By CELESTE LE´ON | Moonshine Ink
“So, why do you want to write about me,” my 80-year-old father asked 10 years ago when I began to interview him for a novel based on his life.
Why indeed. My father’s humble response shows what kind of man he is.
In 1944, my father, Ramón León, was 19 and had a hunch, a premonition of a number to play in the Puerto Rican lottery. Spending all the money he saved since he was a boy, he bought a full sheet of tickets for $6, an exorbitant sum then. The amazing thing was that he won the jackpot. What’s more remarkable is what happened after.
The money gave him the means to keep a promise he made years before to the people of his village of Maunabo: To become a dentist and establish their first clinic. At the time, Puerto Rico had no dental school and very few dentists. Barely speaking English, Ramón left his family (he was the 15th child) and traveled to the mainland United States to study dentistry. It was a tumultuous few years after winning $18,000, a fortune at that time. He bought a car that he nearly drove off a cliff (he didn’t have a license!), thwarted a few jealous people, and gave some money to his sister and each of his brothers. But he persevered and used his winnings to pay for most of his college and dental school. He earned a scholarship and briefly enrolled in the Army to finance the remaining amount.
My father had made his promise to an elderly healer, whom everyone in the village called humanitario. This kind man, a dentist from the mainland, lived in a small shack or bohío and treated villagers for free; he cured my dad of a terrible toothache when he was only 7. So my dad made a promise to his mentor, the humanitario: When he came of age, he would do the same. Thus, my father’s dream was born, set in motion by winning the lottery years later.
After becoming a dentist, Ramón returned to Puerto Rico to work at a free dental clinic. Before I was born, he and my mother returned to her home state of Massachusetts. My father established a dental practice there for more than 30 years.
And, a wonderful coincidence: A month before my novel’s release, a story I wrote back in 2006, A Lucky Man, that was a precursor to my novel and named finalist in a contest for The Preservation Foundation, was rediscovered by a resident of our town. She posted it on the Facebook page, “I grew up in Northboro, Massachusetts” and the outpouring of testimonials and memories from dad’s former patients was overwhelming, 25 years after he retired.
Comments on the site were: “He was the best dentist I’ve ever been to,” “A wonderful tribute to a great man — I wish I had known his story!” and “A dentist like no other.” One patient shared how my dad sent his assistant to pick her up when she didn’t own a car and one man told how Dr. León bartered for landscaping in lieu of payment for his large family. Another heartwarming story: My father saw a young man on a Sunday after he had a car accident and told his patient, “This is very serious, we need to get you to UMass Memorial Medical Center right away.” The man had a neck fracture that was treated immediately and saved him from permanent disability. One thing all his patients had in common: They missed their favorite dentist. My father, Dr. León, watched generations of kids grow up; when he retired, many of his patients cried.
One of my favorite comments was: “I loved having my teeth fixed while getting all kinds of advice and hearing his stories.” So, I suppose I inherited my love of storytelling from my father. The best part of my job as a physical therapist here in Truckee is to hear others’ stories, and I’ve been known to reply with a story or two. My novel, Luck is Just the Beginning, was released by Floricanto Press at Thanksgiving, strategically timed as my dad won the lottery on Thanksgiving day in 1944.
Epilogue: Ramón León just turned 90 and lives in Florida with my mom and his wife of 60 years. He often strolls down the street with a cane to join the local poker game at the senior center. He never bought another lottery ticket.