Monday, November 28, 2016

Early Critters

It may have been my mother's mother, the one who brought me a lame chick to keep me company after my tonsillectomy, who ignited my passion for animals. Or it may have been that, as the only child in an extended family, for me a dog or a cat, a rabbit or a hen was the closest I could get to a playmate, a sibling, someone who did not tower above me and talk about things I did not understand.

I grew up in a vast turn-of-the-century apartment in Barcelona. My mother, having been raised on a farm, believed that animals should not live under the same roof as humans. No dog claws skittered on the hard tile floors. No cat left a drift of fur on my pillow.  I hungered for a friendly, silent presence at my side, but had to make do with watching the pigeons who perched on our balcony.

But summers were different. We spent them at my grandparents' farm, in a fertile valley south of the Pyrenees, where an endless procession of animals amazed and delighted me. Horses and donkeys munched and snuffled in the stable; a sow the size of a bus fed twelve of her children in the sty. My grandmother let me throw corn to the hens who scratched the dirt in the courtyard, giving wide berth to the hunting dog, an Irish Setter who lived chained to his straw-bedded house. She would lift the cover of the nest box in the rabbit hutch and hoist me up to see the hairless litter moving feebly in a cozy cloud of  fur. And when one of the semi-feral cats who lived on mice and bread crusts gave birth, she would take me up to the hayloft and move aside the hay so I could see the still-blind kittens sleep entwined like the fingers of two clasped hands.


My grandmother and I feeding the chickens
One summer, she arranged for a goat kid to arrive in time to be my companion. Another year, it was a lamb. I tried my best to get these creatures to follow me around, but they seemed mostly intent on pursuing their own goals, the goat leaping up to reach the branches of the pear trees, the lamb on getting away from me.


The lamb and I
When one of the sows farrowed, my grandfather would detach a warm, pristine piglet from one of her teats and place it in my arms. Many years later, when the nurse handed me my first-born I inhaled the same clean, slightly oily smell from her scalp that I had smelled on the little pig.

The horses, donkeys and mules were my favorites, both the ones that belonged to my grandparents and those that were brought to be treated by my veterinarian grandfather. I would watch out the dining room window as some poor mule was brought limping into the farmyard by a couple of peasants wearing standard Catalan country attire: black beret, blue shirt, a black sash around the waist, black corduroy trousers, and dusty espadrilles. A hand-rolled cigarette hung perennially from their lips. 

My grandfather would appear and confer with the men, run his hand over the mule's back and lift one of its hooves. The mule would shy and roll its eyes; the men would admonish it in low, soothing tones, and my grandfather would do his work. I paid special attention to his technique for giving injections. After rubbing the area vigorously with a swab of cotton dipped in alcohol, he would drop the cotton on the ground, bring out an enormous syringe and plunge the needle in. When the men and the mule were gone, I would take my toy horse out to the yard, disinfect its hind leg with a bit of rag, fling the rag to the ground, pierce its thigh with a nail, retrieve the rag, rub the other leg, give another shot, and so on until I was called inside because the sun was too hot. 

I spent hours skulking around the farm, watching the creatures, absorbing their smells, wondering what they were thinking, and how it would feel to touch one. But I was constantly warned against getting too close to them--the sows had been known to eat children, the horses could bash your head in with a kick--and my grandmother would have fainted at the thought of bringing the dog, or one of the kittens that periodically tottered to the back door, its finger-long tail held high, into the house.

Back in Barcelona, in early December my mother would take me to the Christmas fair that was held next to the cathedral, to get supplies for our Nativity scene. But first we would go into the cathedral, to see the geese. Barcelona's Cathedral of Saint Eulalia may be the only church in the world to harbor geese--thirteen large white birds said to be the descendants of a gaggle first put there in Roman times.

It would have been bad spiritual manners to go straight to the geese, so first we used to stop before the main altar to pray. Already as I knelt there, with the grit on the kneeler digging into my bare knees, I could hear them, their cries echoing against the stones. I would say a quick prayer and whisper, “Can we go now?” My mother would answer by closing her eyes and praying some more. She knew the art of sharpening anticipation.

Eventually we would rise, make the sign of the cross, brush the grit from our knees, genuflect as we passed the altar, proceed in a dignified manner to the holy water basin, make another sign of the cross...and emerge into the cloister.

The cloister was like no other place I knew—a space that was both indoors and outdoors, where light and sound bounced oddly among the stones and the palms and the orange trees, a space that spoke to me of beauty for its own sake in the midst of the serious business of religion. A space inhabited by geese.

In the center of the courtyard was a raised stone platform, surrounded by an iron grille, where a moss-covered fountain trickled water into a spacious basin. There the geese, with majestic disregard for the holiness of the place, honked and waddled on the flagstones, making the most amazing green droppings and then casually gliding into the water and floating about, looking
pleased with themselves. Warm, alive and untamed in the midst of the stone and cement of the city, those geese seemed like a miracle to me.


