There are moments when the heart stops and the Universe takes over. Virginia Woolf called them “moments of being” and dedicated one of her autobiographical books to the matter. Time and space disappear and there is nothing but wonder, awe and, yes, love. Continue reading
So I am back, it is the forth time. The first year I just passed through the village, found it charming, checked into a room at the Casino-Hotel for one night (Salomé was still a pup) and absolutely fell in love with Salies de Bearn, a small town halfway between Biarritz and Pau, close to where the Domecq family apparently originated (a tiny place composed of 4 disintegrating buildings called Usquain about a 45 minute drive from Salies). That was in 2007. I decided to come the following summer and promptly found a studio that looked like just the right thing. It was. I stayed two weeks and was so in love with being here that after my lease ran out, I spent two more nights in the Casino Hotel…
Before departing, I learned that I would miss the important fest of the Piperadère and something bearing the pompous title of the “World Championship of <<Espadrille>> Throwing”, ‘espadrille’ being a local sandal with a sole woven from cord (the Spanish alpargata). I promised myself not to miss it the following year.
Therefore, last year I spent the whole month of August here inspired by my Muse (EL MUSO, an old friend from my school days with whom I had reestablished contact on Skype) writing about Salies. It was then, after returning to Madrid, that I continued writing and have ever since.
Last year I realized that, by leaving at the end of August, I would miss the Festivity of the Salt, the one that closes the season around the middle of September, so I promised myself to take it in the following year, which is now, when I am planning to stay until September 13th and be present for that day.
So now I am in Salies again, in the same studio apartment, with the window that overlooks a forested hill. I hear the pitter-patter of rain on the leaves as the storm that has been threatening for hours finally lets loose. Poor Saliesciennes: they are in the midst of the biggest fest of the year (fête): the Piperadère. Piperadère is a local “stew” which can be eaten as a dish by itself or used to garnish a meat like chicken or pork. It is comprised basically of tomato to which are added green peppers, onion and garlic. That is the base, and then each chef adds his or her own touch. According to an Englishman who was explaining it to a friend, the purpose is to cook the best Piperadère while drinking the most alcohol without falling into the cauldron. The judge later will do the rounds tasting all the stews and prizing the best. After that, in spite of the delicate egos of the chefs concerned (who by that time are too drunk to give a damn) all the Piperadères are poured into one giant cauldron to serve the 600 odd townsfolk at the evening banquet.
At this moment, under the multiple tents that have been set up, donned in their inventive costumes and chopping veggies like mad, the teams are being rained on. No doubt they have pulled their cauldrons in under the scanty covering to avoid making a watery piperadère. An announcer strolls around with a hand-held mike animating the fest in terms that are broadcast through the village by loudspeakers strategically placed at street corners. The vendors who have set up stalls all along the Cours du Parc which runs the full block length of the Parc Public display their wares in hopes of making a day’s wages. Several townsfolk have dressed in accordance with the ancient usage and exhibit the various crafts that have been part of the daily life from time immemorial: the gathering of salt, the forging of iron into utensils, the grinding of the corn to feed unsuspecting duck grown for paté, the preparation of strands of long grass for weaving baskets, the delicate carving of wood and intricate stained glass ornaments patiently artisaned. The old traditions are dragged out of the cellar, the back room, grandma’s trunk and exhibited for all to see: homemade bakery, homemade patés, homemade bread and sausages.
Modern crafts join the old along the “rue”. One woman makes piecemeal bags, aprons and jewellery with bright-colored cloths; another paints imaginative figures on pieces of wood that hold clock mechanisms; a third exhibits elaborate rings and earrings forged from rainbow-like plastic that attract youth with their brightness and low prices.
Now the sun has reappeared and in a while I will venture out again. It is my second Piperadère. I do not plan to go to the banquet for last year Salomé and I suffered from the extremely entusiastic band that blasted the happening with extra loud music. But for today, I will enjoy the merry-making and then follow my fancy until bed time leaving this short piece to do the chores of a brief introduction to my writings “In Salies de Bearn, France”.
