Valet, limo driver, car salesman, loan officer, tax consultant – these are some of the many jobs my dad has had over the last 20 years in Chicago. I’ve grown so accustomed to seeing him with some variation of black slacks, a white button-up, and a tie that it’s hard to imagine him doing anything but handling people’s cars or money.

A back-end view of the house my dad helped design.

But at a family reunion at my great-uncle’s house in Ecuador this summer, we got a moment away from the thirty or so family members who were gathered on the patio, and I caught a glimpse of his life before me. As we walked from the tents toward the house, my dad stopped, took a step back, and said, “I forgot I helped design this house.” He grinned at the house, at me, and back at the house. And all I could say was, “I forgot that you designed houses.”

It was an incredible sight; a mahogany-wood mansion with a wrap-around porch on stilts ideal for admiring Ecuadorian sunsets, and a greenhouse in the family’s living space with a pair of eucalyptus trees shooting out through the roof’s open windows. The smell of the lemon trees in the yard wafted in with the scent of mahogany, a combination of smells that my dad would surely miss the second the plane left Quito’s tarmac for yet another time.

As my dad surveyed the house he helped create over 20 years ago, I surveyed my dad. He wore his Car Credit Outlet jacket (perfect for Quito’s nighttime chills) and gazed at what seemed to represent a long-lost dream. I felt powerfully ambivalent, overtaken by the contrast of this home with our own small apartment back in Chicago, and of my dad’s divided life.

Growing up in Quito, Ecuador, he had a knack for working on cars and a passion for studying architecture. After marrying his high school sweetheart and trying to juggle college and work, he decided there was a more urgent need to provide for my mom and my sister. He left the university four years into his schooling, with only a semester left to graduate as an architect.

With a pressing need for cash, he waited until after my birth and came looking for work in Chicago, where the houses are but a few feet apart and in-home eucalyptus greenhouses are a violation of housing codes. My mom, sister, and I stayed behind in Quito while he saved enough cash to bring us over. The day he decided to leave Ecuador would mark the end of his career as an architect. His language barrier and lack of a degree in the U.S. would make sure of it.

I still see the house he designed and fix on the look of excitement on his face when he saw that the stilts still held strong.  I can imagine him doing something other than mortgage financing and tax consulting. I inhale, and smell the aromatic mix of lemon tree and mahogany. I look beyond the black slacks, white shirt and tie, and recapture that young architect who gave it all up to come to America.