for Salvador Brac Bidaure (1925–2019)

Sal Bidaure (born 1925, The Philippines) was the husband of one my mom’s five sisters, Chi-Chi (nee Ester), who was clearly the rebel in the family. Chi-Chi was the drinker, the smoker, the one who cursed, the one who’d been obsessed with Elvis. She had a crackly, cynical voice, a biting sense of humor, and in short, was way cooler than my parents were.

For years, I’d heard my mother make references to my Auntie Chi’s husband, my Uncle Sal, “the artist,” and at some point, I understood that he had a job painting signs on the big Air Force base on Guam (where a lot of my mom’s family still lived). Then, when I was still in elementary school, two of Sal and Chi’s kids, my cousins Roni and Shirley suddenly came to live with us in Connecticut, and despite the fact that I was a holy terror, bugging and teasing them, rummaging through their personal stuff and generally being disgusting, I looked up to both of them immensely.

One of the things that impressed me about my cousins was that whenever I heard them talk about their father, I noticed they would get a twinkle in their eyes. It was similar to the twinkle that I would get when I talked about Garfield or Skor bars, but it was also obviously much deeper. This was about their dad! And they were teenagers! They seemed to think he was some kind of hero. I had to wonder what kind of guy he was to elicit that sort of reaction.

Then, the summer after seventh grade, Uncle Sal and Auntie Chi finally came to town for a visit. I’d met Chi-Chi before, but this was my first time meeting Sal. He was cool looking, kind of like the wise old turtle from The Neverending Story. He was older than I’d pictured, very tan, with small, wise eyes, and an easy smile. Upon entering the house, he gave me a high-five and said, “Hey! Ryan! What’s up, man?” and I liked him immediately. He just seemed so easy-going. He didn’t seem concerned with the same things that other grown-ups did. He seemed wiser than that; like he’d seen too much by this point to get riled up over silly human drama.

During that trip, Uncle Sal set up an easel in the guest room where he and my aunt were staying and after a bit of discussion, began working on painting a portrait of the four members of my nuclear family. It was so exciting! He even asked if we would sit for him, like real models. I couldn’t believe it! I was going to be immortalized in a painting! Regular old uncomfortable me!

I managed to keep myself from peeking at it all week, despite being really excited. I told my friends all about it, I even looked at myself in the mirror differently. I’d been in a few of the school plays, so I thought I was used to performing, but this was different. This was a painting. Paintings were forever.

After a week of painting, once everyone had sat for him, and after great anticipation had built up, on Friday night, the portrait was finally going to be unveiled, just before we all ate dinner.

The group of us gathered around the dining room table, where the easel was positioned, he brought down the canvas and set it down, unveiling his work. I was stunned. Speechless. The painting was obviously good, very skillfully done, but the caricature of me was less-than-flattering, to say the least. I was standing next to my brother, grinning, with my buzz cut and pot belly, holding a football helmet and wearing shoulder pads. I looked terrible. I wasn’t handsome, wasn’t skinny, I wasn’t as an actor or a musician — I was some football-playing little rotundo.

I took a breath and examined the rest of the painting. My father was dressed in a business suit, holding a briefcase, and sporting his signature poof of curly brown hair, my mom was also dressed for work, in a light blue blazer and skirt, her hip jutting out to one side, and my brother was tall and skinny with small eyes and a baseball bat over his shoulder. Which made sense because he played baseball. And then there was me. The homunculus of Pop Warner. I was so mad at this Uncle Sal. He hadn’t captured me at all! I glowered at the painting, trying to change it with my rage-filled stare. In the meantime, everyone started clapping, my dad shook Sal’s hand and my mom gave him a hug. I sat there staring at it, with my eyes hardened all throughout dinner.

Now to be fair, I was planning on playing Pop Warner football later that summer, for the first (and last) time in my life. At the time, I was about forty lbs overweight, and my dad, being the sensible American believer that he is, thought that playing Pop Warner would be the perfect way to take some of that weight off, so we’d agreed that I would play that year and give it a try. Now, I’ve never been great at any sports, but when I was younger, some of the easier ones like soccer and baseball, I’d managed to either find something graceful about or had at least figured out how to avoid exerting myself. Football on the other hand, was someone else’s world. To this day, I’ve never watched more than five minutes of a football game. And it’s certainly never felt like part of my personality. It did manage to help me lose some weight that year, but the extent of my football career was playing in one game, where I rushed the team’s defense line and was promptly knocked onto my ass. And there’s footage, too. And yes, it’s just as good as you’d think it was.

