A WORK OF FICTION 5

Every life writes its own Work of Fiction (anonymous)

1615 JEAN (I)

Usquain, a miniscule village in south-western France, is much smaller than Hadleigh, so much smaller, in fact, that many people have never even heard of it. In 1842, it was politically and demographically joined to a nearby locality called Tabaille and since has been known as Tabaille-Usquain which in 2006 had a population of 53 people with a density of 12 sq. kms/per person. As a matter of fact, the only reason anyone at all might have heard of Usquain is because the Domecq family originated there and anyone in England, Spain or France who drinks sherry or brandy or is into bullfighting or thoroughbred horses has heard of the Domecq family.

Newspaper Usquain 001According to Paul Raymond (see Wikipedia), a French archivist and historian born in 1833, Usquain in the year of 1385 was composed of twelve families and belonged to the territory (canton) of Sauveterre. Actually, the 12 families were spread out over something called La Veguerie de Campagne de Usquain, with the word ‘veguerie’ meaning a group of counties or districts within the ‘countryside’ of Usquain. So it is possible that the 12 families in the list never saw, or perhaps had never even heard, of one another. The inhabitants of Usquain were vassals to the viscount of Bearn up until the time that this region was absorbed by France. Raymond continues: “Usquain is the cradle of the Domecq family, dynasty of wine producers and merchants and raisers of brave bulls in Jerez de la Frontera.”

It was neither a big cradle, nor a rich one and today all that is left is a large abandoned house that supposedly belonged to the Domecqs and is at present claimed by some 200 20130718_171154squabbling descendants thanks to the impossible French inheritance laws. It is crumbling and surrounded by a thick wall of brambles that in summer produce tiny, edible blackberries; the building itself is probably past the point of recovery. There are two smaller houses –one with a barn-like structure attached to it- inhabited by a pair of sisters from Granada, Spain and their families (it is anyone’s guess what they are doing there). Across the patch of dirt that serves as a parking lot for occasional visitors, lays a Iglesia Usquainfourth house next to the chapel; this house is also crumbling. The chapel was apparently built sometime during the 19th century by someone from the Domecq family, probably my great-great grandfather or uncle. The door is open and one can go in and somebody is keeping it up. A sign on the door lists three priests and their phone numbers for emergencies, and the times when servicesgravestone are held elsewhere. There is a graveyard beside the chapel, and on one very old gravestone lying on the ground next to the chapel wall, the name DOMEC (the original spelling) can still be made out. There are four gravestones lying together, but the others have long since given over their letters to the elements.

Casa vieja 2 (3)The first time I visited Usquain, someone took me, but the second time I went alone. Back then there was a smaller house built of stone behind the Domecq building; it has since been torn down. One stone to the right of the front door had the words ICI VI DOMEC and the year 1662 PIEDRA DOMEC 1662written under them. One may presume that the “stone house” was, at one time, the main house and might even have been where Jean Domecq was born in 1615.[1]

The year of Jean’s birth is even more uncertain than that of Elizabeth Smyth for it has been calculated by taking the year of his first born son’s marriage (1666), subtracting more or less 25 years for his son which is estimated as the age at which men in those days married and then 25 years for his own marriage (estimated in 1640-41 more or less) to arrive at 1615-16 as his birth year.

Apart from this, we can’t even say if Jean was a Huguenot or not (couldn’t resist that one), or if the Domecq family continued being Catholic in spite of the Wars of Religion which raged across France from 1562 to 1598. Apparently, the Huguenots –like their pope piuscounterparts in England- believed that the Catholic Church needed radical cleansing of its impurities and that Pope Pius IV, ruler of a worldly kingdom, sat in tyranny over the things of God determining who was saint and who was sinner as if on a hotline to the Divine.

The Huguenots managed to rally a considerable army and cavalry; their strength and wealth grew when they allied themselves to Henry of Navarre and the House of Bourbon. At the height of their movement, the Protestant Huguenots dominated around sixty fortified cities and posed a serious threat to the Catholic crown and Paris.

Never ones to be less than the English in any way, the French also had their own bloody Mary I Queen of England, Bloody MaryMary to persecute their own Protestants. In 1559, King Francis II and with his wife, Mary Queen of Scots, came to power. During the eighteen months of her husband’s reign, Mary Mary Queen of Scots, Regent to Francis II of Franceencouraged a rounding up of French Huguenots on charges of heresy, employing torture and burning as punishments for dissenters from the one true religion. This Mary, however, would pay for her crimes. She returned to Scotland a widow in the summer of 1561 and later, after 18 years of imprisonment, was executed by her half-sister Elizabeth I of England.

The same year as Mary’s widowhood, the Edict of Orléans declared an end to the persecution and formally recognized the Huguenots for the first time. As usual, the official position did nothing in reality but mask the growing tension between Protestants and Catholics which broke out in eight civil wars between 1562 and 1598. In 1589, Henry of Navarre became Henry IV of France and, having officially recanted Protestantism in favor of Roman Catholicism, issued the Edict of Nantes which declared Catholicism as the state religion, but granted Protestants equality with Catholics and a degree of religious and political freedom within their domains. With this he ended the so-called Wars of Religión.

Interestingly enough, one of the Huguenots principal domains was the Bearn region in the southwest of France, within which lies Usquain. As the Catholic chapel which stands there today was a much later addition to the small gathering of houses, there is no way of knowing what religion, if any, was practiced by the family of Jean Domecq in 1615 when he was born.Henry IV

The “Good King Henry’s” dance between the two religions, however, was not appreciated by either side. Considered a usurper by some Catholics and a traitor by some Protestants, he suffered at least 12 assassination attempts. In the end, it was a fanatical Catholic who finally finished the job in the year of 1610.

By 1620, when Jean was just turning five, the Huguenots found themselves on the defensive once more; between 1621 and 1629 in southwestern France three small civil wars broke out against the royal authority. There is nothing to prove that these, in any way, touched Jean who was undoubtedly in the process of reaching adolescence and learning the trade of his father, which was tending to the land, though perhaps not working it with his own hands due to the domenjadure (see The Project) or nobility of the land.

Around 1640, Jean de Domecq married Marie Darindolle (of whom we also know absolutely nothing) and one can suppose that by 1641 they had given birth to their first son, Jean de Domecq and Darindolle. There apparently was a second son, called Pierre, but nothing is known of him other than his birth.

louis xvi  2In 1643, when Louis XIV (le Roi-Soleil or Sun King), ascended to the throne, he wasn’t so ‘Sunny’. He began an increasingly aggressive campaign of conversion against the Huguenots. First he financially awarded those converting to Catholicism, then he imposed penalties on those that didn’t: schools were closed, churches destroyed and Huguenots excluded from favored professions. Wishing to force the unrepentant either to convert or to flee, he instituted the dragonnades, which gave military troops permission to occupy and loot Huguenot homes. Finally, in 1685, he issued the Edict of Fontainebleau, declaring Protestantism illegal, forbidding services, requiring the education of children as Catholics and forbidding emigration.

This proved disastrous. It precipitated bloodshed, ruined commerce and drove hundreds of thousands of Protestants to flee illegally from the country. Many were to become intellectuals, doctors and business leaders in their new homes which included England, Holland, Prussia and South Africa. Over four thousand emigrated to the New World, where they settled mainly in New England. The Huguenots who stayed in France became Catholics and were called “new converts”.

The fact that in 1666, one month after his son married, Jean de Domecq, the father, paidcastle-pau-france-30650911 homage to Louis XIV in the Castle at Pau, as would his son and his grandson, each in his own turn, tells us that if he ever had been Huguenot, he had definitely recanted by this time. Nevertheless, one must wonder because the region of the Bearn was the only one in France to have Protestantism declared as the dominant and official religion for over 50 years. However that may be, he could never know that his direct descendants, in Jerez de la Frontera, would be, marry and produce during the 19th Century a breed of Catholics so devout that some might have called them “rabid”.

