Time for a Pop story…


Yes, it’s that time again. Pop’s birthday. He would have been 88 today.

Over the last couple of years, it’s been getting harder and harder to come up with a write-worthy story about Pop on these milestones. I’m not sure why that is, as there are many. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, and details are getting fuzzier. 

Pop, at his bar-restaurant in Rio, circa 1955

Pop, at his bar-restaurant in Rio, circa 1955

This year, I guess it helped that I was able to spend three months in Brazil with my Brazilian side of the family. As I tell in his story, Pop was married before he met my mom, and he had two kids from that marriage. However, he didn’t tell us about all that until after he and my mom split. When I was 15. So needless to say, it was a bit of a shocker. And I guess it’s also fair to say that it added to an already considerable amount of teen angst and issues resulting from all the family turmoil that my sibs and I were going through then. 

Spending time with my sister Gilda and my brother Gustavo (albeit to a lesser extent) this last winter, finally gave me a real exposure to that whole side of Pop. To say it was long overdue, and that it was too bad that it happened after his death, are both obviously understatements. But it did have to happen sometime. 

This story has to do with the time that I finally got to meet my sister Gilda for the first time, and how that changed a lot of things for me, and I suspect for her as well.

The year was 1990. I had been living and working in the Virgin Islands for about the past year or so. I had managed to break away from Florida after a few years of struggling once I got out of the navy. I had been bartending and working the yacht charter trade, with some relative success. So life was good for a change.

My brother Nick was getting married in the late spring. Because it was low season in the islands, I decided to fly up to Florida for a visit and to make the wedding. Communications had been scant between myself and the mainland over the time I was down island. This was obviously before the time of the internet and instant communication. I had to make do with the occasional long distance call, and letters. So while I knew that my brother was getting married, I knew little else that was going on. 

When I arrived in Orlando, Pop was there to pick me up at the airport with his taxi. It was nice to see him again, considering I hadn’t seen him in almost a year. He was rather chipper and happy, which was a nice change from how he was when I had left. But while we’re in the car, I noticed a bit of an awkwardness in the way he was talking to me. I finally had to ask. 

“Ok, what’s up? Something on your mind? You’re acting a bit strange…” I inquired. 

“Well, I just thought you’d want to know that Gilda, your sister, is here from Brazil with her son Fabio for the wedding. And I’m hoping that you would spend some time with her before and after the wedding. Business has been really bad, so I really need to work as much as possible, so I hope you’ll help me out, and entertain them a bit.”

Now, I’m not entirely sure why yet, but his talking to me about this put me off a bit. Here I was up here for my brother’s wedding, and hopefully to catch up with friends and stuff. And here was Pop wanting me to spend time with a sister that I didn’t know from a stranger. It was just a bit off-putting. 

“Well, I will do what I can, Pop, but I have to be honest. I have a lot to do while I’m up here, and not a lot of time. I also need to head down to Fort Lauderdale to interview with some agencies about picking up some charter work in the Med this summer. So I can’t make any promises, ok?”

I tried to be blase’ about the topic, hoping my excuses would hold up. 

“Well, you don’t need to do much son. Just take them to Disney or Universal, and maybe to the beach or something. Can you please do that? She is your sister, you know.”

Ok, there was that off-putting feeling creeping up again. Wondering why he was throwing all this shit on me now. I hadn’t even been off the plane an hour yet. 

“Well, we’ll see. Where are they now?”

“They’re at the mall, I’m going to pick them up in a couple hours.”

“Ok, well let’s go get lunch, and let me grab my car, make some calls, and we’ll see what’s up for the afternoon.”

I tried to just put things off. 

We get to his apartment, where they are staying too. And again, Pop starts getting very giddy and happy. A little too happy for my comfort. He starts talking about how happy and excited he is for us to finally meet. I, on the other hand, get more angry and irritable. Don’t even ask me where it all came from. But out of nowhere, some deeply-stored teen angst/rage just blows out of me, and I lose it. 