Hoping that that goose will let me pet her
Not long after the visit to the geese, it was time for the Christmas capons. They came by train from my grandparents’ farm, in a large wicker basket cushioned with straw and covered with a piece of burlap. When the birds, annoyed but alive, arrived at our apartment, my mother would  put them in the cement tub in the laundry room. There I would sit until bedtime, watching the way their red combs shook as they cocked their heads to look at me with one eye and then the other, stretching out a finger to touch their feathers, inhaling their hot poultry smell and feeding them crusts of bread. 

The next morning, inevitably, the empty laundry tub was scrubbed clean and the apartment became, once again, devoid of animal life. I don’t remember making any connection between the succulent birds at the center of the Christmas feast and my temporary pets.

After the capons were gone, I hibernated for six long months until the train and then my grandfather's horse and buggy conveyed me back to my real home, the farmyard and the dusty summer roads and my animal brothers and sisters--the horses and the rabbits and the chickens that made my life feel real again.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Pizzicato (finale)

“Flat! Flat! You’re flat!” my father cried, swooping into my bedroom and waving his arms. He wasn’t scolding me—he just couldn’t bear it when I played out of tune. Occasionally, these interruptions would turn into a full lesson. More often, after reminding me to hold up my violin, my father would dash off to a rehearsal, a performance, or some other student’s regularly-scheduled lesson.

I was twelve and more advanced now, playing “real” music—Handel, Vivaldi, Viotti—and practicing an hour a day. But as I progressed, my ability to criticize my own playing had also advanced, and I was more aware than ever of the gulf that separated my playing from my father’s.

As conscious as I was of my failings, I had little notion of how to remedy them, and every hour I spent cloistered in my room with my four-stringed enemy felt like a week. Worst of all, my hoped-for reward—an hour of my father’s attention and possible approval—only came at long and unpredictable intervals. Given all this, I failed to see why I should be made to practice at all.

This is where my mother came in. My father having neither the temperament nor the leisure to keep me on task, she became the enforcer. “Have you practiced yet today?” she would ask as I finished my homework.

I would roll my eyes and close the door to my room. I would open the case, inhaling the sad, sour smell that emanated from its maroon velvet lining; pick up the violin; tuck it under my chin, and tighten the bow hairs. Then I would begin my musical Stations of the Cross—first the scales, then the harder position and bowing exercises, uphill through the assigned pages of Kreutzer, finally ending on  the Golgotha of some sonata. When the hour was over I would emerge shouting “I hate the violin! It’s awful! I despise it!”

My mother would shake her head sadly. “Such a pity! Such a pity! Daddy tells me all the time what a fine violinist you could be if only you wanted to. He says you have a good tone—something that can’t be taught….”

I wondered why my father never said those things to me, never looked me in the eye and said I had a good tone. As it was, my mother’s words only irritated me. “I don’t care,” I would say, stamping my foot. “It’s hateful. Why should I spend all this time on something I hate?”

My mother would smile wistfully. “Some day, when you are grown up and married, and living in your own house, on a rainy afternoon when you are feeling melancholy you will pick up your violin and play, and be grateful that I made you practice.”

This explanation only added fuel to my anger. I didn’t want to grow up into a lady with no way to fill a rainy afternoon. I had seen what empty afternoons did to my mother! Despite my dislike of it, to me the violin was serious business, not some bored housewife’s occasional pastime. I knew only too well how terrible that housewife would sound, if she only practiced when she was in certain moods.

Underlying all this was my intuition that there was something amiss in the lives of my mother and the other women in my family. They were charming, attractive, educated and smart. They were good at many things: they embroidered, painted in oils, played various instruments. They read constantly, went to concerts and to art exhibits every week. But somehow, in a way I couldn’t understand but was sure of, they weren’t serious. My father, on the other hand, was.

On the brink of puberty, without ever having been told so expressly, I saw myself relegated by fate to the charming, witty, non-serious side of things. Unfortunately, I wanted both: to be clever and attractive (especially that, please God) as well as serious. As for the violin, if I couldn’t play like my father, then I wanted no part of it.

Years passed.  My mother stuck to her guns and I to my grousing. In my freshman year in college, my father decided that I needed some orchestra experience. The woman who played in the last stand of the second violins in the Birmingham Symphony was going on maternity leave and had to be replaced. My father drove me to the conductor’s house one afternoon. I auditioned, and was told to report for rehearsal that same evening.

The nightly rehearsals and weekend concerts wreaked havoc with my social life, not to mention my study hours. I was so terrified of playing an unintended “solo” that I spent my time in the orchestra mostly trying not to be heard. But in some ways these were good music times for me: my father was the violin instructor at the college I attended, and I signed up for classes from him. On Friday afternoons, when it was time for my lesson, he would suggest that we go back home and do the lesson there. But I, knowing what would inevitably happen once we arrived—the phone would ring, my mother would have to be driven somewhere, somebody would drop by—insisted on having my lesson on campus, in a real classroom, like a regular student.

He must have liked what he heard during those lessons, because one day he announced that he and I were going to play the Bach Double Violin Concerto at the college’s weekly assembly. (In those by-gone days, it was usual for the undergraduate student body to convene for cultural events.)

