More memories of La Quinta

My little sister – who was born 15 years after me and in the United States, and thus did not share my childhood in any way – called me earlier and told me she wanted to read my memories, learn how these lives in that country that she does not share were like. How we were like. So here I am, writing again, digging into the recesses of my mind for some tenuous memories. We’ll see what I find.

First of all, corrections. My mother – who also read my blog – says that the patio criollo was not the patio behind the house, but the one at the back of the lot. It was built by my grandfather and my uncle Tití. Tití was my mother’s older brother. She’s the third of eight children. I’ll talk more in the future, I’m sure, about her families and the memories she related to me.  Tití studied medicine and my mother studied chemical engineering (one of two women in that major – she never finished, but that, again, is another story). They were close in age and in topics, and I think they sometimes studied together. During those college years, they seemed to have been close.

After Tití graduated from college/medical school (there is no difference in Argentina, you start medical school as soon as you graduate from high school), he enlisted in the Argentine Navy as a pediatrician. He got married, moved to Punta Alta (near Bahía Blanca, one of the main Navy ports), had four children. In my childhood, I saw him only a very few times. Once, perhaps twice, we went to visit him in Punta Alta. The first time – I’m not sure there was a second time – was when I was 8 years old and we went to Bariloche on vacation. Bariloche being this beautiful town, in the even more beautiful Nahuel Huapí lake. There are tall mountains, glaciers, national parks. We went there with Michaela in our first family trip to Argentina, back in 2003. But I digress. Again.

Tití lived in what I remember being a small apartment in the base. He was still a lieutenant. In the Argentina Navy (and I imagine in other Navies as well), the higher your rank, the nicest your home. Or at least it was back then. I remember my tía Lelé and my cousin Fernando (who perhaps one day will read these words, I haven’t talked to him in 3 decades but I googled him once and found some postings from him in English). I remember that we got to visit one of the Navy ships. It was large, but all I can picture is the deck. I also remember that we got a kilo of ice cream. Ice cream in Argentina is very expensive (more expensive than in the US, even though people earn ten times less than here). It had many flavors, it was a treat. And then, the only other thing I can picture are some swings, perhaps a slide, in the green outside his house. It was probably a cloudy day. It was December 1978.

Tití, Lelé and Fernando (his three younger daughters were to be born later) came to La Plata a few times. Probably for Christmas, which was when my aunt Beatriz and my two favorite cousins, Marito and Marina, came to visit us as well. I remember how each of them looked, but I don’t remember playing with Fernando. We must have, though.

Many, many years later, after I got involved in human rights and started the work that consumes me on the “disappeared” in Argentina, I was to wonder how much my uncle knew of what was going on in the Navy while he was there (and he was to be there for many more years). Did he know about the abductions in the middle of the night? of the tortures, the secret detention camps, the mass killings? How could a man like my uncle, nice and gentle, a doctor committed to saving children’ lives know and remain in that force? But then again, how could he not know? Everybody knew – most everybody in the Navy took part in the extermination plans. I never got to ask him, but I knew he would have dismissed the question.

Tití died a few years ago, of a sudden heart attack. So had my grandfather three decades earlier when he was a few years older. Despite the doubts, I mourned him. The man he was and that I remember with affection.

I don’t remember if Tití was there that fateful day when our lives were to change forever. The day my baby sister (for she was only 9 month old) got sick. It was January 1973. I would turn 4 in May. So little, and yet I have a couple of images burnt in my mind. One is of someone saying that Iaia (as she named herself later, when she started talking) had eaten some leaves from the ligustro, the hedge that separated the patio from the area I described earlier with the swing and the kumquat tree. I also remember someone (Tití?) giving her a baby bottle with coca-cola – which, I guess, was thought to have medicinal purposes. In any case it wouldn’t help. Days later Gabriela would be diagnosed with hemolytic-uremic syndrome and my family’s odyssey of hospitals, dialysis and transplants, would begin. And that will also be another story.

But as I’m still here, one of my girls is in school and the other in a play-date, I think I’ll stay in the casa quinta and my toddlerhood some more.

What more can I tell you? Remember? Lili for one. She was the girl – she must only have been 12 years old or so – who babysat us from time to time. She lived in the house next to the fondo of our property. I think there might have been a chain-link fence between us. I know that they raised chickens. I don’t remember Lili well, I can only picture her long black hair, in a ponytail. My only memory of her was my mother being concerned that she would pass on a cold that she had once. I wonder if Camila will remember Jennifer, our occasional babysitter, when she grows up. Unlikely.

