Both my father and mother worked from the time I was a baby. I don’t know when my dad started working in Propulsora Siderúrgica, a steel plant (I guess), but before that he worked with my mother in the LEMIT (which I still remember stands for “Laboratorio de Ensayos y Materiales e Investigaciones Tecnológicas”). The Lemit was located right outside La Plata, a mile or two from where the bosque ended. My mom, who quit studying chemical engineering after a few years, and ended up with a degree on criminological social work, worked in lab’s library. I’ve no idea what she did there, but I remember going there as a child a couple of times. It was a large (but isn’t everything large to a small child?) tidy library, filled with reports and things of the sort. What I most remember was a ceramic ashtray which one of us had made in ceramic class and given to my mother. She didn’t smoke, so it must have been used by someone else.
You have to remember that I grew up in Argentina during a time of both social upheaval as well as great social schisms. Young people had associated themselves in large networks and groups with the objective of making significant economic and social changes. Some of that work consisted on teaching and helping people in the slums – a lot of it had to do with raising consciousness, but a couple of the main leftist groups had decided to take up arms in their struggle. Meanwhile, the right had formed a death squad to go after leading intellectuals, union leaders and other “lefties”. The majority of the lefty group members did not participate in any violence, but there were enough kidnappings, murders (including the one of a former military president) and bombings done by both sides to add to an atmosphere of terror and confusion. As a five, six, seven year old child I didn’t understand anything at all – but I knew that the Montoneros (the largest of the leftist groups) were dangerous, bad people, who put bombs. Indeed, it has taken many years, much reading and several former montonero friends to get rid of those prejudices. That which we learned in childhood, is difficult to do away with.
Going back to my story, I had heard my mother talking about a girl who worked in the LEMIT library with her. The young girl apparently acted suspicious, and when she was away they had looked in her purse. There they had found a pamphlet titled something like “Cómo hacer chiches” – “How to make toys”, which explained how to make bombs. Needless to say they were quite afraid of her, her boss, in particular, feared she’d put a bomb on his house.
And those fears were not that far fetched. I was five and already living in the apartment in La Plata when I woke up one night by an intense noise followed by the noise of breaking glass. I woke up crying that my tasitas, the tiny china tea set that I cherised, had fallen and broken. But it wasn’t that. A bomb had exploded at the apartment building across from ours and our windows were all shattered. You can imagine how scary that was for a five year old. But that was the atmosphere we lived at the times – and the reason why the middle class cheered when the military took over the government.
Anyway, we went to my mother’s work one day when I was five or so – and that girl was there. With no judgment, I pointed out to her and asked my mother if she was the one who put bombs. My mother, afraid that she had overheard us, pointed to the pictures of a destroyed building in a magazine, pretending that was what I was talking about. I realized I had said the wrong thing, but saying the wrong thing at the wrong time would always be a problem for me.
When I was very little, though I guess after my dad got the Propulsora job and no longer commuted with my mother, my mother would take the bus to La Plata with me (us?). She’d leave me (us?) at my grandparents’ house, which was located on the edge of the city, in front of the Estudiantes soccer stadium, a couple of miles from the LEMIT. I think my grandparents took care of me, but I don’t quite remember. My aunt Stella, who was fourteen when I was born, told me she took care of me a lot. At some point my aunt Gladys and Granny started doing it, for my aunt Stella says her heart was broken when I was taken away from her, that I was like her baby. I can believe that, teenagers can attach themselves to babies very young and Stella has always been the motherly type. She got married pretty young and started having kids soon after.
I have very few memories of these times of my life – most of my memories of my grandparents house (which, of course, I’ll write about) are from when we’d go visit later. And, of course, they are sweet memories.
I don’t know when I started going to daycare. I remember a daycare ran by an elderly couple who had rabbits. But I think it was my brother’s daycare and I might have gone there once.
I did start preschool at the Kennedy school (a private school near my grandparents’ house) when I was three years old. I went looking for it last time I was in La Plata, and I think after all of these years it has closed, but my cousin went to elementary school there, so it was open throughout my childhood.
I’m off to Trader Joe’s, I’ll continue my story later.
The Kennedy school had four rooms for preschool; pink for the three years old, light blue for the four year olds, and green and yellow for five year olds (you start primary school at 6 in Argentina). I started, of course, en salita rosa, and while my memories of that year are scant, I remember well how each child had a coat hanger where to hang their bag and their coat. Each hanger was identified with a picture, so you could tell which one was yours. Mine had an orange. I hated it, I wanted a prettier picture, a butterfly or a flower. Indeed, I felt put down by the fact that I had an orange. So much that that has been burnt on my memory.
