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Angelica’s World

Now at her deathbed, she reveled in the scratchy tunes of tangos, sweet, flowery perfumes and photographs revealing the insidious passage of time.  There was magic in these small things, things that belong to the living…

     The bottle rested in her gaunt hands, unleashing the fragrance of lilacs to mask the rankness of death omnipresent in the dim room.  She had taken the bottle of perfume from her bedside table and dabbed its syrupy sweetness onto her brittle wrists.   You watched the slow passing of your grandmother, and her death was ponderous, lingering for weeks on end.  It seemed only insignificant, trite pleasures gave her fleeting joy: a bottle of perfume, a photograph, or music reminiscent of her bygone youth.  Noticing the far away look in those placid eyes, you knew that she had little time left.  She was bed-ridden, drifting in and out of consciousness, and ninety-six after all.

      She refused to leave her colonial house with its countless bedrooms where her children had grown up; she helped raise grandchildren, and many family members found themselves housed at one time or other.  It had twenty-foot high ceilings with cracks in the walls and water-stained, faded wallpaper tumbling down in frayed pieces.

      Angelica, whom you all called ‘Nonna’ as a remnant of your Italian descent, refused to go to a nursing home, or even the hospital in her final days.  So, various womenfolk–aunts, cousins, nieces and grandchildren–made a hospice within her musty bedroom, which had a perpetual dankness lingering inside the dilapidated walls. There was around the clock vigilance by the family, which included constant prayers, as old ladies sat with their rosaries repeating Hail Mary with glowing white candles lit around her bedchamber.  A large crucifix hung over the headboard, and a framed portrait of the Bleeding Heart of Christ presided in one corner of the room.

      While sitting at Nonna’s side, she only recognized you on few lucid occasions, but you didn’t mind.  You still told her about your vague memories of visiting Buenos Aires and her boisterous house as a little girl.  You remembered walking with her to the market in the mornings, as she rattled in a singsong Spanish that you could barely decipher.  Then there were the meals that she prepared with one course after another.  Your brother and you sat at the big, long family table, your feet dangling, as she served warm, nurturing foods like cream of squash soup, chicken soufflé and rice pudding doused in cinnamon.

      “Children, eat.  I want to see my grandchildren muy gorditos.” 

     She encouraged you while serving generous second helpings.  Your belly stuck out of your shirt and she smiled.  Being chubby in Latin America was a compliment and parents called their children ‘gorditos’ even if they were as skinny as a pole.

      While visiting Nonna’s house you were invited into another era, another world where time passed slowly, where family was abundant, and her doting maternal instincts oozed out of her like honey from a hive.

      Now, you peered at the photos in the living room, copiously placed in mismatched frames with faces familiar but unknown.  Sometimes you took a photo into her bedroom, and if she was clearheaded that day, she shared tidbits about your family, while other times she passed on her most intimate family secrets.

      “We found out that my father had another family, with a wife and children, living on the other side of the city.  We always thought he seemed distracted, even overwhelmed by fatherhood.  All that running around–juggling two families, had to have taken its toll.  No one ever knew about his double life until his funeral, when both our families showed up.  There were two women dressed in mourning, and both claiming to be his wife.  Imagine that,” she said while chuckling.  Somehow the years had softened the blow.

        Another day she said to you flushed and out of breath, “My youngest son, your Uncle Pedro, told me he was homosexual.”

      You got the sense that she didn’t fully comprehend the significance of his declaration, but she knew enough from her repressive upbringing to wait until everyone else was out the bedroom, whispering it to you as if making her last confession.

      “That’s not such a big deal these days, Nonna.  You don’t need to worry about that.”  You said as you held her bony, withered hands and looked into those cloudy blue eyes.

      “Honestly, I didn’t even know what he was talking about-and then, before I knew it, he moved to Italy.  I wish now I had tried to understand my son.”  Your grandmother gazed beyond you, as if talking to a ghost.  Suddenly, she scooted herself upright with the pillows on her bed, and became more animated.

      She told you that she hadn’t been with a man since her husband died.  “He was my first and only lover.  Is that very unusual?” she asked eagerly.

       Since she was only thirty-two when he died, you believed she was eligible to be buried in a habit.  And yet, she also admitted that so many years of celibacy nearly made her go crazy.

      “Maybe I should have remarried, but with all those kids?  I guess I didn’t really have the time.  But listen, mi niña, don’t be afraid of love.   El amor-it comes in all kinds of packages.”

      You didn’t know if she deliberately chose you as her confidant, or if you just happened to be there as those things slipped out of the ramblings of an old woman.  But during another conversation with Nonna you learned about Victor.  When you asked your father why he never told you about Victor before, he just shrugged and said, “It happened so long ago, and our family is sad enough as it is.”

