Sunday, November 16, 2008

Of Fathers and Mothers and Children

We were eating in the dining room, on the long dark wooden table that extended from the door of the kitchen to the edge of the opposite wall. It was already getting dark and I could see the wide green leaves of the trees outside, rustling in the restless howling wind that came before an angry tropical storm. I was sitting at the head of the table, with my back towards the kitchen door. My father was sitting to my right and my grandmother was sitting to my left. Lorena was standing by my grandmother, helping her to eat, ready to bring her whatever she needed, a sly knowing smile always drawn across her face. Ana was moving around in the kitchen, arranging and rearranging the cooking utensils, her sandals slapping like little claps on the hard flat bricks of the old floor. The room was only partially illuminated by the indirect lighting on the eastern wall, and the pale light streaming in from the kitchen, leaving the dining room in a twilight of gray shadows. Tiny currents of wind made their way through the gaps in the windows and they whistled like little lost children flying over the long table, from wall to wall, from window to doorway, from darkness to light.
My grandmother was as quiet as she had been in the last few days, moaning softly and constantly as her thin body shook and little ungraspable melodies escaped from between her lips, always ending in soft little grunts and painful gasps for air. She ate slowly and methodically, every so often asking my father what I had said to him or what he had said to me. My father would then repeat it in a louder voice and, after two or three attempts, my grandmother would nod and moan to let him know that she had understood the message, and then she would get back to eating. My father mentioned Honduras and I asked him about his early childhood. Then I asked my grandmother about her own childhood. My question managed to get past my grandmother’s hearing problem and something unusual happened.
It was as if her whole thin frail body had been struck by a bolt of electricity. She straightened up and leaned over the table towards me, her eyes wide and deeply focused and her shoulders shaking slightly. She started to talk, in the intense continuous and vivid way that she used to talk years ago, and she told me stories I had never heard before, one after another, full of enthusiasm, reliving forgotten moments with a clarity that would have seemed impossible just a few minutes earlier. I could see the look of surprise in Lorena’s eyes and in my father’s. They expected her to give up quickly and return to her slow and soft moaning, but instead she seemed to get more energized, more excited and more alive, and my father and Lorena just looked at each other, wondering what had happened. I realized, with a pang of urgency that struck at my heart, that this could be the only time she would talk like this during this entire journey, maybe the last time ever, so I placed my whole attention on her, as firmly as I was able to, and I sat back to listen, watch and ask questions when it became necessary. And she talked and talked and talked. And I listened and listened and listened. And, somewhere in the back of my mind, I tried to keep track of all that I was hearing.
She told me of the old times in Honduras, back when they lived in a little town called Juticalpa in the big inland state of Olancho. It was a place that sat on the border between a new civilization and the ancient wild, a place where there was a clear attempt at establishing European style laws, rules and etiquette, but the raw violence of the machete and the intense hunger of animal lust were always around the corner, waiting, watching, like a fierce tiger stalking behind flimsy wooden bars. The rule of law was more of a general suggestion, a piece of theatre to be enacted when things were calm, but it was quickly set aside at the slightest sign of turbulence.
