Saturday, January 15, 1986…
It was a dark, cold winter evening in the Back of the Yards- neighborhood of Chicago.
About a week past- on January 6 – we had celebrated my little sister’s birthday and El Dia De Los Reyes (Three Kings’ Day). For some Puerto Ricans, this day is more significant than Christmas. They believe that the 25th of December is a prelude, and the actual start of the “12 days of Christmas,” which ends on January 6 – the day the kings arrived bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
My family- mom, dad, sister and I – were sitting around our wooden dinning room table eating a typical Puerto Rican dinner comprised of carne frita, arroz blanco, habichuelas, y tostones (fried pork with white rice, beans and fried plantain slices).
As I write, I can see my plate – the reddish brown sauce of the beans running into the white rice, the crispy pork pieces cooked to perfection, and the fried plantains sprinkled with garlic and salt.
I can smell and taste the rich aroma of the seasons- adobo, sazon, and sofrito.
The sight of my mom’s Puerto Rican food will always be engraved in my head.
I usually lacked patience when I had to wait to eat my mom’s delicious home cooked meals. My mom was adamant about eating dinner together as family, and my dad usually didn’t arrive home from his factory job until 6:45pm.
So, there we were having our dinner together in the dinning room. As my parent’s talked about their day, the old, monster sized radiator -that warmed our second floor, two bedroom apartment- rattled and hummed behind us.
On top of the radiator was a bent, steel pot filled with water. It’s job was to help limit the dry air produced by the radiator.
To add to the ambiance, the walls were covered with a hideous wallpaper- the pattern was made of three different sized tan circles, that were connected by dark brown lines, set on a cream colored background. It screamed of the 70’s.
The wall phone located in the kitchen rang.
My mom answered the phone.
Babe, it’s your father. He really needs to talk to you.
My dad didn’t like to be interrupted during dinner – especially after a twelve hour work shift – but he heard the urgency in my mom’s voice.
I knew it was something serious, because my mom didn’t return to the dinning room. She stood in the kitchen with my dad.
As my sister and I continued enjoying our dinner, I could hear part of the conversation.
“Pai, no jodes (Dad, don’t mess me).”
“Esta diciendo la verdad? (Are you telling the truth?)”
“Ya vamos! Quedate donde estas y no te muevas! (We are coming over. Stay where you are and don’t move.)”
My dad hung up the phone. But I can hear them whispering.
“My dad says he won the lottery. I don’t believe it, but that is what he is saying.”
My dad also played the lottery. He would watch it on TV, and write the winning numbers down, because he wouldn’t be able to check his tickets until after dinner.
But my grandfather on the other hand…
His occupation was gambling.
He was a very poor, poor man living in a huge house with 6 bedrooms. (For a more detailed and elaborate description of this amazing house, please read my blog post- “Not all that Glitters is Gold.”)
To help pay for the bills, his drinking and gambling addictions, he would rent out the bedrooms.
As soon as he received his social security check in the mail, or the rent money from his renters, he would pay the horse races a visit, buy scratch tickets, and/or play the lottery.
But this time around, the money for purchasing the lottery ticket came from my grandmother, who received it from my mom, for babysitting my sister and me.
Within minutes of the phone call, I was sitting in my grandfather’s living room with my sister, mother, and grandmother.
My grandfather and my dad went upstairs to the attic dormer – my grandmother’s bedroom.
My grandfather took the “quick pick ticket”- random numbers selected by the machine – out of the drawer and showed it to my father.
7, 12, 22, 28, 37, 28
Once my dad saw the numbers with his own eyes, he knew my grandfather had the winning ticket in his hand.
For many years, my dad carried that winning ticket in his wallet, until it withered to nothing but a shred of paper.
When I asked my dad about that day, he told me that at first he didn’t believe my grandfather.
“You see, my dad was such a jokester. He always would say that he was going to win the lottery. But I was always like yeah, okay.”
His winnings were $7 million dollars. Within days, another winner came forward. Together they had to split the winnings- $3.5 million a piece.
My grandfather didn’t want a lump sum, he opted for $156,000 for 20 years. He also choose to keep his identity private, so he didn’t pose for a picture with the big, fake check.
Once all the legal matters were settled, which took a couple of months he left his house in the Back of the Yards, and moved to Puerto Rico.
Two of his children decided to follow him to Puerto Rico, so he bought them houses. My dad choose to stay in Chicago, because my mom didn’t want to leave her parents.
Shortly after the winnings, our apartment was robbed. I recall them not taking much. However, the apartment looked like an earthquake hit it.
Drawers were pulled out and their contents were thrown everywhere, the sofa cushions were tossed across the room, the sofas were turned over to their sides, and the mattresses were flipped up against the walls.
The robbers were looking for money- my grandfather’s lottery money.
I do remember them taking my jar of coins. It was filled with regular everyday quarters and half dollar and dollar coins from my grandfather. He had a thing for half dollar and dollar coins.
After this incident, my parents knew it was time for us to move, so my dad and mom purchased a house in the Marquette neighborhood.
My grandfather purchased my dad a new car, and gave him a significant amount of money for him to invest in our new home.
In the fall of 1994, I was in my dorm townhouse at Northern Illinois University, when the kitchen wall phone rang.
It was my father, and he had horrible news for me.
My grandfather had been murdered in the Dominican Republic by a group of robbers.
He was beaten to death.
At that moment, I couldn’t be with my family to mourn my grandfather’s death, so I decide to do the next best thing.
I cooked Puerto Rican rice for the very first time.
It was food for my soul.
When my grandfather died, his eldest daughter- Socorro became the executer of his estate. Unfortunately, some shady business occurred with the lawyers in Puerto Rico, and they walked away with majority of the money.
Like most “rag to riches” and lottery winning stories, the surplus of money didn’t make my grandfather a better person, or fix his problems.
If anything, the money presented opportunities for him to live a much more destructive life- filled with partying, drinking, and even more gambling.
He eventually left my grandmother, and moved to the Dominican Republic with a woman half his age, who was after his money, more than she was pursuing his heart.
He died a gruesome death, and the rest of his money pretty much vanished into thin air, because of corrupted lawyers.
Today, I don’t participate in the frenzy of the lottery. Last week, a jackpot was up to over $500 Million, and I didn’t feel the need or desire to buy a ticket.
The bible says “ for the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” 1 Timothy 6:10
I do believe that money is neutral. It can be a blessing or a curse. I would say, it comes down to what is in the heart of the person who controls it.
I think I can vouch for my family when I say that we would have preferred more years with my grandfather here on earth with us, than the money he won.
“Who loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless.” Ecclesiastes 5:10
“Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have, because God has said “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” Hebrews 13:5