Young Pepe "returns" to Vista Hermosa as he plays with words right-side up and in reverse.

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On our way from the Prado Museum to a restaurant, my father was his typical pensive self, while my mother and I tried to lighten the mood from the intense learning session by rattling off Castillian Spanish words like espejo (ES-PÉ-HOH, mirror), Maja (Mah-HAH, girl or chick), and Velázquez  by lisping the Z's of the famous artist's name and augmenting the deep-throat explosion of the J almost beyond recognition.  The letters belonged to serious keywords in my father's lesson, but we wanted to have fun pretending to speak like Madrileños. 

"And what did you think of the Dwarf in Las Meninas, Pepito? La enana, " she added, so that serious Pepin could not help but smile. " La Na-Na-Eh?" Ha, ha ha ha.

In bygone days of Camagüey, B.C., before Castro, Pepito could hold his own, too, speaking Spanish not like Madrileños but backwards with some of the more jovial adults in his extended family in a sort of pig Latin that reversed the order of the syllables in many words, to make them practically unrecognizable to outsiders who came to visit his grandparents' venerated porch.  

 

The idea was not only to say in code something that the visitor could not exactly make out, except from the context of the rest of the sentence, if they were sharp, but to succeed making the other family members burst into laughter, risking offending the visitor if he or she thought they were the butt of some private joke. Whenever Mercedes and her merry-widowed Aunt Fe got together in the porch on Calle Tres with younger Cousin Rosa (Sah-roh)  and her brother Erasmo (Mo-rah-heh), Estrella the seamstress who lived on the opposite corner half a block away from the porch, could hear the rucus.

Pepito not only already missed that world of sounds deeply, but that afternoon, he borrowed from the The Prado visit, his fantasy began to tell him that it was in some way similar to looking at a word in the mirror. Ro-sa :: Sa-ro, etc. Wow. He had to tell his father this! But before he knew it his fantasy lifted him like some airborn pilot to do a momentary flyover of his grandparents' street --in his hands sketchpaper, pencils and all-- and he beheld in his mindseye his favorite street in suburban Art Deco Vista Hermosa, houses, trees, cars and all!    

 

Although in Vista Hermosa neighborhood there may have been some individuals who joked around with such phonetics, in my family we considered ourselves sole speakers of this sort of "pig Latin," and it came in handy when went shopping and they wanted to say something without being understood about the price of an item or the crooked hairdo of the store clerk. The result could range anywhere from a simple "Está muy ro-ca (= muy caro, very expensive) referring to some store item, or the subject could get racier, for example, to remark on a saleslady's oversize nose, narizona, NAH-ZO-RI-NAH).  This secret code and the way some of those words  came sounded in reverse got them hysterical state in such circumstances. Several of my uncles spoke backwards fluently as well, so when they joined the women and garlanded conversations in my grandparents' famous porch of the rocking chairs with some of the mirroring syllable pyrotechnics, especially if a very highbrow Camagüeyano acquaintance had escaped the blazing afternoon heat outside by calling in for a visit.  The idea was not only to say something in code that the visitor would have been scandalized by, but to make each other lose all composure and burst into laughter, risking even offending the visitor if she or he realized they had been the butt of a joke.

Pepito was quite fluent hablando al revés, but here in Madrid that Sunday his father teased the 9-year-old boy's mischievous side by steering his thoughts to the two paintings by GOYA, la Maja Desnuda and La Maja Vestida, which they looked at on their way to Las Meninas. Pepin even mimicked the funny sound of the "J" that his wife and son had but recently been laughing about, so he said: "Pepe: those 2 Majas! Some historians think Goya painted a dressed version and fitted it, frame and all, on the other side of the naked girl painting."

"Oh, so not everyone could see La Maja Desnuda!" Pepito said excitedly. 

" So, with the mirror, do you two think Velázquez helps us to see a secret?" asked Pepin but with a pinch of her waist and a wink he hushed Mercedes just when she was going to volunteer an answer. Then the father added: "Hey, you two, I am very hungry. Let's ask that man selling carnations if he knows where we can eat well around here!"