      Victor was born premature and sickly.  “When I first laid eyes on my newborn son, I knew that he was cursed.” Nonna told you.

      The child was plagued early on with several bouts of pneumonia, which then led to asthma.  So when the doctors announced that the child had tuberculosis, it was a death sentence.  His lungs were already ravaged and crippled by so many diseases, and once diagnosed, it only took three weeks for his lungs to give out, and for little Victor to drown in his own bodily fluids.

      During one of your last conversations with Nonna, she cried for her little son.

      “It was common for babies to die in those days from every kind of disease imaginable: mumps, whooping cough, influenza, and mothers died in childbirth all the time.  So the worst part was the expectation for me to just move on and accept his fate, and be grateful my other children were all healthy.”

      Angelica explained how the years passed by with the family in an obscure and secret mourning.  She found it difficult to balance the grief of losing a child with the enthusiasm she felt watching her other children grow and thrive.  Over time, the rest of the family gradually forgot about baby Victor, whereas Angelica coveted ever more the stored memories in the hatbox under her bed.

      She showed them to you one quiet afternoon, taking out each keepsake carefully and caressing them clumsily with arthritic hands. 

     There were photographs, a curly lock of chestnut hair tied with blue satin ribbon, tiny leather shoes and soft knit booties, and the birth and death certificates rolled-up together.

      How many countless hours had she spent fondling the remnants of Victor’s short life?

      She told you about the ghosts who visited her at night, young Victor as well as apparitions of her grown children warning her not to neglect the world of the living.

       “Don’t forget me, Mamá,” he would say to her in dreams.  While during her waking hours, babies cried for attention and hungry children tugged at her housedress as she cooked and cleaned.

      Angelica told you that she loved her children, but often times she didn’t understand the point of the whole messy business.

      Now at her deathbed, she reveled in the scratchy tunes of tangos, sweet, flowery perfumes and photographs revealing the insidious passage of time.  There was magic in these small things, things that belong to the living…

      Nonna then passed away in her sleep one night after taking some sips of brandy and rambling about the faint yet imperishable memories composing a lifetime.  Her entire existence had been stored in the fragile recollections of her old age, which spilled out indiscriminately, with hardly a chance that someone would catch the wealth reserved in a single memory.  How random and fleeting life could be.

      At her wake, white lilies overflowed from the altar and copiously surrounded her open casket.  She wore a pale blue dress with matching eye shadow, her gray wisps of hair combed back neatly and her lips slightly turned up at the edges giving her a strange but serene smile.  You passed by her casket, peering in sheepishly before crossing yourself and muttering The Lord’s Prayer only because it seemed like the appropriate thing to do, and because these customs were bred into you like DNA.

      The family listened to the monotonous, soothing sermon.  The weeping was a requiem unto itself, and the plangent cries of Aunt Olga reminded you of a ‘llorona,’ a professional mourner hired for the funeral.  She covered her head with a black shawl and held a hanky to her face.  You glanced over at your father and he looked ten years older: hunched over, pale and lost in the world.

      Then suddenly she appeared to you again.  You felt her presence and actually saw her figure hovering benignly over the casket.  Her billowing form told stories, whispering through some darkened gateway, as her eyes reflected the vastness of the universe and the twinkling of distant galaxies.  Angelica’s sad sways between worlds bespoke of the longing and bereft existence of spirits still so attached to their transcendent children, searching–always searching for life.

10 comments to Angelica’s World

  • Angelica’s World | – just great!

  • amor

    Thank You for great article and information you posted.

  • Chi Hoffstatter

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  • Sheila Matthews

    We appreciate you plus love considerably.

  • rut klempan

    Claire you are a brilliant writer,,love you Rut

  • Adrienne Curson

    Beautiful, painful, and seductive . . . Feels like the beginning of something long and rich, entering the world of Vargas Llosa or Allende.

  • Jen Pema

    Keep up the writing. Reminds me of my granny passing at 102. Great imagery!

  • Louisa Stickel

    Claire Ibarra’s story is powerful,warm and sad in that it depicts the end of a cherished life as well as the end of a family’s era. It “includes the universal connection of us all” as Tess Nottebohm so accurately wrote! and captures the hopeless feeling of losing a loved one to death.

  • Kathy

    This is such a tender and moving story that brings back memories of Gram’s passing. Our inheritance is so rich; if only we could know more of their stories. Truly they live on through us.

  • Tess Nottebohm

    The profound beauty and sadness of Claire Ibarra’s story brought tears to my eyes. It captures an ancestral relationship that goes deeper still, to include the universal connection of us all.

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