As I think I mentioned in my last post, there was also Doña Petrona, who lived down the dirt road from us. From the time I was walking, I’d go to her house to buy eggs. I can picture myself in her patio once, but I may have been older. I remember that I had a special monedero, or coin purse, where I had the money to pay for the eggs. I picture it as big – and of course it would have been big to me – with a standard trapezoid shape, light blue. But that image could be of any of the many purses I saw through the years. In any case, I do remember I loved that monedero.

I want to say that I was five when I was invited to some girl’s birthday party. My mother bought a set of colored bracelets as a gift. I wanted them. Badly. I probably even threw a tantrum about them. My mother offered a deal, I could keep the bracelets and give the girl my purse. I agreed. I had the bracelets for quite a while, I think, but I continue to mourn that monedero.

I only remember playing with children once when I lived (or was it later? when we visited?) in that house. I remember a brown-haired boy. He might have lived in the big house in the corner, the one with the well-kept lawn and the dog house (I think that was the only dog house I’d see in person during my childhood, thus it’s impact). But he might have belonged to one of the other houses down the road. I have no idea what his name was. And all I remember is the story I told yesterday, of finding a caterpillar in a tree and being afraid to touch it, lest it hurt us. To this day I’m afraid of touching caterpillars (not that I’ve seen many since), because doing so would hurt. I think I did it once and it did hurt. And wanting to prove my memories right, I just looked it up, and indeed contact with a caterpillar can be painful (and even dangerous).

Another memory of the time is of being hurt emotionally rather than physically. And my fault too. I didn’t have many books when I was growing up. Books in Argentina are expensive (just as expensive as here, and again, people make 10x less). But my parents had bought me one of a little girl whom they called “la llorona” (the cry baby). I liked the book because the cover had one of those whatevers that changes faces when you look at it from a different angle. I had another one of those books as well, which also brought me tears.

The llorona was a girl who cried whenever she did not get her way (hmm, that reminds me of Camila). One day she cries because she wants the moon and can’t get it. So her parents bring her a bowl of water, on which the moon reflects – but when she goes to grab it, the water moves and the image breaks. I don’t remember how the story ended – it has been at least 35 years – but I cherished the book. And one day I lost it. How, I don’t remember, but I remember looking for it amidst the tall grasses in the zanjas (ditches) by the road. I didn’t find it, my parents were probably mad, I was (and still am!) sad.

The other book with the shifting face, one that I can still picture, I think I got later. It was the story of a clown and a little dog. The part I remember was that there was a big fire in the circus, and the clown passed out, but the little dog saved him by pulling him out by his cloth. But the little dog couldn’t escape the fire, and died. My god, what a horrible story! What the hell was the writer thinking? I remember crying and crying when my father read it to me (just liked I cried in Bambi, another horrible story to show little children). So my father made up an alternative ending. He told me that the clown cried so much over the little dog, that his tears made him come back to life. I told you my dad was a nice man 🙂

Are there any other stories of la quinta? I remember one time when Gabriela (Iaia) fell on an red ant-hill. It could have been me.

I also remember the bathtub where my mother would bathe us. It was made of hule, I think, which the dictionary translates as oil cloth. It had long wooden legs so that my mother didn’t have to kneel to wash us. I think I have a picture of me in it. But most often, I would take baths at my grandmother’s (granny’s) house, sometimes with my father. My grandmother had a sponge which I think was real, it was very big and had a strange texture. She had a hand shower. After the bath there was talcum powder.

Someone, perhaps granny, made me a one-piece pajama that opened up in the butt (so you can put the child in the toilet without taking the whole pajama off, which in a cold night, can be very uncomfortable for the kid). I wonder who got that pajama after I outgrew it. But the stories of granny’s and Glady’s house, some of my most cherished ones, should come later. Now, I’m still at the quinta.

-My mother washing our diapers in the sink, which was outside. Later she’d complain about the cold water. Did we have warm water in La Quinta?

-My siblings and I taking all the labels off the can food – my mother was not amused as she had to open them without knowing what was inside.

-We playing with all the pots and pans and making music. But there is a picture of that, so maybe it’s not a memory.

-My looking forward to my sister being born (it couldn’t have been my brother, he is only 17 months younger than I), so that we could play the little train.

-Drinking a bottle with hot chocolate. David would drink strawberry milk and Gabriela plain milk. There is also a picture of the three of us with baby bottles in our mouths. I was pretty old to be drinking out of a bottle. One time, in preschool, the teacher told us that if we didn’t give up the pacifiers, a witch would come and take them away. I remember waiting for the witch by the main door, with a broom in hand, waiting to fight her off.

-The story of Doña Flora, who put a box of eggs in the oven, and next time she knew, she had chicks.

One thing I don’t remember is having little chicks myself. My mother says that she got me cute little yellow chicks when I was little, and I loved to touch them and chase them around. But they grew up and became ugly, and I cried asking where my pollitos were. Today, I wonder where my babies went.