The boy could smell the perfume from the blazing red flowers, and his mother interjected, seemingly from nowhere,  "My poor uncle Roberto, Pepito, didn't he call you your name backwards?"

"All the time, yes! To-Pee-Peh!"" and mother and son laughed. 

"Roberto gets very mischievous sometimes in the things he says to you and your cousins, why once---" his mother was going to say, but Pepe interrupted:  "He and Robertico showered together sometimes in Vista Hermosa!"

"Well, that I don't think is good," Mercedes said in an almost angry tone, looking at her skirt's length slightly below her knees and fixingits matching cloth belt of her wide skirt so the buckle was centered symmetrically on the front 

When his father joined them again, Pepito repeated it looking at his father in his clear blue eyes, but with a very faraway glaze in his own, and almost the sound of an incantation, perhaps wanting to summon Uncle Roberto to Spain : "To-Pi-Peh!"

Pepito now said but more to himself, so that his mother asked him, "What did you say, muchacho, cho-cha-mu...?" But before she could press him further, they had arrived at La Fonda de Don Pelayo, and Pepín saying, "Ya sí que me puse las botas," which meant something like, Now I am in for a treat, but literally the Spanish was: "Now I put on my boots!" 

*****

The white stuccoed walls of the 2-room dining establishment were decorated with one or two colorful tourist ads with the typical paintings of bullfighters, red capes and bulls in a moment of high toreador drama.Another 5 or 6 large posters of very green landscapes full of mountains and lakes, and one of a very Spanish, thought Mercedes, Virgin in a cave setting, whose caption read La Virgen de Covadonga. As her husband studied the menu on an easel by the front door, Mercedes approached the wall where this Virgin's poster hung, and studied it, tilting her head and doing a very common gesture in her, grabbing with her thumb and middle finger a strand of her black hairdo just above her ears, and  with the index tapping the wave at the tip. Pepito knew this was his mother's way of indicating that she was thinking -- even as she held her handsome head at a tilt with elegance.

Once the waiter sat them down and brought bread and a jug of red wine to the table, young Pepe's mind was racing to a memory from their hometown which was no longer connected to the word games of his uncle or Godmother Fe, but rather to his father's interesting question about hidden messages and almost double layers like the Majas and the two Meninas paintings, one real and the other in the mirror in The Prado.  The boy, too, was thinking hard as he had seen his mother do a minute ago, but he found it difficult to bring out to his parents what he was recalling. After taking a large glassful of water that the aguador or waiter's helper poured for the Cuban family now seated at La Cueva de Don Pelayo, the 9-year-old began, as if halfway through an ongoing conversation, "When our maid showed me that picture. That photograph of Jesus in her bedroom---" at this point he glanced over at his mother for approval, but she immediately retorting, "Don't remind me about that! We always told you children not to go into the maids' room! And you did it anyway. You and your sister Patricia."

"Things happened," Mercedes added after taking a second or two to gain her composure. "Those maids! But what was it that she showed you, Pepe? I forget now. It wasn't anything indecent, was it? None of our servants ever did anything indecent in our house!" she added but with a question-like intonation as she turned to my dad who was sipping a tall glass of ice-cold beer, his favorite drink all his life. 

 

"Well," the boy begins with some hesitation, holding out his empty water glass for his father to refill.

 

"Tell us, Pepe!", commands his mother, by now sounding dramatic.  

 

" No, nothing, it was -- a photo from a magazine or newspaper, I don't know. But Silvia told me it was the face of Jesus! And you could see it. Really you could see the face!" he adds, just as he reaches awkwardly  toward the bread basket and almost tilting its content of rolls onto the floor, eventually grabs one of them and digging the nails of his thumb and index finger into the dough, bites off a large mouthful.

"In Havana at The Capri," interjects his father with a slight laugh, "they wouldn't have served us these great rolls anymore , would they Pepe. Remember the rationing?"

