José F. Grave de Peralta
Jesus in the Maid's Room
My sisters Maria and Patricia Leaving Camagüey (Author's drawing, color pencil, 2020)
Prologue: “Words without thoughts never to heaven go” (HAMLET)
“It will be 18 hours before we get to Spain,” Pepito thought as he glanced casually out the airplane window and saw a distant wall of Royal Palm trees. He didn’t feel like drawing then or reading one of his old superhero comic books, so he placed these and other special belongings on the empty seat next to him. He was particularly fond of the small black and brown University of Maryland cap that his father had given him from his college days and which fit just perfectly on his son.
“You have a large head!” one of his sisters’ boyfriends had once told him when they were playing in the swings of the Tennis Club back in their hometown. “Piano head! We should call you Piano Head!” the older boy teased him. Camagüey was famous for its nicknames. For instance, before obesity became a global problem in resulting from poor diets, a particularly overweight paisano whose real name was Sergio ended up having to carry the nickname of Cubic Meter all his life, in addition to his excess pounds. Pepe wondered why he remembered such things now that the 4-engine Iberia plane was about to take off from Havana Airport transporting him and his parents to Freedom. Indeed, their safe departure from the José Martí runway, until the last minute, had a high probability of not taking place. His father Pepín waited until the three of them had cleared customs in Madrid to confess to Pepe and his wife that he feared some government agent sent by the Castro authorities could have arrived any minute to ask him to disembark from the flight. Since those days all Cuban nationals faced many obstacles to travel outside the Communist island – but moreso if he or she happened to be a physician. Pepito's father was leaving Cuba with a false permit issued to him by the Minister of Labor in gratitude for medical services rendered by Grave de Peralta to this man's mother, when they were poor.
“Pepe. Pepito!” his mother’s awoke the 9-year-old from his reverie. Mercedes was wearing, just as his father and he, a tailored suit cut and designed by the best tailor in their hometown -- “Rico” -- who lately worked from home with spools of thread and yards of varied fabric that he had been able to smuggle out of his elegant little clothing shop before it had been confiscated under Che Guevara’s nationwide mandates to render full control of the island’s rich economy to the hands of the people. Pepito’s mother was very fashion-conscious, and she essentially asked Mr. Rico to hand-make for her, my dad, and me, the three sets of clothing per traveler which the totalitarian immigration laws set as limits for Cubans leaving for exile. So Mercedes came and poised herself at an angle on the seat next to her young son and in her usually soft but imperative manner said: "Look son!"
She urged him to turn toward the window, as she moved his small pile of favorite things towards the upright part of the seat so she could sit next closer to him momentarily, her pointed index finger touching the window that framed the runway and a mass of palm trees in the distance.
“Son,” she repeated. “Take a good look at those palm trees standing there.”
“Well, yes,” the boy replied, sensing right well from her intonation that Mercedes was going to say something momentous. Even elegant.
“The Green of those Palm Trees,” the phrase sounded like a love song. After a moment of silence, she added, “You may never see the green of those Royal Palms again!”
Part One: The Secret Jesus
A few days after arriving in Madrid as refugees in passage, my parents and I began to explore the capital as best we could without too much "capital." One Sunday, my father announced that we were visiting The Prado Museum to view but one or two great paintings in the gallery. This, in fact, he did, and although he was by no means an art connoseur, his exposition to us of Diego Velázquez’s masterpiece, Las Meninas, left an indelible mark on us, so we would understand that the work was more than a 2-dimensional painted canvas.
Leaving the Prado, the three of us were silent as we headed toward the nearest traffic light on the tree-lined Prado Avenue. With his handsome blond head slightly inclined downwards, immersed as he was in his characteristic thought spirals, my father paid little attention to my mother’s rambling about a children’s doll she wanted to buy for my middle sister Patricia, at all costs: “Even though she is 13, Pepe,” she turned to me so I would be her accomplice, “your sister is still girl who plays with dolls.”
Momentarily, I recalled how that same young girl, not too long before we were finally able to escape Cuba, had warned us during a long-distance phone call that she would take her own life if we did not reunite with her and Maria, the older sister, soon. In fact, as we passed the regal marble statue of painter Velázquez by Aniceto Marinas on its high pedestal near the front steps of the Prado, Pat's warning rang in my ears just as loudly as my father's dramatic reading of the plaque on the pedestal: "Velázquez!" Hmmm. This sister who still played with dolls had cleverly disguised her cry of S.O.S. from the friends and guardians standing by her, who ironically were paying for the phone call and so much more, using as language a cryptic “reverse order” family lingo that she knew would particularly affect my mother. Patricia had used this family "pig Latin" trademark, used mostly for fun and mischief, for her tragic, long-distance announcement, from Puerto Rico to Cuba. My father, though, insisted his sonorous -- "Velázquez!" -- so we would stand for a moment at attention and think of something else.
