It did not matter that a man was pushing a long, industrial duster across the floor near where I stood. Or that he began moving loud, leggy chairs into a circle, preparing for a gathering in the meeting room of a small Columbia church.
What mattered was a collection of bright paintings hung along a wall in the room. And what really mattered, at least to me, was the artist’s palette, displayed alongside the artwork. It was covered in thick, colorful peaks of dried oil paint – a compelling mix of color, imagination and joy.
It was here that I was finally able to meet Frank Cabrera – artist, linguist, musician, chemistry professor, world traveler, dear and devoted friend, and a man who, in 1963, arrived in Columbia after escaping Communism in his beloved homeland of Cuba.
I had meant to meet Frank last week, at the nursing home room where he was in hospice care, living out the last days of his remarkable, 90-year life. Something came up on my end, so I rescheduled the interview for this past Monday.
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But Frank died Sunday afternoon.
Said friend Maria Carrero: “There were four of us in the room with Frank … and we can honestly say his passing was peaceful as the angels came to take him home.”
Frank was born Dec. 8, 1924, in THE town of Remedios, near the northern shore of Cuba.
As a child, he learned to play the guitar and the violin. He painted and studied science. In 1942, he earned an undergraduate degree and in 1949, received a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Havana. He became a professor of chemistry while still living in Cuba, but in 1963, he and his parents fled the island for Mexico.
“Frank’s family was well-to-do and did lose their home and land, leaving for Mexico and then coming to Columbia when a friend at Benedict College arranged a faculty position for Frank in chemistry,” said friend Emerson Smith.
“Frank was never openly bitter about Cuba. He loved Cuba, as his homeland, and America at the same time … He always spoke about the beauty of the island, of the people and of the food.”
Frank, who lived in an apartment near Five Points, taught at Benedict for 23 years. “Frank talked about the students he had at Benedict and how he was so proud of them,” said friend Joseph McManus.
And while teaching was his profession, art was his passion. His paintings – executed in pastels and oils – hark back to the bright colors of his homeland. He explained his work on the first page of a booklet about the art show, which he never got a chance to see, but which is hanging at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia church at the corner of Heyward and Woodrow streets.
“For more than 50 years I am an American. I love America and am grateful for all the love America has given me. However, when I dream, I dream in Cuban. I dream of carefree days in my beautiful hometown of Remedios, Cuba. I can never forget the horrible experience of Communist Cuba. In Remedios I learned to love beauty in music, art, science and life … I have had an amazing life. I have enjoyed all things beautiful and have painted things that inspire me.”
Frank, a lifelong bachelor, was unable to attend the opening reception of his art show. On March 1, a friend found him lying on the floor of his apartment. He had fallen three days earlier and couldn’t get to a telephone. Rehabilitation and pneumonia followed.
And then hospice.
Smith, and his wife, Kathy, visited Frank several hours before he died.
“I brought a laptop for him to see the arrangement of his paintings and pastels – and to see who was at the reception the night before,” Smith said. “I also brought a small Cuban flag in a stand. He seemed unable to pay attention to the video. But, when I showed him the flag, he opened his eyes wide and said brightly, ‘Ahhh!’ ”
So, as I reach the end of a story about a man I never met, I am afraid of leaving things out. He loved to eat vegetables at Lizard’s Thicket. Every night, he fixed a Cuban-style meal for himself.
He was tall and skinny. He strolled around Five Points with a simple walking stick, wearing a traditional Cuban shirt called a guayabera. He spoke many languages. He was a novelist. He traveled extensively. He loved to play his guitar at parties.
And, he was a friend.
Not just to those in a local Latin American group called “Amigos Hispanos.” Or to those in his several book clubs. But to many others, including a postal clerk at the Five Points post office with whom, I’m told, he had lunch with once a week.
Carrero called Frank a “considerate and noble friend.”
“My father passed away on Jan. 29, 2015,” she said, “and Frank was at the Funeral Mass. After the Mass, I was walking towards my car and I heard a gentle voice calling my name. As I turned I saw Frank slowly making his way toward me. His presence that day made such an impact upon me. Here this 90-year-old man was kind and thoughtful enough to come to my father’s funeral.”
Know of a story that needs telling? Email email@example.com. McInerney is a writer whose novel, “Journey Proud,” is based upon growing up in Columbia in the early 60s.