Monday, April 20, 2015

My Mother Says...Continued

After her story of the Spanish Civil War, my mother begins to tell how she met my father.  She might never have come across him if my grandmother had been more traditionally minded and kept her in the village, or if the war had not happened, or if my mother had not taken it into her head to learn to play the violin. 

I've known about these near-misses for years, but my cousin in Barcelona recently told me something that her mother, my mother's youngest sister, had revealed.  It seems that in the middle of the war, while my mother was falling in love with communist soldiers on their way to the front and my father was starving in Barcelona, a lieutenant colonel in Franco's army saw her and decided to marry her.  Secretly, he wrote a letter to the priest of my mother's parish asking for information about the family--their political views, religious practices, financial status, and so on.

According to my aunt, my mother was so enraged when she heard that he had written to ask about the family without first consulting her that she never spoke to him again. Whew!  If it hadn't been for my mother's sense of what was her due, I could have been the daughter of a fascist officer.

After the war, my mother says, I went to Barcelona to study Greek and Latin so I could teach high school.  I had become disillusioned with the law, which I had imagined to be about saving innocent people accused of terrible crimes, like in the movies, but which turned out to be extremely dull instead.

There was so little food in Barcelona!  Luckily my mother sent baskets of food from the farm, and Evita Peron sent ships loaded with wheat from Argentina.  (I remember as a toddler being fed pasta that had been sent by "that kind lady in Argentina."  You can read about my grandmother's food baskets here) The bread that my mother sent used to go hard and stale, and little worms would grow in it.  I was always careful to shake them out before I ate.  What? my mother says, seeing our horrified faces, it wasn't as bad as it sounds....

As a teenager, I  had bought a violin because it seemed exotic and exciting, but I had never learned to play.  The people with whom I was boarding in Barcelona recommended a music academy, and I went to meet the teacher.  I was expecting an old man, bald and bent over.  Instead I found a young man with thick black hair and a mustache.

I started taking lessons from him, but for two years we barely spoke, other than about bowing and intonation  (I wasn't a very good student).   Then one day he invited my parents to attend a concert that he was going to give near their village.  Next, his parents invited me and my sisters and brother, who were also studying in Barcelona, to have coffee at their apartment.  And then he started walking me home after the violin lessons.  I was the first woman he ever kissed.

We were married in 1943, in the village church.  His entire family came from Barcelona in a rented bus.  During the Mass, I was kneeling in front of the altar with my long veil spread out on the floor behind me when suddenly I felt a sharp pull:  the altar boy had accidentally stepped on the veil with his boot and torn a huge hole in it.  After the Mass we went back to my parents' farm, had a big meal and drank lots of champagne.

That night, we tied the mattress and the sewing machine that my parents had given us to the roof of the bus, and rode back to Barcelona with all the relatives.

Monday, April 13, 2015

My Mother Says...continued

The three years of the Spanish Civil War, my mother says, were the worst of our lives.  But they were nothing compared to what your father, whom I didn't meet until after the war, went through.  He was twenty-two when the war began, and he was already earning a living as a violinist.  He loved music more than anything else in the world.

When the war broke out, he was living with his parents in their apartment in Barcelona--it was normal for grown-up children to stay with their parents until they married.  Also living in that apartment were his two younger sisters, and his older brother and his wife, who was from Mexico.  Also the maid, whom the family had taken in long ago as a young orphan.  And sometime during those years the older brother and his wife had two baby boys, so there were ten people living together.

Your father had gone to a Catholic school and had belonged to a Catholic youth organization.  This was enough to make him a target of the anarchists, the Reds, and anybody who wanted revenge for the abuses committed by the Church, the bourgeoisie, and so on.  People betrayed each other all the time, from principle, envy, or resentment.  

For example, one night the militias came to the house of one of his school friends.  He hid under the sofa but they dragged him out and put him on a truck and carried him away to be shot.  But he was a very charming man, and he managed to make friends with the guard--offered him a cigarette and chatted with him--and the guard let him jump off the back of the truck and make his way back home in the dark.

Your father's brother was safe because he was married to a Mexican woman, and Mexico was on the side of the Republican government.  But there is no question that your father would have been killed if people had known where he was, so for three years he had to hide in the apartment.  At one point the owner of the building, afraid for his own life if it became known that he was sheltering someone, asked the family to leave.  So they moved to a different apartment, and that was the only time, from 1936 to 1939, that your father went outside.

Not only did he have to stay indoors and keep away from the windows, but he couldn't play the violin, or even speak in a normal tone of voice.  He had to walk as quietly as he could.  He was healthy and young and full of energy, and he could do nothing to defend himself or to help his family except to turn himself into a ghost--and paint buttons.  At that time, women's dresses were decorated with large buttons made of tagua, a plant material that looks like ivory.  So your father, who had always been good at drawing, earned a few pesetas painting tiny scenes on buttons.

