Another summer arrived and we returned to the house at the seashore where Mami ate juicy watermelons. One day at the beach of the agate stones she said, “These stones remind me of the crystal street lamps on Castro Street.” Lying on the sand wearing the copper-colored sweater that matched her hair, she told us about her father’s precarious situation after he brought his mother, brother and other refugees to Chile. He had fallen deeply into debt financing visas for their safety. But he had maintained his dignity, never let on how bad things really were. He simply looked for another future in the crystal-lamp business.
“My father bought antique glass in the elegant neighborhoods of the Chilean aristocracy. He arrived home daily with iridescent violet, mauve and yellow crystals after an exhausting day as a street vendor. And all of us, including Grandmother Helena, climbed to an upstairs attic that almost touched the sky, where we threaded those crystals onto delicate wires. We didn’t sell any lamps, but in the afternoons we opened the window to let the rays of sunlight enter the crystal room and listened to the teardrops of light chiming in the wind. Amid all our poverty, this spectacle of the floating crystal conjured a generous beauty.” Mami began gathering the agate stones again, and as she opened and closed her hands, she counseled us to always appreciate the unexpected wonders and gratuitous goodness of nature. That was the last story she ever told us.
Then one day in the early seventies, the soldiers came to Chile. They wouldn’t let my brother grow his hair long like the Beatles and they wouldn’t let me wear pants. In our neighborhood, afternoon book burnings became a common sight. The police were obliged to burn books that were considered dangerous. My mother remembered her grandmother’s escape from Vienna on Kristallnacht, the destruction of her beautiful library. Where have the words gone?
Mami became more silent and hostile. She stopped talking to us and devoted herself to organizing the first “garage sale” in Chile. She said that refugees didn’t need things. That is why she sold the tablecloths, the figurines, the dolls and the fine china. She kept only a few silver trays brought from Morocco by a friend, a samovar bought from some Gypsies, some post cards from Vienna, and the blue-covered notebook in which she and Grandmother Helena kept the wildflowers they gathered on their secret walks. Our departure from Chile was imminent. It was then that I realized why Mami had taken so long to tell us her story. Perhaps she had been afraid that everything she told us would come true again.
Although I was too young to understand how things were, I understood that asking questions was forbidden, and little by little I began to penetrate a universe of fear and inertia. I realized that I should start saying goodbye to certain things, to beloved trees and streams. I decided to make copies of the keys to my house and desk. These would be the sacred objects of my memory as they had been for my Great-Grandmother Helena who had died in her late nineties with the keys to her house tied to her diminishing neck. Mother lost the radiance in her violet eyes and her voice became serious. She no longer walked around the house barefoot. At night, I heard her praying in German with the voice of an angry, dispossessed woman.
And one day we left. I don’t remember precisely the hour of our departure or the month, as if my memory had been severed. We were all disoriented and speechless. I only remember that certain people came to say goodbye: our closest friends and my beloved history teacher, Martita Alvarado, who arrived wearing a red coat and carrying a white notebook which she gave to me so that I would write about the genesis of my new history. That timeless night we blended with the immensity of the heavy silence around us. Very few relatives came to bid us farewell. Perhaps they felt it was absolutely necessary to conceal our departure. Frida, you had already returned to take charge as you had done on the nights of grief and sorrow before we left. You kept saying that every journey is the beginning of a better life. Perhaps this is how Grandmother Helena felt when she set out on her uncertain voyage to the Southern Hemisphere. We, too, were traveling to an unfamiliar country. No river would caress our feet as the rivers of the south had done, and never again would the scent of jasmine and violets emanating from our mami tell us we were home.
The Andean range darkened as we departed. The sky was a basket of shadows. I felt that I was repeating the story of my Viennese great-grandmother and my Russian great-grandfather. Perhaps you were right, Mami; perhaps for a while it was better to learn stories of fairies and dragons than the true story of our fate, of the history of Jews like us, without a homeland. We had been driven into exile by politics, not racism, but like our ancestors we had become wanderers, travelers.
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