[1] Here I must tell a story that belongs to the second time I visited Usquain. The first time I had been there, the overgrowth was so high and tangled that there was no access to the small stone house and I just gazed at it from a short distance away. The second time, however, someone had cleared the land and the door to the house was open. I peered in; the roof had half fallen in so there was light inside, but also pigeons and bats. Everything was covered with dust and the pieces of furniture still present were broken and missing parts; bird and bat excrement was everywhere, everywhere that is, except for on a white wedding dress that was laid across a dining table, itself also complete. The dress was immaculate and yet, all around there was nothing but dust and dung. The resident pigeons peered down at me from the rafters and showed their discomfort with my presence by shooting out a few more whizzes of poo, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the dress. What was it doing there? How long had it been there? Who had left it? Why wasn’t it soiled? And why in god’s name would anyone have left an apparently new, white dress amidst all that abandoned rubble? I swore at myself for not having brought my camera and, before leaving, looked around to ascertain that there was nothing else new or recent that might justify the presence of the dress. There wasn’t. I left in a state of awe at the strangeness of the universe. The next time I went to Usquain, they were tearing down the little house; of course, no one had seen a white dress.

 

A WORK OF FICTION 4

 

“Every life writes its own Work of Fiction

1602 ELIZABETH (I)puritan dress 3

The regret is that so little is known about his wife Elizabeth who remained at his side through all of these hard years, bearing and rearing his children and enduring the hardships of those pioneer times with him. Not one word is written about her trials and activities that this writer has seen. She died March 16, 1686 at the age of 84 leaving a family, the descendants of whom in the next three hundred years, were to swarm over the land producing worthy citizens and many distinguished ones, all Christian and God fearing. Lieut. Samuel Smith, his children and one line of descendants (“Lieut. Samuel Smith, his children and one line of descendants.” James W. Hook, 1884-1957)

This, you see, is the problem. The kind Mr. Hook, whom I quote above, after having written a book of some 350 pages of which more than 13 whole pages were dedicated to the life of her husband and the following to the life of one of her sons (the daughters are mentioned with their pertinent dates: birth, death, marriage [to whom] and children born), could not include even one scrap of information about Elizabeth, my 10th Great Grandmother, other than her year of birth, the date she died and the names and birthdates of her children. Even today, women do not make history: they make babies, they make dinner, they make the beds, they make prattle and –according to men- they make no sense… but most of the time, history passes them by with nothing more than a mere mention when and if they were lucky enough to marry someone who did make ‘history’ no matter how small or personal.

There is, however, one correction I should make to Mr. Hook’s statement that Elizabeth’s descendants produced citizens that were “Christian and God fearing”. That is not true, but then –of course- Mr. Hook did not know all of Elizabeth’s descendants. About her life, however, he is in the right: we know little more than that she survived until the age of 84, which is the age that my own mother swore was the age when all the women in our family died. She lived to 91, but she had senile dementia so, naturally, she did not notice when she passed the 84 mark.

So of Elizabeth’s childhood we know next to nothing, not even the names of her parents apart from a wild guess. We can suppose that, while all around her The General Crisis whirled, she had and got over her share of childhood diseases, cured her scraped knees and elbows, learned to read and write by studying the Bible (something all Puritan children were taught), fought with her brothers and sisters and obeyed or disobeyed her parents as much as any other little one might.

She could have been a first child or a fifth; she might have suffered or wished for the death of a sibling or two; she might have, in turn, loved or hated her parents as most children do; she might have been named for her Queen as no doubt many girls were in those days, or for the Biblical mother of John the Baptist or for her own mother whose name we ignore, a distant aunt or for no one in particular. Perhaps she was called Bess or

St Mary's in Hadleigh

St. Mary’s Church, Hadleigh

Beth when she was being cute and good, and Elizabeth! when a scolding was warranted. No doubt she pricked her finger more than once while darning her brother’s socks, or fell asleep on the family bible while studying. We can know none of this. Neither can we know if she was bright, although proof that she was brave would definitely come later and so forcibly that it must have been built up from a very early age.

We know she was born in 1602 because, unless she lied about her age, she declared herself to be 32 years old in 1634 on a document that has outlived the paper it was written on thanks to internet, so that today, some 414 years from when Elizabeth first opened eyes on the world, anyone interested can access it. We also know that the year following Elizabeth’s birth was a difficult one for England during which 30,000 people in London died from the plague, and Queen Elizabeth I passed away after 44 years at the helm of the country (a woman who did make history).

However, in spite of this overwhelming abundance of ignorance, we do know a few things: Elizabeth’s last name was Smyth (the old spelling of Smith). The town where Elizabeth Smyth was born, Hadleigh, is today little more than a two-hour drive from London, a forty-minute drive from the sea and a twenty-minute drive from the nearest train station, and even back then, when getting there might have been a bit more difficult, it was a place where people gathered and gossiped, for Hadleigh was a market town in Suffolk County. As the charter stating this had been issued in the 13th century, by the time Elizabeth was born Hadleigh was a veritable center of information on every market day. Apart from its outstanding (for size) church, Hadleigh also had a local pub

Pub

“The Old Monkey”

officially known as The Kings Arms, but locally called “The Old Monkey”, where the townsfolk –especially the men- would gather after work or during market day.

At the time of Elizabeth’s birth, Hadleigh had a population of about 3,000 and a history of protestant radicalism that was to determine her future in no uncertain way. The town, apparently, was remarkable for its knowledge of the word of God, and was referred to as ‘more a university of the learned than a towne of cloth-making people’.

taylor's%20examinationThe supreme example of Hadleigh’s radicalism lies in the story of Rowland Taylor, that Elizabeth must have heard over and over much to the horror of her little heart. Rowland Taylor (an ancestor of Elizabeth Taylor, by the way) was appointed Rector of St. Mary’s Church in Hadleigh the 16th of April, 1544; he had been ordained a priest in 1541 in spite of the fact that he was married, because the English Reformation had lifted the requirement of celibacy for the clergy. Taylor’s wife, Margaret Tyndale, had seen her father burned at the stake in 1536 for his ‘heretical’ translation of the English Bible so it was no surprise she married a man called to martyrdom. In Hadleigh, Taylor had used his post to disband Catholic religious guilds, sell their possessions and use the proceeds to help the poor, a chore for which he had a passion. He was known to press the rich cloth merchants of the town for generous donations to be invested in aiding those less fortunate. These charitable deeds endeared him to the hearts of his parishioners who found in their rector a gentle kindness, coupled with unaffected cheerfulness. It seems that ‘cheerfulness was a prominent feature in his character’ and he was remembered as ‘smiling constantly’ and having had the ‘merriest and pleasantest wit’.[1] Taylor was outspoken about his opposition to the Roman Catholic Church and its “popist” rules.

MARY 2In 1553, Edward VI died and Mary I (later known as ‘Bloody’ Mary for PHILLIP II OF SPAINher persecution of Protestants), along with her very Catholic husband, King Phillip of Spain, tried to sink England back into “the one true faith” and the sphere of the Holy Roman Empire. Taylor, at that moment spiritual leader of Hadleigh, was a staunch resister of any back-stepping, believing (and preaching) that clerics should be allowed to marry and that the story of ‘transubstantiation’ (the conversion of bread and wine into the flesh and blood of Christ) was a lot of hogwash. Mary –true to her faith- had him promptly arrested. He was tried, excommunicated and sentenced to death. Before his execution, he was taken back to Hadleigh where his wife awaited him so they might have the allowed ‘last supper’ at home together. The following day, a cold one in February, he was more than warmed up at the stake in Aldham Common near Hadleigh, while his wife, two daughters, his son and a large crowd of Hadleighens looked on. According to an eyewitness, his last words to his son were:

Taylor1“My son, see that thou fear God always. Fly from all sin and wicked living. Be virtuous, serve God daily with prayer, and apply thy boke. In anywise see thou be obedient to thy mother, love her, and serve her. (…) Beware of lewd company of young men, that fear not God, but followeth their lewd lusts and vain appetites. Flee from whoredom, and hate all filthy lying, remembering that I they father do die in the defense of holy marriage”

This happened in 1555. Rowland Taylor became Hadleigh’s favorite martyr never to be forgotten, and there is little doubt that Elizabeth, born some 47 years after he had gone up in smoke, heard the story not once but over and over again, each time enhanced by its retelling. She too was taught to flee from whoredom and hate all filthy lying, to serve God and obey her mother for those lessons would be repeated each time the end of Hadleigh’s martyr was retold. And every repetition that Elizabeth heard of Rowland Taylor’s death undoubtedly would make her shiver down to her woolen socks, imagining the flames frying not his skin but her own, much the same way her mother toasted bacon in the skillet until it shriveled up and became crisp. Thus she was primed from a very early age in right behavior and a rabid hatred of Roman Catholicism, and in the virtues of charity and unselfishness that the good man had preached. Whether or not she carried these admirable traits throughout her life is anyone’s guess, but considering the fate that befell anyone not adhering to the Puritan ethic, we can presume she did her best.