 

But young Pepe is in servant Silvia's bedroom, he can smell how its air had something rather pent-up about it, humid. But fast-forward to Madrid now and after a minute or so -- of silence --  the doctor's son continues, addressing his father's question of some minutes before,  "It was dark. I mean, not the room but her photo. Dark like the Menina painting you just showed us, Papi. But it was all  like in patches, manchas, stains, the face of Jesus showed through the stains, or leaves of tree. Silvia said they were trees. Jesus had like a very black beard, yes,  and he looked very sad."

 

"How big was it---this picture?' Mercedes asks, almost to make small what she sensed was a big topic for the boy on some level she herself could not or did not quite want to understand.

 

"Oh, not big.  Like this," the boy showed her laying his two small hands flat around the salad bowl to the side of the main plate just as the older waiter reached their table with a soup terrain steaming hot with the restaurant's famous fabada asturiana. "It was Jesus's Face, I am sure, well, Silvia told me so," he continued, with a tone of self-f-defense.  "The picture was dark and strange, but I saw Jesus' face!"

"Did your sisters see the photograph, too?" asked Mercedes. "Well, no, they wouldn't have!" she points out confused, before her son can answer as he exchanges a smile with the waiter serving him a generous portion of fabada. "The girls had left Cuba already, hadn't they, Pepin? Until when was Silvia with us?"

"No!" says Pepito with visible excitement. "This was way before Maria and Pat left. It was before the Rebeldes and Castro came down from the Sierra Maestra Mountains. The Barbudos. It was when you, Papi, used to go out in secret at night to cure the Barbudos who were fighting near Camagüey, do you remember?" now he adds looking from one of his parents to the other, while the waiter who is serving the white beans to all three of them, seems to be listening to their conversation.

"We are Cuban and talking about the Cuban Revolution," explains my father apologetically to the old Asturian waiter.

"Refugees," adds Mercedes, with that melodramatizing tone of hers which she used all her life, in fact, and with which could manage to captivate any audience. But the waiter simply said, "Oh yes. Refugees. Castro. The Revolution," and, leaving the large soup terrain on one of the corners of our table, gave us his back and walked toward the kitchen, saying something, probably about us to another fellow server, as he nodded toward our table. 

"I remember, yes, I saw a couple of those pictures, too, in BOHEMIA, the magazine, before Castro nationalized it," Mercedes adds. "People in Cuba claimed they were seeing apparitions, the Virgin, Jesus." She pauses a minute, takes her knapkin to dry her lips, drinks a sip of the water to clear her throat, and begins to take small spoonfuls from this point on intermittenly with the remarks she will say in this paragraph.  Because the soup is piping hot, she blows on her spoon before eaach mouthful, and then continues, "When you'd go out till all hours of the morning, Pepin, and we could hear the gunshots at the house in Vista Hermosa. The kids and I trembled for you," she is looking at him almost upset, angry, exasperated. "Because look what happened. All that help to the Revolution and see what Fidel Castro did with it. What he did to us---."

 

 

"Anyway," she says now, putting down the soup as if getting ready to explain her painting in a museum, her Meninas! "What Pepe is talking about is not like the face of the Jesus in the holy cards of my church Missal  here which, thank God, they let me take out of Cuba..." She snaps open her black leather handbag and reaches inside it, taking out one of her delicate white linen handkershiefs,  the chubby black leatherbound Missal timage, hat Pepito sometimes liked to peruse, turning the onionskin pages, with the line drawings of chalices and hosts and Madonnas with their halos and their heads turned slightly downwards in sorrow. His mother had taken the Missal to the Catholic Mass they had attended that morning, but Pepito did not remember her even taking it out in the service this time. And as he thought these things and rememberd the many color holy cards that she kept as page markers inside the prayer book, which now began to almost want to jump ot as his mother nervously looked for one particular  she cries out a bit too loudly, considering they are in a restaurant, she suddenly cried out, too loudly for the restaurant settings, "Here it is. Here He is!" as pulls out a holy picture of Jesus.

