The nether (and upper) lands of the heart

On what must have been an uncharacteristically dark or low day/occasion after the birth of my daughter, after looking —courtesy of Facebook— at the pictures from somebody or other’s gorgeous vacations, I despondently told my father I didn’t think I’d be able to go back to Europe before I was sixty. Something in him (who, I now think with shame, had set foot on the Old Continent for the first time in his late forties) was obviously pained and stirred by my comment. I recalled this several months later, when he smilingly gestured around at our very lovely Amsterdam surroundings and said, “Pray, now, will you tell me how old you are?”


He had engineered this trip for us, paid for it, so that he and my husband and daughter and I could walk along pristine streets and peer into tantalizing windows and absorb a kind of beauty that seemed as if it was happening, uninterrupted, since the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. I loved to see streets named after painters — it felt as if they might saunter out a door at any time, ready for some rest after essentially inventing private history, leading us into houses not ours, across tiled floors and shadowy thresholds, and showing us the daily lives of others in all their endearing ordinariness.

It was he who had tersely overruled our misgivings about taking our toddler daughter with us (“either she comes along or nobody does”), a decision that would prove wise, and good for all four of us. His love for her and understanding of her were unparalleled, and still illuminate her heartscape.

It was not the first time either of my parents had offered me this hugely generous and unforgettable gift of travelling — both of them had done so in more than one prior occasion, helping me grow emotionally and intellectually. But this trip feels especially poignant because when we made it my father’s life had almost completely run its course. There was some plane-hopping still in store for him, yes —including to an affecting class reunion in the United States, where he visited high school classmates he hadn’t seen in fifty years—, but his time on earth was essentially behind him that afternoon in Amsterdam when he basked in the cold spring light, knowing he had given this to us.

He was with us in the Netherlands only briefly, getting on board one of the world’s unsafest airlines (!) after less than two days, bound for a conference in Turkey where he was scheduled to speak about the deterioration of Uruguay’s democracy, which ultimately led to a bloody dictatorship lasting twelve years — a candid, sure-to-be-controversial lecture I had helped him translate into English.


But I think he cherished his short time with us — the drizzly afternoon he came face to face with Van Gogh and was greatly moved by his paintings, later browsing through a catalogue of them at the museum cafeteria with his granddaughter (and helping instill an enduring passion for “Vincent”), or trying to spoon-feed her at a cake shop I’d marked as to-visit and then unexpectedly come across, while I savoured my cappuccino and rain smeared the windows. He cherished sharing an umbrella with me, secretly buying me a little porcelain reproduction of Vermeer’s girl with a pearl earring, or scrawling a loving note to tuck inside a book  (Vincent again) he had bought for the little one. I loved having him with us, even if we were often capable of getting on each other’s nerves — our bond was certainly not perfect, but it was one of the most perfect bonds I’ve ever had with another human being.



He broke my heart when he died — not the first man to do that by a long shot, but the first to do it against his will, and, I now see, the only heartbreak that hasn’t mended. He loved life, loved his children and grandchildren, was mercurial and intense and complicated — an uncompromising, no-holds-barred, fiercely intelligent and, above all, decent man. Taking up this blog again, it hurts to know I won’t have the small happiness of his reading me, commenting on my work, or just being out there. But I love to write, and I love to tell stories, and he is a part of mine, of my past and present, the nether and upper countries of my life.




The staircase

Some craggy concrete steps had run aground on the sand. They were part of the huge staircase leading down to the beach from the hotel. The sea’s tenacity, together with decades of furious storms, had paid off. They were now torn off from all purpose, slightly perplexing, like a severed limb.


I loved them. Steps leading nowhere – there was something tantalizing about that. I sat on the topmost one, wary of inclination, and looked at the white expansion to my right, the tangled vegetation to my left. I strained to see the tiny sails, far away into the sea. I was Queen of the Staircase.


Many times, my brother must have scrambled up alongside me. Other kids too. But I didn’t share with anyone the way I felt about the lonely flight of steps – that feeling of endless possibility. Its detachedness, far from being a sign of futility, was for me where its magic lay. A stairway into air. By climbing up it you could go wherever you wanted – not just the big run-down hotel we didn’t care about anyway. The old concrete stairs were a threshold. They were a beginning.

Soon enough, graffiti came. I blamed the year-rounders – only by seeing the ruined steps every day, I reasoned, could you have so little sense of awe towards them. Sand, too, did its work – some years, oftener and oftener as time went by, there would be four or five steps instead of the original nine or ten. On windy, overcast days, the half-buried stairs looked more of a shipwreck than ever.

This winter, the sea and sand retreated – and, with ten steps, the staircase regained some of its former majesty. But it also grew a sort of hump on its back, revealed by the thinning beach and encrusted with small stones – and which, for the first time, made it look flawed, even ugly. A forlorn thing, incompetent on the cold beach.