It’s weird, you have this little thing that needs you so much, and that you love and care for, and one day, without you realizing it, she is gone. The feelings I have for my girls today are different from those I had from my babies, so when I look at the pictures I can’t really recognize them as the same. It is as if someone had taken away my babies. I think that may be the reason why some women keep having children.

Ack! I just realized I need to pick up Mika in 10 minutes. I was supposed to start dinner at 2 pm and now it’s almost 3. I guess we’ll be eating pretty late 🙁

On memories & story telling

I’m not a storyteller.

Surprisingly enough, I didn’t realize that about myself until I was in my late thirties – when I had children who actually asked me to tell them stories. It’s almost tragic, I have none – I cannot make up stories nor can I relate stories from my life. It’s not that I don’t remember things, I just don’t remember any interesting things, or at least things that make stories. I do remember places, and people and occasions and feelings, but nothing that could fall into a narrative that would occupy more than a couple of minutes. My children so far haven’t noticed – they are used to board books that don’t have anything that could be called a plot -, but they soon will, and then mommy will be even more boring that she’s now.

My children want to hear stories of when I was a little girl, so I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about my childhood, trying to remember anything that could even pass for a story. Instead, I immense myself in the places and times where I spent my childhood, one day visiting the casa quinta where I lived until I was 5, another day, warmly resting in the living room of my grandmother’s house. It’s been so many years since I’ve thought about these things, these times, and I always feel so warmly when I do. It’s as if all the sad memories have disappeared, and only the security of childhood remains. Am I giving my children the same sense of warmth that I feel looking back? Only time will tell.

And then, my other big question, will I forget these memories? I have forgotten so much. So many times I look at a picture of me and have no idea where or when it was taken. What was I doing? What was I feeling? All gone now.  Now, eleven years later, I know that, indeed, I am forgetting a lot of details. Memories, when they are here, are far more fuzzy.

So I thought that I might want to record some of these memories for me, for the future, and perhaps even for my children. No doubt that they’ll be boring to read – as I said, I’m not a story teller – but perhaps one day I will enjoy them nonetheless. So I start now.

When I was one and two and three and four, not, I think, when I was five, I lived with my parents, and later my siblings, in a small house (that seemed so huge to me), somewhere in the outskirts of La Plata. I don’t know the address or the name of the locality – when people asked where we lived, the answer was always camino a Olmos – on the road to Olmos. I knew nothing about Olmos, though today the name is associated in my mind with a woman’s prison and with clandestine births. I had a vague feeling, one that I have not bother to confirm, that if you continued further down that road, you’d also arrive at Melchor Romero, a very large manicomio, or insane asylum. My mother had worked or at least visited Melchor Romero when she was studying social work in college. She had many gruesome stories of the people she had met there – the only one I can remember now was of a man who killed his little brother and ate him. Clearly, that story made an impact on my young mind.

The house where we lived belonged to my grandfather, Tito. It also belonged to my grandmother, Zuni, but I don’t think I ever saw her ethereal figure as that of someone who owned things. Things beside the high heel white pumps that I liked to wear or those thick wool skirts that smelled faintly of moth balls. Later, much later, she would buy a rabbit fur coat at the peletería, or fur store, that belonged to the father of my friend Karina (with whom, coincidentally, I have just reunited through facebook). The coat also smelled faintly of moth balls, but it was so soft to the touch. I can’t help but remember her small frame swimming in the mountains of gray fur. But as I said, that was later.

The house, as I was saying, was probably small. It had a large kitchen (or was it that large?), with a door and window opening to the patio criollo, that tiled (was it tiled?) rectangular patio where I’d first work at learning how to ride my blue bicycle (a gift from my grandmother “Granny” when I turned five). There was one bedroom occupied by my parents’ bed, our white crib and a large wardrobe. The house must have been old, built before built-in closets became standard. I don’t remember any furniture in the living room part of the living-comedor. Later, after my sister was born, when we were getting ready to move into the La Plata apartment, my mother bought a sillón-cama, a hide-a-bed sofa, where I slept. I’m sure I’ll write more about it. For now, let’s just say that it had an Italian style and was made of light-colored fake leather. A large table (I know it was large, because I’ve seen the pictures), perhaps a cupboard, that I remember very faintly.

There was another room, my father’s office. From there, I remember a metal desk lamp and a tall chest of drawers (which later would be cut into two and placed in the closet in my room, in the new apartment). My father was still studying engineering, so I think he may have had a draftman’s desk – I can’t remember it.  He did have one of those adjustable table lamps with multiple articulations.

And then there was the bathroom. A toilet, a sink, a shower (or rather, a shower head in the middle of the bathroom). I think I remember, but it could be any bathroom.

