Marjorie Agosín was born in Valparaíso, Chile. She is the author of several books of fiction, poetry and nonfiction, including her recent memoir The Alphabet in My Hands: A Writing Life. This piece is adapted from Las 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.
“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.
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.
We came to North America. There the people laughed less and Mami, you seemed to laugh more. We lived in an empty house with plastic chairs. It was very hard to fill it because we didn’t have any guests. Instead of singing boleros in German, you cheered up by dancing the cueca and the tango and by passionately remembering all that you had left behind. When other children made fun of my height you would say that they were poor little things because they didn’t know that I was magical, a relative of Thumbelina. And when they laughed at our accent, you said that they were less fortunate than we were because they spoke only one language.
In the house in Georgia you planted boldo, bay leaf, cilantro and violets, and we smelled your familiar fragrance once more. We learned to love this new land that provided us with shelter and human warmth. Miraculously, we survived once again, and learned to name other stars. Our happiness was hidden, less exuberant, but we survived.
Now in the USA, I tell my children stories. They think I make all of them up, even though some are true. Sometimes I say: “Children come close, I want you to listen to me. Be my confidants. Come, bring the pillows from Casablanca, elixir from Córdoba and the fans from Madrid . . . Once upon a time there was a mother who lived in a country with five thousand volcanoes and many penguins . . . a beautiful and luminous country with blizzards and archipelago islands. That country had a wise ruler who died in a palace set ablaze by a powerful, conceited dictator. Like many other citizens, we left and crossed the mountain range in search of safety. Life is full of wonders, mysterious cliffs and miracles . . .”
In those moments, I know that you were close to me, Mami, and I knew why you had to hide your stories. You are like a bridge to all those secrets. As I call you, the room begins to fill with the scent of violets and jasmine, and you tell me that it is time to leave the dead behind, to bid them farewell, and to sit down to eat at the table of the living.
The years have passed and you have remained near us in the earth that we seed, in the birds that visit us at daybreak. Above all, we have preserved your memories and your voice in this both strange and familiar room, in the foliage of the trees. Your stories have marked the path for all the possible returns, and here in the yard behind the house we see you hanging out the clothes to dry. We see you pruning the rose bushes, saying: This is where my responsibilities end; now it is time for you to tell me a story.