Sunday, September 21, 2014

My Mother Says...(continued)

They wanted me to sew! my mother says, but all I wanted to do was read novels.  I hid them under my mattress, and I read them at night.

Didn't your parents see the light in your room?

No, because I didn't turn it on.  I used to kneel by the window, with the book propped on the sill, and read by the street light.  I read many novels that way, and that is why I went to law school.

Because of the novels?

Because of the novels.  I read about lawyers defending poor people against injustice, and I decided I wanted to be like them.  So I went to the University of Valencia to learn to be a lawyer.  Valencia was only a four-hour drive away, but in those days--before the Civil War--it was like going to America.

I still cannot believe that my mother let me go.  I was seventeen, and girls from my village did not leave home except to be married.  But as I've told you, my mother was different.  She was not afraid of what people would say, and even though like most girls of her generation she had no more than a grammar-school education, she was smart.

My mother's mother, my mother says, referring to her grandmother, died young, and left four children behind.  Her husband worried that a new wife would make the children unhappy, so he never married again.  Instead, my mother, who was the oldest girl--about twelve when her mother died--took care of the family.  At one point, when she was about fourteen, she did go away to school, but she cried because she was homesick, and her brothers and sisters cried because they missed her, so finally her father hitched up the wagon and went to fetch her home.

When she was eighteen, a spirited, pretty girl, she met my father, who was from a different village and  had just finished veterinary school in Zaragoza.  This seemed very exotic to her, plus he was handsome, so she married him.  When they came back from the honeymoon to their new house, they found her little brother and sisters already installed there.

 My father was a wonderful veterinarian, very progressive, and the peasants trusted him and loved him.  But he was terrible with money.  He couldn't bear to ask people for what they owed him.  In addition to his practice, my parents owned quite a bit of land which was farmed by sharecroppers, so we should have been well off.  But everybody, the peasants whose mules he cured and the sharecroppers who farmed his land, found it easy to get around Senyor Boque.  They were very good at finding excuses--a child was sick, the harvest had been poor--and he always said "Fine, fine.  Don't worry about it."

I'll explain later how this soft-heartedness of my father's may have saved us all in the worst days of the Civil War, my mother continues, but in the meantime there he was, with a wife and four children and a couple of maids to take care of, and perennially short of cash.  And that is when my mother--remember, she had very little education--decided to take things into her own hands.

She became his administrator, secretary and accountant, keeping track of visits paid and medications administered, payments received and monies owed.  When people didn't pay, she told him not to treat their animals, but, my mother says, softening her voice, he used to sneak out and take care of them anyway. 

She was fair but tough on the sharecroppers, too.  On the day when the wheat was put into sacks and weighed, she was there, making sure everything was fair and square...while my father took off  on a on a pretense to look at the fields, but really so he could avoid any disagreements that might arise.

And so, because of her work and determination, we began to have more money.  But she paid the price.  Everybody in the village said that Senyor Boque was a saint.  "La Senyora Boque, on the other hand...."  Still, she did what she had to do.

(To be continued)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

My Mother Says... (continued)

I don't know why my mother was so different from the other people of the village, my mother says, but she was, and so was my father.  This gave me a terrible complex when I was growing up, because I wanted my parents to be like everybody else.


They didn't go to church.  It's not that they were anticlerical, or that they didn't believe in God.  They sent me and my two sisters and my little brother to Mass on Sundays, but they stayed home.  My father didn't like it that at Mass the women and children knelt in the pews at the front of the church and the men stood in the back, by the door.  He thought that they were there just for show.  But I would have given anything to have parents who went to church like everybody else.

And, my mother continues, her voice rising as she recalls yet another mortifying fact, my parents went to the movies!  The mayor, the lawyer, the doctor all stayed home on Sunday evenings, like proper people.  But my father, the vet, without whose work the local farms would have collapsed, he went to the movies.  And he took his wife along!

But what was so bad about going to the movies? my daughter asks.


Only the poor people went to the movies.  They were also the only ones who could dance at the village festivals, as I've told you.  How I used to wish that we were poor....

But the worst thing was--and here she pauses dramatically and lowers her voice--that when my father went to the cafe after lunch, my mother went with him!  In Barcelona women went to movies and to cafes all the time, of course.  But this was a village, and before the Civil War no woman had ever been seen in the cafe, except your grandmother.  

My  mother stops to recall the scandal, and for a moment my daughter and I bask in our ancestress's daring.

The cafe, she explains, was only for men.  Every day after lunch, the men, rich and poor, went to the cafe to smoke and drink coffee and tell stories.   All the women stayed home, sewing.  It was a little bit like Saudi Arabia... You know, she adds, remembering another Saudi-like custom, that in the village it was customary at meals for the wife to stand and serve the family, and wait to eat until everybody had finished.  In our house, of course, my mother sat and ate with us.  This did not embarrass me so much, because other people didn't see it.

Another strange thing, my mother says, is that in winter she used to feed my father breakfast in bed.

She brought him breakfast in bed?

No, she fed it to him.  With her fingers.  My father used to lie flat in bed with the covers up to his chin and she would bring in a tray with a cup of coffee, two pieces of toast, and a piece of chocolate.  She would sit on the bed and give him a sip of coffee, and then she would break a piece of bread and put it in his mouth, and when he had swallowed that, she would give him a bite of chocolate, then some bread, then a sip of coffee...

And after that?


After that he would get up, put on his long underwear, his corduroy pants, his wool jacket and his black beret and hop on his bicycle and go on his rounds, to cure the mules and horses that had gone lame.  And you know what?  All the years they were married--and my mother married him when she was only eighteen, the prettiest girl in the village--she called him by his last name, "Boque," instead of his first, which was "Josep."

(To be continued)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

My Mother Says...

After so many years, the boundaries start to blur.  Mothers, granddaughters, daughters, grandmothers--the skein of talk and memory passes from one to the other and grows more tangled with each pass, so that in the end you can hardly tell the threads apart.

I am listening to some recordings that my daughter S made of my mother back when my mother was the age I am now and my daughter had just finished college.  She taped these sessions during one of my mother's visits, and in the background you can hear dishes being rinsed, a dishwasher being loaded.

My mother speaks, and periodically someone interrupts with a question or a remark, and often I can't tell whether that voice is my daughter's, or mine.  There's no mistaking my mother's voice, which  sounds young, like she could be thirty instead of seventy.  Prompted by my daughter, she begins to tell about her own mother and to bring to life a world that no longer exists:  the world of a Catalan village in the 1920s and 30s.  My mother's world as it was "before the war," meaning the civil war that sundered life in Spain into two separate eras:  before 1936 and after 1939.

Before the war, my mother says, life in my village was almost medieval.  The farmers plowed with Roman plows and a pair of mules. Middle class girls weren't allowed to do much besides attend daily Mass and, on Sundays, morning Mass and Rosary in the afternoon.  And visit relatives, of course, and the sick.  The married women all wore black.

At the harvest festival every year a band would come and there was a dance.  But I could never dance because I had to sit with my family in a box high up in the stands, and no boy dared make the trip up all those steps, in view of the entire village, to ask me to dance and risk being turned down.

But the poor people, they were out all night on the dance floor, and they could dance with whomever they pleased.  And they could go to the movies--even the women!--and see things like Mary Pickford and Buffalo Bill.  The poor people had all the fun.  How I envied them!

And you couldn't go to the movies?  my daughter (or is it me?) asks.

Of course not!  my mother says.  But my mother was different...

(to be continued)