My father assumed then a soldier’s stance of attention, held his large right hand over his eyes to block out the cold but potent rays of the Madrid sun coming through the sycamore trees, and proceeded to point out for us the various details of the seated statue of Diego Velázquez for a moment or two.
The artist’s instruments included his variously sized brushes, the long mahl stick for steadying his artist’s hand when painting delicate details, and -- especially -- his color palette. My mother must have lisped the Spanish Z's with unction for her husband to hear, as she read the name on the plaque: "Velázquez." She might have even said that, to her, he looked like a King.
As we walked on toward the corner, I wondered out loud why there was "nothing like the Prado" in our provincial hometown and asked my father if he remembered when he and I had gone to the movies one night in Camagüey. " This was before the girls left, Papi, but just like today here, you wanted me to learn something by going to see the movie, Voyage to the Center of the Earth.”
“Of course,” he replied quickly, "before the girls left. We went to the Alcazar Theater! But it’s too cold here for your mother, isn't that so, Mercedes? Maybe she can tell us where she and the girls that night we went to the Alcazar.”
“To the Tennis Club,” she joined in, maybe with her teeth shattering a little. “We had gone to one of the final rehearsals for the big show we put on for Las Teresianas, before Castro closed down the girls' school. Yes, and expelled the Carmelite Nuns!” I saw how she fixed her dark hair like actress Eva Gardner, whose movies I had also seen at the Alcazar or the Casablanca Theater, but with a dear godmother named Fe.
All his life, the boy would remember this moment as lasting longer than other moments, and when he shook off the sort of clouded spell which the green color had cast on him, he turned around to find that his elegant and dramatic mother was no longer there.
This, I suppose, was Mercedes’ unique of way of deepening my vision so as to make me see that those, for example, were not mere trees. In retrospect, now, I admire the way she did not need a gilded museum frame or some large, readable letters scribed with a caption under a visual moment that became an unforgettable lesson of perception. And in her intuition I know she knew that I would see and hear this scene in my soul forever and ever. At that moment before our plane's departure, a simple plastic window had served as vessel for something very great inside it, as the green fronds and my Mother's words joined forces and to become one.
Diego Velázquez (Aniceto Marinas, bronze, 1899)
Voyage to the Center of the Earth (novel by Jules Verne, dited and illustrated by Pierre-Jules Hetzel, 1863)
Voyage to the Center of the Earth (Film directed by Henry Levin, starring Pat Boone, Peter Ronson, james Mason, and Arlene Dahl, 1959)
When my father and I saw tis adventure film together, in those first months after the triumph of Fidel Castro’s Revolution, people were no longer afraid of explosions and other terrorist attacks in upscale middle-class venues like the art deco Alcazar. There was a sense of utopia in our landlocked colonial city, even if in my grandparents’ grand little porch they and several uncles and cousins had begun to see beyond the euphoria and insist that the Castro militias, with their rosaries, were false Messiahs. Our night at the movies, then, fun as it was for father and son alone, had subtitles of foreboding. The two Pepes bought their Coca-Colas and Hershey’s chocolate bars – such items would soon be forbidden -- and felt protected by the oversized glamour posters of Rock Hudson, Kim Novak, and Kirk Douglas displayed in the lobby, as they penetrated the thick velvet darkroom curtains to enjoy the 1959 screen version adaptation of author Jules Verne's novel.
“Yes, I loved that movie," I sighed. "And from that point on, whenever I went with you on Sundays to the Hunters Club, I looked for dinosaurs there. Yes, and prehistoric Loch Ness monsters in the lake. I wish they'd have let me bring my stones and minerals on the plane -- like the ones we saw in the movie!”
"One day, if we return to Cuba, Pepe, when we go to your grandparents Muso and Mita's house in their neighborhood of La Zambrana, you can ask Musito to show you his copy of the Jules Verne novel, full of beautiful drawings! Yes, ask your grandfather Musito,” my father would often use the diminutive of what was already a funny nickname for his father: Muso. His real name, like ours, was also José.
