Here is what I think about these days when I feel isolated and frustrated:
1936. A turn-of-the-century apartment in Barcelona: living room, dining room, four bedrooms. A pared-down kitchen, no ice-box. One bathroom. No hot water or central heat. In this apartment live my father, his parents, his two younger sisters, and his older brother with his wife and two baby boys. And the maid, an orphan whom my grandparents took in many years ago. She sleeps on a cot in the kitchen.
The Spanish Civil War has broken out. My grandfather is an accountant in a cement company, but construction in all of Spain has come to a halt, so there isn’t much work for him. My grandmother sends the maid out to the shops every day, and makes do with what she brings back: bread and garlic and maybe a bit of hake or cod.
The older son used to have a job, but now has lymphoma and grows weaker by the day. Doctors and nurses are at the front, stitching wounds and amputating limbs, so he is cared for by his wife and his mother. His wife is a Mexican citizen. Like the Israelites smearing blood on their doors so the angel would spare their firstborns, the family has nailed a Mexican flag on the door of the apartment to deter the anarchist gangs that roam the city.
My father’s sisters are fifteen and twelve, and have to be kept mostly indoors because the streets are rife with soldiers. My father is twenty-two. Ever since his mother sat him on her lap and placed his fingers on the keyboard of the upright piano, music has been his life. A violinist, he is starting to make his way professionally.
Of all the family, he is the most endangered, more than the dying brother or the pubescent girls. Catalonia is in the grip of leftist furor. Centuries of deprivation have stoked hatred among the poor towards everyone and everything that smacks even remotely of privilege: the wealthy and the middle class, the great landowners and the farmers with a single field and a mule, and the church—priests good and bad, monks, nuns, former altar boys, and members of a Catholic organizations such as the Children of Mary.
In high-school my father belonged to the Children of Mary, along with the rest of his class. This now makes him subject to summary arrest and execution. One night his best friend, hiding in his own parents’ apartment, is dragged out from under the sofa and put on a truck headed for Montjuich, the hill overlooking the city where dozens are shot every day at dawn. But my father’s friend is charming, and on the way he strikes a conversation with the guard, who lowers the tailgate and lets him jump off.
As in every civil war, one is at the mercy of disaffected neighbors, disappointed rivals, the spiteful, the petty, and the just plain evil, any one of whom may take it into his or her head to nod in the direction of one’s hiding place. So my father has to stay in the apartment 24/7. Not only can he not go outdoors, he can’t stand on the balcony or close to a window. Not only may he not play the violin–that would give him away immediately–he has to speak softly and tread lightly, lest the downstairs tenants hear a man’s voice and footsteps while my grandfather and the elder son are out of the house.
What do they do, the ten of them, day after day in that apartment? There is a piano on which the girls practice their scales. There is a radio, but reception is poor. Otherwise there is nothing: no TV, no wi-fi, no working telephone, no books or magazines other than those already on the shelves. There are frequent blackouts.
There is always prayer, and they all say the rosary together every evening. And for my father there are buttons to paint, for a little income. It is fashionable at the time for women to wear large painted buttons made of tagua, an ivory-like plant material. So my young father sits by the window (but not too close) with a slender brush and some paints, and invents tiny bucolic scenes for women to wear on their chests. What, at twenty-two, does he make of women, now that the only ones he sees are his mother, the maid, his sisters, and his brother’s young wife in the bedroom next to his?
Food is the great issue. How to get it, how to apportion it. The decisions are in my grandmother’s hands. My grandfather needs nourishment so he can continue to work, as does the maid. The girls are still growing. The daughter-in-law is pregnant or nursing. Now that his cancer is progressing, the older son doesn’t want to eat much, but he must be encouraged nevertheless. And my father—how to satisfy the hunger of a twenty-two-year-old man? Fortunately, he doesn’t get any exercise, so that helps.
At night the family gathers around the table, a candle flickering in the center because the electricity has been cut off.
“Here, take this bread. I’m not feeling very hungry.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it. It’s yours. Please eat it…”
They go to bed early to keep warm, but before retiring they file into the kitchen, one by one, and down several glasses of water. This is to give their stomachs the illusion of fullness, so they can fall asleep.
The war lasts three years.
|My father, aged 21, the year before the war|