Sometimes the talk of the past was overshadowed by the radical changes taking place in the present. The only son of Mary Queen of Scots, James VI of Scotland, became James I of England upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I; less than a year later, to great rejoicing, he ended the 19-year-old conflict with Spain (during which both the Spanish Armada first and then the English Armada were defeated), by signing a peace treaty with Philip III, the new king. All this and more would have been part of the general conversation weaving in and out of Elizabeth’s childhood.

But she would have been most caught up by the tales of the New World and the fate of the excursions sent there in an attempt to colonize that pristine land. There were stories of ships gone astray and breaking up on perilous rocks; of starvation and freezing in the small groups that managed to land; of Indians that ravaged and burned settlements with all their occupants. Elizabeth was only two when the French managed to establish a 3shipssettlement on Saint Croix Island in what is now Maine, but a harsh winter killed nearly all the settlers and the remainder moved out of New England up to Nova Scotia. It was commented that King James certainly wouldn’t want to be bettered by the French so there was no surprise when he issued competing royal charters to both the Plymouth Company and the London Company in order to establish a permanent settlement that would claim what rightfully belonged to England.

In 1607 Elizabeth was barely 5 years old; she probably wouldn’t be playing with a real doll as the ones made then were very expensive, but perhaps her mother had made her a rag dolldoll with the face painted on the cloth, or maybe she played “dolls” using the newest brother or sister that had arrived in the family. In the meantime, the London Company was playing ‘house’ in a more serious way; it had established a foothold known as Popham Colony at the mouth of the Kennebec River in the Gulf of Maine. Unfortunately, its colonists faced an incredibly harsh winter, worsened by a fire in the storehouse that wiped out their supplies. When one of their leaders died and the other abandoned the New World, the colonists en mass abandoned the project and headed for home. Their stories, like the sailors returning, would drift into Hadleigh and end up in the pub or in the homes as tales to put your hair on end.

Yet, England did not give up. The same year as the Popham disaster, the English set up Jamestown in Virginia, first as a fort and then little by little as a town. As Elizabeth grew, Hadleigh dwellers watched the first permanent settlement in America grow. Of course, news did not travel fast then; snatches of information would arrive along with the vagabonds and returning sailors that came around on market days, and everyone would repeat the stories of Jamestown’s population starving, or how its settlers had fled, or that a shipload of slaves had arrived there, or that the Germans (troublesome people that they were) who had disembarked on Virginia’s coast had promptly allied themselves with the natives and supplied the Indians with weapons later used against the settlers. There could be no doubt in anybody’s mind that the going was tough, but go they did, first in a trickle and later… well, we will come to that when the moment arrives.World-1600s-Map

As she grew, Elizabeth would hear these stories about the wilds of America that sounded as forbidding as the flames that had consumed Rowland Taylor. For a time, she was too young to imagine what ‘across the ocean’ meant or to understand that Indians could be any different from the Spanish and the Catholics whom she knew were enemies. Perhaps one day she was shown a map that only made everything look so small it seemed as if ‘crossing the ocean’ was no more than a hop-skip. Perhaps she even dreamed that one day she herself would cross the ocean. Perhaps…

Then, when she was 13, something happened across another,smaller body of water, something she would never, never know about, care about or imagine, but something that has very much to do with this story.

 

 

[1] For further information: (http://freepages.family.rootsweb.ancestry.com)

DEMENTIA

When I came home from Madrid last Tuesday, I sent my friend Janice a Whatsapp saying IMAMA had her saffron. The answer was “Yupee”. Thirty minutes later I got a message from her also through Whatsapp saying that her 96 year old father had just fallen down the stairs and died, and that she was leaving for New York to bury him and find a home for her mother who is suffering from dementia (also 96). Today I asked how she was and the answer was that she is sad and tired, seeing where she can put her mother to live. She said: “Mom understands he is dead but she hasn’t cried yet; that is dementia for you.” I answered: “Yes, sometimes dementia might be a blessing.”

As I was walking out this evening with Salomé for our evening stroll, I looked up at the moon that in the night-time haze lay with a  bright orange fringe all around it. I thought of my mother and her dementia. I can remember the beginning.

She called me one afternoon and said: “I think I am getting gaga”. I said something noncommittal thinking she was trying to manipulate me into going over and keeping her company or something, and jotted down in my diary: Mom trying to hook me in with the idea that she is going gaga, and forgot about it.

But I couldn’t forget about it long because the onset was very fast, if I remember correctly. She stopped being able to carry a conversation, then she began doing a funny Betty, 90 añosthing sticking her tongue out all the time and repeating a senseless phrase in Spanish which literally said: “When are we going to eat nothing.”

I took her to the doctor and got the news some days later: mother had progressive dementia. I phoned my brother and told him: Mom has dementia, I said. He was immediate in his response: “Of course, you’ll take her to live with you.” “No way,” I responded; “why don’t you take her to live with you?” I can’t remember what he answered but it definitely wasn’t “ok”. As my brother lived out of the country, I knew it would fall to me to care for my mother, but I was decided to do that without bringing her into my house. I understood from the very beginning that if I brought my mother to live with me I would end up killing her long before life did.

We had never gotten along. There could be a lot of reasons and a lot of excuses but I think that is just the way we were programmed. Part of the problem was that my mother always competed with her sister and, when I became an adolescent, she just seemed to shift that competition over to me. The situation was complicated, not only because as a daughter I naturally competed with my mother, but also because my father unconsciously used my 1939-6 Trip home SS Manhattan15042014 (4)very heavy Electra complex to make my mother jealous, something that heightened my own competition with her. And then again, my mother was extremely beautiful and I… well, I wasn’t that kind of beauty and I tended to be overweight.

Whatever caused it, we had never been close and as my mother became more needy because life began to take things away from her and she just naturally expected me to make up for their loss, I drew farther and farther away.

When she realized that she was losing her mind, her fear was unbearable, I had trouble staying with her for any time, but as the disease took the last vestiges of understanding of what was happening to her, it got more bearable and I could spend a couple of hours two or three times a week at her house. In order to ease my conscience, I saw to it that she had every care in the world and was never alone. She had a cook and cleaning girl, someone to care for her who could drive her around, a handyman who did the chores and could carry her from the wheelchair to the car and back again. Her medicines were taken care of, her needs and whims were catered to, she was well cared for. That made it easier for me to not take the guilt trip down the road of bringing my mother to live with me. I understood very well that after three days I would probably throw her out of the moving car.

By the time I brought her to Spain and put her in a residence for the elderly who needed care, she had stopped talking all together and was barely walking. She had gotten feebler, but there was still someone there who was recognizable: she still was capable of getting mad. As she slowly slipped down into oblivion, she never lost the capacity to get mad, but not being able to talk made her incapable of pushing my buttons as she had done so well all our lives, so I finally could relax and begin to realize how much I loved my mother.

At the end, she was like my child. The strange thing is she would still get mad, as she had Betty 90 años en cumplegotten all her life whenever things did not go the way she wanted them to. I would visit and upon entering the room I would see her face tighten and she would glare down at the floor.

“Are you mad, Mommy?” I would ask giving her a kiss on the forehead. She would contract up even tighter, drawing away from me to show me that she was. I remember, I would smile and sit by her side watching the images on the tv screen, or chatting with the nurse who kept her company during all her waking hours, until, about 5 minutes later she would get up from her chair, take the step that separated us and sit on my lap lifting up her legs like a child so that I could hold her tightly. It was such a gift, there was so much love in my heart as I held my Mother-Child in my arms and told her how much I loved her. She weighed almost nothing, thin as she was, and she would stay there, sitting in my lap for a while, just letting herself be held.