The dream was very clear. The Gardener’s small, dark green, paneled truck pulled up to the curb. My Mother got on the truck by way of a ramp that dropped down to the street, and moved to sit in the front seat. I felt sad; I didn’t want her to leave so I grabbed ahold of the ramp to stop the truck from departing. The Gardener walked over and looked at me kindly. He was a very tall, thin man with a long, horse-like face that was terribly gentle looking. He was dressed in a very pale beige shirt and pants. I looked into his face. He smiled kindly. “Your Mother has to go now” he said, “and when she comes back she will bring you a big gift.” I let go of the ramp and awoke.
There was a sweet sadness in my chest as I contemplated the blue sky visible through the window from where I lay on the bed. It had been almost a year since my Mother had died and during all that time I had felt her so close that she was more alive to me now than before she passed. I knew the dream meant that she was leaving definitely. The air around me felt differently; there was more emptiness and the warm glow that always accompanied my Mother’s presence seemed to have dissipated. I lay there for a moment remembering the night of her death.
I had seen to my Mother’s care for over eleven years, ever since the first signs of senile dementia appeared, for a time in her home with hired caretakers and then in the nursing home where she spent the last six years of her life. Her mind had gone slowly, almost gently, but definitely so that in the end she neither spoke nor reacted to the stimulus around her. She had become like a small child expressing only two things: her dislike or unhappiness, by lowering her head and refusing to look at anybody, especially me, and her love by climbing onto my lap and pulling her knees up until I hooked my arm under them, holding her as if she were a small child in my arms. She was so thin that her weight was easy to bear, and those moments were the sweetest and most intimate I ever remember having with my Mother: such a gift, but not the last one I would receive from the woman who gave me life. She didn’t ask much of me in those last times, rather she couldn’t, nor did I ask much of her. We sat together, in her room, three or four times a week, in silence, holding hands. Sometimes I would take her ice cream and feed it to her, others I would watch the television for a while just to be present; always I would kiss her and tell her I loved her. But there was one thing I did ask, not of my mother, but of the Powers That Be. More than anything, if it were possible, I wanted to be with her when she died. I did not want to think of her making that last transition all alone (and I couldn’t know that she would be alone, could I, for some say that a dear one comes for us to accompany us on that journey).
I will never forget the night she died. I didn’t know it then, but it was to be one of Life’s greatest gifts. I had been to see my Mother that afternoon and had, as a matter of fact, spoken with the doctor in front of her. She had almost stopped eating and they were contemplating feeding her through a tube. I looked the doctor straight in the eye and smiling in spite of the tears filling my own told him that I did not want my Mother force fed.
“There is no need for any measures except to make her comfortable; her quality of life is minimal and my Mother deserves to die with dignity. She has been a brave woman and I have watched her allow her own Mother to die without interfering. My grandmother took a bottle of sleeping pills when she no longer wanted to live; my mother knew this, and yet respected her wish, doing nothing to prevent her going. And then again when my Father was in the hospital, his heart barely keeping him alive, she was the one that lowered his bed at his request although they were both perfectly aware that the liquid in his lungs would bring about the end. If my Mother has almost stopped eating I have the moral obligation to allow her to go without interfering. I am certain you’ll understand this.”
Tears were rolling down my cheeks by the time I finished, but the smile continued on my face. The doctor nodded, smiled back, stood, shook my hand and left. I looked at my Mother. She looked at me. There was no sign in her eyes of having understood what went on and yet we were together in a complicity that transcended life itself, a complicity of respect; in my heart, I bowed down before the woman who had birthed me.
When I was about to leave, I hugged her frail body and whispered in her ear how much I loved her. I told her nurse that I would return that evening.
At 9 pm I called the residence. The girl attending my Mother whispered that she was sleeping peacefully and had eaten at least half the food on her tray. I was tired and hungry so I decided that it wouldn’t be necessary to return to the residence that evening. All was peaceful. I could go directly home after having a salad at the neighborhood restaurant where I often ate.
On leaving the restaurant a while later, I climbed into the car and headed towards my house. Suddenly, I felt a sharp pain in my chest and a voice in my head said: “My Mother is dying.” Immediately the logical mind stepped in: “You’re just imagining it because she was so frail today”. I doubted. There was a moment of indecision while I waited at a red light and then I knew: I had to go and see. The residence was only five minutes away and it was 10:50 when I arrived. Strangely the door was still open and the man at the desk didn’t even look up as I entered so no explanations for my late visit were necessary. I hurried to my Mother’s room. She was awake, lying on her side, a bit of spittle with blood on the sheet under her cheek.
