While my mother, immobilized by vertigo, lay stretched like a corpse on the bed in our Manhattan hotel room, my father and I went to the top of the Empire State building. It was the spring of 1954, and we were on a two-day layover on the week-long airplane trip from Barcelona to Quito.
“Why is she sick?” I asked my father as we walked down Fifth Avenue.
“It’s because she’s sad that we left Barcelona,” he said.
Sad! What was there to be sad about? Weren’t we going on a fabulous adventure to South America, one even more thrilling than those of Hernán Cortés, Ponce de León and Francisco Pizarro? And hadn’t my mother, driven to distraction by the monotony of her housewifely existence, been the principal force behind my father’s acceptance of the Ecuadorian government’s invitation to found the country’s first string quartet? There was no room for emotional ambivalence in my ten-year-old heart. I couldn’t understand that my mother, who had wanted to go on this escapade as much as I had, could also feel regret at leaving her family behind.
For the next three years, while we lived in Quito, my mother oscillated between breathless excitement at the exoticism of it all–snow-capped volcanoes! endless jungles! head-hunting tribes!—and elaborate bouts of homesickness.
I never quite understood what was going on with her, but I sensed that the homesick role was hers to play. By contrast, I sought to distinguish myself by adopting a mask of stoicism. Tears and complaints were not for me–I wasn’t a baby anymore, nor was I sentimental, like a woman. I preferred to mimic my father, and leave the tragic persona to my mother.
And yet, how could I not have been homesick? But nobody asked if I was, and when confronted with my mother’s articulate depictions of her nostalgia, I assumed that mine, if it existed, couldn’t hold a candle to hers.
True, I was sheltered by my parents’ reassuring presence. But once the excitement of being in a foreign place wore off and life settled into a routine, how could I not miss the rhythms of my existence in Catalonia, where each month was marked by some festival, its ritual, and its accompanying dessert?
January was the month when the Three Kings brought me presents and we ate the marzipan-stuffed tortell de reis. February 12th was the feast of Saint Eulalia, and my mother bought ensaïmadas from the bakery in my honor. On March 19th, the feast of Saint Joseph, my aunts made crema catalana in celebration of my grandfather. In April, for Easter, my godmother gave me the mona de Pasqua, a cake topped with chocolate eggs. In May, the month of Our Lady, we ate strawberries. And all summer-long, at my grandparents’ farm, we feasted on melons, peaches, and pears so ripe that their juices ran down my chin and soaked the front of my cotton dress.
All this was gone. And so was the tutelary presence of my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, great-aunts and great-uncles, who had revolved like planets around my sunny childhood, and whose affection, interest, and willingness to entertain me I had taken for granted, just as an infanta assumes the devotion of her courtiers. But that wasn’t all. In the constant hubbub of our extended family, the to-and-fro of visits and phone calls, the telling and retelling of stories, gossip, opinions, advice, and concerns, my relatives had absorbed some of my mother’s emotional energy and distracted her from her focus on me.
Now, without her sisters to argue and shop with, her parents to worry about, and her in-laws to visit, my mother’s attentive gaze, when she wasn’t soaking fruits in permanganate or boiling milk to kill the tropical parasites that threatened us daily, was directed at me. And what she saw was in need of improvement. My baby charms were fading fast, and I was morphing into an icon of preadolescent awkwardness. I was a work in progress, and my mother girded her loins for the challenges that lay ahead.
|My mother and I in Quito, 1954|