My other memories of my time at Kennedy all blend together. I wasn’t a particularly popular child, but not an outcast either. If I had a best friend during those years, I can’t remember her (or him). But I remember going to a few birthday parties at the time. One was for a girl named Adela. She was taller than most of us and her dad was a doctor. That’s about all I remember about her – but at least I know her name. I don’t remember anyone else’s. I remember seeing a magician at another birthday party, he had a trick of showing a machine that made money. I so wanted that machine, for money wasn’t something I often had as a child.
And here comes one of my most shameful memories, something that makes me feel guilty every time I think about it. Outside the school there was a little old man, dressed in graying clothing and a beret sort of hat. He had a big white mustache. Or at least that’s how I remember him, but his face seems engraved on my memory. He sold candy from a small box. He might have had a variety, but the only ones I remember were packages of orange and lemon candies – pastillas, as we called them. I think they cost 50 cents (or it might have been 50 pesos, as soon enough inflation would make it so that a liter of milk would cost 3 million pesos). As I mentioned, I didn’t often have money, so one day I stole a package from him. I remember taking them and running. I don’t know if I was caught or if there were consequences. I can’t remember eating the candy. But so many years later, I feel so much guilt. How poor must that man have been, to be spending his sunset years selling candy to preschool children! And I stole from him. He is surely dead now, but I wish I could apologize.
As we are in the subject, my second action for which I feel a lot of guilt, was insisting on buying a package of paper napkins for 25 piasters in Egypt. The woman selling them was old and very poor; 25 piasters was the going price for the kleenex, the Egyptian price. And yet, couldn’t I have paid more? What would another 25 piasters mean to me? But to her – it might have been a fuller belly that night. It’s been twenty years.
Going back to Kennedy I remember that out daily activities were often the same. We drew – and some of my drawings were sort of worrisome, I would write all over the page, in circular manner, with different color pencils, until the whole thing was just a mess and call each drawing “el lío de los tíos”, “el lío de los abuelos” – the mess of the uncles, the mess of the grandparents – and so forth. I wonder what it all meant. I also drew houses and trees and people. When I drew my family it was always from older to younger – my dad, my mom, me, my brother and my sister. We didn’t have pets, though I imagine they would otherwise have followed. I wasn’t a particularly good drawer then, and I still am not. “Drawing” was probably my worst subject in school.
We also played house, and here I remember that we were all girls doing so, with the exception of one boy. I don’t remember he being marginalized for that, though, and we were happy to have someone to play dad.
We also played with blocks, with little bags made out of cloth and filled with birdseed and we had break time outside, where there was a calecita, one of those self-propelled carousel and swings. I remember a couple of puppet shows at least. Everyday we would bring cookies which would then be put into a common plate for all of us to share during “milk hour”. I don’t remember if we drank milk, or tea with milk or chocolate milk. I know I seldom brought the yummiest cookies. I think I ate a lot of Coquitas y Chocolinas at that time – a brand that I think still exists in Argentina.
Well, I’m leaving here again, this time to clean the kitchen (how exciting). I’ll be back I’m sure.
Taking a short break with a cup of tea. Where was I? I only have a few more memories of Kennedy. One is that we had a uniform that consisted of a white shirt, a gray jumper, a red tie, dark socks and shoes. On top of it the girls wore a pink&white cot, and the boys a light blue & white one. We also had matching bags for our things (the cookies, I imagine).
I remember the day that we went to visit the rest of the school – Kennedy had a preschool and a first grade. We went into the first grade class, and the kids, only a year older, looked so grown up. It was the first and only time we got to see the rest of the school. I didn’t go there for elementary school.
My last memory is of salita amarilla. Once they asked us to dress as colonial ladies. Only two of us did – one girl actually had a whole outfit. I made do with a vintage skirt I found on my grandmother’s house, and who knows what else. I definitely did not look very colonial. Ah, another memory comes. I remember the teachers talking about masamorra, a food commonly eaten during colonial times (and apparently in other parts of Argentina to this day). It sounded so good, and I couldn’t wait to try it. It sucked.
At some point, my brother and I started taking English classes at an institute close to the school. If I well remember there was the school, next to it the church that my grandmother attended, and then the institute. This had outside stairs, and once my brother and I ditch school – nos hicimos la rata – and hid in the stairs. I think they caught us.
I don’t think I learn anything in those English classes. I think they had an immersion program, and I just didn’t understand anything during my whole time there. I can’t remember a word that I learned back then. Later I was to take English classes which at least gave me the basics to communicate when I came to this country. It was British English, so I did learn that a “rubber” was an eraser, but otherwise it didn’t make much of a difference. I still remember the beginning of a text I had to memorize: “Penny and Kate are walking in the park. It is a big park with tall trees and a small lake. Penny is looking at the lake…” That’s it, but I was probably 11 at the time and I’m now 40 – there are few texts I remember that well from my childhood.