"Here, look, you two," Mercedes says, still for the two tables next to them to hear distinctly,  holding against her right palm the Holy Jesus so that his face faces out to my father and me, and pivots with her elbow her forearm so we can both look at the picture full-on and remember to her husband and son at this point, with an imperative tone: "This holy card of The Sacred Heart," she sighs, "This is Jesus showing his Sacred Heart. It's exactly like the one Mamá has there as you enter the portal of their house in Vista Hermosa!"

 

"This is Jesus, Pepito," by this point she would have self-consciously have lowered her voice: "Not what you saw in Silvia's bedroom. See, it's in color, it's beautiful, He is almost smiling as He is giving us a blessin with his hand here, that shows the wounds of the Cross. Do you see the wound? And look at what He is pointing to: Pepito understood and answered her. " Well, it is his Heart  at the center of his chest, his heart thorns and light coming out of it." 

"This is the Sacred Heart like the one in Mamá's house!"

 

Pepito ran the tips of his index and middle finger softly on the heart, and pointed out, "The heart has a tiny crown, una coronita, and a cross on the top, why?" 

 

 

"There is a big difference between what Silvia showed you in her room, and I am sorry," Mercedes now says almost like a slightly angry teacher would have said to her son: "what she showed Pepito was a dark...version of Jesus, where he looks depressing."  Many years later Pepito would hear his mother telling him, as I still do 60 years into the future, "Stay away from people who tell you depressing things, or who are depressing themselves." At that time he did not quite understand the word, but the meaning would stay forever identified in his mind with that big bearded face glaring at him through those dark leaves in Silvia's photograph. 

At this point Pepito's mother does what she can to compose herself, since she has realized that the couple sitting in the nearest table to theirs, with perhaps their grandson, judging from their age difference, are staring rather unhappily at her. The young child, who could be the Cuban boy's age, has had to turn a full half-circle in his chair and grab onto the two corner spheres at the top of his backrest, so as to better view where the loud woman's voice was coming from. Pepito was embarrassed, but he was also feeling sorry now that Silvia had not let him see whether her Jesus had hands, too, and if they were wounded or not. Pepe did not understand quite why --- but here in Madris, and after saying good buy to is grandmother in Vista Hermosa, he thought this was a detail that did matter.

 

Mercedes nods awkwardly to show that she has made her point and needs not to apologize to that couple with the child or to anyone else -- this was typical of her when she was emotional about making any point with loud phrases and gestures. After a few moments of silence, her husband signaled to the waiter to bring them coffee and the desert menu, and he closed the conversation by saying,  "Let me see if one day here in Madrid I can find a book where they explain the kind of picture you saw , but in a science kind of way."

 

Pepito was distant, but he heard his father. "Science?" he asked him? Science and ... Silvia's bedroom did not seem to have anything to do with each other. 

 

"Pick a dessert, Pepe," the doctor ordered him with a smile, with an almost outright wink of his right eye to indicate that the two of them knew something that their lady companion from colonial Camagüey din't.  "And, Mercedes," he turned to her imploringly by dipping his head towards her and adding this: "We are out of Cuba already, aren't we? Forget that nightmare!"

The remainder of that afternoon, our small family walked off their lunch and digested all they had seen together and discussed first through the small maze of streets where La Fonda de Don Pelayo was located, and Pepín said a thing or two to his wife and son about the famous names they were meeting at the various cornersand small, cozy plazas: Don Luis de Góngora y Argote, Félix Lope de Vega, and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, explaining to young Pepe that of the three, he knew most about the last one, "because Cervantes was not only the author of a very, very famous novela called Don Quixote de la Mancha," but that he had lost his left hand fighting in the naval fleet of Spain, and that henceforward people called him El Manco---"

 

"Manco?" asked Pepito, "do you mean someone missing his arm ?"

 

"Yes," Pepín laughed, "didn't I just say that or are you, not manco, but sordo? Are you deaf, boy? There are lots of deaf people in Mercedes' side of the family, you be careful, Pepe!" he laughed.

 

"Oh be quiet, the two of you, I want to see if they sell your sister Patricia's favorite doll, La Mariquita Perez, on the big shopping avenues near here.  On La Gran Via. I am sure they do. I know we can't buy her one, but I want to only look."

