Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Fetching Water

The summer of 1951, before I turned seven, was the best one ever. The sun shone brighter, the melons were bigger, and the four o’clocks massed against the side of my grandparents’ farm house breathed out clouds of scent during the endless evenings when, after supper, the family congregated under the apple tree by the well.

The well, the apple tree, my father, and me in 1946
 My parents, my grandparents, my mother’s two sisters and her brother, my grandmother’s sister and her husband, and three older cousins sat on the stone benches or on the brittle grass and talked while the stars came out and the frogs croaked by the stream.  When my father took out his pocket watch and said, “It’s time to go to the fountain, don’t you think?” the family, still talking, would process into the silent village, greeting the occasional black-clad woman sitting on the stoop (“bona nit!”).

In the empty square, they filled two enormous càntirs at the fountain that, day and night, disgorged water from an underground spring. The càntirs were large clay vessels shaped roughly like beehives and closed except for two openings at the top, one for filling and another smaller one for drinking. In the dry Mediterranean climate, and thanks to the complex physics of evaporation, càntirs have been used to keep water cold for over four thousand years.

Although the water that came out of the kitchen and bathroom spigots was perfectly drinkable, once you had tasted water from the village fountain you never wanted to drink anything else. The entire family drank out of the same càntir. This was possible because, unlike me, the adults had mastered the skill of lifting the vessel high and tilting the head just right so that the water poured into the mouth without the lips ever touching the càntir. But the càntir was too heavy for me to lift, so when I wanted a drink someone would hold it above my open mouth and trickle the delicious, cold water onto my tongue.

 That summer, I was occasionally allowed to accompany the family on their nightly errand to the fountain. Proud and thrilled to be up so late, I walked along, scuffing my espadrilles on the dusty road, engulfed in the endless stream of talk.

On the way back to the house, the men would carry the full, heavy càntirs on their shoulders while the women entreated them not to spill a single drop. My aunt Xin would show me the Milky Way, known in Catalan as el camí de Sant Jaume (the road of Saint James), because in medieval times it was said to point pilgrims to the shrine in faraway Compostela, on the northwest coast of Spain.

“Look at all those stars!” Xin would say. “They look like clouds, don’t they? But do you know what they really are? They are the dust that Saint James’s white horse kicked up as it galloped towards Compostela.”

I was well acquainted with dust. Every day as I wandered on the dry summer roads, passing flocks of sheep or the occasional motorcycle would leave me dust-covered in their wake. Saint James, I reflected, must have had an enormous horse to kick up an entire galaxy of dust. And, I wondered, did the horse really gallop because it was in a hurry to get to Compostela? It seemed more likely to me, knowing the skittish nature of the species, that it had been frightened by those two bears grazing nearby, Ursa Major and her smaller friend, Ursa Minor.

Back at the house, I would beg someone to give me one last drink from the càntir before I was sent to bed. And I would fall asleep with the feel of dust between my toes, the cool earthiness of the water in my mouth, and the image of Saint James’s great horse cantering and curvetting in the sky.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020


The last time I saw her I was in my sixties, and she in her eighties. “I’m the one who taught you to read, remember?”she said. “It was the summer when you were three years old. Your mother didn’t think I could do it.”

She was the older of my mother’s two younger sisters, and we called her Xin. That long-ago summer she and I sat on the sun-warmed roof terrace of my grandparents’ farm house, looking at an alphabet book. The next thing I remember is the two of us again sitting on the terrace, but this time she is holding the newspaper. She points to a paragraph, and somehow the letters suddenly cohere into words that I can say out loud. “See?” she says, “I told you it would be easy.”

In the summers that followed she regaled me with the best in children’s literature, translated into Spanish: The Wind in the Willows, The Jungle Book, Mary Poppins, Little Women. I didn’t much like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, because I found Evangeline, the plantation owner’s daughter, too virtuous. My favorite was a series of books by a Spanish author about Matonkikí, a little girl with crossed eyes like me. Unlike me, Matonkikí felt free to do whatever came into her head, regardless of consequences. I found this fascinating, and I envied her with all my heart.