That was the gift; that was the gift of her dementia for me; it let me love her as I never had before and she didn’t leave until I had really satiated myself with that love, enough to last me the rest of my life.

They say dementia is a terrible disease, that it is a tragedy. My experience was different, for me it was the greatest gift my mother could have given me. When she finally slipped away, one night in her 91st year of life, with me sitting beside her holding her hand, I was so happy for her and with her that my tears were of joy: my mother hadn’t left, she had just moved into my heart forever. I love you, Mommy.

THE FIRST MEETING

In the month of January of the year 1937, while  Civil War raged in Spain and the Second World War brewed just over the European horizon, Betty –born Elizabeth, for her paternal grandmother, Adele for her maternal grandmother, two names she never used- met Perico –born Pedro because all the first born males in his extremely extended family were named Pedro, and Francisco after Saint Francis of Assisi because he was born on that particular Saint’s day, two names he seldom used.

They met on the tiny, privately-owned island of North Cat Cay off MAP CAT-CAYthe Florida coast. At that time, they were both married and not to each other, although Perico was not living with his spouse and Betty -while still enjoying the multiple advantages that hers offered- was on the brink of separation. What went on on this first meeting is anyone’s conjecture. But 1938 Cat Cay, Island and Manor housethe fact that this event had even taken place underlines the fortuitousness of destiny and the incredible intricacy in the pattern of individual lives which blindly determines their fate.

Of this first brief meeting, there is no record, no photographs, no letters, no stories told to their children or grandchildren, because obviously, given the status of each, neither expected to meet again. There is, however, proof that Perico was there because, even in those days, international travel was recorded and today Internet allows us to access these documents from our very living room or office as the case may be.IMMIGRATION FORM

I said there were no stories. This is not entirely so. There is one but I fear not of a factual nature, nor necessarily true. It is told by Perico’s son from his first marriage, and therefore could have been exaggerated with a desire to put the morals of the lady of the second marriage in doubt. Or it might have been a story told late at night, after many drinks, by a man who wished to excuse to a certain extent his youthful follies before a son who had greatly suffered his abandonment, a story that was then exaggerated in that son’s memoires written when nearing his 82nd year. However that is, I’ll repeat it here just for the record.

GAGER.jpgAt the time of their meeting, according to this son, Perico stayed at the house of his friend, Gager Wasey (at left) at that moment still married to Betty. Also according to that narrative, Betty “would walk around the house naked,” and Perico “could not take his eyes off her.” Then, so his friend would not be fooled, he told him that “he fancied his wife a great deal.”

Considering that Betty, in all the years she was married to Perico, in all the years she lived after his death, was never again known to have “walked around the house naked”, it is almost absolutely certain that there has been –at least- an exaggeration. Perhaps some version of the story, closer to the truth, would include the BETTYphrase “half-naked”, and considering the circumstances (beach, warm weather, seashore, island), she might have sat on the deck or walked across the living room in her bathing suit which at that time wasn’t even close to being a bikini. Or she may even have laid by the pool wrapped in a towel as after a swim, something more normal for a girl brought up in America, than for the tight-laced English or the ultra-Catholic Spanish ladies that Perico had known previously. As for warning the husband of his PERICOfuture intentions, it is no more in Perico’s character than having told a son that the second wife flaunted herself shamelessly in front of him making it impossible to resist her. Perico was, above all, a gentleman and speaking poorly of one’s wife, present or past, was not in his nature; much less would he have violated a friend’s invitation by confessing he lusted after that man’s wife, even though on the following visit, lust he did.

Consequently, I correct what I had said previously: There are no believable stories about this first meeting and what took place between Betty and Perico at that moment is but dust bunnies behind the curtain of time. When the visit drew to a close (and there is no record of how long it lasted), Betty went back to New York with her husband (or perhaps without him as I remember her saying that the marriage barely lasted over a year) and Perico returned to London where a lady named Amber –with whom he was passionately in love, by his own confession many years later- awaited him.

And here is where I will leave this narrative for the moment, on the brink of wild romance and unbridled passion, in order to go back to the beginning some 335 years earlier, when in 1602, someone also called Elizabeth was born in Hadleigh, England.

A WORK OF FICTION

 “Every life writes its own Work of Fiction (anonymous)

THE PROJECT

There is a poem

in our Gratitude

in the Ancestry that is our Future

in the Presence

that fruits our past

and our passing

(Bronwyn Preece)

To tell the truth, I have no idea how or when it began, much less why. I know that for some time I had been hawking at myself about doing something productive. You know, the usual rant: “Get to work”, “You should be doing something worthwhile”, “You’re wasting your life”, “You’re good for nothing”, “Why aren’t you writing”… and I was sick of it. So I sat myself down and did The Work: I should be doing something productive… is that true? I sat in that for a moment and the answer seemed to be “yes”, so I went to question 2: “Can I absolutely know it is true that I should be doing something productive?” I sat for another while and nothing came. I smiled: obviously, the answer was “no” because I wasn’t, and nothing productive occurred to me to do. The smile turned to a frown as I observed the misery caused by the thought and the way I tormented myself daily with it. And then I smiled again even wider when I contemplated a life without that thought, going about my ‘meaningless’ business of living. The turnaround: I shouldn’t be doing something productive felt much truer because, in my eyes at least, I wasn’t at that moment. Then the best ‘turnaround’ happened: Something productive should be doing me! But, of course! It wasn’t my business, as usual. So I closed with usual prayer to the Universe: Dear Universe: if you want me to do something ‘productive’ you’ll just have to sit me down to do it ‘cause I’m getting on with this living business! And I was done; the Universe was in charge. I felt light, happy and raring to set off and have coffee with friends and then wile away the rest of my life.

Sooo, exactly when it was that the Universe set about sitting me down I have no idea, but it did. All I know is that suddenly I was deep into my own genealogy and getting up at 6 a.m. every morning to work with a passion and an enthusiasm I hadn’t felt in years. A Project was born: I was going to write the story of my family following the maternal line down through the women (the research, of course, had to go up) and the paternal line down through the men until the improbable meeting of my mother and father. But first I had to do the research.

IGLESIA USQUAIN AND HUGH (2)

Chapel in Usquain

Part of the research was already done. On my father’s side there was a Genealogy of the Domecq family that had been researched by a professional genealogist commissioned by someone in Spain who wanted to prove that our French ancestors were royalty from way back in their farming days. It was research with a motive, of course, so the gentleman earned his pay by proving that our farmer ancestors in the practically non-existent town of Usquain (three houses and a small chapel) had been

20130808_121110

Abandoned Domecq “mansión”, Usquain

domenger which designates someone with less importance than a baron or a knight (chevalier) but more important than a lay abbey. Of course, I had to look up “lay abbey” and found that it came from the French, abbey laïque, which refers to a piece of property, not belonging to a religious order and being a vassal to the viscount of Bearn.

Much later I would find, thanks to the research of my distant nephew, Diego de Isasi, the name Domecq is the Bearnaise word for the French domenger. In the Middle Ages, the region of the Bearn had a special category of persons called domengers. The “Domenjadure” (the state of being a domenger) or “Domecq” in Bearnaise (in latin domus, dominicatura) designated a noble property in the sense that is was free from servitude, free from paying taxes and a step away from being a lord’s land. Even though some of these so-called domenger lands were tiny, they were still considered ‘noble’ and therefore exempt from taxes. Interestingly enough it was the land and not the person that was “noble” and its possession gave the owner the right to belong to the Estates of the Bearn after having requested this and vowed allegiance to the viscount in turn. This nobility was not hereditary as it belonged to the land so whoever controlled the land was considered noble. This ‘noble’ land could be acquired as a gift, it could be bought, or it could be won through service to the viscount of the Bearn region. If one later sold the land, the domenjadure, the nobility went with it and blessed the new owner.

domecq_coat_of_arms_small_posterSeveral of the last names in the Bearn region derive from the state of domenger: Domenger, Domenge, Menjot, Domecq, Doumecq, etc. Domecq was registered as domenger of Usquain in 1385 and the family coat of arms comes from the custom of giving a pair of white gloves as a symbol of the vassalage to the viscount of the Bearn región.