“I’m here, Mommy” I whispered kissing her cheek. Her breathing was labored as if there was phlegm or liquid in her wind pipes so I sat her up and rested her against the pillows. The nurse looked in; I told her everything was all right, I was just making my Mother comfortable. She left again. I sat on the edge of the bed as close to her as I could without making it uncomfortable; taking her hand and resting the palm of my other hand on the side of her head, I looked into her face. In a voice as soft as I could muster I told her there was nothing to be afraid of.
It was a little past 11pm. The nursing home was absolutely still. My Mother’s breathing had become steady and whatever was in the way of it had disappeared. We sat there in silence. After a while, she closed her eyes and I allowed my gaze to rest on her beloved face; my breathing began matching hers. Inside of me everything was silent. I was totally at peace, no thought, no uncalled for emotion, no inner or outer disturbance that might have fractured that encapsulated moment. Towards 12 o’clock her breathing –the only sound in the absolute silence of the sleeping residence- became slower and more spaced out. At midnight she breathed one last time and then just didn’t breathe again. I waited for the “death rattle” I had heard about so often. There was nothing: just silence, and two women –one dead, the other alive- sitting, holding hands. As I sat waiting, making sure that she would not start up breathing again, I felt the room come alive with her presence that was no longer in the body, but all around, filling the space, extending outward and inward till there was nothing left but gratitude and joy. My Mother was gone and never, ever had she been more present.
“You made it Mommy, you did it; you really did. I love you so much” I whispered, feeling gratitude and respect fill my chest while the tears ran down my cheeks. They were not tears of sorrow, and I was smiling as if from one cohort to the other after a successful heist.
Now, as I lay on my bed remembering and realizing that the dream had announced the parting of that presence which had lasted almost a year, I wondered at the miracle of Life and Death, and the way in which we know for certain things that the logical mind cannot accept.
By the time things began happening later that day, I had all but forgotten the dream, so I could find no explanation for my sudden determination to spend New Year’s with my daughter in –of all places- Acapulco. As to why this idea was so strange needs some explaining.
My daughter at that time was married and had three children (she still has the children, of course) and I was not on the Favorite People list of my then son-in-law. I remember exactly when I fell from his good graces. My daughter hadn’t been married even a year when she threw him out of the house because of his drinking and coming home in the wee hours of the morning almost every night. Shortly after she asked him to leave, he showed up at my door saying he wanted to explain to me what was happening.
“You don’t have to explain anything to me” I said, not in an unkind way, “it is to my daughter that you owe an explanation, not to me.” And I didn’t allow him in. He never forgave me in spite of the fact that at later moments I stood by him in some very compromised situations, even sometimes against my daughter’s judgment which seemed to me somewhat harsh. Maybe because he’s a Scorpio, nothing since that first incident has ever convinced him that I was actually fond of him.
Given this situation and the fact that my daughter and her family always spent Christmas and New Year’s with her husband’s parents, my need to spend it with her had neither head nor tail. The strange thing was that I knew this but was absolutely helpless under the onslaught of this sudden obsession: I was even willing go so far as renting a house in Acapulco and inviting her and the whole family if necessary. Even my best friend looked at me quizzically when I explained the plan.
“I thought your son-in-law couldn’t stand you” she said.
“That’s right, but this is what I want to do.”
“That’s probably right too, we’ll see.”
I had no explanation for what was happening to me nor for what I was about to do, but that same day I phoned my daughter in Mexico and told her: “I want to take you and your family to Acapulco for New Year’s.”
Everything she argued to dissuade me was absolutely true, but nothing it seemed could move my decision a millimeter.
“I spend New Year’s in Acapulco with my in-laws and you don’t like them. You know how much they drink. It will be uncomfortable for you. Hector might not agree. If you come before Christmas, we will be going to my Father’s house for the Eve and you will be alone. No, I don’t think his new wife would want you there. Mother, it sounds difficult… But, ok, you come and we will see what we do if you don’t mind spending Christmas Eve alone.”