I don’t know why my parents wanted me to learn English. My grandmother was American and my father was fluent in English, though he never talked to us in that language. I can’t really complain because I’m very bad about talking to my daughters in Spanish. Mika speaks a little, but mostly because she learned it in Kindergarten, by being forced to communicate to the Spanish-speaking girls which made up the majority of her class. I wish I could send them to Spanish language classes – though I’m not very sure they actually do that much.
Anyway, break is over, I go back to the kitchen.
Came back for a few minutes.
After preschool, probably when I was 4 or 5, I started going with my brother to a child care center called Triqui Traca. It was new, though located in an old house, and very close to where my grand-aunt Dora lived, about two blocks away from our apartment.
My grand-aunt Dora was my grandmother’s oldest sister, the first born of four children. The second-born was Pepito, a very famous oncologist in our city (and nationally, really). Then came my grandmother and then her sister Lía. Lía, who I was told was blond and very pretty, died of breast cancer before I was born. I’m not sure if I ever met her children and grandchildren. I must have, I imagine. I did meet from time to time Dora’s grandchildren, one of the girls had been born within a couple of days from I. I don’t remember their names, but I do remember they were very tall and very smart. Good genes. I wish I could remember their names. In any case, I saw them very seldom, I’m not sure if they lived in La Plata, and we weren’t really friends. I think at some point, it must have been when I was ten or eleven, their father was running a magazine and they were writing the children’s section. I think I sent them a poem I wrote (I was quite the poetess in my childhood). It had a misspelling.
I never met Pepito and his children, or at least I don’t remember doing so. As for Dora, we saw her from time to time, I guess she and my grandmother were pretty close. She also had had breast cancer, so there were some bad genes in that family as well. My grandmother, fortunately, didn’t inherit them. Dora survived her cancer, however, sans a breast.
At some point I need to talk at length about my grandmother Zuni (as we called her – her full name being Zunilda), my grandfather Tito (short for Vicente) and my many aunts and uncles (my mother was one of 8 children). On the other side of the family there was my grandmother Margaret, after whom I’d been named, who I only knew as “Granny” (imagine saying it with a Spanish accent). Then there were my uncle Kent and aunt Gladys, both in their fifties when I was born. Gladys never married. Kent married very young and had two children, Barullo y Goyo, who were in their twenties when I was born. They in turn had children around my age, about whom I’ll write about as well. For now, let me tell you that my grandmother Zuni was an orphan. Her mother died when she was five years old, and Zuni and her sisters grew up in a convent school. Perhaps for that reason, as well as a placid personality, my grandmother was very religious, very Catholic. At some point, my great-grandfather, an Italian pharmacist that I’ve only heard referred to as “Nono”, got married again, and his wife, “Nona”, became like a mother to his children. My mother and her sisters had great memories of her.
The fact that the daycare was so close to Dora’s house only came into play once – when my brother decided to run away from the school bus that was depositing us at the daycare, and hide behind the columns of the apartment building. I ran after him, planning to get him to return, but of course the teachers thought I was running away too – so we were both punished. We were put in two empty rooms, each one alone, and left with nothing, no toys or books or anything to amuse myself. Not fun, I can tell you.
I don’t think I liked the daycare in general, I resented my sister for not having to go there (my grandparents took care of her instead), and I looked forward to going home again. Perhaps for that reason I’ve decided not to have my kids in full-time child care, though they do have a great childcare which they never want(ed) to leave.
One of the things I didn’t like was that the play dough, the plastilinia, was all gray. Mix together all the colors of play dough, and that’s what you end up with. It’s not a particularly attractive color. I also didn’t like that before we could have our merienda (did I ever eat lunch when I was a preschooler?), we had to wait for the principal to say “buen provecho”, the equivalent of “bon appetit”. I’ve never been big on manners – though I think I was a well mannered child, one that very seldom put her elbows on the table.
There were some fun things at the daycare – where I may have gone full time in summer. One was digging for worms in the backyard, there are a lot of earth worms in La Plata. Another was playing with water balloons during carnival, and of course, I liked playing. It was also there that I developed my first crush on a dark-skin, dark-haired boy, whose name I can’t remember. He seemed older, he was definitely taller, and I looked up to him. I don’t think he liked me back. He had a little sister named Carla who was younger than I. It’s extremely unlikely that a forty year old man will google his sister name and “Triqui Traca”, but if he does, I’d love to hear from him – at least so I could remember his name. After him, I would not have a crush on a boy until I was 11, and then on a television actor (Apollo from Battlestar Galactica – I can’t believe how badly he’s aged, but then again, so have I).