Over the years, as it and I grow older, it has become a symbol for humility and helplessness as much as the entrance to fantasyland. But I’m never able to look at it with indifference.  


This drenching welcome

We had been warned that the weather wouldn’t help, that we’d probably end helping Noah round up animals for the Ark. We counted ourselves lucky that we had one afternoon at the beach — even under heavy clouds, the sea was beautiful, choppy and transparent at the same time.


There was this urgent mood, people smiling and talking a little too much, a man picking up his stuff to leave and then, after a few steps, turning back and setting his deck chair down on the sand again, as if aware that the beach-going weather was unlikely to hold.

And it didn’t — the next day, the grass and the trees and the streets changed, becoming deeper-coloured and muscled with rain.Image

The news forecasts kept telling us to beware. And yet as soon as the rain stopped we went out, breathing in the detailed scents, treading softer ground, being in the place as if for the first time. Raindrops like strings of light spoke celebration,


and yet ours was no party mood but for the small, quiet joy of being there. An ambiguous sort of joy, as the waiting rain, which had withdrawn only to better regroup its armies, made even the most familiar sights a bit eerie in the fading daylight. Image

It rained through the night and most of the next day. The Pan de Azúcar donned a misty gown, while our little house huddled into itself and valiantly withstood the downpour. And when it ceased –as it was bound to, at some point– we stepped out to changed land, to a swallow-embroidered sky and a perplexing map of rivulets where grassy ditches had been, while my brother’s young tree thrived on the saturated earth.


And we went down to the beach for a walk, only this time it was a different beach — dizzy skies higher, sea farther-reaching, but promises of freedom and adventure beguiling still after so many years, so many summers, and the falling of so much tireless rain.  Image


Christmas in shirtsleeves

Look up images for ‘Christmas’ on Google, you’re sure to come up with a lot of snow. Santa somehow managing to squeeze his portly frame and bagload of presents down a snow-capped chimney. Houses brightly lit under their snow-pressed roofs. Snowmen. Snowflakes.

Here, it’s not like that, even if we’ve internalized the wintry imagery so well, it’s part of our collective imagination. Image

Our summer officially begins just three days before Christmas Eve, on December 21, but the heat has usually set in much earlier. Our Santa, who in Uruguay and Argentina goes by the name of Papá Noel, bravely wears his white beard and warm fur-lined clothes Image

for the benefit of children in shopping malls, but I very much doubt that he does the rounds in such attire when the thermometer hits 37ºC (98.6ºF).

On Christmas Eve, unless you’re a very formal person like my dad, you go around in shirtsleeves or a T-shirt — or, if you’re a woman, in a sleeveless dress or similarly light clothes. Cotton and other flimsy fabrics reign supreme. It’s OK to wear your flipflops, at least after midnight when the presents are opened. The spirit of Christmas here has none of that firesidey, mistletoey cosiness of the northern part of the world: it’s poolsidey, sleepy, thick with swishing skirts and bug spray.


Christmas Eve is usually balmy — balmy enough that you can eat outside. Crickets chirp, frogs croak, the summer sky’s colours slowly seep into a dark that presses down on the treetops. Somewhere a dog is barking. People hurry up to do their phone calls before the lines collapse, as they’re bound to do, with everyone trying to greet faraway loved ones at the same time. And you will walk out of the house and take off your high-heeled shoes to sink your bare feet into the grass, thinking of people you miss, words you spoke, all the writing that never made it from your head to the page — you will think of how another year has sped by, leaving you no wiser than before, but way richer, since it has brought you a daughter and is about to bring you a niece. Image

The rituals of northern Christmases are followed (we are, after all, Europeans by descent) but inevitably distorted on this sweltering night when the approach of midnight brings nary a breeze. You might end up wetting your toes in the pool, or wandering off into the fruit orchard in search of the trees’ perfume and a bit of quiet. You might feel, as night wears on, a little dazed by the heat and by the weight of expectancy and reckoning, which are part of the Christmas baggage, here as elsewhere. You might also find, as midnight strikes and the kissing and hugging begins, that you’re as excited by the kiddies by the thrill of the presents you’ve already peeked at, wrapped and shiny under the Christmas tree.


Will you read all those books? Make that trip you so desperately want? Build a pool in your back garden? For now, you just hold her in your arms —that earlier present, delivered many months ago now, your ever-changing girl with the earnest face— and think you don’t need much more. And, if Christmas is indeed a time when everything you’ve lost or missed comes into sharp relief, you’re not thinking that thought now, as the dark bursts with fireworks and the humbler, less flamboyant paper balloons with candles inside them climb purposefully up the night sky.