Therefore the story told by the Spanish genealogist that the Domecqs descend from noble blood is untrue: they were the proprietors of noble land which passed from father to son, but not to the son that migrated to Spain (my great-grandfather) who would have renounced any nobility to which he could have laid claim when he left the land behind.

Seeing that I was not interested in whether we were nobility or not, I took the research as good and had my first list of male ancestors beginning with Jean de Domecq born around 1615.

The maternal side, however, was not so easy because going up the female line means that the last name changes in every generation. So Cook came from Moeller which came from Schlesinger descended from Smith and so on. Fortunately I had a cousin who, being a Mormon, had advanced this work somewhat, but as she also

4 generations (Mary, Adele, Helen, Betty) (2)

Mary Ann Schlesinger, Adele Moeller, Helen Cook, Betty Domecq

had followed the male lines, the women soon disappeared. All that was known was that our great grandmother was Mary Ann Smith and, as my good luck would have it, there was even a photograph of her with her three descendants.

 

And then… I discovered surfing the Net, something I had heard about but never actually done, and things went wild. It was like discovering a new planet. You have to understand: I came from research with my 19 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, microfilms in dingy archives and index boxes in libraries. All this and more, much more, a zillion times more was now in my little apartment on my computer screen at the touch of a finger or a cursor.

I can still remember that first discovery. I typed Manhattan 1800’s on Google and skimmed down the list of items until one caught my eye. It was called Looking Oppositely[1], a blog by Gretchen Elsner-Sommer doing with her family exactly what I was trying to do with mine. I skimmed through the pages and lo-and-behold! Gretchen’s great-grandmother was my great-grandmother’s mother-in-law! My great grandmother had married her grand uncle. Gretchen was my distant cousin by marriage! Needless to say I contacted her: Gretchen: I am so excited to have found you; my great grandmother married George L. Moeller the son of Eliza Sommer. I also am writing about the women in my family and researching them. Please get in touch, Brianda Domecq (Cook, maternal last name),and promptly received an answer. We have been in touch ever since, and she helped clear up many of the guests names at my grandmother’s wedding (relatives, of course, of my great grandfather on my mother’s grandmother’s side, if you follow).

[1]Confident in my own suspicions, I focus the angle of my search differently than others have directed me. In looking past the insufficient genealogies and the misrouted family stories in which the lives of women have not been well remembered, or in some cases even  remembered at all, I’ve come to find the deeply buried roots of the women who support my family’s tree.” Gretchen Elsner-Sommer

However, Internet didn’t only give me leads to family members, but also –thanks to Wikipedia and other historical and informative sites- allowed me to experience virtually the atmosphere, the clothes, the food, the habits and the happenings surrounding those family members on both sides down through the 4 centuries that have passed between the births of my 10th great-grandmother (in England) and 8th great-grandfather (in France), the marriage of my American mother to my Spanish father in the United States and beyond. So my research delved into everything from world wars to early serial killers, from erupting volcanoes to Hollywood scandals and from childhood deaths to cheating husbands and wives.

Thus The Project was born, and I have been at it for over three and a half years of unflagging enthusiasm and fascination. The volume of information is mind boggling to say the least. It covers from 1602 to 2002 and adds up to more than 1500 pages, printed-out on both universesides of approximately 750 A4 size sheets of paper and weighing some 2.6 kilos in total. Every time I pick it up, I marvel at what the Universe can do when we let go and invite it in.

I have had innumerable helping hands along the way. Abel de las Heras, my personal trainer, suggested I check into the “Biblioteca Virtual de Prensa Histórica de España” (The Virtual Library of Historical Spanish Press) which gave me an incredible amount of information about the Domecq family and Jerez de la Frontera where they lived and reigned. My cousin, Arden Hansen, invited me to join Family Search from where I spread to Ancestry and My Heritage, unbelievable instruments of genealogical research that became indispensable in my efforts to mount the female line. Family from Jerez that I had never met before began adding facts, stories, gossip and photographs to my collection (Margarita and Carmen López de Carizosa Domecq and Juan Manuel Pardo Domecq; Carmen López de Solé Domecq and Vicente Domecq y Fernández de Bobadilla). My half-brother, Manolo Domecq-Zurita wrote his memoirs and enriched my experience of my father with his own. My mother, who died 7 years previous to my initial research, was instrumental in that she kept so many photo albums noted and dated, including one from my father’s youth and first marriage (something I thought tremendously generous of her). A distant nephew, Diego de Isasi, here in France introduced me to the internet archives of the region from where I downloaded documents proving that the person tagged as my great-grandfather in the genealogy of the Domecq family, was actually a great-granduncle, and that my real great-grandfather had been his older brother who had died young and left his children in his younger brother’s care. When one is open and willing, the Universe provides all that is necessary at every turn.

And I could go on, but for want of space and the kind reader’s attention, I will end this introduction here and hopefully begin the story –blogpost by blogpost- for anyone who wishes to read it.[1]

[1] The working title for this Project was “Rootless”, but I have preferred to go with “A Work of Fiction” as that is what all of life’s stories are as the coalesce in the mind and on paper (or the screen as the case may be).

 

 

THE WEATHER HAS GONE BANANAS

Here’s how it’s been since the beginning of “winter”: one morning with ice that I had to scrape off the windshield, every other day between 16º and 22º C high and a low that never dropped under 9º.

Every day I watch the news to practice my French, and there is a weather forecast that I have learned keeps its weathermen in a cellar without windows and asks them to guess what will be going on outside. I understand them: it is extremely difficult to hit the right answer all the time. As a matter of fact, it seems difficult most of the time although occasionally they do get it right. Three days ago, I longingly gazed at a map of France on the screen that was bright yellow except for a small streak way up north. Then I looked out the window at the sheets of rain pouring down and asked myself how in the world the number one news station in the country could get away with such an ass-backwards prediction.

Yesterday we had one of the worst days since “winter” began (and I put it in quotes because as far as wintery weather goes, we have had none). It was dark (it had been for several days), the rain beat against all the windows in my apartment which meant the wind was going crazy because I have windows to the East, West and North, and the temperature at 11a.m. had actually dropped from its morning high of 9º, to a miserable 7º; for the rest of the day it struggled to get above 7º and lost.

So yesterday morning I watched the news during which the weather forecast spoke of a balmy 13º high and broken clouds. I had high hopes. I dressed accordingly in layers so as to be able to remove extra garments as the temperature rose. Actually, I found myself shivering most of the day, cursing the weatherman under my breath and even eating my lunch without removing my coat because I was so cold. My thermometer is my nose: if my nose is cold, I am cold and yesterday my nose was cold all day, even in my heated apartment.

Today I decided to be prepared.The weather man predicted a temperature between 9º and 12º but I knew he was lying; on the weather map the Aquitaine Region was blanketed with clouds and somewhat to the north, the country was black with heavy rain. I looked out the window. Yes, there were clouds, but here and there I could catch snatches of blue between them and the day was certainly brighter than it had been all week. Still, I thought that things could not have changed much in the 10 hours since my very cold evening walk with Salomé and, remembering my shivering of the previous noon, I dressed accordingly: a cotton undershirt with short sleeves, a red turtle-neck sweater, a brightly colored scarf made of llama wool (even warmer than sheep’s), woolen gloves and my heartiest winter jacket. I tucked an umbrella into my bag (just in case, because those heavy black clouds on the horizon could be coming or going depending on the direction of the wind), included Salomé’s raincoat, and stepped outside.

The weatherman had lied but my judgement based on the day before was not the way to go either. A soft warm breeze of 16º wafted across my cheeks and in two minutes I was perspiring under the winter-wear. Such a shame! Instead of being able to enjoy the weather I was now going to suffer through my 90 minutes of walk-coffee-market and home again either carrying my winter gear or roasting in it. By the time I reached the Thursday street market, the temperature had risen to 17º. It’s the 7th of January, for goodness sake! The weather has gone bananas! No wonder those poor weathermen locked in their windowless cellars can never guess right!

