March 30, 2010

What Remains

This family visit really got me thinking about family history and about my Mom, who died this last December. She was always curious about the world, near and far, and about 15 years ago we visited France and Italy together, she for the first time. It was the longest amount of time we had ever spent alone together and that trip solidified a strong adult friendship for which I’m very grateful.

My most powerful memory of that trip is of the two of us having dinner, seated in a private corner of a small restaurant in Siena. We were having coffee at the end of the meal when she began to tell me the history of her family. She told me that my great-grandmother, at the age of 15, had married a very wealthy 91-year-old man. My grandmother had been born a year later and my great-grandfather had died within a few months, leaving my great-grandmother an extremely wealthy 16-year old widow, owner of coffee and banana plantations and responsible for the dozens of families in her employ. And that was the beginning of a convoluted family history, of which I had known nothing.

Years later, when we were visiting Ecuador, we were again having coffee, this time with her sisters, when she mentioned an incident that had taken place when her mother died. She was 17 at the time and her sisters were 13 and 8. Her grandmother, Doña Goya, who had grown into a fairly miserable person, did something so cruel that even I, 50 years later, could not imagine forgiveness. My mother actually had tears running down her cheeks as she recounted the experience and this was perhaps the third time I had ever seen her weep in my entire life, she was that stoic a person. She told us that she had never told that story to anyone, not even to my father.

This incident was so significant that I was able to understand my mother in a way I had never been able to in the past—it explained so much about her emotional structure. And I had to imagine the whole of my great-grandmother’s life to put into context the level of pain she had been capable of inflicting on her young grief-stricken grandchildren.

The picture above, taken when my great-grandmother was 71--50 years ago, at my aunt’s wedding and accompanied by my mother's stepfather (my Mom's father died when she was 7)--is the only one left of her. I’ve been told that she was formidable and I guess she had to be--a woman who, over 100 years ago, was capable of running a fairly extensive business in Ecuador. It must have been pretty hard.

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