In gratitude for the many blessings received, on Thanksgiving (Nov. 27 & 28, 2014) I am offering a free ebook version of Split at the Root: A Memoir of Love and Lost Identity.
Here is an excerpt of the first time I met my niece and younger brother… (The Ruth mentioned is my German sister.)
I was back in the world of my experience with an ambivalent willingness to revise it. Surrounded by the objects of my childhood and being with Ruth returned me to the womb of my Germanic security. The two weeks of my stay were coming to an end. It was already Wednesday; we were leaving on Saturday and I had not even tried to place the all-important phone call I had traveled so far to realize. On the way to my siesta, I saw the phone book lying on the table in the hall and briefly wondered if I really wanted to follow through with my objective and contact my relatives. Did I truly want to find them? Why hadn’t I opened the thing before? I felt its draw, felt it daring me to walk by without opening it. If I looked and still didn’t find Judith’s name, I could at least say I tried. So, I sat down on the stool by the phone, placed the book on my lap, opened it and leafed to the letter S. To my surprise, there were seven names, one of which belonged to the name Ruth had given me as Judith’s husband. I dialed the number and soon heard a young woman’s voice:
“Hello, I’d like to speak with Judith,” I said in Spanish. “I’m her older sister, Catana.”
“She’s not here,” the woman said, “but you can talk to her daughter Jennifer. Just a moment,” and she left me hanging.
There was no time to fret as right away an angelic voice on the other end of the line said: “Hello?”
“Hi, Jennifer,” my voice quivered. “You don’t know me, but I’m your mother’s sister, Catana. I’m in Guatemala and am trying to contact Judith.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry, but she isn’t here, she’s in New York. I know who you are,” she chirped excitedly, “my mother told us about you. You’re here now?” She seemed thrilled, while I was thoroughly surprised she knew about me. “I’m here only a few more days. Where in New York is your mother?”
“Brooklyn. My mother and my aunt Adela have been in the States for several years, now,” Jennifer offered happily. I asked her for the address and phone numbers, and after dictating the information, the girl added, “Where are you staying?”
“Here at Catalina, on the Reforma,” I said, knowing full well she wouldn’t know where it was, and frankly, not caring if she knew or not.
“I’d so much like to meet you; I’ve heard so much about you. When may I see you?”
Cripes, this Jennifer was direct. She was attending a nutrition school, she said, and tomorrow after classes she would visit. I’d made a simple call, and in so doing plainly overwhelmed myself. I looked for Patrick to tell him I finally made contact… and now his cousin Jennifer was on the way to see us!
“Can’t wait,” was my son’s reaction, as his face lit up with the brightest smile. “Wonder what she looks like, Mom! A real relative of ours! Imagine that,” and his embrace crushed the air out of my lungs.
It struck me in an odd way, that I had come to find my sister, but would instead see her daughter. Honestly, I didn’t care to meet this Jennifer even though her sincere joy in talking to me was disarming on a certain level. But why would she want to see me? What’s more, what had she been told about me?
“She’s only a little niece,” Patrick said, sensing my alarm. “It’s not the whole family crowding in on you. A little girl is hardly an invasion,” he added embracing me again. “She said she knows about you,” he grinned, stepping back and looking at me, “which means that while you may not consider her family, she has always included you. Mom! This is exciting. You came for this, remember?” But his joy was not contagious, and it was clear that I was suffering under a solid dose of anxiety. In the morning I told Ruth’s maid, that I was expecting my niece.
We had barely finished breakfast when the bell rang. Can’t be her, I thought, it’s only nine-thirty. I looked out the living room window and saw Nola walk toward the gate and open it. A small dark girl entered. She wore a white blouse and dark blue pants, and smiled as she approached the house. Patrick stood next to me, his hand resting on my shoulder. “Smile, Mom. You look great when you smile,” my son said, tightening his grip and flashing a bright beam at me. What a beautiful face my son has, I thought, ever so grateful he was with me. We walked toward the door and waited for Nola to retract the iron accordion bars. My niece stepped in, and I took her in my arms. It was the most natural reaction.
Jennifer barely reached my chin. Where does this tiny being come from I thought. Her body was warm and smelled like flowers. She gave me a joyful, somewhat bashful look.
“Good to see you, Jennifer,” I said, smiling broadly. “This is my son, Patrick.”
“Hola, prima,” (Hi cousin) Patrick said, giving her a hearty hug.
“Tía,” (Aunt) Jennifer turned to me, “I didn’t know I had a cousin.” Then, with a flirty smile for Patrick, she asked him, “Have you been to Guatemala before?”
“Once, when I was four,” Patrick answered, all smiles. “But now, you two get to know each other. I’ll be back in a bit,” and he went to the garden to play with Ruth’s Airedale.
My niece accepted a glass of lemonade, and we settled down in the living room.
