Marjorie Agosín was born in Valparaíso, Chile. She is the author of several books of fiction, poetry and nonfiction, including her recent memoirThe Alphabet in My Hands: A Writing Life. This piece is adapted fromLas Mamis, edited by Esmeralda Santiago and Joie Davidow, and newly published by Alfred A. Knopf. It was translated from the Spanish by Celeste Kostopulos-Cooperman.
Before you appear, a delicate fragrance infiltrates the corridors of the house where dark and secret things dwell. Mami. You are always there with your scents that change with the rhythm of the seasons. In the spring, orange blossoms rub against your childlike bare knees. You tell us stories. “Girls,” you whisper, “we are disobedient sultanas dancing through the palaces of Córdoba and Granada.”
Your games ranged over the centuries, through the secret thresholds of so many spoken and unspoken stories. In the summer you smelled like the almonds that fell on the moss surrounding the house or like the nectarines and cherries always in blossom. You rested in the winter, and decorated the house with violets, the flowers of old women. But even when you, too, were old, you thought you were different, as if you feared making an alliance with the laments of time.
Who were you, Friduca? Were you that angry woman who threw the enormous Santiago telephone guide at Father because he came home late? Or that other woman who, frantic with happiness, undressed and drank Portuguese vinho verde while she sang boleros in German from the balconies?
So much of your story is wrapped in small, mysterious and smoke-filled post cards. When we asked you to tell us tales that were not about dragons and magical coaches, you said that some day in a bed full of feather pillows, you would tell us true stories that were more frightening than ghosts. Some day you would tell us about a childhood that lay suspended in somber whispers and frightful secrets. Many years would pass before we knew what stories persecuted you in your frequent nights, when you wandered through the house in search of restless ghosts or of girls like you who wore yellow six-pointed stars on their coats.
In the summer you would bring us to the Pacific Ocean. Like your mother you were afraid of rickets. You believed in the sun and in the constellations that you often pointed out to us and named out loud. And now, under this foreign Northern Hemisphere sky, I remember the three Las Pascualas, the three Marías, and the Southern Cross.
In the beach house surrounded by cacti and lizards, we felt that we belonged to you, while in the winter, you withdrew from our laughter, or approached us restlessly, dazed, as if your body were calling you to other places. But the summer before our exile, your life and ours were not to be forgotten. We became your allies and confidants. We drank beer and you told us that the golden foam came from the gods. You also let us grow our hair long and wear white pants. That summer while we clung to you, we also discovered who you were.
One night when the wind and the sea echoed unspeakable sounds, we asked you to tell us your own story, not one made up of fairies and dragons. You muttered, grew silent and then said that you would tell it to us in episodes, like Sheherazade who had tried to save her own life by telling stories. So, you began:
“My father was an old Viennese gentleman. He loved Goethe’s poetry, the German language and pretty cabaret dancers. That is why he came to Chile, to escape from many lovers. When he saw the young brides, the white washerwomen, descending from the illuminated hills, he said this would be his country. He swore to love the Spanish language and Valparaíso Harbor with its rundown houses and midnight owls that adapted their song to the music of the sea.”
You smiled sadly and continued.
“We belong to a persecuted and not necessarily chosen people. The history of our people has been distinguished by the most unnameable horrors of war. My grandmother Helena wore high-heeled shoes and loved strawberries. She lived happily in Vienna until she could no longer go to her beloved garden and had to embroider a Star of David on her coat. The restrictions against Jews began slowly, but eventually they lost their citizenship. One restless evening, thanks to divine Providence, my grandmother and her children made the long journey from Vienna to the port of Hamburg where they boarded a steamship that would rescue them from certain death. The boat headed for Valparaíso where they would be met by my father.
“I will tell you,” Mami said, “about the afternoon when we went to Valparaíso Harbor to wait for Grandmother Helena.” She choked from emotion and grew faint, as if this were part of a story she had carried deep within herself. Covered by goose bumps, she continued. “The whole family gathered at the harbor that day. It was Sunday and the street vendors sold balloons and sweets as though the city were in a festive mood to receive them. My father, wearing his Viennese gentleman’s hat, paced. He was so anxious to see them that he decided to call a tugboat to bring us to the ship. At that time I was thirteen years old and my brother Jaime was eleven. We boarded the tugboat and the wind howled as it tousled our memories and brought us closer to someone who had been furrowed by grief, our grandmother, whose name I had seen only on faded post cards.