“Fine,” I was determined without having the vaguest idea what was going on inside of me. I didn’t like Christmas, I didn’t particularly like or dislike my ex’s new wife, I didn’t even like Acapulco… What in the world was happening? It was as if something had taken over my will and was directing the show without explaining to me or anyone else, its intentions. “Just do me a favor and ask Hector if it is all right for me to come to your house.” I had never done that before either; I usually just announced my arrival and took for granted that I could stay at my daughter’s.
“Oh, it will be all right with him,” she brushed off my request.
“Well, ask him anyway, please.”
To make a long story short, she asked him and he said “no” he did not want me staying in his house. My daughter was furious, and something inside of me knew I had expected that to be the answer. Things got more mysterious by the moment. Anyway, I planned to arrive in Mexico before Christmas, ask a good friend (who was in Acapulco) to loan me her apartment and do god-knows-what with myself (see friends, shop…) until the 26th of December when Hector was going to Acapulco to his parent’s house with two of his children while my daughter stayed in Mexico City alone waiting for her eldest son to finish his football training. Those four days I would spend with my daughter in her house and then… I had no idea. So I called my friend in Acapulco to see if I could use her apartment in Mexico City.
“Of course you can,” she answered delighted, “and why don’t you come and spend New Year’s with me in Acapulco seeing as you are not spending it with your daughter?”
The idea was tempting and it took me all of 2 seconds to say “yes”. I immediately made my plans, deciding to fly over on the 25th (after all I had no plans for Xmas so why not spend it on a plane), spend a night in a nearby hotel and arrive at my daughter’s house on the 26th after her husband had left.
Everything set, I called my daughter. Much to my surprise, in the interim all hell had broken loose. Her husband, in an attack of paranoia, was convinced that my daughter wanted to leave him and I was flying over to bring my daughter and her children back to Spain with me, and had kidnapped the children, taking them to his parents’ house and arranging with the police at the club ground’s entrance to not let my daughter through.
“I want a divorce” she told me over the phone, the anger and disbelief still heavy on her voice, “I hate him. I never believed he would try to take my children away. This is the end.” I listened while she explained how she had parked at the entrance to the club until her in-law’s chauffeur drove up with the eldest of her children in the car, and then stood in front of the car until it stopped. When her son got out (a boy of 14) she told him what had happened. He calmed her down.
“Wait here, Mother; I will talk to my grandparents and we will all be out in a minute.”
Sure enough, the eldest son managed to convince his grandparents that nothing was going to happen and they turned over the brother and sister. The ordeal was brief but the harm was lasting. My daughter wanted out. I explained to her about my travel plans and my going to my friend’s apartment in Acapulco for New Year’s.
“Do you think I might go with you, Mother?” she inquired. “The last thing I want to do now is go and stay with my in-laws after they agreed to hide my children and lie to me when I called to ask.”
It was difficult for me to absorb what had just happened. The circle had closed; my obsession of spending New Year’s with my daughter in Acapulco had just become a reality although all the planning had been done by the Universe and not by me.
“Of course you can come with me” I said, stunned at how Life had arranged such a turn of events. “I have never wanted anything so much in my life. And we’ll be together, and I can hold you, because what you are going through now is not easy.”
When I hung up, I got down on my knees. There was no other way to express what I was feeling. The gift had materialized, the gift was my daughter, my daughter asking for help, my daughter wanting to be with me, my daughter about to begin a new life and needing me there. A Mother for a Daughter: “Your Mother has to go now” the Gardener had said, “but she will be coming back with a big gift.” Yes, but only the biggest gift that a Mother could have.
It is two years later now and my daughter is divorced, making her own life and happier than she had been for a long time. I am packing my bags for in a few hours I will fly to Mexico, my daughter will pick me up at the airport and we will drive together to Acapulco to spend New Year’s again, while her children spend the holidays with their father. I think of Life and dreams, and miracles and gifts, and the strange way things have of happening without my having anything to do with them or even being able to control them at all. Nothing I could have planned would have equaled in love, closeness or quality those five days we spent together two years ago, bonding in a way that perhaps we never had before. Today I have a daughter: thank you Mother.