But it is not only the weathermen who are confused: it is Nature herself. There are small white daisies blooming on the still-green lawn, the so-called pâquerettes which are supposed to bloom around Easter week (Pâcques); dandelions are beginning to bud and some trees haven’t even lost all their leaves yet, while others are starting to flaunt their spring sprouts. This can be tragic if the weathermen are right –for once- about the temperatures dropping drastically next week and winter finally beginning, for this might freeze the buds on fruit trees and cancel any hope of harvest this year.

In the meantime, I have hung up my winter jacket, put away my llama scarf and woolen gloves, and taken out a more appropriate garment for walking to my favorite restaurant for lunch. And as far as ‘the weather going bananas’, well the farmers might as well have grown some of those this year instead of attempting apples.

PRE-OCCUPATION

 

Recently I had some tests run: a sleep-test to see if I have sleep apnoea (which means I stop breathing while I am sleeping until the body’s stress manages to jumpstart the respiratory mechanism again); an echocardiogram to check the functioning of the heart muscle; and an echo Doppler to see if the carotid arteries were clear. These are things one only does as life progresses into the later years.

230px-Obstruction_ventilation_apnée_sommeil.svg[1]

Usually, sleep apnoea is detected by your sleeping partner when your spontaneous (after about 30 seconds) gasp for air wakes them up. My sleeping partner, as everyone knows, is Salomé and there was no way she could let me know that she had sat there for over 30 seconds waiting for me to breathe and thinking I was dead (my mother used to do that with my father and that is how I know about it). So I never would have suspected I might have the same syndrome as my father if I hadn’t awaked from sleep one night with all systems shut down and gasping for air. When I mentioned it to the doctor he said it was serious (apparently it can cause heart attacks and strokes) and set me for the corresponding study. It was the neurologist who suggested the other two.

untitledFor the sleep study, one must pass a night in the hospital wired up as if for electrocution and one must sleep. Considering I was connected by some 20 electrodes –mostly on my face and head- and that the wires were either tickling my nose or pulling on my scalp and hair, sleep was not easy. I did manage, finally, to drop off around 2 a.m. so the study was valid. The nurse, of course, could not tell me the results so I asked the only question I believed she could answer better than Salomé: Do I snore?

I do. But then so does Salomé, although in a soft sort of purring kind of way which I am sure is not like me. The nurse knew because it registered on the chart and the sign she made of its register was big enough for me to believe it was a real snore. Anyway, the rest of the test results won’t be ready until the 18th of next year. If they are positive, I will be fixed up with a machine that will be attached to my nostrils during the night. If at any time I spend more than 3 seconds without breathing, the machine will shoot oxygen into my nose and do the job for me. Sounds like fun, but then it isn’t fun to have a heart attack or a stroke either.

imagesT2V9XIUCI passed the echocardiogram with flying colors so the ticker seems to be doing ok, but then that has never been the problem of the women in my family. It has been the men (maternal grandfather and father) who have succumbed to heart failure, so I was more interested in the echo Doppler or Carotid ultrasound because my grandmother had a stroke and my mother suffered from senile dementia. Sleep apnoea is actually one of the causes of plaque in the carotid arteries because of the toxins produced when oxygen is not available.

carotidThe test was actually very simple; all I had to do was not talk while the doctor (a young lady) ran the gel and her instrument up and down my throat, first on one side and then on the other. Afterwards she did the same right in front of the ear and got my sideburns all gooey.

When she was finished I asked.

“The left carotid artery is fine” she said, “but you have a very ugly plaque in the right carotid.”

And there it was. I was surprised not to feel anything emotionally, especially with the “very ugly” added to the diagnosis.

“What caused it?”

“Oh, any amount of things: high blood pressure (not my case), diabetes (not that either), smoking (uh-oh), alcohol consumption (double uh-oh), diet… Do you smoke or drink?”

“Haven’t for 24 years.”

“Well, when you smoked, how many cigarettes a day was it.” I really wished she hadn’t asked that question.cigarettes

“Two packs a day” I said, smiling sheepishly.

“And drink? How much did you drink back then?”

Oh, God… could I make it into a joke? “Would you believe about ¾ of a bottle of vodka a day and maybe ½ a bottle of sherry at noon?” I didn’t vodkaneed a doctor to tell me where that nasty little plaque had come from… and to be truthful, it’s ok.

I have been thinking for years that it is some sort of miracle, after the way I mistreated my poor body, that I hadn’t a liver problem, a lung problem, a heart problem a stomach problem… Soooo, an ugly plaque in just one artery is to be expected. Strangely enough, my mother who neither over-drank nor smoked, nor ate in excess or had any of the other supposed ‘causes’ of plaques, and did plenty of exercise because she played golf three times a week, had senile dementia caused by a narrowing of her carotid arteries by plaque.

“These days you operate on those things, don’t you?” I queried, remembering my 83- year-old neighbour who had both carotid arteries images55YEQ7KVoperated on and was still going strong at 86.

“It isn’t important enough yet to operate; the blood flow to the brain isn’t affected.”

“Ok. What about strokes?”

“Well, that could be a future possibility, so I am going to give you a treatment.”

Aspirin. 100mg of aspirin. A pill that is smaller than the nail on my little finger, and an even smaller pill to control cholesterol aspirin(although my ‘bad’ cholesterol is within an acceptable level).

When I came back to Salies, I began thinking about what could happen if I had a stroke so I decided to tell my downstairs neighbour about the results. We agreed that if anything happened (and I wasn’t dead) I would bang on the floor rhythmically so she could tell it was different than just a normal dropping something. That settles that: if I’m alive I will bang on the floor and no problem; if I am dead there isn’t any problem anyway because after 12 hours of not seeing Salomé leaving the building she will know what happened.

So, why am I writing this? Because today (a week after telling my neighbor) I ran into her while hanging up the wash on the community clotheslines. After the usual niceties of the season, she asked me if I was worried about… and she pointed to her throat. I smiled.

“No” I said, “why should I be worried. It certainly doesn’t do any good and it would make me miss out on all the beautiful things happening now, in 1944-1 Poughkeepsie25042014 (2)this moment.”

“I know,” she said, shaking her head, “but the thoughts… you know, they just come.”  (At right, me at the age of 3)

“Ah,” … I had given her Byron Katie’s book, Loving What Is (in French), some time ago and I knew she hadn’t really read it. “If I have a worrisome thought, I question it: Is that true?… and immediately I know that no thought can be true. It’s in the book I gave you.”

“Yes…” she looks at me, “I gave the book to my daughter. I guess when she comes back next summer I’ll borrow it to  read,” she gives me a nervous smile.

And there it is. We have the medicine in our hands for all that worries us and we don’t take it, we give it away to our children, to our relatives, to our friends and, as we have given it no importance, they don’t either. So our lives fill with stress and pre-occupation about things that might never happen and, if they do, will certainly not be as terrible as our imagination can make them. We do this without realizing exactly how senseless it is. To occupy myself with something previously to it happening is insane toimagesTX5Z2D1N say the least and certainly worse for one’s health than a simple plaque that has built up in an artery perhaps 24 years ago and so far hasn’t let out a peep, much less a clot. If I hadn’t had the study, I wouldn’t have any reason for pre-occupation, I would feel in perfect health, enjoying this marvellous body which has taken such a beating and still held up so well. I would continue to believe myself to be soooo lucky. Given that I feel exactly the same as I did before, why in the world would I be worried unless I believed terrible thoughts about what is going on in my carotid artery????

So now I have had the study and have been told there is a plaque in there. Is that true? Do I actually feel any differently than before I knew? Not in the least. But knowing makes me responsible, so I ask what I can do. Aspirin, 100mg a day taken always at the same time, either in the morning or at noon. Ok. Anything else? No. So what should I worry about? Let my doctor worry if she wants to, it has nothing to do with me. What I could do, I have done. My job is finished so it is time to enjoy my noon meal, which is exactly what I am going to do now without a PRE-OCCUPATION to disturb my appetite.

And in case you didn’t guess, this is  me6 months  at 6 months old, not a worry in the world!

FOOTNOTE TO “EATING DOG”

My daughter promptly corrected me this morning. The Mexican hairless dog is the xoloitzcuintle (an escuincle is the popular name for a boy, a kid).xolo

The word “xoloitzcuintle” comes from the Náhuatl: “xolotl” in náhuatl means animal and in the mythology of the Mexicas and the Toltecas it is the God of evening, of spirits, of twins and of the twilight Venus believed to help the dead during their journey to Mictlán. “Itzcuintle” means dog.