Both flattered and terrified, I practiced hard. He and I rehearsed together a few times, and I got some pointers on ensemble playing (don’t play loud all the time; listen to the other voice). The day came. I did my best and even enjoyed it, in a strange way. The audience clapped and clapped--the Bach Double is an easy work to like—and one former boyfriend confessed that he had wept during the slow movement. I was pleased, and yet…

I was living at home, cleaning the house, doing the ironing, babysitting my sister, and giving private language lessons. I was taking a full academic load, majoring in Biology and French. I got only one credit for my violin courses, but worked harder on that than on all the rest.

Compared to the violin, the rest of college—the life cycle of the blood fluke, the dissected dogshark, even the poetry of Mallarmé--seemed relatively straightforward. I longed to sit with my classmates drinking coffee in the snack bar in the afternoons, listening to Frank Sinatra and smoking an occasional cigarette. I longed to walk the leaf-strewn campus paths with a boy at my side, like a regular American college student. The violin had to go.

All this was half a century ago. I am now a married lady, in my own house. And on a rainy afternoon, or even a sunny one, whether I am feeling melancholy or otherwise, I open my case and take out my plastic Yamaha alto recorder. I start with some basic tonalizations, remembering to hold my instrument up and minding my breath (which is the hairless equivalent of the bow). I struggle through some challenging bits by “Unknown 18th Century Masters” and cap things off with Georg PhilippTelemann, a composer who devoted himself to tormenting recorder players.


Before I know it, an hour has passed. I look forward to my lessons, and to playing duets and trios with friends. These days, nobody has to remind me to practice. As I swab the spit out of the instrument and put it away, I can hear faint laughter emanating from the woods behind the house, where my mother’s ashes are scattered.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Pizzicato (continued)

Slowly and solemnly, my father set the violin on my left shoulder and tucked it under my chin, then stretched out my left arm to support the neck of the instrument. It was my long-awaited first lesson--the beginning, I hoped, of long, interesting sessions in which my father would pay flattering attention to me, and from which my mother would be excluded.

“You must hold the instrument up, up! so it’s never pointed at the floor,” he said. Then he went to work on my right hand, molding my fingers one-by-one into proper position on the frog of the bow. While this was going on, my left arm had drooped until my elbow rested comfortably on my belly. “Up!” my father reminded me. Next he gently placed my bow on the A string. “Now, veeery carefully, move the bow towards the tip.” I did, and the bow skittered disgracefully across the string, making an appalling noise.

“Yes,” my father said, “it is very difficult. I will explain.” Stopping periodically to raise my drooping left arm, he explained how the hair of the bow should be turned towards my face when I was playing near the frog, then gradually turn until it was flat when I played at the tip; how I was to press lightly against the string when the bow was at the frog, and gradually increase the pressure as I moved towards the tip; how at all times the bow was supposed to stay in an ideal (but unmarked) spot between the bridge and the fingerboard; how I should never put on too much resin on the hair, or touch it with my fingers, or neglect to wipe the wood with a cloth after every practice session.

“Bowing is very difficult,” he repeated, “but it is the key to a good tone, and without good tone there is no music.” Goodness knew I wanted to have a good tone. Those first bowings across the A string had been the sound equivalent of sucking on a lemon. But I was hopeful. Surely it wasn't all about the bow, and before the lesson was over he would teach me how to play a song? But after a few more explanations and some more proppings of my feeble left arm, my father declared that he had a rehearsal, and had to leave.

“What am I supposed to practice?” I asked.

“Bowing on the A string, of course,” he said.

“But what about my fingers, the ones on my left hand. Don’t I get to use them?”

He waved his hand towards the ceiling. “That will come much later, when you have practiced lots of bowing, at least five minutes every day.”

“Five minutes just bowing on the A string?”

“Of course,” he said. “Bowing is crucial! And don’t forget to hold up your left arm.”

And I did practice bowing on the A string, although all the instructions about the angle of the bow hair, the pressure and placement of the bow on the string, and the need to hold up the violin quickly vanished from my ten-year-old mind. This was so different from the piano, when from the first day one could play five notes with just the right hand, and those five notes sounded like regular notes, not like the unearthly screeches I got out of my A string. But at least my mother was keeping out of my way.

A week later, I caught my father as he was getting up from lunch, brushing crusty breadcrumbs off his pants. “Can I have my lesson now?” I asked. “Well, o.k.,” he said, looking at his watch. “Five minutes, because I have to leave for rehearsal.”

He repeated all the instructions from the first lesson, and showed me how to bow on the E string. “Now that you’re playing on two strings, you should practice ten minutes,” he said, putting on his coat and picking up his violin case.

A few weeks later, I was allowed to place my index finger on the A string, to play a B. By now I was required to practice fifteen minutes a day. I stood in my room (”Your father is composing. He must not hear you,” my mother said, closing the door), playing my five notes over and over, not knowing what I was aiming at but feeling in my very bones that the evil wooden box under my chin and the reverse magic wand in my right hand had nothing to do with music as I understood it.

Music was what my father made, and anything less sounded to me like an abomination. If music had been presented in a less reverential, more playful way, I might have developed a friendlier feeling towards the violin, but this was long before the Suzuki Method. As it was, with every squeak, every wrong note, I felt like a clumsy altar boy who spills the communion wine at Mass.