Every so often, the revolutionaries, as my grandmother called them, would come to town in the night and someone would come running to alert her mother, screaming: "They are coming down from the mountain!" It was not necessary to say who "they" were. Everyone knew them. These feared revolutionaries were men of ideals that my grandmother perceived as savages, men who had sacrificed the comforts of society for a chance at glory and political change. In their youth, they might have been clean shaven young men with open eyes and open hearts. In the mountains they had grown violent, rude and dirty and their coming was seen as a recurring local plague. Upon hearing the news, my grandmother’s mother would calmly place a large sheet on the floor and there she would place enough clothes for everyone. She would tie it all up in a bundle and then they would run from the house, leaving it open and empty and defenseless. One night that my grandmother remembered, they escaped to a house next to a jail and all night my grandmother would hear the prisoners beating hard against their chains and against the bars, calling for release, hoping for freedom. My grandmother looked at her mother with horror and asked: "Mother! Why did you bring us here? This is where the bad people live!" But her mother just told her to be quiet and they stayed there all night, listening to the anguished cries of desperate men, knowing that their own house had been taken by the revolutionary guerrillas from the mountains. As my grandmother talked about these mountain fighters, I could almost see them with their long dirty knotted hair and scraggly beards, in dirty white uniforms and long black boots, with wide flat hats and simple thick rifles over their shoulders and belts full of bullets around their waist. My grandmother must have feared them terribly, but her mother knew that the family was safe as long as they stayed away. The guerrillas would stay in their family house for a while, they would eat their food, sleep in their hammocks and beds, even kill some of their livestock, and then they would leave. And my grandmother’s family would come back to do the cleaning and sleep in their own beds after one or two days had passed. The family, from the window of a house nearby, once saw how the guerrillas killed a bull in front of the family house. As she told me about this, my grandmother made a dismissive gesture with her hand and she shook her head: "They were dirty and careless! They left the whole house in a big mess! They did it just to be spiteful!"
Honduras in those days was in a state of constant political upheaval. The two opposite sides in the political battle were the Nationalists, the party that looked towards the past with admiration, and the Liberals, the outsiders who rejected the past and hoped for a different future. My grandmother’s father was Luis Suarez and he was the president of the Nationalist Party in the state of Olancho. He was also a great personal friend of the legendary dictator of Honduras: Don Tiburcio Carias. Don Tiburcio was a man that my grandmother loved and admired, as a kind of strong and powerful father that reigned with a tough but fair hand over an entire nation of children. This is why the revolutionaries would take over their house in particular each time they came down from the mountains, because of their intimate connection to the single most feared ruler of the land.
My grandmother remembered, with a clear sense of nostalgia and pride, walking in the Nationalist parades down the main street of the town of Juticalpa and screaming the name of the beloved dictator, the glowing father in the faraway shining city that ruled with fearsome finality over all his many peasant sons and daughters:
"Viva Tiburcio!" ("Long Live Tiburcio!")
And when she screamed again his name, that night in front of me, her face, now so old and wrinkled, turned once again strong and clear, and her eyes were shining with defiant anger and her mouth was twisted into a vertical rectangle and her lips pushed out like the red flowers of a cactus and her voice was loud and strong and it echoed in the twilight room:
"Viva Tiburcio!" ("Long Live Tiburcio!")
Long live Tiburcio above all others! Long live Tiburcio for he is strong and proud! Long live Tiburcio in our hearts and in the city and in the dark soil of the mountains! Long live Tiburcio as an eternal symbol of love and strength and power! Long live Tiburcio whether you like him or not! Long live Tiburcio who hovers above your thoughts, your prejudices or your desires! Long live Tiburcio who goes on forever and exists in all places and times! Long live Tiburcio who is good because he says so and needs no confirmation from you or anyone else! Long live Tiburcio who is a true man in a world of spoiled children! Long live Tiburcio who shows us the way of the sword and of fire, the only way that is true, the only way that works, the only way that persists through the ages! Long, long, long live Tiburcio!
One day, when Tiburcio’s reign had ended and four decades had passed, she was walking by the place where she knew that he lived. She was going somewhere else and she just happened to be near this place, for no purposeful reason. It was a big flat colonial house with a traditional open garden in the middle. The doors to the street were wide and thick and they were half open. The urge to see him came like a strange whim without reason and she turned towards the half open doors and walked inside. My grandmother had never talked to the legendary man in forty years and she had not thought of doing so until this day, but once the thought had formed in her mind, and her will had coalesced around it, she walked straight into the house as if she had always been there, as if this had been her house all along.
