“And suddenly there was her veiled hat fluttering in the breeze. She wore an elegant velvet dress with a sequined dragon pinned to the neckline. She had few possessions, and carried the eiderdown quilt that she had shared with my grandfather, Isidoro Halpern, in a worn-out straw basket. I kissed her on the cheek and she prayed in German while kissing me on the forehead. In that instant, the wind stopped conjuring up secrets, and a passion for her arose in me that has never left me. My grandmother and I became inseparable. For years we shared the same room, the same laughter, and the German and Spanish words we taught each other. We also shared the silences, the memories, and the conversations with her dead sisters.
“In the evenings Grandmother Helena would gaze out the window that faced the tall palm tree in the garden and make strange shrieking sounds that seemed to come from her womb. It was very hard for me to reconcile myself with those perverted nights in which she would kiss the keys that she always carried tied to her apron strings. Nothing is known about the lives of my aunts. I wonder if they died from fright when they arrived at the camps of fear or if they perished in the gas chambers. Your whole life, my dear children, you have asked me questions that I cannot answer. I also have asked myself, Who am I? Where is my soul? Whom do I resemble in the family photograph? And why have I never returned to see my aunts? Like a pilgrim, I have tried to assemble the puzzle of my own history, to learn about those knives that cut into the darkness, and why my grandmother cried when she lit the Sabbath candles. I can’t tell you anything more because my tongue was also stilled and because uncertainty was a mad truth that constantly threatened us.”
That summer on the Pacific Coast was memorable and unique. Shut up in her room in broad daylight, Mami told us strange things — like how her cousins from Prague had arrived at her house in southern Chile, and how her father would greet malnourished women refugees at the train station with large baskets full of flowers. I associate my language with her memory. Perplexed, we listened to her, although many years would pass and many more stories would be heard before we came to understand her.
In that summer of 1970 we discovered many things. I fell in love with a boy who told me stories about Che Guevara that were either true or false. My sister learned about the Berlin Wall and my brother about a camp on the outskirts of Prague where child prisoners painted butterflies. My mother decided to devote herself to the joys of living. She spent hours contemplating the moon and the stars scattered across the heavens. She ate strawberries at midnight and happiness arose from sweet smells carried by the gentle breeze. One day she took us on a walk to the sea. She said that all great roads led to the sea. She told us to fill our pockets with shells, imaginary crystals, and starfish, and to make wigs of floating algae because through this delightful game we would acquire the â peace of the entire universe.
Mami taught us about the astonishment that is linked to the unexpected and about the presence of certain warning signs that should be heeded, in the secret rhythms of lizards in love or in the iridescent face of sunflowers. That afternoon she told us about the times when she would accompany Grandmother Helena to the Red Cross offices to wait for news of the war. She told us how at the end of the Second World War, she and her classmates had marched in a huge parade in Santiago, carrying baskets filled with red carnations, how the sidewalks of the city had been transformed into floral necklaces and red carpets in memory of the dead. Perhaps she thought about how the Nazis had interrupted the lives of her aunts forever.
It happened one day in the middle of the afternoon, when they came home from piano class. Eva, her youngest aunt, was taken to the Gestapo Office, never to return again. Somehow, through these stories, I grew to understand my mother’s silences, her early-morning reticence and her obsession with knowing we’d all arrived safely at home, where she would shut the doors and breathe deeply at last. I sensed that life was a miracle, that we were forever being saved from an imminent catastrophe, that life had its dangers. Mami told us this whenever she entered into that place of profound exhaustion dominated by her solitude.
The winter passed, the violets blossomed, and autumn arrived, covering the ground with a blanket of leaves that we stepped on as we came out of school. The earth was like a screeching violin playing an arpeggio for our mischievous feet. One day we changed schools, no longer attending the British Institute where we had constantly been made to salute and curtsy, and where once, as we left school, our classmates had surrounded us in a hallucinatory circle, shouting and spitting: “Jewish dogs, Jewish dogs.” I remembered then what Mami had told us, that life was full of unexpected dangers.
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