For three years, crammed together in that apartment, the family starved.  We, on the other hand, my mother says, shifting to her own family, were never really hungry, since we lived on a farm.  We could grow vegetables--even in the winter there were always cabbages--and my mother kept rabbits and chickens, although the soldiers on the way to the front would often take them.  They didn't take the pigeons, however, so we ate a lot of pigeon, which nobody liked.

But if you live in a city and there is a war, you are helpless.  Food was almost impossible to find in Barcelona.  Before going to bed at night your father would drink lots of water at the kitchen spigot, so that his empty stomach wouldn't keep him awake.

The war finally ended with Franco's "liberation" of Barcelona.  There was a big parade and your father went to see it with his sister.  It was the first time he'd been outdoors in three years.  I guess he was dazed by the sun and the noise, but when Franco's car drove past he forgot to raise his hand in the fascist salute.  He was immediately picked up and led away to be interrogated.  Thousands of suspected Communist sympathizers were being executed by Franco's forces in the days after the war, and he would have been too, except that the family mobilized everyone they knew, including one influential Catholic industrialist, to vouch for him, and he was released.

One day soon after that, your father and his brother were out looking for food, which was still very hard to get, and they found (or they may have stolen) a big sack of beans.  They were so weak that between the two of them they barely managed to drag it back to the apartment.  All the Benejams ate beans for months, which is why, my mother says, smiling, after he and I married we never ate beans again.  Or pigeon.

(To be continued.)

Friday, April 10, 2015

My Last Big Dog

I will miss that long black body that was forever blocking, it seemed, my way around the house.  I would lift my knee and step over him and he would acknowledge me with a brief thwack of that long tail.  (I will not miss the tail, which had been known to knock small children off their feet and would clear wine glasses off the coffee table with a single sweep.)

I will miss his gravitas.  He liked things to be in their place and people and animals to behave  properly.  I got the first hint of this when he was ten weeks old.  At the end of puppy class the instructor threw half a dozen stuffed toys on the ground for the puppies to play with.  Wolfie retrieved them all, piled them up in the middle of the floor, and lay down next to them--not in a guarding, aggressive way, but looking pleased that order had been restored.  Once, when a boisterous puppy came to visit and was annoying Bisou, Wolfie quietly but efficiently, for the entire length of the visit, put himself between them, herding the puppy away from Bisou.  As he got older he became intolerant of even the mildest marital horseplay, and would streak to my side, with high pitched warning yips that clearly said "stop that at once!"

I will miss his gentleness.  He wasn't particularly big for a Shepherd, but he had a huge black head and pointy alert ears and white canines that looked like scimitars.  People who didn't know dogs found him scary.  Yet never once, in the eight years we were together, and no matter what I did to him, did he growl at me.  Whenever one of the hens escaped from the chicken yard he would dash after her looking like death on wheels, and catch and hold her down to the ground with his jaws.  Every time I felt sure that the hen would perish, but she never did, and I never saw so much as a drop of blood.  From earliest infancy Bisou entertained herself by leaping at his face, growling until he opened his mouth wide and yodeled, at which point she would stick her head into that great maw....

For the last four years, an insidious malady that five vets, including two specialists, could not diagnose slowly sapped his strength and made him lame in his front foot.  Our walks got shorter and shorter, and he became a silent presence around the house.  Then two nights ago, in the middle of a spring snow storm, I let him out and he lay down on the white ground.  When I asked him to come inside he didn't seem to know what I meant.  We had a long, uneasy night together.  By morning, I knew that he was dying. 

The vet came and could only guess at a "neurological event" that may or may not have been related to his mysterious illness.  It was clear to both of us what the right thing was to do, and he did it deftly and respectfully.

Now Wolfie is at rest, and so in a way am I.  There is relief in having the constant worry about him  taken away.  I will not miss the endless shedding and brushing (although the birds will feel deprived in the coming nesting season).  I will not miss the special diets, the pills and herbs that never helped.  I will not miss the guilt I felt every time I had to cut short his walk and then continue it with Bisou. 

My life just got a lot simpler.  But there is a palpable absence in the house, a dog-shaped black hole that my heart keeps falling into as I go about my day.

Monday, April 6, 2015

My Mother Says...continued

Last fall I began retelling here my mother's memories of growing up in a Catalan village in the years leading up to the Spanish Civil War.  You can catch up on those posts here:

When the story resumes, it is 1936, and my mother is forced to abandon her law studies at the University of Valencia because of the start of the Civil War.  I cannot even begin here to summarize the social, political and economic forces that led to that bloody three-year conflict, widely regarded by historians as a rehearsal for the Second World War.  Suffice it to say that purges, reprisals, summary executions, betrayals, wholesale destruction of centuries of art and architecture, and unspeakable atrocities were committed by both sides--the insurgents led by General Franco, and the communist-backed, democratically-elected Republican government.  If you are interested, George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia offers an in-depth, first-hand account of the early months of the war.