My humiliation at the inability to sound like my father soon turned to rage. Gritting my teeth, I would crumple up a particularly difficult sheet of music, then guiltily smooth it out again. Once I whacked my bow hard against the music stand, and several long white hairs came loose. Terrified that I had done irreparable damage, I cut them off with my mother’s manicure scissors and hid them in the kitchen trash. You know that little overhang where the top surface of the violin meets the side? A close look at my first violin would reveal two shallow dents made by my front teeth....

Monday, September 26, 2016

Pizzicato

“Would you like to do a pizzicato?” my father would ask, smiling under his black and bristly mustache. I would toddle over and he, taking care that my grubby fist did not graze the body of his violin, would put my finger on the E string and I would pluck it. Then he would wrap the violin in an old brown silk scarf of my mother’s and lay it carefully in its case, as if he were putting a doll to bed.

A violin being tuned—first the E and A strings together, then A and D, and finally D and G--followed by a warm-up scale was among the first sounds to reach me inside my mother’s womb. A couple of years later, when my father was practicing the solo part of the Beethoven Violin Concerto and I was being toilet trained, my mother found me on the potty one day, humming the opening bars of the third movement.

Not long after that, I started attending concerts. My father’s orchestra performed on Sunday mornings in the Palau de la Musica. My mother would first take me to Mass, and then to the concert. Those Sunday mornings required feats of self control on my part. First there was the sitting quietly at Mass, but at least that was interrupted by periods of kneeling and standing. But the sitting at the concert was unrelieved, and it seemed to go on for days. Fortunately, the concert hall was a near-psychedelic example of Art Nouveau architecture, and I entertained myself by gazing at the sculptures of the nine muses whose gigantic torsos protruded out of the wall behind the orchestra. Still, I conceived an early hatred of the Romantic composers, whose symphonies went on and on, fooling me into thinking that they were about to end only to rebound in cruel codas. Brahms and Schumann were especially bad that way.

In that pre-Suzuki era, music instruction was a serious, solemn business. When I was eight, before I was allowed to approach an instrument I did a year of solfeggio, a method to teach pitch and sight singing, and musical dictation. Nobody expected this to be fun, and it wasn’t.

When I was finally permitted to begin the piano I took lessons from my father’s sister, Maria Dolors, a gentle, skittish person, thin and wide-eyed as a gazelle. She was so tentative in her instruction that the closest to a correction she ever got was a whispered “perhaps you could try it like this...” I felt protective of my vulnerable aunt and worried that my mistakes gave her pain.

At home, when my mother sat next to me on the piano bench, my feelings were quite different. She had had some piano instruction herself, and she thought that she would help things along by correcting my technique while I practiced. But there was nothing tentative in her manner, and I resented her intrusion in what I perceived to be Maria Dolors’s and, by extension, my father’s domain.

The entire landscape of my life was ruled by my mother. She made me put on sweaters when I wasn’t cold, eat when I wasn’t hungry, go to bed when I wasn’t sleepy, and kiss ancient, black-clad relations who smelled funny. She supervised my prayers, scrubbed my face, braided my hair, put bows on my braids, and held my hand tightly while we crossed the street. Music, I had assumed, was outside her domain, but now she was invading that as well. Despite her having been my father’s student before their marriage, she knew very little about the violin, however. It occurred to me that, if I took up the violin, I would be safe. Even better, my father would be my teacher.

At eight or nine years old, I longed for my father’s attention. He was a benevolent but remote figure: “a saint,” according to his mother and sisters; “very busy, and not to be disturbed,” according to my mother. And he was busy, rushing from rehearsal to performance with his violin and sitting down to compose at the piano when he had five minutes to spare. I don’t think he ever once scolded me, partly because I was too much in awe of him to misbehave and partly, I suspect, because he didn’t notice me. For years I had racked my infant brains for ways to get him to focus on me. Now the solution was at hand: I would take up the violin, and he would have to give me lessons.


So after a year of piano, having mastered Schumann’s The Merry Peasant, I began to clamor for a violin.  My parents acquiesced, and on February 12, the Feast of Saint Eulalia, virgin and martyr, they presented me with my very own instrument. I couldn’t wait for my first lesson—which, as it turned out, also became my first lesson in the need to choose one’s wishes carefully. (To be continued)

Monday, September 19, 2016

Fun with Foreign Languages

My mother was a born adventurer, a conquistadora , the first female ever to leave her village in quest of higher learning in Barcelona.  But after she married the mindset of the era caught up with her and she gave up her studies and settled down to making my father happy and being a good mother.

She supervised the maid, mended socks on rainy days, went to lectures and art openings, argued with her sisters, and read.  But her wanderlust kept her restless and frustrated. When it came time for me to go to school she looked at the convent schools for girls and found them tame. Besides, they all taught French as a second language, and France was hardly exotic, being practically next door, just across the Pyrenees.

Then she heard about a new school run by German nuns, and her imagination caught fire. Germany! Those deep pine forests, the men in strange leather shorts, that fabulous snow—here was weirdness and the promise of mind-expanding adventures, especially since the nuns, who barely spoke Spanish, promised to have me speaking German before I reached puberty. This, my mother hoped, might qualify me to marry an ambassador some day, and help to make peace in the world.