Two thick braids framed Jennifer’s fine-featured face. Looks good, I thought, as I realized she was aware of my observing her.
“I don’t remember my grandmother Rosa, but they tell me I look exactly like her,” the young girl looked at me intently as I studied her features.
“So… aha,” I mumbled. So that’s what she looked like. I no longer remembered my mother’s face. If I had ever looked at Rosa, really looked at her, the way Jennifer’s eyes were on me now, her image would probably have remained with me for all eternity. But I hadn’t cared to imprint in my mind the face of my mother. The few times when I might have tried to recall her, some ten years ago perhaps, she had long been erased from my memory. Sometimes, on seeing a round-faced dark woman, I wondered if Rosa looked like her. But I didn’t know, of course.
Even though Jennifer seldom looked directly at me, I knew she scrutinized me carefully; our meeting would be reported in detail, as many times as necessary. I learned about her studies, the trips to Brooklyn to see her parents, their work in the States. She was twenty-two and had two younger brothers. Archie was nineteen and had just begun studying medicine at the university in Guatemala, while Anthony at thirteen was still in school in Belize. “I brought pictures of the family to show you,” my little niece offered, as she took photographs from her purse. “My parents,” she said, handing me a picture of Judith and her husband. Both looked radiant. “This is my aunt Adela, and her son Benji and her daughter Heidi. These are my brothers, Archie and Anthony. That’s all of us,” she giggled.
Patrick peeked in and quickly sat next to me to look at our family. “These are great pics,” he exclaimed admiringly. “How clever of you to have brought them!”
“I don’t have anything on my uncle Willie; tried to call him last night to tell him you’re here, but he must’ve worked late, and I had to get up early today…” she shrugged apologetically.
Yes, of course, there was my brother Willie. I had never seen him. “Tell me, Jennifer, where do you live?” I asked.
“On the way to Antigua.”
“That far? How did you find this house?”
“My mother brought me once,” the child said simply. “She brought me here and said that this was the house where you grew up.” Looking at me out of the corner of her eyes, she added with a serious expression, “We didn’t come in. We stayed outside of the gate.”
“Your mother brought you? Judith did?” I asked wide-eyed, puzzled.
Jennifer nodded. “When you said you were in Catalina, I knew where I had to go.”
I just stopped thinking and sat there feeling deflated. Patrick and Jennifer picked up the conversation as if they’d been friends all their lives. On leaving, I thanked the tiny girl for the pictures, for having come. I held her in my arms and took a good, long look at my mother’s face.
Patrick and I accompanied Jennifer to the bus stop. On the way she commented that I walked like Judith, and that I was a lot like her mother.
I could only smile at the thought that this little niece who looked like my mother had been comparing my every move to my sister.
It was an emotionally exhausting morning, and I soon developed a headache. It overwhelmed me to realize that the Universe had seen fit to show me my mother’s image first and by itself, before seeing other family members. And then, that the child knew where Catalina was because Judith had made sure the next generation knew one of their own had been separated from them. I didn’t want to think anymore.
By dinner, all I had learned was stored. I was tired early, and about to excuse myself, when Nola came in with the phone. “Señora, the call is for you,” she said in Spanish. “The gentleman says he’s your brother Willie.” I left the room with the phone.
“Sí…” I said.
“Jennifer just told me she saw you today,” I heard my brother’s pleasant, silky voice. “I’d love to meet you. Would it be possible?”
“Sure,” I said, surprised at being happy to hear him. “When?”
“It’ll take me fifteen minutes to get there,” he said and I could hear the thrill in his voice. I had meant tomorrow. The evening was young in Guatemala, and who knew how I’d feel tomorrow?
“Okay, Willie, right away is fine.”
He came with Archie, Judith’s oldest son, who was staying with him. Archie and Patrick liked each other instantly. Willie and I looked at each other and smiled and smiled and smiled. I couldn’t help but smile at such a darling face. He was fifteen years younger than I, and we looked alike.
“I never thought I’d get to know you,” Willie said, “never expected to ever see you.” He was serious, his voice gentle as he looked intently at me. “I had hoped against hope that I’d get a glimpse of you before I died.” He plain couldn’t get over me sitting next to him.
I knew I loved him, and I didn’t know why. Not knowing him at all, I already loved him. Is it familial similarity that creates love within families?
Ruth came in briefly to greet and soon left. It was good that way.
What I remember best of that evening, is Willie not taking his eyes off me, and repeating over and over that he couldn’t believe we had finally met.
And then, Willie remembered the inside of Catalina. “You’ve been here before?” I asked, intrigued.
“Sure, I played with two tall boys. They built a landscape with electric trains. It took them a long time to put it together. I think it was there for three years.” No one had ever mentioned to me that they knew Willie, when he had actually visited several times with my mother.
“You mean Ruth’s sons?”
“I don’t know whose sons they were, but they lived here.” Pointing, he said: “Over there’s where the landscape was set up.”