistication, often crossing over into outright sneering pretention, but I personally believe that the connection between money and good taste is pretty tenuous. As evidence, consider the ceaseless images of hyper-sexed, trashy millionaires like the Kardashians and their ilk in which our culture is awash.
Now it’s true that I have limited exposure to the upper strata of high society. But I have heard enough stories and glimpsed enough pettiness to know that the quality of a person’s character and their net worth are very different things. Dignity is an attitude and a state of mind, not an income bracket. Some of the most dignified people in the world have to change out of greasy clothes at the end of the day so as to avoid dirtying their children when they hug them. They do the best work their able to, conduct their business with honesty, keep a clean house, and expand themselves in whatever ways their limited time and resources permit.
I suppose one reason I find Ramiro interesting is because my own father echoes many of the same traits. He spent almost his entire life digging ditches, building decks, and welding pieces of steel together, but he also read A Brief History of Time and huge amounts of history on the civil war and the Roman Empire; my siblings and I grew up poor, but we ate reasonably well; our house was small, but tidy and filled with nice antiques my father had refurbished; we grew up in the wilderness of rural Arkansas, but were encouraged to take up music and chess.
We weren’t rednecks then, and we aren’t rednecks now, because we were taught dignity. And whether I wind up a billionaire or just a comfortable middle-tier writer, I intend on giving my children the same gift.
Ramiro passed away in May of 2015. Like my great-grandmother, he was claimed by the ravages of Alzheimers disease. When a person dies this way they do so a shade at a time, little pieces of their soul dissipating like winter’s last snowflakes falling on the ground in March.
In a way, losing a person to this illness is like suffering a double loss. First, the subtle edges and nuances of the mind are smoothed away, until only a simpler version of their former self remains. Then the flesh follows suit, and their light goes out forever.
My girlfriend tells me that her father retained his vigor, and was able to recognize her, up until his last day on Earth. She is of course profoundly grateful for this, but found that she missed their banter, the nicknames he gave her, and the quirks that made him who he was. I know this feeling all too well.
My hope is that someday Earth will get its act together enough to recognize that this state of affairs is unacceptable. Perhaps stories like this one will help play some small part in bringing that about.