But neither my mother nor the nuns realized that a state of terror interferes with learning, especially learning a foreign language.  My German nuns, survivors of the Reich, were fiercely devoted to discipline, punctuality, and standing up straight.  In their hilariously inadequate Spanish they would shriek strange insults at us. Eres mas tonta que la noche! (You are dumber than the night!) was a common reprimand that made no sense to us Catalans, who associated night with the scent of jasmine and the trill of the nightingale.

In that atmosphere, I found German grammar even more impenetrable than math. Der,des, dem, den; die, der, der, die... no matter how well I memorized them, declensions made no more sense to me than lowest common denominators.

Fortunately, after almost five years of this, my mother’s wanderlust freed me from my struggles with German. My father was offered the chance to go to Ecuador as part of a string quartet; she urged him to accept; and when I was ten we left Barcelona for the wilds of South America.

In Quito, she enrolled me in a school run by Spanish nuns for the daughters of the Ecuadorian aristocracy. There I was instantly branded as la españolita, the little Spaniard, because of the way I spoke. Although my classmates and I shared the same language, my Castilian Spanish was the equivalent of British English, and I must have sounded foreign and affected to them. It took me about a week, in self defense, to shed my accent and sound like a local, incorporating not only their pronunciation, but also native Quechua expressions:  arrarrai (hot), atatai (disgusting), achachai (cold).This appalled my parents, who thought I was prostituting my national identity. But I had to fit in somehow.

Meanwhile, the river of Catalan in which I had used to swim in Barcelona shrank to a narrow stream. My parents and the other three members of my father’s string quartet all spoke Catalan, but everyone else—the maid and the vegetable seller and the Indian man who sold us milk from his cow--all spoke South American Spanish. To my Ecuadorian classmates, I was the little Spaniard, period, and they didn’t know or care that I wasn’t really and truly Spanish, but Catalan.

In my new school there was a teacher from Germany, a tall, thin man who, thank heavens, taught only English. After the rigors of German grammar, the apparent simplicity of English was balm to my brain. After class I would mumble bits of phrases to myself:  Little Miss Muffett/sat on a tuffet/eating of curds and whey.  Tuffet, curds, and whey were mysteries to me, but they sounded cool.  English was cool, and I thought I had just about mastered it.

When my parents and I landed in the wilds of Birmingham, Alabama, in 1958, the confusions about where I came from and what my “real” language was continued to dog me. In the Catholic high school that I entered as a freshman some of my classmates weren’t too certain of where Spain was on the map, and what distinguished it from, say, Mexico. When people assumed that my native language was Spanish, I tried to explain that it was Catalan.

“Oh, you mean a dialect of Spanish?”

“No!” I would shriek. “Not a dialect! A different language! A completely different language!” And they would shrug and turn away, baffled.

After a while, I stopped explaining, and let my friends assume that Spain was a homogeneous culture where everybody spoke Spanish, played the guitar and danced flamenco. At home, though, with my parents, I spoke Catalan.  The river of language had shrunk to the merest trickle, but it still flowed where it mattered.

At least for a while. Then in 1960 my parents, who had long been disappointed in their hopes for a large family, produced another baby. I was sixteen when she was born, and as delighted as my parents were. Undeterred by the fact that Americans found my name, Eulalia, unpronounceable, my parents proudly gave my sister another weird but thoroughly Catalan name: Nuria, after a valley in the Pyrenees.

Where language was concerned, however, they were more pragmatic. As an American, my sister would need to know English, but learning Catalan as her second language would take up precious space in her brain. Spanish would be far more useful, and therefore they decided that we should switch from speaking Catalan to Spanish at home.

This threw me into fits of adolescent rebellion. Although I had all my life spoken Spanish to  non-Catalans, I could not bear to even think of speaking it to my parents. It felt artificial, affected, false, pretentious, and profoundly embarrassing. But my parents were adamant, so I compromised. If my sister was in the room, I spoke Spanish. But the moment she toddled off and I was left with my parents, I would switch to Catalan, even in mid-sentence. When she toddled back in I would clench my teeth and go back to Spanish.

My parents also decreed that, since my English was better than theirs, I should speak to Nuria in English, so when I was alone with her that is what I did. To this day, even though she speaks it well, I don’t think my sister and I have exchanged a single sentence in Spanish.


That is how the trickle of Catalan slowed to an occasional drop. After my father died, it became a language that for many years I spoke only with my mother. Now that she is gone, I almost never speak it. On the rare occasions when I do, the words feel like stones in my mouth.

Friday, September 9, 2016

River of Words

I was too short to reach the faucet, so to ask my mother for a glass of water, I said “un vas d’aigua, si us plau.” But if I had to ask the maid, I said instead “un vaso de agua, por favor.” Somehow I knew to speak to my parents, my aunts, and my grandparents in Catalan, a Romance language born of the sloppy Latin of the Roman soldiers who occupied the northeast of Spain. But to speak to the maid, who came from the south, I used Castilian, another descendant of bastardized Latin.

