I believe in listening to people, something I learned from watching my Yugoslav parents navigate American life. As the children of immigrants, my brother and I spent a lot of time watching people belittle my parents. Others simply ignored them, treating my parents as bodies to be filed past, people whose language and heritage didn’t give them a piece of the American pie until they’d earned it—something they set about doing at the expense of their marriage, their health, and even, at times, us, their children.
My brother and I reacted as children often do, by distancing ourselves until we’d become fully Americanized, Adidas-wearing teenagers hell-bent on the 80s. It wasn’t until college that I began to reclaim what I’d lost, taking Yugoslav language and literature classes to supplement my degree in English.
By then, I was waiting tables and tending bar to pay my way through school, and listening—something I’d once been good at—had become increasingly difficult. After years of listening to others, I had begun to feel as if I were disappearing, sliding beneath an avalanche of stories, none of which involved me.
I was at work one sunny spring day when everything came to a head. Xavier, one of my regulars, had just pulled two photos out of his wallet and showed me his children, a boy and a girl I knew from stories, when something inside me snapped. If you love your children so much, I wanted to scream, why are you parked on a barstool all afternoon when you could be out there, with them?
Fifteen years later, I recognize my father in that afternoon, the self-employed owner of a tool and die who was so busy—and so hell-bent on achieving the American dream—that my brother and I often spent our vacation days with him at work because he refused to take any time off.
On good days, he’d take us to the local diner for lunch, where we’d clamor up onto plastic-covered stools and order burgers, fries and the occasional contraband Coke.
Somehow, the waitresses always knew us by name, knew all about our sports and after-school activities even though we’d never met them before.
Years after his death, I’ve come to think of my father as a parallel version of Xavier, a man who emigrated from Yugoslavia instead of Mexico, one who preferred wine over beer, and who spent his extra hours at work instead of at the local bar. Every so often, they blur in my memory, becoming one—a man who found solace in public instead of in his own home, and who turned to strangers when he didn’t know how to communicate with his loved ones.
Then again, how many of us really do?
But we all need to be heard, and we all need someone to listen.
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