I believe that the same Sacred Heart with the nail wound in His hand that crowned with his appearance my Mother's protestations in this chapter's first part entrusted me to the two people who looked over my early sentimental education -- and accepted the title of godmother and godfather.  Enter my godmother Fe Don, dressed in black and holding me by the hand, the young kid no more than 4 or 5 years with the white overall jumpsuit in this painting. Next, I present Frank Don, not a baptismal godfather, but thematernal cousin but 5 years my senior, who at the time nof my receiving the Holy Sacrament of Confirmation, walked behind me up the aisle of the church attached to my grade school, and swore that he would watch over my education as a Christian adolescent in the army of grace and truth, as I devoutly kissed the mitered Bishop's ring and took the Eucharist along with my classmates in Las Escuelas Pias.

As may be inferred by anyone slightly familiar with the history of Cuba's vicissitudes during the early 1960s, on one and the other of the 2 sides of its Marxist Revolution, the same Catholic elementary school was shut down following governments orders, not long after this Confirmation ceremony, and neither I, as a newly confirmed Christian soldier, or my Godfather Frank, for that matter could do anything to stop Castro's milicianos from ordering the entire student body, K through 12, and our teachers, laypersons and religious, to take a few essentials and vacate the building, making way for another school that would soon open there where niños Cubanos of all races and social classes could be taught all the sciences and arts which the previous system of government had stood in their way of.  By that point, when this and other major school closings and interveventions took place in our colonial city, my Godmother Fe was giving some small charity to the blond blind man sitting next to the column of the cinema's front entry area. This is the Camagüey I grew up in. Yes, it was in Technicolor. There was room in it for The Bridge Over the River Kwai, for American sailors out on the town, a painting of The Fall of Icarus, and for a Franciscan monk carrying his child, almost like an incarnation of Saint Anthony in this art deco tropical scenario.

But I am not so far way from the Madrid of exile and passage to the United States, of 1963. Listen.

A kid seeing Pillow Talk with his Godmother Fe, Doris Day, and Rock Hudson, who also saw the tail's end of the carnivals held every summer in our otherwise very colonial and proper city of Santa Maria del Puerto del Príncipe de CAMAGÜEY, on the Feast of Saint John the Baptist, El San Juan, soon realized that in those 2 or 3 days of June the town was one big pillow talk, well, at least that the thumping of the Conga rhythms and the floats with themes and masks and serpentines that were as real, if not more, than the scenes I'd seen on the American and European silver screen -- that kid found that Camagüey's streets often led to conversations or even playful childhood versions of some of the wink-of-the-eye naughty stuff he had seen with his aunt in El Encanto or Alcazar double-features. 

 

So, yes, right around the time when not in our servant maid's room but in the beloved grandparents' porch my grandmother talked of signs miraculous being seen all over Cuba,

 

"The Virgin of La Caridad has been appearing! And there's talk of the Third Letter given to Lucia by Our Lady of Fatima the last time she appeared to the children in Portugal -- they are saying that the Third Letter has to do with Cuba! And with the end of Communism,"  

she assured us as she and her cook, Julia, served everyone their gaseosa by about 9:30 in the evening; right at that same time, another world of Secrets opened up to me during the daytime.  

Fe was my godmother and, being the sister of my maternal grandfather, Francico "Paco" Don, she was my great-aunt.

But that hyphen should be removed. She was indeed my Great Aunt. She had married a widower, quite late into her 60s, but Cristino Antón heartedly indulged her in making up for lost time, casting off the rigorous mourning fabric she had worn since her father ---another Don Paco--- had passed away just after World War II, and travelling often to the very gay Havana of Xavier Cougat's music and the cabarets, so she could bring back to Camagüey, in her own way, some of that joie de vivre. When Cristino died suddenly in 1956 or 57, Fe defied the rigors of our provincial mores and wore colors ("In Cristino's honor," my Mom would say somewhat jubilantly), and became a sort of Auntie Mame for several of her nieces, my Mom being one of them, and for me. Thanks to her I was forever in love with Brigitte Bardot, Doris Day, Sophia Loren, and of course, Tony Curtis, Troy Donahue, and Gregory Peck. 