There was another bathroom outside, beyond the patio criollo. It was the one used by Panchito, our next door neighbor. For some reason, the bathroom in his house didn’t work so he’d come to use ours. The one outside, of course.

I don’t remember much about Panchito, I may very well have stopped seeing him after we moved to the city, I can’t remember his face at all. I know that even then I thought he was off, but beyond the lack of a bathroom, I’m not sure why I felt that way. I should ask my mother if she remember him and can tell me more about him.

As little or as much as I remember, my parents seem to have forgotten. My dad at least. One of my fondest memories of those years was my father arriving home from work with small “Jack” chocolates. These minute chocolates came with a tiny plastic figurine, at that time of Titanes en el Ring, a wrestling ensemble that featured wrestlers dressed up as characters. The most popular and lethal of all was the “mummy”, that could put you down by just touching you. It didn’t show up that often, but when it did, we were wild with enthusiasm. The troupe had been created by Martín Karadagián, an actor and wrestler who sometimes would show up as well – when he did, he always won. A couple of decades later I virtually met his daughter in a mailing lists for Argentinians abroad.

In any case, once in a great while my father would bring us those chocolates when he came home from work. I still remember how he looked like, so young, so masculine, with dark black hair. He was very good looking, known, indeed, for his looks. But mostly, he was a very kind man, very loving, a nice dad (usually).

As sweet as the memory of the jacks is for me, my dad does not remember it at all. We went to Argentina a couple of years ago, when my aunt Gladys passed away, and I bought a bunch of Jacks for my girls (I’d introduced them to the chocolates during our last trip there) – so I told my dad about my fond memories. He had no idea what I was talking about.

The casa quinta had a name: Stella Maris. It was my youngest aunt’s name, given to her, and the house, by my mother. Still, we always referred to it as the quinta.

The house might (or might not) have been small, but it was in a large lot with lots of fun things for kids to explore. At the other side of the ligustro, which marked the end of the patio criollo, was a single (I’m pretty sure it was a single) swing. Nothing special, but then again, children like swings no matter how simple they are. In front of the swing was a kumquat tree. I haven’t eaten a kumquat in 35 years, but I can still remember their bitter taste. I didn’t particularly like them; my mother did.

Behind the other wall that bordered the patio were tall daisies (margaritas) and calla lilies. I haven’t seen such big daisies since. I liked them, mostly, because of my name. I still do. When my aunt Gladys was alive, I sent her a bouquet of daisies (usually with roses or other flowers) for her birthdays and mother’s day. When she died, I left a few of these humble flowers with her. But I can’t think of Gladys now – because when I do, I cry, and that’s not my intent here.  Re-reading this eleven years later, when my time has taken even more of its toll on my memory, I stop to note that my father died two weeks ago and that my daughter, at my request, placed daisies in his casket.  

At some point, but I think that was later, after we moved out and my uncle Aníbal (el Cabezón) moved in, there were also bee hives (the kind you raise). There must also have been trees, I only remember one where we found a caterpillar. Actually, I remember the caterpillar, not the tree.  Silly me of eleven years ago, I remember the tree well. Tall (to me) and full of leaves.  I was afraid of the caterpillars, they hurt when they touched you.

On the far back of the lot was the quincho with the parrilla; there we would have our asados. I can still picture my father’s wooden plate, what he used to transfer the meat from the parrilla to the table. Near there, there was the skull of a cow and further away, the place where we’d burn the trash (no garbage collection at the time, I guess). It was there where I hid (though there was nowhere to hide) the day my father gave me the greatest paliza, spanking, I ever got.

I have told this story many times – to my kids, who, for some reason, like to hear it over and over. And it goes like this…

One day, when I was a little girl, my father took me to the general store across the road (that road that went all the way to Olmos), to buy something I have well forgotten. I wanted chocolate (perhaps those same Jacks I talked about before, but I don’t quite remember). He wouldn’t buy them for me. I threw a fit and ran away, crossing that feared road (I did look both ways, and then ran across it) and heading towards my house. There I met with my mother and siblings (I had two, I must have been about 4); my mother warned me that I was in big trouble, and I knew it, of course. So I went hiding, and I guess there was no place to hide because I ended up by the area where we burnt the garbage. Perhaps by then I was resigned to the spanking – I learned, later, that the best way to deal with spankings was to accept them, the expectation being almost always worse than the actual punishment – but I stopped running. And my father found me, and he spanked me, and of that I remember nothing.

And this is it for tonight. I hope there will be more nights like this, me and my memories – but I’m not very consistent. So many times I’ve told myself that I wanted to keep a diary, and I’ve never gone more than a day or two with it. Oh well. Hopefully I’ll be back.