When Ferdinand and Isabella unified the various kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula in the 15th century, Castilian, known in the rest of the world as Spanish, became the official language of the new country, and a centuries-long suppression of regional languages such as Catalan and Basque began.Growing up under Franco’s dictatorship, my generation wrote and spoke Spanish, which was enforced as the language of public life, more correctly than Catalan. But for all his efforts to eradicate it, Franco could not erase Catalan from the dining room table with its cruet of olive oil and its bottle of dark red Priorat, or from the bedtime stories, the nightly prayers, and the lullabies.

Although as a toddler I didn’t think much about the difference between Spanish and Catalan, I was acutely aware of the distinctions between barceloní , the variety of Catalan spoken in Barcelona and by my father and his family, and lleidatà, the variety spoken in the province of Lleida, a mere eighty miles away, where my mother came from. Although as a city kid I should have spoken barceloní, my heart belonged to the horses, pigs and chickens, the wheat field and the grape arbor of my maternal grandparents’ farm, and I proudly spoke a countrified lleidatà.

But whether barceloní  or lleidatà , I spent my childhood swimming in a river of language that flowed over and around me and sometimes threatened to engulf me.  If you had asked me in my earliest years what adults did, I would have answered that they talked. At our house the radio was only turned on for selected programs, and there was no television. So people talked, all day and far into the night, as a kind of sport.

My mother and her sisters talked while they mended their stockings, ironed their blouses, or braided my hair. If one of them gave an opinion, the other countered it. If one told a story, the other corrected, expanded, and topped it with an even better one. When my father came home from rehearsal at the Liceu, the Barcelona opera house, he told us about the fabulous all-Black American company that had come to perform Porgy and Bess, or the amazing ballerina Maria Tallchief--also American, and a real Indian. Back from the bakery with the midday loaf of crusty bread, the maid relayed what she had heard the baker’s wife say as she stood in line.

After the meal I would sit on my mother’s lap while the adults lingered at  the table, talking. With my head on her chest I could predict by her intake of breath when she was about to say something. I couldn’t understand what she was saying, but I knew if she was feeling excited or angry by the rhythms of her breathing and the resonance of her voice inside her rib cage—the same rhythms and sounds that had lulled me during the nine months I had inhabited her body.


Words, followed by sudden pauses and then more words, swirled around me as I drowsily pressed a moistened fingertip onto the tablecloth to pick up the last crusty crumbs of bread. People gestured and exclaimed, burst into laughter, interrupted and talked over each other. This was not considered impolite, but rather a sign of interest and engagement.  Failure to participate prompted anxious inquiries: “You haven’t said much.  Are you coming down with a cold? You should have worn a sweater this morning. Let me feel your forehead...” (To be continued.)

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Therapy Chicken


My mother opens my nightgown and sticks the thermometer under my arm.  “Hold it tight against your side and don’t move,” she says, checking her watch.  “How long?” I ask. “Five minutes, as always. Be patient,” she says. After an eternity, she takes out the thermometer and frowns at the mercury. “Mare de Deu! Thirty-eight point five!” she cries, shaking down the thermometer.

I know what this means: anything above thirty-seven degrees centigrade leads to what my mother calls “a good sweating.” It begins with my swallowing an aspirin dissolved in a teaspoon of water. Then my mother lays a lasagna of covers on me—a couple of thick woolen blankets topped by a feather-stuffed duvet. For a while my temperature continues to rise, and I lie shivering under the blankets, feeling as if my bones have turned to ice.

 But as the fever drops the shivering gradually diminishes.  The ice in my bones melts away. And then I feel hot, so hot that I start to fling the covers off. But my mother has been watching for this moment.  “No, no,” she says, pressing down the comforter and the blankets. “You must lie still and sweat, or you won’t get well.” “How long?” I ask. “You’re not nearly there yet.  You have to be patient,” she says.

My hair sticks to my face.  My flannel nightgown is glued to my legs so that I can’t turn on my side.  “Shhh!” my mother says, “don’t move.” She tells me the story of  Jordi pastoret , a shepherd boy who lives on a mountain with his sheep and his dog. How I envy him his mountain, his sheep, and especially the dog!

Eventually, I give in to the appalling heat. I stop listening to the story and just go limp. My mother takes my temperature again. “Thirty-six point five, thank God!” she says and draws back the covers. She peels off my sodden nightgown, rubs me down with alcohol and dresses me in a dry nightgown. Meanwhile, the maid has put fresh sheets on the bed. I lie back down, the heat and stickiness replaced by a cool dryness. The ordeal is over.

But only temporarily.  If my fever spikes again, there is another aspirin, and another sweat. If the fever stays down, I nevertheless have to spend the next day in bed, an entire day when my arms and legs seem to take on a life of their own and, like unruly horses, have to be restrained by sheer willpower from leaping out of bed and taking me with them. I spend those endless days practicing patience, making mountains and valleys with my legs under the covers (“Do not throw your covers off.  You’ll get sick again!”) and staring up at the familiar cracks in the ceiling, imagining the outlines of faces and hands, the same faces and hands that will be there waiting for me when I get sick again.
 
