“Look into my eyes!”
My grandmother, Raquel Rigol Galbis, was the conscience and spirit heart of our house. Abuela's room was at the very center of the very tall house that my father designed to fit on an impossibly steep hillside in Connecticut. She always left her door open to keep track of the comings and goings of our wild flock and then broadcast her opinions into the open space that connected all six levels at the center of the house. As the omniscient narrator of our comings and goings she had the power to predict the outcome of everything we did, or were thinking of doing. Sometimes I would sneak into the kitchen looking for a snack and the minute I reached for the cereal her monologue would start. I don’t know how she did it, but she could make her voice buzz out of the open cabinet loud enough to drown out the snap, crackle, pop rising from my bowl Rice Krispies.
I’m not sure if Abuela studied ventriloquism in her former life in Havana, but I do know that she had been a capable and respected businesswoman, with many friends and a beautiful city to enjoy. But in exile she became something of a recluse. Granted, the Connecticut winters and the steep hill were something of an impediment to her. Our spring fed, frozen driveway was a nightmare even for the young and sure footed. The sheets of ice could get so thick and slick that our cars would occasionally just slide out in the middle of the night. If we were lucky they would park themselves across the road halfway down the hill.
Unfortunately, Abuela’s reclusive life style meant that she could focus the full force of her Abuelean beam on the unlucky few whose behavior did not meet her high standards, there was one in each of the three households of her sons and daughters. As a teenager I remember getting into an argument with the other two cousins on her beam because they had the nerve to claim that Abula hated them the most!
In essence Abuela lived a double exile. Unable to reconcile the loss of her life in the sun, she never quite warmed up to the north, never integrated or made many friends outside our house. Exile was difficult for her, as it was for all the adults that had no choice but to go out into the cold to negotiate the ice and the downward slide to the mop or the dishrag. My parents never gave up. They never lost sight of the possibility of redemption, never stopped believing that their reality on that icy hill in Connecticut was just a temporary disruption of their sunny tropical signal.
At some point Abuela declared a unilateral truce. She never told me if the reason was that I hadn’t turned out as badly as she had predicted or she just didn’t have the energy to maintain her siege. It was around this time that she began to unfold the stories from her life, sometimes while I painted her room, or moved her crucifix from one wall to the other, and she rocked in her chair.
I remember one fine spring day I was fixing her rocking chair on the back porch behind the kitchen, and as she described a dating ritual from the age of nana, two amorous sparrows noisily frolicked in the aluminum gutter right above her head, doing what the birds and the bees like to do in spring.
“I was a great beauty then,” she sighed. “ Young men used to wait for hours at my gate to hand over their scented poems, but my nanny, Uva, would always intercept them. Poor poets, they never imagined that their best work would end up as padding in an old woman’s brazier."
You’re were always a beauty Abuela.
These stories have bubbled up as I work on my book, Dreaming Havana. Abuela plays a very prominent role in this book, as well as the longhaired creature that I was as a teenager. It is a story based on the longings of exiles and the power of communal dreams. Abuela would roll over in her Connecticut grave if she knew that in the book we run away to Havana together to dig something out of a wall that she and Uva buried forty years ago. Although I probably will not include these stories in the book I have write them out to bring her voice back up from the deep.
Here is another one.
Raquel Galbis Rigol Speaks of Doctors, Uva and other things.
“By the tender age of sixteen I managed our large house and controlled the day-to-day finances of our family. My brothers, too busy enjoying the many layers of pleasures that Havana offered, were not at all interested in such trivialities as balancing a check book or making sure that the bills were paid on time. I’m not sure if the word tender best describes the creature that I had become in my short time here on earth. When I was thirteen, my mother, god rest her soul, took to her bed with a bewildering combination of symptoms. The Doctors poked and tested while doing their side-glance inventory of the family silver. Had I known that their creativity and zeal to find a cure was directly related to their estimate of wealth in the coffers of the unwell, I would have replaced the hand carved chairs, hidden the paintings, and silver candelabras before their visits.
“Although none of the doctors could offer a conclusive diagnoses, each had the definitive and costly cure. At first, I was so impressed by the flair and swirl with which they slipped into their virginal white cloaks that I saw them as magicians rather than physicians. I went along with their suggestions, paid their fees, even sent our cook out to scour Havana for the exotic ingredients for their concoctions. One day it would be fine powdered gold from Peru, the next, a monkey gland infusion made by the African alchemists across the bay in Reglas.
“The cook, incensed by his sudden demotion to delivery boy, warned that he could not concentrate on his art if he was chasing black butterflies in the dusty alley ways of Old Havana. Unfortunately he was right, his Frijoles Negros became dry and flavor-less. The Caldo-Gallego, his best dish, no longer the perfectly balanced wheel of flavors it had once been, wobbled off-center from the hasty choice of too bitter greens or the wrong chorizos.
“Gradually I began to see through the spotless facade of the doctors' two-faced thievery . Once I decided what had to be done it was not difficult to enlist the o help of the cook.
“Every day at three, the magicians gathered in my mother’s room to discuss their real estate investments and speculate on the sugar crop while we served them coffee and pastries.
“We waited for them to drain their cups, finish the last cangrejito, and then light up their cigars. When they were deep in the stupor of heat and nicotine, we struck! After the cook swept the charlatans out of the house, I threw their coats out on the sidewalk after them, and then slammed the big carved wooden doors on their profession forever. That very evening Uva appeared at our door. She said that she had come to care for my mother. Uva watched over me and then when my mother passed she cared for my children, and then their children. Although she rarely spoke, I knew her soul, and she knew mine. ”