The old man Tiburcio, the old general of a thousand battles, both feared and loved all throughout Honduras, was sitting on a hammock among several people who, even after all these years, still clung to his every word. My grandmother walked up to him, without fear, shyness or subtlety, and boldly announced: "I am the daughter of Don Luis Suarez, your great friend of many years ago!" His eyes lit up and he smiled and laughed with sympathy and told her to sit down. He had someone bring her something to drink and they talked for hours of the old towns and the old ways and the old wars and the old triumphs and the old glories. In an instant, the old man recognized something in her eyes that he didn’t see so often in the eyes of the newer generations. In that instant, he brought her into his inner circle, without reservation or doubt. She was one of the people of the old times, one of the survivors of the recurring self betrayals of a society bred on recrimination, resentment and contempt, one who carried about her the signs of the real world that he had known in a distant past not completely forgotten. That was all he needed to know of her. After that instant of recognition, all further words that came out of her mouth were like music to his ears.
From that day on, he became her invisible protector. She asked him for a post in the embassy of Honduras in El Salvador and he responded: "But Graciela, I am not in power anymore. I can’t make such a thing happen." But there was a twinkle of a knowing smile on his lips, an acceptance of a secret that was not so secret, that old power remained even if the ruling masks were replaced by new ones. My grandmother said to him: "I don’t have anyone else to ask. So I have to ask you." Don Tiburcio nodded and called for one of his orderlies to take her to see the President and, when they were in his office, the orderly said: "The general says that you should give her a post in the embassy in El Salvador." Upon hearing that the general wanted this to happen, it was done immediately, as if God himself had spoken. Several years later, Don Tiburcio’s son, who then had become President, got the post of general consul in Boston for my aunt Nena. The son would say to my grandmother in the midst of friendly laughter: "You have a very powerful friend. The general simply says to me: ‘I want you to take care of her and support her in any way that is needed.’ And because he says it, that is what we do."
My grandmother took it all in stride. She would walk in and out of the National Palace with complete liberty. Everyone knew her and all the guards would step out of the way when they saw her coming. She would eat there whenever she wanted to, she would watch movies in the President’s private movie theater, and she would walk directly into the President’s office and ask for an audience whenever she felt like it. Many diplomats would ask her to get them a few minutes with the President, recognizing the special access that she had somehow acquired. She would get them what they wanted and they would simply wonder at the power of this little lady with fierce eyes of defiance.
When my grandmother got the post in Boston for my aunt Nena, at first my aunt refused to go and my grandmother would then say to her: "But what are you going to do here in Tegucigalpa? There is nobody here to take care of you!" My grandmother was genuinely worried that her daughter would end up poor and hopeless in the streets of the merciless capital of Honduras. She had managed to get her a golden opportunity to escape, but her daughter refused to understand it. After a lot of talking and a lot of nagging and a lot of waiting, my grandmother finally convinced her. My Aunt Nena prepared for the fearsome voyage to the north. Knowing that the weather in Boston would be much colder than the sweaty moist afternoons in Honduras, my grandmother took some old large blankets and she turned them into thick bulky coats for my aunt and for her son, Lorenzo. The coats were strange in color and shape and they didn’t fit quite right. When people saw them dressed in the strange coats, they thought that they must be Russian refugees. My Aunt Nena left Honduras and went to live in Boston, where she led a peaceful life of comfort and curious observation, away from the harsh realities of Tegucigalpa or Olancho. Her son studied in a very good university and went on to become an executive lawyer. As far as a standard human eye could see, my aunt had found paradise. Nobody would ever know what her life would have been like if she had stayed in Honduras.
As she told me this story, my grandmother turned to me and pressed her fragile little body against the table. The she said: "Nena doesn’t remember."
I asked her: "Why do you say that she doesn’t remember?"
Her eyes got wide and sad and she said: "Because she never mentions it. People only remember the bad things. The good things, they forget. There could be a long list of good things but they would all be forgotten. But if there is one single bad thing that happened, that one thing they will remember!"
She remembered then that a teacher used to say to her: "To be young is to be an idiot!"
