The last time I saw her I was in my sixties, and she in her eighties. “I’m the one who taught you to read, remember?”she said. “It was the summer when you were three years old. Your mother didn’t think I could do it.”
She was the older of my mother’s two younger sisters, and we called her Xin. That long-ago summer she and I sat on the sun-warmed roof terrace of my grandparents’ farm house, looking at an alphabet book. The next thing I remember is the two of us again sitting on the terrace, but this time she is holding the newspaper. She points to a paragraph, and somehow the letters suddenly cohere into words that I can say out loud. “See?” she says, “I told you it would be easy.”
In the summers that followed she regaled me with the best in children’s literature, translated into Spanish: The Wind in the Willows, The Jungle Book, Mary Poppins, Little Women. I didn’t much like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, because I found Evangeline, the plantation owner’s daughter, too virtuous. My favorite was a series of books by a Spanish author about Matonkikí, a little girl with crossed eyes like me. Unlike me, Matonkikí felt free to do whatever came into her head, regardless of consequences. I found this fascinating, and I envied her with all my heart.
Long before Xin taught me to read, she recited poems until I memorized them. The earliest one was in Catalan, about an old shepherd who lay dying on a bed of dry moss. When she got to the part where his sheep wept because he could no longer take care of them, I would shriek for her to stop before I too burst into tears. Together we declaimed poems by nineteenth-century Spanish romantics, and a lot of Lorca which I didn’t quite understand, about the moon, gypsies, and the color green.
But her stories were best. Some she adapted for my age and powers of concentration—I heard about Gulliver and the Lilliputians before I could walk–and others she made up. One was triggered by the buzz that her bedside radio made as she tried to tune to a distant station. She said that there was a mosquito living inside the set, and whenever I was allowed to take a nap with her, she would turn on the radio and tell me about the mosquito’s adventures.
She taught Spanish history and literature in my school, in the upper grades, and one of my few regrets when we left for South America was that I would never have her as a teacher. When, five years later, we returned to Spain for the summer, I was plump, pimply, and self-conscious. She took me to a fabric store, selected a cheerful cotton print and sewed me a sleeveless dress, cinched at the waist and with a full skirt, in which I felt less awkward. One day, as I was on my way to a dance wearing the dress, she called me into her room and secretly applied an almost invisible smear of pink on my lips. But it wasn’t invisible enough for the watchful eyes of my mother, who made me wipe it off.
|Xin\’s dress, and some residual awkwardness|
It took me a long time to realize that, from birth, Xin was engaged in a struggle with my mother for the alpha spot among the siblings. Of course she loved me for myself, but in her sustained efforts to make sure that I adored her, to teach me to read, and to broaden my horizons, there was also a tinge of rivalry with her dominant older sister. I imagine that when we took off for the New World she must have heaved a sigh of relief.
|My parents and Xin (and me in the pram) in Barcelona. Note that both my mother and Xin have their hands on the handle.|
Xin wasn’t her real name. When she would come home from school and find me in my crib, I was so delighted to see her that my cheeks would bunch up and my eyes almost disappear as I laughed, giving me a supposedly Asian look. “Xineta! Xineta!”(“little Chinese!”) she would coo, and one of my first words was Xin, which then became her nickname.
She died last week, just short of a century old, on the feast of the Epiphany. I imagine the three Magi, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, hoisting her onto one of their camels and carrying her off to their kingdom among the stars.