Xolotl is often depicted with the head of a dog: 220px-Xolotl_1

Also, according to Wikipedia, it is not certain that the Nahuas ate them. Apparently, Hernan Cortés reported that “certain small dogs were bred to be eaten” and sold at the market. According to this account, these small dogs were called “itzcuintlis”, and there is the possibility that he mistook the word tepezcuintle (lowland paca), a large form or rodent that looks slightly like a tepezcuintlesmall dog, that is eaten still, for the word xoloitzcuintle. I, myself, have tasted the meat of the tepezcuintle and can testify that it is delicious, delicate and tender, with a flavor somewhere between lamb and veal. At present it is on the endangered species list and the sale or consumption of its meat is forbidden.

THOUGHTS AND THINKING

DESCARTES           Around about 300 odd years ago, the Frenchman René Descartes discovered what for him was the final proof of our existence as humans: “I think, therefore I am” was his conclusion, with which Thought was raised to the status of God, Reason became Almighty.  When I was an adolescent I remember regarding thinking as the ultimate instrument to achieve one’s goals and being fascinated, mostly, with my own mental processes which at that time produced mainly judgements of others (read, my parents especially my mother), unreachable fantasies and unreasonable (I can see now) fears. It also produced stories, which is probably why I became a writer. What stories the picture below might have evoked when I was young!20150510_153644

I was taught, heard or just simply imagined and came to believe that thinking was what distinguished me from animals and made me human. Thinking and the images and language it is formed by is what gave me and my species the possibility of crawling out of our caves and building sprawling metropolises, of studying the stars and understanding the Universe, of communicating complex realities to others of my kind; thinking led to art and war, to literature and murder, to music and the incredible human capability for destruction, to religions and slavery, to charity and abuse. But I truly believed it was what made us human and if we could just control it, we would be like God.

Today, I have learned differently: we are not alone in the animal world to think. Dogs think. Salomé thinks. I have watched her in the process, seen the results and realized many things about reason that I have ignored most of my life. Allow 026me to offer up my proof. Salomé thinks because she dreams; all dogs dream. Anyone who owns a dog has watched them cry and whimper and move their feet while asleep and has thought ‘my dog thinks it’s chasing something’. Their dreams, the same as ours, are based on images, and the body (theirs and ours) reacts to the images the mind is producing with movements and emotions (the whimpering). I do not know whether fruit flies dream, or eagles, but I would bet that elephants and tigers do.

But, Salomé’s thinking goes beyond dreams even though, I must admit, it never comes out as language. However, language is all it is missing: it is thought (images accompanied by bodily sensations and emotions much as dreams are) nonetheless. I have observed her while she is in the process of thinking and as far as I can see her thoughts are motivated by two things: either she wants something or she fears something.

When she wants my attention, she will come to where I am and intensely gaze at me. I will then tell her: “Go get Squeak (her little blue mouse)” or “Bring the sock” or “Look for the ball”. She’ll stand gazing at me for one or two seconds, turn her head in the direction of her toy basket, look down at her feet for a split second more and suddenly get up, trot to the basket and pull out the toy I have asked her for. It is not an ingrained reaction: she has to think about it, turn it over in her mind (the name), find the right image and go get it.2012-2013 Nikon 041

Salomé also has a very good memory. As I drop her off at the hairdresser’s (something she detests), I tell her that when she gets home she will have a “prize”, a “biscuit”. Two hours later, when we come through the door, her all posh and prim, she races for the cupboard where the dog biscuits are kept and sits in front of it until I take out the promised reward. It is not just repeated action for somewhere in her dog-mind she must connect the bath, the promise and the prize over time: this is thought.

Lately, her cognitive capacities seem to have taken on new tasks. Before, when a ball went under the bed or under a chair beyond her reach, she would wait a long time staring in the direction of the desired object until finally barking once (something she never does) to get my attention. Now, I have noticed that the ball goes under the bed or a chair much more frequently, especially when I am busy and have refused her invitation to stop what I am doing and play. Could it be that she is intentionally making the ball inaccessible so that I come to the known summons?

The most interesting of her thought processes, however, is produced by fear. Lately, Salomé has become a fearful dog because she has had two disagreeable experiences, one that could have been fatal. The less important one has to do with the wooden staircases in our building where we have lived without incidence for going on 5 years. However, this year has been extraordinarily abundant in rain and the times that Salomé has had to climb the stairs with wet paws has multiplied out of proportion. Apparently, one or two of those times, her paws slipped as she ran up the stairs and she was near falling; maybe it happened more frequently, I didn’t notice until one day I got to the top of the stairs and realized that she was sitting at the bottom, in front of the first step and looking up at me without budging. I called her. Nothing. I threatened her. Nothing. I went 20150531_151559into the apartment and closed the door loudly. When I came out again she hadn’t moved a muscle. I said the magic word “prize-biscuit” and even that could not get her to put a foot on the steps. So I grabbed a towel, went all the way down the two flights of stairs again, and dried each separate paw carefully. When I was through, I gently urged her up each level of steps and she didn’t once slip. As a matter of fact, as I carry a hand towel in my bag now and dry her feet whenever it rains, she has only slipped when she ‘believes’ she must race up or leap over the last steps precisely to avoid slipping. The stairs, however, continue to present a problem and I must remember to not to race up on my own because I am thinking of something else, but rather to stay with her and urge her gently up one level at a time until reaching the top. It is trying to say the least but when I forget I have to go all the way down again, for there is absolutely nothing that will make her budge no matter how many times she has gone up without slipping. This goes to prove that it is fear above all that glues the experience into our emotional/thought path, and repeats it over and over again even if it never recurs.

The other negative experience came from one day when I was throwing the ball for her across the driveway. A car come zipping in and Salomé disappeared underneath. I screamed so loud, the car stopped. I continued screaming because my mind was flashing pictures of a mashed and bloody Salomé, hurt beyond repair and suffering. Terrified I rushed over, knelt down and extracted her from right next to the front tire. She didn’t have a scratch on her, but nonetheless my mind kept playing over and over the horrid imagined images. To calm myself, I cuddled her in my arms, although all she wanted to do was to continue playing with the ball. Because her reaction had not been immediate, I thought there was none (I thought…) but I was wrong. A few days later, I was throwing the ball once again in the driveway (but from where I could see the entrance so as to catch an incoming car) and she was chasing it, when suddenly I threw it and she sat down and watched it roll away. This happened a few times and I could see she was afraid of running after the ball, but there was no car. I began throwing the ball on the lawn so that the driveway was not involved, and once again, she went for it several times and then suddenly 002 (2)stopped. No car, but she was obviously afraid of something.  After trial and error, I finally got it. It was not the sight of a car that frightened her, but the sound of the motor which, in each case, had been produced not by passing traffic, but by some car coming into an adjoining driveway when there was no noise of traffic on the street outside. When this happened the moment she was about to chase the ball, she stopped dead in her tracks and sat down. It was obvious that she had not seen the car, but had definitely heard it

What I find so fascinating about the thinking caused by fear in Salomé’s case is that no matter how many experiences to the contrary, she has a pattern ingrained by fear that is indelible. To me this explains a lot about the supposed “traumas” humans suffer as infants, and the fact that they can determine behavior during a whole lifetime if not attended by therapy or some other effective method. Take the stairs for example: Salomé slipped once yet every time she faces the climb, her mind repeats the danger as a ‘given’, which makes her body react with fear without the actual slipping being necessary.  If she were a human child, and were not helped over this initial fear (which repeats even if the act does not), she would, upon looking back much later, probably express as: “When I was young I always slipped on the stairs”. A therapist would ask her to remember exactly how many times this had happened and, wouldn’t she be surprised to finally realize it had actually happened only once. I have tried to explain this to Salomé, but alas, the lack of a spoken language prevents me from changing her pattern.

imagesY3EFA4UR     What makes me different from Salomé –and this certainly does not imply better or smarter or anything for that matter- is that as a human trained to not only remember images, sounds, tastes and feels, but also to interpret them using my very special instrument called “language”, I build a story around the images: I think in words. Therefore, when I replay a disagreeable instant such as Salomé disappearing under the moving car, I not only see a mashed and bloody dog, but I also produce a story line: “she’s hurt, she’s suffering, I won’t be able to do anything, it is my fault, I did it wrong, I’m terrible, I made a mistake,”  and with every thought I feel the corresponding emotion of fear, sorrow, powerlessness, guilt, self-loathing, despair and so on, until the complete movie becomes installed in my memory box substituting the reality that Salomé was fine, that nothing happened. Henceforth, I will replay and relive my movie over and over again as if it were reality, while reality itself has escaped me.