That painting of my family by Uncle Sal hung in my parents’ living room, just above their computer desk, up until two years ago, when my parents finally moved out of their house and Connecticut for good. In other words, throughout high school, college, and my 20s and 30s, whenever a visitor would come to the house, they would see Uncle Sal’s family portrait and inevitably ask, “When did you play football?”

Over the years I’ve gone through many different phases of learning how to deal with that question with humor that was either self-effacing: “My uncle just thought that all fat American kids played football,” deadpan: “I play football all day long, didn’t you know? I’m the captain of the football club…team.” or surrealist: “We’re playing football right now, remember? You just scored. You owe me a poster.”

And I would’ve resented the painting even more, of course…if it weren’t for two things:

1. It was a nicely done piece of work, and peopled with solid caricatures of my family. The squinty confidence on my father’s face. The nervous imbalance in my mother’s stance. The faraway stare in my brother’s eyes. My own devilish grin…they were all spot on.

2. It was always a great way to show off the fact that I had a real live professional artist in my family, which I was always quite proud of.

Later, when I was 19, I had just finished a year at NYU acting school and for a number of reasons, I had decided that I wasn’t going back to school in the fall. The main reason was that I’d decided that as an artist, I needed to have some experiences under my belt, a better sense of what the world was like, and not just of my parents’ house and a dorm room. So like a lot of 19-year-olds, I decided to go traveling, to meet people, to work a few jobs, to get some dirt under my fingernails. But before I took off for the American West, my mother asked if I would accompany her to the Philippines and Guam for a few weeks. She was going to visit family, and since I was free, she invited me to be her traveling companion. I hadn’t been since there I was 7 years old, and so I agreed.

That trip was a lot of things…a chance to hang with my cousins, an opportunity to think about my heritage, a drunken escapade, a cross-cultural adventure, but there’s one moment from that trip that’s stuck with me more than any other.

It was the second morning we were on Guam. I had a horrible hangover from drinking with my cousins, so I groggily wandered through the kitchen of Sal and Chi’s house to grab a soda from the fridge and sit down at their kitchen table with my head in my hands. Within moments, I was joined by my Uncle Sal, who set down his copy of The Pacific Daily News and cup of coffee and started chatting me up.

“So I hear you’re an artist, man.”

“Um…kind of…I’ve been into theatre for awhile and I just started writing more. I mean, that’s what I’m interested in now. Writing. I’m a writer now.”

“That’s cool, man. That’s cool. I’ve been an artist for almost sixty years now did you know?”

“Oh that’s — wow. That’s- so when did you start?”

“Well, during the war, you know, I was taken from my parents. The Japanese invaded Manila, man, and they took me as a prisoner of war, to work on one of their battleships. I was on that ship for three years, sleeping in the hold, not being fed much, and then…when the war was over, the Americans liberated me, but they just left me on another part of The Philippines and I couldn’t get home! So then I was stuck living in the street in one of the provinces. But I met up with a group of street kids, you know, kids who just begged for change, or figured out how we were going to eat from day to day…and then one day, one of them said that there was an artist who was hiring kids to help him in the studio. So I went over there, and he taught me how to stretch canvases, and how to clean the brushes, and I did all the things for him that he needed me to do. And then, after a long time of working with him there, one day, he told me that he no longer needed me, and that it was time for me to go home. And that guy bought me a ticket to get on the boat to go home. But when I got home, there was nobody from my family that was still there! They had all moved away! But luckily I ran into someone that I used to know from the neighborhood who told me where my parents was, and it took me some time to find them, but then I did. I’d been away from home for over four years at that point. But I’d become an artist. And that’s what I decided I was going to do for the rest of my life.”

Salvador Brac Bidaure passed away on April 21, 2019. He was an accomplished artist, a beloved father, and a celebrated member of his community in Yigo, Guam. He is succeeded by four children, six grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. They will cherish his memory as well as all of his artwork, as will the author.



Meditations on seeing and being seen.

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