Part Two: Hunting for Clues
The soft yet rough-hewn hills of the Camagüey Hunters Club – El Club de Cazadores -- were spread alongside private cattle-ranching farms that had made our provincial city quite rich. The clubhouse, built of sturdy masonry under a thick thatched roof made of palm tree guano fronds in the indigenous style of the Siboney people, was open to the breezes --- and the occasional hurricanes – all around. I remember its Ernest Hemingway type bar where male members played cubilete or dice, smoked their aromatic habano cigars, and commented on the handsome heads of deer ornamenting the walls of the club. There was a swimming pool and a rifle shooting range, too, where I hardly ever thought to go; on Sundays the range was not used, and members like my father instead went there with their wives to play several rounds of dominoes and drink cold beer, until owner Manolo’s wife served her signature arroz con pollo, chicken and rice.
"Or her delicious fabada!" my father exclaimed now in our stroll of Madrid. "In fact, let me ask that viejo español selling carnations where we might feast on a steaming hot plate of fabada."
“Tell him we are not Cuban guajiros, Pepín. And that we know we are not in Asturias, where they make the best fabada!” When she was in a good mood, my mother often called Pepín "Rubio," the Spanish word for blond. Out of the corner of his mouth, el Rubio smiled, and just as he proceeded to question the man for directions, Mercedes interposed, “And, Rubio, make sure the restaurant is not roh-cah!”
“Ah, there," I thought, my Mom talks in our backwards family lingo here in Madrid!” The Spanish word expensive, caro, Mercedes obviously thought was rude, and she was sure that such a Spaniard, dressed as she later told us, in his most elegant Sunday but peasant best, would never in a million years understand our inverted Spanish.
She was right. Nonplussed, the older man did not even wink when my mother said the word, and finished indicating to my father with a series of hand gestures for parallel or perpendicular, which way we should walk to find La fonda de Don Pelayo. "It is typical Asturian cuisine. Very good and affordable," he assured us, so my parents suspected he either understood our lingo or knew, from looking at our clothes, that we were about as rich as our provincial Rico.
“In our family: hablar al revés, Rubio. You have to speak backwards, to really know everything that is going on!” Mercedes insisted with a laugh, walking in the middle of us arm in arm as we followed the flower seller's directions for the best steamed white bean soup in town. As we left the vendor, two nuns in long, ankle-length brown habits and sandals arrived at the flower stand and asked the man how much his carnations cost. "They are Carmelites, like Las Teresianas de Camagüey," my mother lamented and said loud enough for the Spaniard sisters to hear, adding as she looked at their shoe wear: “They must be freezing in this cold!” Hearing her various remarks, the nuns beamed us a smile, and bid us good bye with a slight nod.
“The Club de Cazadores and your dinosaurs, Pepito. It’s been so long since we’ve eaten good food like that. Thanks to Castro and his rationing books!”
Runic inscriptions of caves in Cerro Polilla, Paraguay (Jacques de Malhieu)
Legendary Camagüey (Pastel painting by the author, 2005)
Part Three: Pictures at an Exhibition
Throughout her life, our mother passionately insisted to my sisters and me that “People from Cuba have a very unique sense of humor. We make a party even of the saddest things. Many other Spanish-speaking people, many other Latins don’t understand us.”
After that particular Sunday's introduction to Las Meninas and works by Francisco de Goya and Balthazar Murillo, I realized that even with our sense of frolic, we were having to learn the hard way, by exile and separation from those we loved, that some of the secrets of freedom and country lay waiting for me to decipher
father addressed my surprise by pointing to the figure's anatomy, so lifelike it seemed that Jesus still breathed and moved. "To do that with a brush, Pepe, is the mark of genius." My father’s eyes being those of a doctor, he had us focus on the two large toes of Christ in the painting, to see how the “toenails” protruded outside the canvas cloth. “To show us that Jesus was as real as we are!” he added with excitement. To me, this detail was very perplexing.
Years later, when I was about 16 and these Madrid walks were 6 or 7 years distant, I remarked to Pepín over dinner, precisely in the days that my mother's father was in his final days, how much a dark mystery I found death to be. And he answered laconically, without lifting his face from the plate of food in front of him, "The bigger mystery to me, son, is Life." If I did not think then about the Crucified Christ in The Prado – and his toenails – I should have.