She nodded her head to that saying, tasting the truth of the words in her mouth, and she continued: "When one is young, one doesn’t see things clearly. As one grows up, one starts to realize things and one would want to go back and change things, do everything differently. There is a long line of mistakes… mistake after mistake after mistake… A man used to say to me: ‘After all, if one could go back and start again, if one could live life all over again, one would live it perfectly, one would know how to live it!"
I thought of what this man said and I felt the pain in my grandmother’s big open eyes and I thought to myself that maybe one would make the same mistakes all over again, pushed by uncontrollable forces that would overwhelm any knowledge or memory, and, one day, once again, one would look back and wonder what one could have done differently. Maybe this had already happened. Maybe it was happening as we spoke on that windy night.
I looked at my grandmother, and in a loud voice that I strained to make as kind and loving as possible while still being loud enough to be heard, I asked her for an example of the mistakes she was talking about, of the things that became clearer as time passed by and that she wished she could change. She nodded, understanding my question, and then she said: "My mother. I never saw how good she was with me. I didn’t ever see it until it was too late. Now I spend all my time talking to her. I wake up in the middle of the night and I call for her: Mama, Mamita, Mamaita. I used to laugh at her when I saw her talking to her own dead mother in the darkness and now I spend my time talking to her. During the day and in the middle of the night. I wake up and call her. I ask her for strength."
I asked her if her mother ever responded to her calls and she said, simply and directly, "No. One time I thought I saw her as some kind of being of light, but no, she doesn’t respond, I only talk to her, I am the one that talks, I ask her for help in letting go of what is tormenting me."
My father then interrupted her to tell her that she shouldn’t feel tormented at all, that there was no reason for it. I stopped him, knowing that at this point my grandmother had no choice in the matter, and I asked her: "Why are you tormented? Why do you feel tormented?"
"Because there is no peace among my children. Because they are so divided. I wish they could be united and happy."
I asked her why she thought they were so divided.
She answered in a loud clear voice: "Because I see it! I see their division! I see their anger! I see it all around me! It doesn’t let me live in peace!"
I asked again in a different way: "But what has made this happen? Why did they become so divided?"
She shook her head, looking down towards the table, and the wrinkled old flesh of her cheeks flapped around like wet pieces of old cloth: "I don’t know."
But I could see the desperation in her and I knew that in some way she believed that it was her fault. Like the prisoners in that old jail in Juticalpa, she scraped at the metal bars of her invisible prison, but freedom would not come. What was it that she felt guilty about? What was the terrible mistake that lurked in the depths of her memory? An answer shone before me at the farthest edge of my inner vision but I couldn’t quite grasp it, it was too faint, it was too transparent, it was too elusive for me to hold.
My father again interrupted to say that it was all my Aunt Lichi’s fault. That she was a terrible person, an ugly hateful bitch and that she was the one that created division among them. My father and his sister Lichi had been fighting each other, in very vicious, hurtful ways, for most of my life. When I was young and lived with my father, I saw my aunt and her daughters walk straight by my father without saying hello, without ever turning to acknowledge his existence. I also saw my father react intensely and attack her with painful, hateful words of recrimination and disdain when he felt attacked or somehow disrespected. I could see implicitly and beyond question, that my father’s answer was wrong. It wasn’t all my Aunt Lichi’s fault. It couldn’t be.
My grandmother then said: "I love all my children the same. I don’t love one more than another."
My father insisted: "But you were here when the phone incident happened and you saw how…" I interrupted him then and, calmly but firmly, I forced our attention back onto my grandmother. When she saw my eyes on her and she felt the silence around her, she continued:
"I want a priest to come and bless this house. I want it to be cleansed and purified from so much anger!" My father laughed and said that only my Aunt’s apartment needed cleansing. My grandmother dismissed the joke and continued: "I want to do it. Even if it’s only me and the priest here by ourselves." In that moment, I saw the believer in her, just as I saw it when I sometimes would overhear her praying to particular old saints in a soft secretive whispers. It was such a stark contrast to the times when she would rave against the church and the priests whom she accused of being thieves and liars. But she clearly knew that something needed to be done, an action in the subtler levels of reality, and the church was the only answer her human brain could find, the Catholic church was the only spiritual knowledge that she was aware of.