I was studying law at the University of Valencia, my mother says.  I was the first girl from my village to leave home to be educated, and I still cannot believe that my mother let me go.  Of course, I was carefully watched.  I stayed in a convent, and every morning one of the nuns walked me to my classes and then back to the convent.

I studied Roman law, canon law, political economy, civil law...but then the war began and the convent was burned and I had to go home.  I was eighteen years old.

The beginning of the war was a time of terror.  As a landowner, my mother continues, my father was at risk of being dragged out at night by anarchists and shot in a ditch, as many were.  But because he had always had liberal ideas, and because as a vet he had often cared without charge for the donkeys and mules of farmers who were too poor to pay, he was always warned when a purge was coming, and he would hide in the fields while my mother stayed in the house to keep it from being burned.  (My mother doesn't explain how my grandmother's presence in the house would cause it to be spared, but perhaps even the most rabid anarchists had a taboo against burning a house with a woman in it.)

I was afraid every minute of the three years the war lasted.  Summer and winter, night and day, when the planes flew over on the way to the front, we ran to hide in a ditch near the house.  We wore a small stick tied to a string around our necks, and we bit on it when the bombs fell close by, to keep the blast from bursting our eardrums.  My parents, my two younger sisters, and my little brother and I sat in the ditch in a fetal position, so that if we were hit we would be killed instead of maimed...The constant noise from the airplanes and the bombs and the anti-aircraft guns made me feel that I was losing my mind. I would gladly have committed myself to a life of poverty if that could have brought about peace.

I learned very early that all nations are capable of cruelty.  I also learned that human kindness is not defined by political allegiance.  As prosperous, middle class landowners, we were in danger from the communist troops on their way to the front, which was close to our village.  They did take our car, and they demanded wine and chickens.  Their espadrilles were soaked in fascist blood.   But those same soldiers shared their bread with us, and on the eve of what was expected to be an especially fierce battle they helped us to dig a shelter out in the field and camouflage it with branches, so we would not be killed by the retreating communists.  We slept in that shelter for a whole week, in December.

You know what was the saddest thing?  Towards the end of the war, the Republican government was running out of men, so they started drafting fifteen and sixteen-year-old boys who barely knew how to fire a gun, and sending them to the front.  People called them la quinta del biberon, the baby-bottle draftees.

All this time, I kept falling in love with Republican soldiers (not that they ever knew it), even though I knew that they would probably soon be killed in battle.  Of course, my mother reassures me, I had not met your father yet.  He was in Barcelona, and for him the war was even worse than it was for me.

(To be continued)

Friday, April 3, 2015

Bisou Loses Three Friends

During the ten minutes or so that it took my spouse and me to decide to move to Wake Robin, we asked the resident couple with whom we were having dinner if they could tell us one thing they did not like about the community.  The woman shook her head--she couldn't think of anything--but her husband said "Yes, there is one thing:  you make friends with people, and then they die."

Now, barely four months into her therapy dog practice in Linden, Wake Robin's nursing care facility, Bisou has lost some of her best friends.

On our weekly visits, not everyone reacts to Bisou with the same degree of enthusiasm.  Some people are too ill to do much more than give her a silent smile and a tentative pat.  Others are more interested in talking to Bisou's human retinue, especially to the young male staff member who accompanies us and on whom they dote with grandparently affection. 

But you can always tell the dog people.  Their faces light up as we come in the room and they pat their knees and invite Bisou up into their laps.  She looks into their eyes and they go into rhapsodies, telling her what a good girl she is, how smart, and what beautiful long red ears she has.  Then they tell her about the dogs they used to have.  Long-dead German Shepherds, Cocker Spaniels, Irish Setters, Labs, and Poodles big and small come back to life in these conversations, walking the kids home from school, retrieving pheasants, wolfing down a stolen box of cookies.... Bred to be a good sport, Bisou listens and lets herself be held.  When it's time to go she hops down and walks out of the room, nose to the ground, hoping for an errant crumb.  The dog lovers keep their eyes on her as she leaves.  "Look at that tail," they exclaim.  "It never stops!"

Over the last few weeks, three of Bisou's most affectionate admirers have died.  One week they were there, frail but dressed and sitting up, asking her for kisses, telling stories, oblivious to the red and gold hairs that she shed on their clothes.  And the next week they were gone, and the doors to their rooms, which used to be decorated with posters and photos and signs saying "Visitors Welcome!"  were closed.

It isn't easy to walk with Bisou past those newly closed doors.  But I'm grateful that I have her to keep me from taking comfort in the veil of secrecy with which our culture surrounds the end of life.  I know that the pleasure that our visits bring to the residents of Linden is only a small and momentary thing.  But while we're there, Bisou sitting on a narrow lap, me kneeling on the floor and trying to keep her from sliding off, we are fully invested in the moment which, in the end, is all that the resident in her wheelchair, Bisou with her wagging tail, and I really have.