My father gestured to the pile of books on the coffee table. “Take them away,” he said to my mother in a subdued tone. “I’m done.”
My mother recounted this scene a few weeks after my father, Michael Augustine Olivas (his Americanized name), passed away. She’d known what “I’m done” meant. My father understood that his battle with lung disease was coming to an end. He died about a week after giving up on his favorite pastime, reading.
I found myself wondering about this son of Mexican immigrants who used books to expand his world even as he and my mother confronted economic and other struggles in raising five children through the 1950s and well into the ’70s. Books were a lifeline for my father, offering boundless ideas, art and beauty.
One of his prized possessions was a tattered copy of The Complete Romances of Voltaire, a gift from his father-in-law, Daniel Velasco Flores, the man I am named after. The book was his way of saying: You are now part of the family. This was an act of great moment, my father had told me, because my grandfather was not, at first, very accepting of this handsome, somewhat cocksure young man who had married his eldest daughter. But eventually he came around, and Voltaire served as his unofficial seal of approval.
Twain, Hemingway, Maugham and Cather were my father’s companions while, as a young man not yet out of his teens, he fought in a war he did not fully understand—if there is a way to understand most wars.
My father had often said that reading helped him survive his time as a Marine fighting overseas during the Korean War. Twain, Hemingway, Maugham and Cather were my father’s companions while, as a young man not yet out of his teens, he fought in a war he did not fully understand—if there is a way to understand most wars. When he returned home in 1952, he resumed courting his high school sweetheart, got married, worked in a factory, and became a father to five children.
But he and my mother were hungry for something else, something more intellectual. So, in the mid-1960s, they both attended community college and majored in psychology. They became teachers in the Head Start program. My mother eventually opened her own preschool in our predominantly Mexican American community, and my father continued his formal education, which led to a decidedly white-collar job with the Southern California Rapid Transit District. He always took pride in his ability to write reports in clear, precise English. The authors he loved had taught him the importance of thematic clarity and the power of a well-crafted sentence.
I recently received word from a university press that my latest collection of short stories was accepted for publication. That book is dedicated to my father, the man who taught his children the immeasurable pleasure—and importance—of reading widely, voraciously and with an open heart.
Daniel A. Olivas, ’81, is an attorney, a playwright, and the author of 10 books, including the forthcoming How to Date a Flying Mexican: New and Collected Stories. Email him at email@example.com.