If the aspirins and the sweats don’t work right away, my mother calls Dr. Contreras. He is young and usually in a hurry, and I hate him because every time he sees me he mimics the terrified shrieks with which I used to greet him when I was a baby.  He doesn’t seem to notice my grown-up self control. Impatience radiates from him as he unbuttons my nightgown and puts the stethoscope to my chest and then my back. I recoil at the warmth of his head, the smell and scratchiness of his dark hair. “Be still,” he says. Then he stands up, snaps his bag shut and says to my mother, “She’ll be fine. Try not to look at her so much.”

But what else was there for my mother to do, if not look at me? The troubles of my early months—her failure to produce enough milk, my endless crying—must have shaken her self-confidence as a mother. In addition, she, my father, their families and the entire country had barely survived a bloody civil war. All of a sudden, with peace on the streets and a new husband and a child of her own, life seemed suspiciously good. “I felt as if God were standing over me with a stick, ready to bring it down on my head,” she told me many years later.

It was no wonder that she regarded my existence as a precarious gift, something that could be taken away from her at any moment.  So she watched me day and night, feeling my forehead for the onset of fever and making sure I wore a sweater when the merest cloud obscured the Mediterranean sun. For my part, I accommodated her with an endless stream of sore throats, earaches, flus and indigestions that gave interest and drama to her days.

Of all those early illnesses, one shines out as a time of great happiness. Like most of my generation, I had my tonsils removed. My maternal grandmother came to visit while I recovered, and she brought me a chick from her farm. She had chosen him because he had a defective leg, which meant he couldn’t run very far. He was just past the adorable fuzz-ball stage.  His pale primary feathers were already poking out of his little wings, and I could see his future comb beginning to part the yellow down on top of his head. In chicken years, he was probably about my age.


 The moment my grandmother put him on the bed, my sore throat and my boredom disappeared, and an inexpressible contentment came over me. I no longer felt the least desire to get out of bed. Instead, I wanted to spend the rest of my life lying in that quiet room, with my hand on those soft, warm feathers, and those thrilling cheeps in my ears: my first experience of the mysterious power of an animal’s companionable presence. (To be continued.)

Monday, August 15, 2016

Mother Bear



The ancient Greeks believed that bear cubs were born as formless blobs, and it was their mothers who, by diligent and careful use of their tongues, licked them into proper bear shape. As soon as the midwife put me in her arms, my mother got down to her version of the bear’s task: to shape me into the best possible specimen of humanity.

Like a bear cub with its mother, I was seldom out of her sight, or out of her arms. Even after I could sit up by myself and would normally have begun to crawl she held me, because setting me down on the floor even for a moment would have been dangerous and unhygienic, something that only “gypsies and peasant women” did. Inevitably, however, there came a day when my increasing weight and my desperation to get free of those loving arms became too much for my mother. But instead of putting me down and letting me figure things out on my own, she decided to teach me to walk. Bending over at the waist to support my hands and keep me upright, she matched her steps to mine as I tottered up and down the hallway of the apartment. Fueled by months of pent-up energy, I clamored to walk whenever I wasn’t sleeping, and after hours of “walking lessons” my mother’s back hurt almost as much as her cracked nipples had when I was first born (see preceding post).

Years later, when my sister was a toddler and my mother was in her forties, I would come home from high school to find my mother on the sofa, a hot water bottle under her sacrum. “I’m exhausted,” she would say. “I had to spend the whole afternoon teaching Nuria to walk. You can’t imagine what this does to my back!” From my sixteen-year-old vantage point, I wondered why she was always so tired, and whether caring for an infant need be such an all-consuming task. But my mother’s intensive approach to childrearing had more to do with the needs of her temperament than on the real needs of the child.

Her thirst for adventure and her impatience with the ordinary, combined with her parents’ progressive views, had given my mother an education very different from that of her peers, who were expected to learn little more than fancy embroidery and perhaps the piano. At a time when girls were kept close to their mother’s skirts until they married, my mother went away to school in Valencia, Pamplona and Barcelona, places that in the early 1930s seemed as strange and far away from her village as Tibet. She studied law, and then Greek and Latin. She was attending university in Barcelona when, on a whim, she decided to learn to play the violin and met my father, who was her teacher. And when they married, the consensus of an entire culture about the role of women, the advice of the two families, and her own unconquerable dread of examinations led my mother to give up her studies.

After her marriage, despite the five flights of stairs that she had to manage daily on her way to and from the stores, the need to watch every peseta, and the Spartan conditions of the apartment, my mother’s life became less demanding.  My father adored her, and expected little more than that she have lunch ready when he dashed home between rehearsals. And she had a maid to scrub the tile floors and do the dishes and wash clothes by hand in the little laundry room next to the kitchen.

While my father careened—by metro and streetcar but mostly on foot--from rehearsals to performances all over the city, she read books, prepared my layette, went to lectures and art openings with her sisters. But the days seemed long, and she was afflicted with an inner demon that gave her no rest. There had to be more to life, more meaning, more urgency, more work. She had dreamed of becoming a trial lawyer, defending the innocent from barbarous injustice, and now here she was, ironing pillowcases....