Mary & Mary

Thinking of mothers and daughters these days has, to a great extent, meant thinking about Mary Wollstonecraft, writer and champion of women’s education, and her daughter Mary Shelley, author of ‘Frankenstein’.Image


Mary W died aged 38 in September 1797, twelve days after giving birth to Mary S, her second daughter. She apparently failed to expel a part of the placenta, which caused septicaemia and, after almost two weeks of terrible suffering, death. Her husband, philosopher William Godwin, was devastated, writing to a friend: ‘I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again’. The tragedy would have a deep impact on two other people as well.

In later years, the younger Mary felt her mother’s absence keenly — especially after her father —despite or perhaps because of his non-expectations of happiness— remarried, choosing an uncongenial woman as different from his first wife as two people could possibly be. And, of course, the older Mary was deprived of the opportunity of raising this new daughter, as well as her three-year-old elder girl, Fanny, the offspring of a previous relationship with an American merchant.

As young women, both Mary S and Fanny revered and idealized their lost mother, but it was perhaps Mary —the one who most resembled her in intelligence and talents— who could most aptly assess the untimely extinction of Mary W’s potential and, by extent, the magnitude of her own loss.

Mary Wollstonecraft had been a bitter, hardened woman who had come to be transformed by love — first for her daughter, Fanny, and then for the man she married, Godwin. She came from a difficult family — an impecunious, violent father and a helpless mother, along with several siblings, all of whom had at some point required her help, emotional or economic or both. She had struggled against poverty and tried several schemes for improving her situation; these included working as a governess in Ireland for a noble family, a position from which she was dismissed when the lady of the house realized her daughter was becoming more attached to Mary than to her (as an adult, the girl in question wrote that her governess ‘had freed her mind from all superstitions’). She had moved to Paris at the height of the Revolution and experienced its horrors, which she lived through with her American lover, who later abandoned her and baby Fanny. Then she had found and gauged her own strengths during a business journey to Scandinavia,


which produced a beautiful travel book — but she still felt, and was, very much an outsider everywhere.

She had often been depressed —and twice attempted suicide— before finding solace and tenderness in the family she had created — Godwin, little Fanny, and the child she soon became pregnant with. She would doubtless have been a loving mother, and one who would have taken special care of her girls’ education — being, after all, the woman who had written (in her Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, 1787) that teaching female children nothing but superficial accomplishments was criminal, and that women’s lack of education was hindering the progress of mankind in general. She had also written a children’s book, Original Stories from Real Life,


in which two orphaned girls are educated by a wise and loving mother figure — no such luck, alas, for her own daughters.

As she was falling in love with poet Percy Shelley in the summer of 1814, seventeen-year-old Mary would often visit her mother’s grave and read her works there. It was there, also, that she and Shelley first declared their love for each other — a love that would fill the girl’s life with tumult, intensity and, ultimately, sorrow. No such love was in store for her sister Fanny, who would kill herself at 22. An intelligent and tender mother’s care (as opposed to the bad temper and vulgarity of her father’s second wife) would probably have led to a different fate; we will never know.

Mary W’s promise was to be realized in her resilient second daughter, the one that cost her her life. The younger Mary’s literary vocation asserted itself early: ‘As a child, I scribbled’, she wrote, ‘and my favorite pastime, during the hours given me for recreation, was to write stories’. Mary Wollstonecraft, Frankenstein’s grandma, would have encouraged these ‘scribblings’. They were, after all, part of what she had always fought for little girls to have a right to do.


Isn’t she lovely

I am often surprised and arrested by portraits—by their wordless beauty, by the story behind them, by what they do not say. This striking black woman wasn’t one of the main features of the Louvre museum, where I came upon her. Tourists from all over the world didn’t push and elbow and jostle each other to get a glimpse of her, didn’t brave the daunting smell and heat of a crowd of dozens just to take a picture of her with their cell phones.


I am glad that this was so—but also mystified by her lack of a fan base, since she is so beautiful.

She is unusual in many things. First, in the fact that she is a black woman portrayed on her own in the year 1800, when black people, with few exceptions, only featured in paintings as the exotic accompaniments of a white sitter. Second, in the dignity and poise with which she is portrayed, which—again—are seldom found in portraits of blacks from those times. And, lastly, in the fact that she was painted by another woman, a professional artist whose marriage to a rich banker did not put a stop to a successful and much hailed career.

She is The Negress, by Marie-Guillemine Benoist, but otherwise a cipher. I’ve read that she was a slave brought from the French colony of Guadeloupe by Benoist’s brother-in-law,  but, even if this were true, we still don’t know her name, age, or anything else about her. We can only speculate bout the circumstances in which she agreed (if agree she did) to sit for Benoist. And neither do we know what statement Benoist was trying to make in depicting her in this very unusual manner; but the early 1800s were highly symbolically charged times, and it seems safe to assume that some sort of statement, besides the merely aesthetic one, is being made in the painting. Scholar James Smalls argues that Benoist’s painting may have been intended as ‘a voice of protest, however small, in the discourse over human bondage’, and suggests that the artist may have wished to pay homage to the French emancipation decree of 1794—revoked, alas, in 1802, barely two years after the Negress was painted, and a scant eight years after its enactment.