Soon after this grandfather died, his wife came to live with Pepín and me. By that point, my parents had decided to separate. Not only were these the hosts of those great rocking chair evenings of conversation in their grand porch where I learned so much as a boy, but grandmother Mamachacha would usually invite me to sleep over and hear her bedtime stories whenever my parents had to go out one evening or to travel. We had a little of ritual, as she told me her tales and made ready to turn off the lights, where she “chimed” the glass tears of a large chandelier that hung from the guest bedroom’s ceiling. The tinkle sound of the hundred tears were a charm. It must be from her “argosy” of stories that I recalled the phrase, supposedly scriptural, describing Jesus in this manner: "Somewhere in the Bible, Pepe, it says that he was the most beautiful man who ever lived." At The Prado, as my father focused our attention on the toenails, I must have silently agreed with Mamachacha about the overall beauty of Velázquez’s Man on the Cross.
In short, based on the various topics of conversation that my parents and I entertained that cold April afternoon in Madrid, one hundred years after the publication of Jules Verne's 1863 novel – ah, yes, maybe one day my paternal grandfather Musito will tell me all about it in his Study full of books in La Zambrana ! – I had the sense that with regard to some secret areas of our family’s story or personality, Spanish or whatever, I could take advantage of our present refugee expedition to explore those areas more deeply.
* * * * *
"Your uncle Roberto, Pepito, didn't he always say your name backwards when he wanted to joke around with you?" my mother asks me as we stroll in the direction of the Asturian restaurant, following the florist's directions of left and right. “For him you were not Pepito but To-Pee-Peh!.”
“Yes, Mami,” I answered after a moment of thought. “But really, only you, Roberto, and some of the aunts and cousins of your age could speak backwards. And … Patricia, a little!” For a moment, I recalled the darker, not fun side of our Vista Hermosa lingo when I thought of the way my middle sister had used this pseudo secret code to shock my parents once in the course of a very emotional long-distance telephone call to us from Puerto Rico while we were still struggling to leave Cuba. At a certain point in the conversation Patricia point-blank warned them – saying the words backwards – that she would kill herself if we did not leave the island soon and join her and Maria. Her kind Puerto Rican guardians could not understand the phrase, nor the depth of psychological maneuvering that this 12-year-old ward of theirs was capable of!
“Uncle Roberto was the favorite uncle of all of us kids,” I confided to my parents in Madrid. “Do you remember how he piled us into his beautiful red and white convertible the day Fidel Castro's Rebels drove their caravan of jeeps and tanks through the city? Yes, on their way to Havana, and Roberto took us downtown to shake hands with Camilo Cienfuegos and the other soldiers with him. Boy did he honk the horn!”
“Oh yes, you kids had a blast, Pepe, but your grandfather in Vista Hermosa was pretty upset that we had gone there. He and Mamachacha were already seeing a darker side to those big heroes!" After a moment or two of silence from these and other recollections, however, Mercedes brought us back to Madrid.
“Hey, there’s been a miracle in Spain!” she exclaimed. “Your father’s sense of direction worked this time., and here is our bean soup. My dad made his usual regal bow, and held the door open for both of us after he had let her straighten her Rico-tailored dress and his own shirt collar, proverbially at a tilt. “Pepe,” she then urged me, “remove your cap before you go in!”
While my parents greeted the maître-d and perused the menu of the small Asturian restaurant, I was musing over how in my own child’s space, the puzzle of that inverted adult language, along with their topics of conversation, frequently lured me away from my peer cousins’ games of hide and seek or Lone Ranger. Though I cannot be sure of this, my method for figuring out how to put words back in their right order involved using an imaginary mirror of sorts.
The illustration below highlights my mirroring left/right technique for deciphering a code as fascinating to me as the Jules Verne story of encrypted letters that led his Professor Lidenbrock all the way to the center of the earth. Vista Hermosa, of course, and not Iceland or its abysmal craters, as in the movie I had seen with my father, in time became for me the itinerary of a more heartfelt expedition.
through pictures. Pictures and conversation about pictures. Therefore, during the short three months that my small family group spent in Madrid, I dared to take some bold steps into adult realms with my parents in a way that would never repeat itself, by relating my questions to pictures. Or images, I should say, for I wanted to understand why the green color of "those" Royal Palms haunted me so much. Why would a long last look at such a live picture of indigenous Cuban trees open up a lifelong search into the power of guided looking. In short, Goya’s Maja Desnuda and Maja Vestida, for instance, were to mark a path of more questions and perhaps more answers about that airplane goodbye!