Long before Xin taught me to read, she recited poems until I memorized them. The earliest one was in Catalan, about an old shepherd who lay dying on a bed of dry moss. When she got to the part where his sheep wept because he could no longer take care of them, I would shriek for her to stop before I too burst into tears. Together we declaimed poems by nineteenth-century Spanish romantics, and a lot of Lorca which I didn’t quite understand, about the moon, gypsies, and the color green. 

But her stories were best. Some she adapted for my age and powers of concentration—I heard about Gulliver and the Lilliputians before I could walk--and others she made up. One was triggered by the buzz that her bedside radio made as she tried to tune to a distant station. She said that there was a mosquito living inside the set, and whenever I was allowed to take a nap with her, she would turn on the radio and tell me about the mosquito’s adventures.

She taught Spanish history and literature in my school, in the upper grades, and one of my few regrets when we left for South America was that I would never have her as a teacher. When, five years later, we returned to Spain for the  summer, I was plump, pimply, and self-conscious. She took me to a fabric store, selected a cheerful cotton print and sewed me a sleeveless dress, cinched at the waist and with a full skirt, in which I felt less awkward. One day, as I was on my way to a dance wearing the dress, she called me into her room and secretly applied an almost invisible smear of pink on my lips. But it wasn’t invisible enough for the watchful eyes of my mother, who made me wipe it off.
Xin's dress, and some residual awkwardness

It took me a long time to realize that, from birth, Xin was engaged in a struggle with my mother for the alpha spot among the siblings. Of course she loved me for myself, but in her sustained efforts to make sure that I adored her, to teach me to read, and to broaden my horizons, there was also a tinge of rivalry with her dominant older sister. I imagine that when we took off for the New World she must have heaved a sigh of relief.
My parents and Xin (and me in the pram) in Barcelona. Note that both my mother and Xin have their hands on the handle.
Xin wasn’t her real name. When she would come home from school and find me in my crib, I was so delighted to see her that my cheeks would bunch up and my eyes almost disappear as I laughed, giving me a supposedly Asian look. “Xineta! Xineta!”(“little Chinese!”) she would coo, and one of my first words was Xin, which then became her nickname.

She died last week, just short of a century old, on the feast of the Epiphany. I imagine the three Magi, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, hoisting her onto one of their camels and carrying her off to their kingdom among the stars.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

New Gloves, Etc.

My old black leather gloves were falling apart, so when the sun came out for a couple of hours the other day I drove to T.J. Maxx, which is not too far from where I now live.

Lined with car dealerships and fast-food restaurants, the road between my house and TJM is not what I think of as the real Vermont, but I reminded myself that in the decade I spent in my beloved, store-free village, I had to shop for most of my clothes at the church rummage sale.

None of the leather gloves at TJM fit me. When had women evolved five-inch-long fingers?  Might this be a sign from the universe that I should forego leather in favor of artificial fabric? After all, if I refuse to eat a dead cow, it makes no sense to clothe my fingers with the skin of one.

Luckily, the non-leather gloves on the rack weren’t all fuzzy and bulky. I found a sleek pair that fit perfectly. It even had a frivolous little strip of black faux fur (no rabbits harmed) around the wrist.

At home, I got scissors and went to separate the gloves, which were tightly bound together with those annoying bits of plastic filament. (One end is always easy to grasp, cut, and throw in the trash--you can’t recycle the things--but the shorter end invariably springs out of my hands and disappears into the carpet.)

Attached to the gloves by more plastic ties were four labels of various thicknesses. One announced, in gold-embossed letters on stiff black cardboard, that the gloves were weatherproof. Another assured me that the strip of fur around the wrist was faux. (Wouldn’t it be great if the manufacturers of faux news felt equally obliged to describe it as such?)

The third label stated the price, $14.99 (compare at $20). And the fourth explained that those reinforcing bits on the tips of the index and thumb made the gloves “touch screen compatible,” so that, should I need to check my Facebook page while standing in the middle of a blizzard, I won’t have to take them off.

By the time I had disposed of the four labels, I was feeling less sanguine about my purchase. Sure, neither cows nor rabbits had perished for the sake of the gloves, but some tree somewhere had been amputated to make those tags.

That wasn’t the only reason I felt guilty, however: I had bought more than gloves on my shopping trip.

We all know about the environmental cost of the clothing trade. I once heard a researcher describe the rivers near the manufacturing centers in China, which run all the colors of the rainbow with the dyes used on the fabrics.  Every time I walk into a clothing store, I think about those rivers.