My research on the modern appeal of the Negress also yielded interesting results. I found that, while not a celebrity of the Mona Lisa ilk, she has nonetheless been the subject of at least two reinterpretations: as a controversial depiction of Michelle Obama Image

and as the glamorous owner of one of Christian Louboutin’s creations. Image

None of which, of course, is as fascinating as the original, the enigmatic black woman presumably living in Napoleonic France, who stopped me on my tired tracks on a summer afternoon in Paris, and who never fails to amaze me with the serenity of her grace.


Mothers, daughters and words

These days—reflecting yet again on the bond between a mother and a daughter and the ties that bind us as women and family—I am once more brought to mind of a woman whose daughter went to live far away—not in another country, but at quite a long distance by the standards of their time—and, in so doing, sparked a transformation, both of her mother and herself.

In 1669, a happy Madame de Sévigné wrote to her cousin to tell him the news of her daughter Françoise’s marriage: “At last, the prettiest girl in France is marrying—not the handsomest young man—but one of the most honest men in the kingdom: it is M[onsieur] de Grignan”. The good lady’s ebullience would soon be replaced with heartbreak, as the husband’s military obligations took Françoise from Paris to live in distant Provence.


Madame de Sévigné felt the separation keenly. Over the next thirty years she would write more than 1,000 letters to to her daughter. She worried about the young woman’s health and was driven to a frenzy by what she perceived as Françoise’s recklessness during her pregnancies.


In a very early letter, Madame wrote: “I’m writing to you from the far end of this little shady walk which you love, sitting on this mossy seat where I have sometimes seen you lie down. But, my God, where have I not seen you here? And how these thoughts pierce my heart! There is no spot, no place, whether in the house, the church, the land or the garden, where I have not seen you. There is none but makes me remember something, in whatever manner. And, however that happens, it breaks my heart. I see you; you are present to me. I think and rethink everything. I rack my brains and my mind, but, however I turn, however I seek, that dear child I love with such passion is two hundred leagues [about 800 km] away from me: I have her no more. That makes me cry helplessly: I can’t bear it any longer, my dear one. It is a great weakness, but I don’t know how to be strong against a tenderness so just and so natural. I don’t know what mood you will be in while reading this letter. It may perhaps appear out of place, or not be read in the spirit it was written. I can do nothing about that. It serves to console me now; that is all I ask of it”.


What did Françoise answer to her mother’s pleas for reassurance, for love, for connection? We just don’t know, as her side of the correspondence has been lost. Contemporaries thought her cold and vain, so it is possible that Madame de Sévigné’s motherly yearning was not assuaged. And yet the bond between the two endured, and Madame died in Provence, during one of her much-longed-for, extended visits at her son-in-law’s castle.

For me, the connection between the women of a family is not limited to mothers and daughters, but deeper and longer, traversing time and space, as if it was necessary to revisit the past, or envision the future, in order to have a clearer image of who we are. In “Song of Women”, a Yiddish-language poem hauntingly translated by Adrienne Rich, writer Kadya Molodowsky analyzes the ties that bind the living and the dead, the past and the present:

“The faces of women long dead, of our family,

come back in the night, come in dreams to me saying,

We have kept our blood pure through long generations,

we brought it to you like a sacred wine

from the kosher cellars of our hearts”.

The speaker then addresses these women, saying:

“[Y]our words are like the silken cord

still binding my thoughts […]”.


These lines recognize women’s need to live their own lives in these present times and, simultaneously, to be a part of a bloodline, a continuum, a story. Molodowsky would probably have desired her “women long dead” to speak to her daughter too, had she had one. And the pull of history and family, as well as womanhood, may have been one of the reasons—apart from simple, pure maternal love—why Madame de Sévigné wrote an average twenty pages a day for thirty years, trying to recapture her lost daughter for herself, while at the same time offering the young woman her life, her days, the people she saw and the conversations she heard—a gift that would overcome distance and return to Françoise at least a part of what the two hundred leagues had taken from her.

That is why recognizing certain of my features in a photograph of my great-grandmother is so moving. This, my daughter’s great-great-grandmother, tightly corseted in her dark dress with high shoulder-pads, looking older than her probable age, holding her baby (my grandmother?, my grandmother’s sister?) with such earnest tenderness in her face, is a beautiful image—a reminder of the meaning of history, the cycles of life and death, and our own need to belong and, ultimately, come home.