The Christ Crucified by Velázquez in a Museum -- like The Prado -- was a novelty, too. Doesn't this picture really belong in a church, I wondered. But my
Christ Crucified (Diego Velázquez,
oil on canvas 1630)
View of Calle Tres in Vista Hermosa, showing Pepe Deciphering the Code (Illustration in colored pencil by the author, 2020)
TO PI PE / PE PI TO
E RAS MO / MO RAS E
SA CA / CA SA
Looking at my picture as I hover above my grandparents’ home with its porch facing from the left onto Calle Tres, this point of the grid, of course, is full of narrative importance. Rising, too, from the old parents’ tiled Spanish roof, slightly to the left, I had to elevate my drawing up an external stairway leading up to an annex apartment which my grandfather had built for my mother’s sister Evita and Uncle Miguelito so they could live there. Evita was my mother's older sister and she and Miguel partied nonstop while they were in their 20s and 30s – which partly explains my grandfather’s gesture of putting a roof over their heads while they danced and danced the Cha-Cha-Cha. Those “gay old times” of her sister and husband always made my mother Mercedes quite jealous. She struggled with her secret envy of that party world and her deep pride of being married to a very studious and quiet doctor, for whom life was a totally different story. I spent many delightful afternoons in that upstairs apartment – Los Altos -- watching Evita and Miguelito play canasta and joke with each other like young adolescents while I sipped on expresso coffee and allowed the image of Vista Hermosa as seen through their levelor Art Deco windows, become imprinted in me. Tia Evita was the family artist, too, when it came to baking everyone’s birthday cakes. I am sure some of the bright colors in my own paintings can be traced back to her meringue wonderlands, on the inside made of vanilla and chocolate and on the outside, of sugar clowns, princes and dragons, and cowboy themes.
Other landmarks in the illustration of our suburban garden grid include the chapel to Our Lady of Fatima, for whom my grandmother felt a great devotion, and the tree-lined park on the left side of the wide Calle Tres avenue that divides in two parts the airborne illustration. Uncle Roberto taught me there to not be afraid to ride my bike without training wheels.
The first week of January 1959 when we Camagüeyanos hailed like Caesars or Apostles the green-fatigued Rebeldes on their triumphal caravan to Havana, the same grandmother who assured me that Jesus’ manly beauty revealed the same spirit inside, one night brought to a crashing halt the rocking-chair tertulias of her Vista Hermosa porch.
Out of the Garden (Pastel painting by the author, 2002)
"Those Bearded Rebels with their rosaries around their necks do not fool me for a minute; they’ve had time to clean up, but look at their dirty faces with all that hair and those sweaty green shirts and pants. They are Apostles of a very different Jesus than we believe in.” To my child’s mind recollection, the iced gaseosa refreshment that the faithful cook Julia served the porch-full of uncles and aunts that night, did not ever again have the same fizz or taste the same.
Part Four: The Rebels in the Garden
Luckily for my father, La Fonda de Don Pelayo was the perfect place for both his sharp hunger pains that day and for his interest in the history of Spain and its regions. I see him now listening intently to the restaurant host’s brief dissertation about his beloved Asturian region and its miraculous Virgin of Covadonga. Meanwhile, my mother has moved two steps forward and right, near a door that led to the kitchen, to behold above the door a sacred image that she recognized all too quickly. “El Sagrado Corazón!” she finally exclaimed when she overcame her amazement. So she repeated the name of this devotional figure in Catholicism --- for almost everyone within ten feet of her – me with her! – could hear. All her life Mercedes loved an audience and for people to notice her. And though she was never a fanatic when it came to things of religion, when these related to family places or stories, she selfishly spoke and thought as if everyone would necessarily bow to what she said. “My Mother’s Sacred Heart!” The only person who gave Mercedes a brief look of attention was a woman about her age sitting nearby with her husband and two young girls of about my sisters’ ages. “We are Cuban, and we have this same picture in my parents’ home!” The lady smiled and turned to her family to involve them. Only the girls giggled and whispered to each other to show that they had heard.