I start yelling at him that I really didn’t appreciate him imposing my “sister” on me so quickly. What the fuck was that all about? Had he not considered that at the very least maybe I wasn’t ready for any of this? Did that not matter to him?

“Did it ever occur to you that I have finally managed to reach a certain state of peace from all the Santos family politics while I’ve been down in the islands? And I was hoping I can keep it that way?”

“Do you really think that I’m ready for all this new family drama?? Can I please have some time??? Geez Pop, why didn’t you tell me about them sooner??? Why didn’t you let me meet them sooner?”

“We LIVED IN BRAZIL FOR MORE THAN A YEAR! REMEMBER? You didn’t think that would have been a good time for us to meet them?!”

It was just all pouring out of me. Weird. Especially since I hadn’t really thought about any of it for such a long time before that.  

Pop was hurt, angry, apologetic, and conciliatory, all in one. 

“Son, please… things are going really good with all of us, please don’t make this hard. Especially with the wedding coming up. I’m just asking you to do this for me. Please make an effort, that’s all I’m asking…”, he shifted into sad-puppy mode. 

I threw my hands up in resignation. 

“Ok, fine… I’ll do what I can, but no more. I just don’t appreciate you thrusting me into this position right off the fucking plane.” 

I was still angry, but tried to cool down. 

After we had some lunch, we headed to the mall to pick up Gilda and Fabio. They were waiting out front as Pop drove up, and I recognized her immediately. Pop had shown me pictures of her and Gustavo when they were teenagers, and she still looked the same. 

I can tell that she was just as nervous to meet me, so that helped a little. She didn’t speak much English, and my Portuguese was all but gone, since I hadn’t spoken it since I was 11 or so. So communications were difficult, but we did the best we can. Fabio, who was about 9 then, was just like any other kid in the thick of Disney country. Essentially overwhelmed and just trying to take it all in. It was at least going to be interesting. 

We went to dinner that evening, which was awkward with Pop mostly translating between us. Then I got my car and headed to Daytona to go stay at my best friend’s house, as usual. Gilda and I made a date to head to Disney/MGM Studios the day after the next. I can see that Pop was happy about that. 

After a rather busy day catching up with friends and family in Daytona, I headed back to Orlando for the Disney/MGM day with Gilda and Fabio. I picked them up just before noon, and we headed to the park. Having been to Disney only thousands of times before, and had grown nothing but sick of it, I tried to just stay positive and upbeat just for their sake. But to be honest, I was really dreading spending another day at Disney.  

As we’re getting to the park entrance, a couple of kids walked up. They had some 3-day park passes that they were trying to sell. They’d only used one day so far, and weren’t coming back. They had one adult and one child ticket. This is actually the best and cheapest way to get into any of the Disney parks. Simply because it’s much cheaper to buy off these used passes than pay full price at the ticket counter. I knew this, so I figured it would be a good move to save Gilda a few bucks. So I tried to negotiate a good price. When the kids took the bait, I recommended she buy the passes off them, which she did. Now they had two full days in Disney for less than the price of one day at the ticket booth. Hope she appreciated my hustle. 

I still had to buy a day ticket for myself, so I did that, and we went to the turnstile to get in. I show my new ticket, then Gilda and Fabio show their newly purchased passes. The ticket clerk looks at their passes and asks for them to show their handstamps. It turns out that those passes were used that same day. So they were supposed to have gotten stamped if they were going to leave and come back to the park. 


Gilda and Fabio are looking at me with a rather confused look, they didn’t understand what was going on. I told the clerk that they didn’t know they were supposed to get their hands stamped when they left, and they had been at the park already that morning, before meeting me outside for lunch. 

The clerk wasn’t buying it, and she told us to wait there, she was gonna get security. As she was walking to the security booth, I turned to Gilda and told her in both english and broken portuguese… 

“Ok listen, just follow my lead on this Gilda, just play along with me… otherwise, we are in big trouble…” Gilda, was a bit confused, but just nodded. I wasn’t even sure if she understood me. The pressure was on. 