But as I pushed my cart along the aisles of TJM, the profusion of colors, textures, and shapes made my head spin. And the prices! When did clothes get so cheap? When I was a teenager, getting a new sweater was a memorable occasion, but now sweaters, unaffected by trumpian sanctions, are practically a dime a dozen.

Outside, there was snow on the ground and the wind was blowing. The old sweaters in my closet had all sprouted a crop of pills, while here in the store, at easy reach of my hand and wallet, hung hundreds of sweaters, unpilled, just my size, just my colors, fresh all the way from China.

Reader, I caved. I bought not one, not two, but three.

At the checkout, I handed the clerk the sweaters and gloves, and my canvas New Yorker bag.

“What is this?” the clerk asked, pointing to the bag.

“It’s my bag,” I said.

“You want me to put your things in there?”

“Yes, please.”

She sighed. She folded the sweaters and began stuffing them and the cruelty-free gloves into the bag. “It’s hard to get it all in,” she said, as the line of customers behind me grew.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

But I really wasn’t. I felt guilty about the sweaters, but at least I’d saved a plastic bag.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020


For years I laughed at people who insisted on having their emotional support animals with them on the plane. I’m not laughing any longer. 

I have come to admit that I too have animal-related attachment issues. As a child, I had a teddy bear that kept me company; now, a couple of centuries later, I have two living beings, a red dog and a gray cat, that sustain my mental health.

I find it reassuring to have my steps dogged by Bisou and catted by Telemann as I move around the house. It feels disorienting to go for a walk without a leash in my left hand, a poop bag at the ready, and Bisou stopping at every sacred sniffing spot on the way. At night, watching cataclysms unfold on TV, I keep one hand on short gray fur and the other on long red fur, and life on this mournful planet seems more bearable.

In December, as we prepared to go on our Christmas travels, I lived in a state of anxiety. I had all the usual worries—packing, parking, getting on the right train. But most of my fretting was focused on the animals. Would there be a snow storm on the day when I was supposed to drive Bisou to her B&B in southern Vermont? (There wasn’t.) Would Telemann, alone except for twice-daily visits from a cat sitter, stop using the litter box in the quintessential mode of feline revenge? (He didn’t.) Would he tear up the house? (He tried.)

Day after day I told myself that, really, there was nothing for a rational person to worry about. Of course, this sort of thought never helps. It simply makes the worrier feel stupid, which gives her one more thing to worry about.

I tried to comfort myself by imagining the peace and contentment that would descend upon me once the trip was over and I could again take naps with Bisou against my right leg and Telemann on my stomach. Surely the happiness of having them with me again would match in strength and duration the anxiety that now had me so cruelly by the throat.

But for me, and I suspect for many others, our joys never feel commensurate with our sorrows. I knew from experience that the anxiety that had haunted me for weeks would not be replaced by an equivalent period of happiness after the trip. We somehow manage to sustain negative emotional states much longer than positive ones.

And that’s how it happened. After the ecstatic reunion (I spent the first night sleeping on the love seat, so Telemann could knead and purr to his heart’s content) things became, if not exactly humdrum, less than constantly joyous. Tiny worries—about laundry, groceries, the meaning of life--began to cloud my emotional skies.

But this time, with my former anxieties well fixed in my memory, I am attempting to hang onto a proportional level of happiness. As I go about my routines I occasionally stop and say to myself, wow, what gorgeous long ears Bisou has. Or I watch Telemann watching the winter-drab (but still adorable) finches at the feeder, and give thanks that his litter box habits have remained intact.

I was mistaken when I hoped that my happiness at being back would go on and on of its own accord. Spontaneous joy is something that we humans evolved to experience only in short bursts, lest we become complacent and stop scanning the horizon for lions on the prowl. Maybe happiness has to be cultivated, in the full botanical sense. The seed needs the right soil, water, and light. Above all, it needs attention.

And then it may, with luck, take root and flourish.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Cassandra Lineage

Whenever my uncle led the aged, utterly mellow cart horse out of the barn to be harnessed, my mother’s mother would come out of the kitchen and stand watching, her hands on her hips.

“This horse,” she would say, shaking her head, “is going to kill somebody one of these days.”