All this happened rather quickly, and when we – and everyone else nearby – had regained their composure, my father threw his arm on Mercedes’s shoulder and escorted her and me to the small table that a waiter was pointing us to in the adjacent room. In no time, we must have gone by turns to wash our hands and come back to the table to give the waiter our order. Pepín, I think, found it very difficult to keep to his original craving for fabada that day. The roasted lamb and arroz con mariscos in neighboring tables were too tempting for a family who had just left the rationing book diet of Castro and his Rebeldes, but my father eventually opted for the steaming white bean and blood sausage stew that he had originally been craving that Sunday, and which, according to our waiter himself, made this venue famous.
But, wouldn’t you know it, while we took our fill of water and wine and of hot oven-baked rolls while we waited for our main orders, none other than Francisco de Goya's own paintings of the Majas, which we had stopped to look at in the Prado, whispered to Pepín from their frames from the wall near his side of the table. “Well, if it isn’t The Dressed Maja and the Nude Maja!” he joked, but in a much lower tone than that used by my mother when she hailed the Sacred Heart a moment before.
“Do you know what they mean here in Madrid by maja, Pepito? They make the J sound like an explosion here, Pepe,” he said, imitating the gutural and explosive "HA!" sound typical to most regions of Iberian Spain.
So wait, Pepín, La Maja Desnuda!" my mother asks but mischievously includes the waiter in the conversation as he is about to distribute the fabada bowls, steaming hot. “Did you tell us in The Prado that only select people could see the nude version when the painter finished it? In those days everything was secrets. Goya disguised the naked girl?” The waiter grinned and walked away.
I asked my father to explain. “I didn’t tell you this to you in the Museum, but he made these paintings the same size so that the one could hide the other. Do you know which one most people were shown when they visited the man who paid for them?” He poked me in the ribs under my arm and said, "Pepe! Wake up. What are you thinking about?"
"Oh I know, Pepín," my mother joined in. "Goya was probably in love with his wife and the husband did not want everyone seeing that she had posed for the artist without her clothes on. In those days there was no divorce, so..."
At the sound of this word, the boy listened more attentively, for he had happened to hear his mother one morning say something -- in the famous porch but not backwards -- about his father and divorce, to his godmother and grandmother. Mercedes went on now, "The dressed version was on the front side, and on the reverse, fitted perfectly, frame and all, the ... naked girl, The Maja.” Just then, the tray of steaming soups arrived at the table and the three of us feasted silently and happily on their meal.
“I know something else," I went on with a tone of complicity as I took my spoon and dipped in to the fabada, "Goya did to the Nude Girl exactly what we did in Vista Hermosa when we spoke backwards."
"It takes a bright artist to do that well, young man," Pepín offered.
"Oh, in my opinion all those artists were a bit mad,” my mother jumped in, and directed the next speech at me: “I think Velázquez and his darkness are very confusing. I think he was even fooling the King and Queen – maybe he didn’t want them to see some things in the palace.” She was taliking about Las Meninas. Maybe.
La Maja Vestida (Francisco de GOYA y Lucientes)
La Maja Desnuda (Francisco de GOYA y Lucientes)
This, precisely, was my cue.
“Do you two remember how we saw Silvia, our maid, dressed as a soldier, a miliciana, with that other woman just like her at the airport in Camagüey?" No answer. "Yes you do!" I pressed them, noticing that they were more interested in the soup than in talking about Art.
“You remember. The day Pat and Maria left for good with their duffle bags and their dolls. And Silvia was there, we recognized her, but she hardly said anything to us. She knew we knew who she was, though she was dressed differently!”
My father, catching on and trying, all the same, to lighten what he knew was a very serious conversation coming up, says almost sing-song like: “Aha, Pepito, you mean Silvia was a Cuban maja vestida in her olive green uniform, like the Rebeldes? But while she worked for us she didn’t let us see that side?”
Silvia dressed with her Militia Uniform : DETAIL of My sisters Maria and Patricia Leaving Camagüey (Author's drawing, color pencil, 2020)
The color green again, I thought, but I immediately answered, “No, Papi, it was not like that.”
“You know very well,” Pepe went on, placing his soup spoon on a side of the soup bowl, “that Silvia had a brother who fought with Castro’s Rebeldes. The soldiers whose wounds you used to go cure secretly at night. Patricia and Maria and I could hear the gunshots those nights when you, Mami, would tell us that you, Papi, were risking your life to help Cuba become free. We knew you were curing the wounded soldiers on Silvia’s brother’s side.”
“Well,” my parents were totally attentive to my story now, they could probably hear something very important was about to be revealed. “So, after the Rebeldes came down from the mountains....”