I was born a year after the wedding, and at my first cry the demon was banished: my mother now had a project, a life-or-death task at which she had the chance to excel, a job more exalted than any career in the courts, and one requiring utmost vigilance, willpower and self-sacrifice. Here in her hands, in the guise of a baby to lick into perfect shape, was the challenge she had waited for. And she rushed to meet it with all the force of her young body and her restless mind. (To be continued)

Monday, August 8, 2016

Saved By a Vet



If my mother had confined herself to embroidering baby clothes during her pregnancy, all would have been well.  Unfortunately, she also read books about baby care, and at the time these were rife with behaviorist principles. New mothers were instructed to pick up their infant only for feeding and diaper changes, at strict four-hour intervals. This was supposed to result in a well-disciplined baby who would lie quietly in her crib, entertaining herself with her own thoughts and not relying on other humans for company or comfort.

But, for my mother and me, things did not go as the books promised.  Long before the next feeding was due I would begin to mewl and grouse, progressing to ear-splitting shrieks that went on for hours. My mother would hover over the bassinet, watching my face grow from red to purple and my arms flail in distress. Longing to comfort me, but determined to do things properly, she would only allow herself to stroke my fist with one finger. She was probably even more miserable than I.

When it was finally time to nurse, I latched on so fiercely and was so reluctant to let go that my mother developed cracked nipples. This caused her such pain that the only way she could bear to feed me was to bite down on one of her lace-bordered handkerchiefs.  The pain did not make it easy for her to let down her milk, and the slower the flow, the more savagely I sucked...Forget those placid Madonna-and-Child nursing scenes.  Ours was more like the Martyrdom of Saint Agatha.

(My mother was not the only one to suffer under the influence of behaviorism. Across the Atlantic, my future mother-in-law, on her doctor’s advice, would leave my husband-to-be shrieking in his crib and go out for a walk, to avoid being tempted to pick him up and “spoil” him. It must have been as compensation for this draconian upbringing that our generation morphed into the love-obsessed flower children of the 1960s.)

My mother’s parents lived in Ivars d’Urgell, a village in a fertile plain south of the Pyrenees, west of Barcelona. As soon as she heard of my birth my grandmother packed her suitcase and a basket of autumnal home-grown provender—dried figs, almonds, raisins, and the last of the year’s butifarras  (sausages). My grandfather hitched the horse to the covered wagon and drove her to the train station, but he declined to go along. Having a grandchild--I was the first, my mother being the eldest of his children—made him feel old, he said.

He was in his fifties, one of the last generation of large-animal veterinarians who cared for the horses, mules, and donkeys that plowed the fields and brought in the harvest. His car had been requisitioned during the Spanish Civil War, and for the rest of his career he visited his patients on a bicycle, wearing a black beret on his bald head and bicycle clips around his ankles, and smoking endless roll-your-own cigarettes.

It took him a month to get over his fear that the sight of me would turn him into an old man. He got on the train, arrived in Barcelona and, as he climbed the five flights of stairs to our apartment, he could already hear me screaming. He kissed my mother, handed her another food-filled basket from my grandmother, and followed the howls to the bassinet. He picked me up, lifted my dress and inspected my abdomen. He had seen enough calves, foals, piglets and lambs, in addition to his own four children, to know what a thriving infant looked like, and I did not look like one. 
 
“This child,” he exclaimed “is malnourished!  Why haven’t you been feeding her?”

“I think perhaps I don’t have enough milk, because she cries day and night,” my mother answered. 

“Of course she cries—she’s starving! Forget about nursing. She has to gain weight right away, or she won’t last long,” he said.

Then began the search for something to feed me. In the years following the war infant formula was practically unavailable, but, as it happened, a relative of my paternal grandparents owned a factory that manufactured powdered milk. He let my parents have as much as they needed, and I was put on a diet of powdered milk thickened with bread crumbs.

For all his initial reluctance to accept my birth, by the time he boarded the train back to Ivars my grandfather and I were firmly bonded, probably helped by the fact that he had saved me from dying of hunger. During my summers in the country, and in his letters after we left Spain, he repeated to me the Catalan saying: els fills dels teus fills son dues vegades fills (your children’s children are twice your children). I didn’t understand then the depth of affection that he was trying to convey, but the saying became as much a part of my grandfather as his beret, his cigarettes, and the bicycle clips that he put on before he set out on his rounds.

Despite the vast amounts I consumed, the powdered-milk gruel did not kill me. “You were so ravenous,” my mother used to say, “that it took two people to feed you—one to put the spoon in your mouth while the other filled the next spoon. If there was the slightest interruption between spoonfuls you would fly into a rage, choke, and vomit. And then we’d have to start all over.”

Luckily for me, my mother’s younger sisters, Maria (whose name I changed to “Xin” as soon as I could speak) and Pepita, periodically shared our apartment and helped with the mealtime dramas. But their influence went far beyond those early feedings. Until we left Spain when I was ten, my aunts were treasure troves of entertainment—they made up stories, played dolls, and let me watch them put on make-up. Xin recited Lorca poems to me (“Huye luna, luna, luna...” and “Verde que te quiero verde...”) long before I could understand them, but the pure music of the language engraved itself in my brain. And she taught me to read when I was three.

As an only child surrounded by adults, I sensed in my aunts’ youthful presence a secret sympathy. But many years later I realized that their most valuable gift was to help dissipate my mother’s intense focus on me.
(To be continued)