Like my grandmother, my mother worried constantly about potential catastrophes. “When your father and I married, and then you were born,” she confided to me years later, “I was happier than I’d ever thought possible. But even in the middle of so much happiness, I always felt that God was somewhere up in the clouds, with a big stick in his hand, waiting to hit me on the head.”

More years have passed, and now that I am my grandmother’s age I too spend way too much time looking out for murderous cart horses and wincing in anticipation of the next blow to rain down from heaven.

My grandmother’s and my mother’s persistent intimations of disaster were rooted in their experience of the Spanish Civil War, which lasted from 1936 to 1939. My grandmother was in her late thirties then, and my mother in her teens. Since they lived on a farm, they did not starve. But my grandfather, the village vet, sometimes had to hide from the bands of anarchists wreaking havoc in the countryside, and the family would frequently leave their beds in the middle of the night and crouch in a ditch to escape from bombardments.

“We all wore a little stick tied to a string around our neck, so that when the bombs came we could bite down on it and the shock waves would not burst our eardrums,” my mother remembered. The terror of the anarchist raids; the nights spent cowering in the ditch to escape the bombings; and, at the end of the war, the fear of the retreating soldiers left a mark on her psyche that lasted the rest of her life.

It’s not hard to see how those three years of living in constant fear would lead to my mother and her mother’s hyper-vigilance; their feeling that, if they let down their guard for a single moment, disaster would strike; and their bone-deep conviction that life was, at bottom, a tragic affair, and that passing moments of happiness were simply accidental flashes in the enveloping darkness, and not to be relied on.

My first decade passed against a chorus of cautions and warnings.

“This child isn’t eating enough.”
“Look! She has a fever again!”
“She’s pale. She should spend more time outdoors.”
“Don’t let her out of the house in the middle of the day. She’ll get sunstroke!”
“Quick! Shut that window. She’s standing in a draft.”
“Take that book away from her. She’ll get indigestion if she reads after lunch.”

While my mother was alive, I put a lot of energy into countering her apprehensions. When I was a teenager and she had her second child, I watched her live in fear that my vigorous little sister would waste away, and I tried to convince her of the basic sturdiness of babies. When my own children were born and she warned me against germs and other potential threats, I showed off my casual trust in their aptitude for survival. When she tried to talk me out of moving to a rural part of Vermont where hospitals are few and far between, I ignored her and did just that.

But now that both my grandmother and my mother are gone, my ability to put on that tough-woman act has deserted me, and I often shudder at the prospect of imminent doom. I envision endless tragic scenarios, ranging from a flat tire on a deserted dirt road to civil strife, fires, floods, and the extinction of honeybees. It is as if the rose-colored glasses that we all need to wear in order to function in the world have been suddenly ripped off my face, and life appears in all its meaningless gloom.

Just as, when passing in front of a mirror I sometimes think I’m catching a glimpse of my mother, I find myself reenacting the Cassandra role that she and her mother played so faithfully. But why? I didn’t live through the war. I didn’t have to cower in ditches in the middle of the night, or hide from anarchists, like my mother and her family. I didn’t starve, like my father and his family.

How, then, did I become infected with the Cassandra virus?

For years I assumed that my predisposition to see the dark side of things was something I had inherited from my mother and her mother, like my brown eyes and curly hair. But studies of the descendants of survivors of the Holocaust and other traumatic events such as the American Civil War point to a different explanation.

Though still controversial, these studies suggest that the trauma undergone by individuals of one generation can change the way their genes are passed on and expressed in their offspring, even if the parents do not discuss their own traumatic experiences and the children lead normal lives. The most common manifestations of this trans-generational trauma are anxiety, depression, and lack of resilience.

I don’t remember my parents and grandparents discussing the war in front of me. There were passing references to my father having to stay hidden for three years to avoid execution, but he never talked about what it felt like as a twenty-two-year-old not to be able to go outside, or play the violin, or have enough to eat. Likewise, other than the story of the little sticks on a string, my mother did not say much about that time.

But whether unconsciously, through her own anxiety about my welfare, or through epigenetic transmission, she passed on to me Cassandra’s gift of foreseeing disaster, and I often tremble in anticipation of whatever blow the universe is about to deliver next.

There are many depictions of Cassandra in ancient Greek vases, and she is always shown with brown eyes and dark, curly hair.