“Yes, with their rosaries, their tanks, and machine guns,” Mercedes added.
“After they came down from the mountains, Silvia left us. Remember she left us?” My parents both nod and resume eating, along with me, but ever so slowly. Then they turn to me and ask me to say more.
“Silvia had a picture. She took me to her room once and I saw a picture. And I am pretty sure she was hiding it from lots of people. You never saw it, did you?” No answer from my parents, except for Mercedes, after several minutes, said something like, “Pepin, this boy of yours may not have blond hair and blue eyes like you, but he is very intelligent, too.”
“Yes, I sure remember Silvia. I know why she played the stranger with us at the airport. She had packed everything and left us while we were making our last vacation trip together to Santiago. Do you remember that when we came back to Camagüey her room looked awful, like everything was upside down? And I think she took some of Maria and Patricia’s things, too. Some rings. What did she take from you, er, I mean, Pepito, what did she do to you in her room?”
Las Meninas (Diego Velázquez, 1665 )
La Maja Vestida (Francisco de GOYA y Lucientes)
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Part Five: Jesus in the Maid's Room
While the boys night out viewing with my father of the 1959 film Voyage to the Center of the Earth takes pride of place in my early film education, the picture that Silvia showed me in her small maids quarters in our house in Vista Hermosa, mesmerized me. With time, it became, in some ways almost like my mother’s Royal Palms’ Green, a defining image for me.
In those days my positive feelings towards Silvia issued from my awareness that one of her brothers was fighting with the other Rebeldes in the clandestine insurrections near our provincial town, and this meant that in one of his own clandestine medical missions to cure their wounded my own father might have had the chance to meet this woman's brother! But when we met her dressed like a Militiawoman in our town airport the afternoon my sisters walked out to the runway to board their plane with their dolls and striped duffle bags, I would have given anything to confide in my parents my own more intimate recollections of the Maid and her mysterious photograph. In her bedroom. But this confession waited until the three of us were together in Madrid.
“Más bollos para ustedes” – the Asturian waiter’s sudden irruption into a delicate family story, as he offered us more hot rolls, caused a momentary fit of laughter in my mother and me, since the Spanish word for roll is used in Cuban vernacular for the vagina. My parents must have thought that the burlesque spirit of one of the great writers whose names appeared on the street corners of the Madrid neighborhood where we were --- Miguel de Cervantes, Lope de Vega, or Francisco Quevedo -- had possessed our waiter to say bollos just as my parents were asking me if Silvia’s moves in her bedroom had been physical.
I burst out laughing, of course, as did my mom, but then she continued so loudly that she again draws the attention of the table nearby, "It’s fine, Pepín, Pepito is no little boy, and here in Spain, when he and I hear this word, it makes us die laughing. Isn’t that true son?” Next, but this time almost inaudibly, she stares at my father, arching her eyebrows and making her dark eyes darker and morewide, as she whispers ironically: “Wouldn't you want to know more about La Virgen de Covadonga there, Pepe”?
I see, with a bit of confusion and embarrassment that Mercedes is pointing to a poster showing an old-style image of the Virgin Mary in a Cave. "Pepín," she asks him but in a lower tone, "don't tell me to lower my voice." I-am-Cuban," she punctuated the phrase, "and I am not a Spaniard to go around covering things up like they do here under Franco and say sh-sh-shuh."
"You two listen to me. We speak like that. I just wish we had said the things that mattered out loud when Castro took over--- I wish we would not have run around with our taboos --- our tapujos -- and thatwe had said what needed to be said out loud!"
At this point the waiter had arrived unnoticed by us, but perhaps, for him, to deflect Mercedes's delivery. He filled our water glasses and placed another bottle of beer in front of my dad's empty dish. “Yes,” the waiter joined in: “She is Our Lady of Covadonga, she’s our pride. Long ago,” and here he turned to me with a grandfatherly tone, “she appeared in a mountain cave to our hero named Don Pelayo, and helped him win many wars. We call it the Reconquista.” I had never heard this word before. "One day maybe you will read more about him," he concluded and left our table.
“Ah, yes, she is in a cave,” agreed Mercedes in less loud a voice, “the Virgin is inside a cave! But I am sure that when she had to say what she said, SHE DID!”
At this point, and making sure our waiter and the table next to us were not within listening range, my mother asked me point blank: “Tell us about the picture, Pepe. El otro cuadro in Vista Hermosa. Not Mamá’s Sacred Heart of Jesus,” she said now with an ironic smile.