I knew how much Disney was starting to crack down on re-selling of multi-day passes, and how they were making people’s lives miserable for trying to get in with them. So now I was nervous that I was going to ruin Gilda’s and Fabio’s vacation. Shit was getting tense… 

The security officer walked up, she looked like she was having a bad day. Not good. She starts asking Gilda where they bought the passes. I intervene…

“Sorry, she speaks no English at all, they are visiting from Brazil. My sister and nephew (felt weird saying that). They bought the passes this morning here and just forgot to get their hands stamped when they came out to meet me for lunch. They didn’t know that they had to.”

The security officer was shaking her head while I was talking, as if she wasn’t buying any of it.

“The plan was all along that I was going to go back into the park with them for the rest of the day. So come on, give them a break will you?”

I shifted into my subtle pleading, “show mercy” mode….

The guard looks over at them, then at me, pauses a beat, and then says…

“Ask them what attractions they went to see this morning before they met you… “

Her glare of suspicion could not be ignored. Obviously she’d trapped people with this line of questioning before. I gulped, and kept my game face. I looked over at Gilda. Who hadn’t let on at all whether or not she understood what was going on. In fact, she looked slightly confused and a little scared.

I switch to my unintelligible Portuguese… 

“Gilda, o que você viu no parque hoje, antes de eu vir para encontrá??” (What did you see in the park this morning before you met up with me?)

I wasn’t even sure if I said it right, or if she understood… 

Gilda, looked at me, first with a rather confused expression, locked into my eyes, and said… 

“Ohhhh… Indiana Jones Show… Star Wars… o studio tour…  “, Gilda was talking, waving her hands, as someone who completely knew her way around the park. Never mind it was a park she had never been to yet. It was impressive. 

I look back at the guard, who showed no response for a few seconds. Ultimately, she bought it. I let out a slow gasp of relief. 

“Ok, let me get their hands stamped, and please make sure they remember to get their hands stamped whenever they leave the park and they want to come back the same day, ok?”

And we were in. We had been laughing for several minutes or so, when I said to Gilda… 

“Only a REAL Santos could have pulled that off, good work. We are truly family…” I congratulated my sister with a smile. 

The rest of the day was a lot of fun, with zero tension. Dare I say, I even enjoyed being in a Disney park for a change. 

Later that evening, Pop met up with us and we all drove to get dinner at a nearby TGI-Friday’s.  We recounted all the day’s events, particularly our near brush with Disney jail. Gilda and Fabio went to the restroom at the same time after we were done eating. It was just Pop and me for a few minutes. Not much was said, but the light tone lingered.

Pop got rather serious and turned to me while I was finishing my beer. 

“Son, I wanted to tell you about them for a very long time, I really did. But things with your mother were complicated, and I didn’t know how to tell you guys. She actually didn’t want me to tell you at all, ever.”

I was surprised to hear him tell me this, especially since nothing had really led up to it.

He went on…

“Anyway, not being straight with you kids has haunted me for a long time, and I’m really angry at myself for letting it happen for so long. Please, I hope you can forgive me.”

He didn’t say anything else until they came back. I didn’t either. 

Gilda, Fabio and I spent a little more time together before she had to get on the plane back to Brazil after the wedding. We have seen each other a scant few times over the years before Pop died. The last time being just a few months before that happened. 

As I said before, I spent three months in Brazil earlier this year, for the first time in about 38 years. I spent most of it staying with Gilda and her family in Rio. It was really something to finally get to know everyone so well. And long overdue. 

One day not long after I got there, Gilda, Lena and I went to visit Pop’s grave together. No tears were shed, but there was a strange solemn-ness to it all. It was a bit cumbersome even finding the gravesite, but we managed. He had asked to be buried with our grandmother. Unfortunately, due to cemetery rules, only one name is allowed on the marker, so Pop’s name is nowhere to be seen. Nonetheless, it was good see his final resting place, in a bittersweet way. 

Gilda, who speaks better English these days (compared to my still-horrific Portuguese), turns and says to me with a smile…

“He’s happy you’re here.” 

Gilda and Me at Pop's gravesite...

Gilda and Me at Pop’s gravesite…



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