If you have any doubt of this, sit quietly with your eyes closed remembering a traumatic moment in your life, notice the images and watch the interpretations arise along with the accompanying emotions exactly as if you were sitting in a movie theater watching a film. Sometimes, the accompanying interpretation is not apparent because the emotion comes so rapidly it is lost, but if I ask myself what my thoughts were at that instant, the mind jumps in and all the interpretations and judgements appear. This is how we construct reality, with dreams and nightmares, products of our imagination that are carved into the DVD of the mind to replay at a moment’s notice when something in reality evokes a past experience. Thus, at every moment, the present isinterpreted by a past that does not exist which in turn is projected into a future that doesn’t exist either.

So here we are, in this giant movie theater called The World, producing the movie of our life and replaying it over and over again, taking scenes from the past and projecting them into the future, with hope (the biscuit) or with fear (the stairs), while this present instant, the only possible reality, slips inexorably by.images5UURRR5N

Perhaps we should invert Descarte’s maximum to read: I am, and therefore I think, and begin to notice how much of our reality actually is made up of nothing but thoughts and how much of our life which takes place in the present we actually miss because we are lost in them.

DICTIONARIES, TYPEWRITERS AND FREEDOM

While growing up, there were only two things I remember wanting more than a chocolate malt from the Dairy Queen: the first was a dictionary, which I asked my grandmother for when I was about 14 and got that very Christmas, and the other was a typewriter, which my father refused to give me until I learned to do handwriting properly. I never really mastered the handwriting commission for even today I switch from tilted to the right, to upright, to tilted to the left with barely a twist of the wrist and sometimes halfway through a note or letter. I tried though… to get the typewriter, I mean, not to write with the perfect Palmer which I knew in my heart would never be half as useful as learning to type. I pleaded, I looked up secondhand typewriter ads, cut them out and left them on my father’s desk; I found the stores that sold them and suggested visiting them instead of going to the movies on a Saturday afternoon, and then I pleaded some more. I guess I must have insisted soooo much, that finally, one Christmas when I was around sixteen, I got a typewriter and I loved my first typewriter just as much as I loved my first dictionary.Websters 2

The dictionary was a Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary in one volume with a greyish-greenish-blueish dustcover, and print one could read without glasses. Of course, at that age I could read any print without glasses.  Now, to read the Webster’s Third New International Dictionary and Seven Language Dictionary in three volumes that I acquired in the ‘80s when I gave the previous one to my son as he left for college, I need my glasses and a magnifying glass. But back then, anything was possible and a book –a Dictionary!- was an object to be treasured.

I can still remember the fascination of opening to any page and reading down the wealth of words appearing, one after another, the length of it, and seeing how each one had such a different and magical meaning: ivy, ivybells, ivyberry, ixodes, ixora, izar, jab, jabali, jabarite, jabber, jabberwocky… ohhh, the Jabberwocky, the discovery that words could be not only in the dictionary but also in one’s most senseless fantasy:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy tovesJabberwocky

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:         

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

Oh, what magic! Having discovered this, and having fallen hopelessly under the spell of words in print, and as I had no idea that most of the texts I read sprang from handwritten manuscripts  (I would discover that later upon realizing that I couldn’t write directly on the typewriter but had to use a notebook first), I needed the instrument to produce these tiny miracles: a typewriter!

My first typewriter, which appeared the Christmas of 1958 beautifully wrapped, wasn’t very big; as a matter of fact, it was tiny and suited its name to a T: “Hermes Baby” which, according to mytypewriter.com “is the Mini Cooper of typewriters!”, and if you have ever had a Mini Cooper –as I have- you know what that means. Cover to Hermes BabyMytypewriter.com waxes on: “The totally appealing Hermes Baby gained instant success since its introduction and garnered a loyal following among stylish writers of the day. Clean and sporty, it is manufactured with the highest degree of quality, including the precision Swiss engineering that one would expect from a Swiss watch”.

It was a dream of a typewriter. It weighed less than 2 kilos and was easily carried anywhere with its metallic cover: to school, on the train, in the bathroom, to bed, to the dining table, on a picnic… it was an aspiring writer’s dream; when first introduced in 1935 it was said to have become the ‘must have’ typewriter for novelists, celebrities, reporters and journalists. It was sleek and weightless. It was reputed to Hermes baby 2be the typewriter of choice for Ernest Hemingway. What more could a girl want!  I was ecstatic. The Hermes Baby accompanied me and wrote for me right up to the time I finally gave in and bought my first computer around 1990. Even though I had acquired earlier an electric typewriter for my desktop when this became available, the Hermes was my ‘laptop’ and went with me on all my travels. It trudged off to boarding school with me and on it I wrote all the letters to my parents, my grandmother and the usual adolescent boyfriends, and every one of my school papers. My first, and only, very bad poetry was composed with its tiny letters and on it I slavered the long, very gooey missives I’d send to the man who would be my husband. True: it did not make me a well-known, very good or prolific writer, but it was the best of friends for a very long time. Today I have no idea where it went, whether I sold it during one of my get-rid-of-everything-and-move moves, or it just got lost along the path to the future that we all take at every moment. Fortunately now there is Internet, so that the images and the history of this little jewel are well recorded by typewriter-gooks galore and I can become all limp and nostalgic remembering its faithful journeys with me, the things I wrote on it and the time when my friend, Gutierre Tibon (originally Gautier Thiében in Italy before he moved to Mexico and Hispanicized his name), told me he was its inventor. As I discovered today from Internet, he twisted the truth a bit: he was not the inventor –that was a man called Guiseppe Prezioso whose last name in Spanish means ‘precious’ and also ‘beautiful’ both applicable to his invention. But Gutierre was responsible for naming it “The Hermes Baby” and for popularizing it on the US market. Gutierre TibonHe was also a fantastic human being, a prolific writer publishing over 46 volumes of research and essays, a fellow lover of language, and a survivor who lived to the age of 94 accompanied by his then wife, who was over 30 years younger, and I was lucky to call him my friend. But this is material for another piece.

Back to the typewriter and what inspired me to write this piece, jogging my memory and awakening a gentle nostalgia for times past, and a certain admiration for the girl I was. It was an article in Time magazine on a book entitled Spinster written by someone named Kate Bolick. At the top of the page where the article appeared, there was a little blurb, and I quote: “According to Bolick, part of what brought women out of a marriage-and-children mentality was the typewriter, invented in1867”. Upon reading this, I was immediately submerged in the deep waters of reverie to that magical and terribly painful time of adolescence when I dreamed briefly of becoming a writer, when my passionate desires were for a dictionary and a typewriter, for paper and poetry over and above clothes or jewels or frills and fancies, before the marriage-and-children mentality totally enveloped me and I married and had children and attempted to become the perfect housewife and mother. Before all that, there was the dictionary and the typewriter, Webster’s and the Hermes Baby, both swallowed up and temporarily forgotten by the-things-a-girl-is-supposed-to-do. They waited patiently in the background of dinners-for-two and diapers, of supermarket days and children’s first steps, of housework and love-making until I did a radical about-face at 32 that returned me to the University and the wonderful, wonderful world of words.

True, I have not been a prolific writer, but I complain not. I love to have written, and to have loved, to have been a mother and a writer all at once, to have fulfilled my duty to my body and society and also to my spirit and freedom. So there it is, so bright and beautiful, mixed in with the memory of my babies, the grateful remembrance of my Hermes Baby and a Webster’s Dictionary that filled my life with words and let me eventually produce the books I can also proudly call ‘my children’.