Jesus Through the Leaves (Author's painting, pen & ink, 2020)
I didn’t’ quite know where to start. “I told them." My parents knew from my inflection that I meant my sisters. "I told the girls about it, and they were scared, but they never saw it.”
“You mean the picture, Pepe?”
“Sí, mami,” I answered a bit exasperated, and exhilirated, because I knew that even if she had become irascible and made my more reserved father blush, her emotion and her words harked back to the color of the Royal Palm Trees which she had warned me in the airplane I might not see ever again. “It was a dark face. But you could see it in the trees. The black leaves looked like his beard, and Silvia told me that if I looked at the picture and just let go, I would be able to see the face of ... Jesus. She said, too, that someone had taken the picture with a camera and that she knew many people had Jesus, just like this, all over Cuba."
So much for what I remember of Pepito's own remembering and of his table conversation with his parents that Sunday in Madrid. Desserts and coffee followed, but something like the following epilogue closed the scene.
“When I began to see it, I mean Jesus, when I began to see Jesus, Silvia took the picture and folded it back into a very tiny square and put it in her pocketbook on her night table.”
The Sacred Heart of Jesus (Photo of an anonymous 19th century image, oil on canvas)
My parents looked at each other and were going to say something, but then I thought to explain, “Silvia only mentioned the picture one more time to me. She said for me to keep the secret to myself and that my sisters probably wouldn’t understand, so for me not to breathe a word. Since grandmother Chacha is so religious, I asked Silvia, "Not even to my grandmother?" And she got angry and nervous and told me, Definitely not! Especially not to your grandmother.”
After a moment or two, I confessed to my parents in Madrid, “This made me sad and scared. I asked myself why she wouldn't want my grandmother to know something that had to do with religion, She and my godmother Fe prayed the rosary every morning in their house in Vista Hermosa. The grandparents' house, I mean,” I paused in thought for a moment. “Mami, near that same picture,” I pointed to the Sacred Heart above the kitchen door in La Fonda de Don Pelayo.
“Of course!” at this point in my story my mother exclaimed, “Of course that littletramp -- that cualquiera -- knew your grandmother was very religious. But she also knew very well that her Jesus ---Oh, help me, Pepín her Jesus wasn't human-looking, like your Mamachacha's. Look at his picture here in this restaurant. You can see his face and his hands. Pepe! You are looking down at the table. Boy, look at the picture.”
I was confused. I could not follow my mother here.
“Get up, boy, and look at the Sacred Heart from up close. They won’t mind here. The one you saw in Silvia’s room is not at all like this one, I bet.”
Our waiter suddenly reappeared with the check and two small glasses of a liqueur called Orujo, and he said in a very kind manner: "Here, Doctor, this is a small glass of our most typical after-dinner liqueur; it is on the house."
“Pepito, Pepín, you can drink mine. Peppito, in Camagüey your Aunt Evita brought a couple of those supposed photographs of Jesus to our porch one day before she and your Uncle Miguelito left the country and moved to Miami. We all saw them. And we knew they looked bizarre, even if they were about supposed miracles.
"I think you do not understand. Get up and go look at Mamá’s Sacred Heart. Go ahead. I know they won’t mind. Go up there and look at His eyes, and at His hands. And then come back to the table,” my mother commanded me. My father nodded and looked me in the eyes; he had begun to savour the orujo.
Las Mercedes Church in Legendary Camagüey (Oil painting on wood panels by the Author, 2003)
An older lady, maybe the mother of the restaurant’s owner, all dressed in black, studied me as I studied from up close the Holy Image above the busy kitchen door. Waiters hurried by me to and fro, carrying trays full of glasses, bowls, and serving dishes for their Asturian fish that we had not tried. I remembered the Hunting Club. The heads of deer in the bar. The dinosaur tracks in the hills. The film of the Center of the Earth. Goya’s Majas. And the green of my mother’s Royal Palms. And the elderly woman asked me if I liked the picture.
When I came back to the table. My mother picked up my father’s left hand and opened his palm, with her index finger centered on it. "The Rebels with their Rosaries. Silvia’s brother....”
The Jesus in the maid’s room, I thought, but could not find a verb to utter a sentence. He was neither the Sacred Heart nor the Cristo de Velázquez.
Our Lady of Covadonga in the Holy Cave (Anonymous 16th century engraving)