She almost started to cry when she said that all her children had their good points and that they all had their particular defects, but that she loved them all. She repeated that phrase like a mantram that would somehow disperse the poisonous anger that was present even that night, like a brewing tropical storm that can turn into loud thunder and brilliant lightning at the smallest provocation.
"All mothers are good," she said it as a final statement, an archetypal law that transcended any questions or investigations.
My father responded: "Some are good and some are not."
She shook her head again and spoke in a louder voice: "No. Not some. All. All of them. All mothers are good. What is true is that some are more able than others, some have more skill and some have less. You can’t ask someone to do more than they are able to. They can only give what they can give."
She came back to saying how much she loved her sons and how tormented she was. Then my father interrupted the strange delicate space abruptly and he said that my grandmother had to go to bed. He walked around the table and took her carefully by the hand. My grandmother stood up and walked slowly to her bed, her head lowered and her mouth silent except for the little moans that always escaped from between her thin wrinkled lips. As they walked, my father said to me that once she was in bed, we could continue talking. But, once in her room, she left to go to the bathroom and my father laid down in his own room to watch sports on the TV. I was alone in my grandmother’s room for several minutes, wondering about the things she was not saying, wondering how much of it she knew and kept silent on purpose and how much of it escaped her own knowledge and only came through in ephemeral glimpses as she talked. My grandmother came back into the room and, instead of going to her bed, she walked directly towards me and grabbed my arm tightly in her thin little trembling hand. Looking intensely into my eyes, in the last wave of energy that she would be able to gather that night, she said:
"Your father does not like to listen to this. He doesn’t like it when I talk about this. But you do. You really listen to me. I can see it. When I talk, I can see you listening. I can feel it. Your mother told me that sometimes you say: ‘This is just like my grandmother says’ You really do listen. I am very unhappy about what happens between my children. I am not at peace." She looked into my eyes in silence and I looked back at her and we breathed together in the darkness of her little room. "You really listen to me. It is important to listen to the old ones."
My father stepped back into the room and my grandmother turned away from me and went to bed, saying in a soft voice that she was ready to go to sleep. I said good night to her and walked up the wooden steps to the living room. Sitting alone on the light brown couch, I tried to write all that she had said to me, knowing that a lot of her real communication was in the gaps of silence, in the scenes left unspoken, in the mistakes left unsaid. There was a depth in her vague allusions, a profound detail implied in her voice and her intonation, a weight that anchored her words to a stronger foundation. The same words could be spoken by another person, but the weight would be missing. It was this weight, this depth, this subtle ancient meaning that hid behind the words and around them, it was this rumbling ancient drone that could be easily missed by a mind that was easily distracted. It was this weight that made it truly important to carefully listen to the old ones, to listen to the single primordial tale of a thousand chambers and masks and twists and turns, a tale that traveled through the maelstrom of time to find new beings to ingest it, to transform it and to pass it on. That night, it flourished once again within the thin little body of my sick grandmother, to find a new living vessel, a fresh carrier that was now sitting quietly in an old house, in a stormy night, in the decaying city of San Salvador.

Don Tiburcio Carias, the fearsome stern father
whose shadow extends over the history of Honduras.

My grandmother and her five children.
Some have died,
some have simply grown old,
some continue to fight.

My father as he is today,
with a look of sadness over things he cannot name.

My grandmother as she is today,
with the weight of her many mistakes and glories
resting on her weak old back
and the light of newfound clarity
all around her.

The altar that my grandmother keeps by her bedside,
my father and her, me when I was a little boy,
the virgin in all her many forms,
and her mother in the only old picture that remains of her.

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