 

Camagüey had elegant, state-of-the-art movie theaters by the late 1950s, and the magic of those cinema outings with Mi Madrina Fe, and sometimes Cousin Rosa, provided the quintessence of what would be my sentimental education. 

the beloved grandparents' porch my grandmother talked of signs miraculous being seen all over Cuba,

 

"The Virgin of La Caridad has been appearing! And there's talk of the Third Letter given to Lucia by Our Lady of Fatima the last time she appeared to the children in Portugal -- they are saying that the Third Letter has to do with Cuba! And with the end of Communism,"  

she assured us as she and her cook, Julia, served everyone their gaseosa by about 9:30 in the evening; right at that same time, another world of Secrets opened up to me during the daytime.  

I had two male cousins who were my playmates when we went from colored marbles, to cowboys and Indians (jugar a los Bandoleros, their beautiful blue-eyed mother Yolanda called it),  to riding horses in their farm, El Jagüey. Their Nanny, Eloisa, introduced me to my first Spaghetti, Cuban style, and she was as generous working in the gomina gel to make my combed-back Elvis Presley wave as hard as cousins Jorge and Julio's, whenever I took my bath at their house after pretty rocky and mischievous sleep-overs. But orge and Julio's older brother Frank, who by then wore his shirt a bit more like Elvis, sang Paul Anka songs, oh yes, I knew he was on another level, and he'd often spend time telling things I'd otherwise be clueless about : the real Santa Claus, sexual intercourse (which he invited me to hear in the vernacular Cuban form of the verb), and the fact that there were some amazing books that taught you everything about Life ("Te enseñan de la Vida!").

 

"I know who has them. There is one for guys and one for girls, cousin!"

 

En el Umbral de la Vida : At the Threshhold of Life.

 

Just the keyword alone flipped my world upside down, and there were days when the title of this secret best-seller that ironically NOONE seemed to physically show me or to, much less, own, El Umbral de la Vida  was, well, some holy form of Scripture which I would have to read in order to become an adult. I repeat, not when I became an adult, but in order to!   

 

Of course this was not a conversation I would have with my Movie Godmother Fe. Or with my father, who in those pre-departure days was much more distant and as though wrapped in a mist for me, than he would become later in Madrid. 

 

Ah yes, so we come to 1963, the lunchtime fabada, and the Post-Prado conversation switching from how the Separation from my sisters would soon end. “Sí, esta separación, Pepín!” --- my mother sighed as she pulled out of her purse one of the small, white linen kerchiefs , usually smelling of her favorite perfume, Flor de Roca, and dried the tears welling up in her eyes.  When we left Havana Airport, she had been allowed to take her dark tiny gem-studded calobars sun-glasses. But their glamour vanished often, as often as Mercedes would get emotional, and in her tone of voice, to me would come close to the tragic and to doing tragic things, that I had seen Sophia Loren or other Italian divas do in their movies. In those moments, my Dad was a distant iceberg, and I feared she would perform some very dramatic act, like even ... take her life, regardless of where we were. 

“Sí, esta separación, Pepín!”

Years have passed since 1963. And from this perspective, I can see faces through the leaves. The chiaroscuro. The Meninas. The King and Queen.

Art, yes, and Life.

As I looked around some of the tables near ours, I was well aware how the haughty looks from several madrileña ladies dressed in their tailored suits evidently looked down on Mercedes's display of emotion. My father's fair complexion varied, his blue eyes changed hues from one day to another, but his large almost oversize yet tender surgeon's hands radiated a golden glow in such times, when he would comfort someone, or now, when along with the comfort he was trying to transmit his huge sense of inner peace to my Mother.   “Shhh, estáte tranquila, mi hija" he would almost inflect his voice to be the tranquilizer and absorb her ire, her lamentation. 

And then I said the unmentionable, to try to take us back to our  Camagüeyano language which in those days I really thought NOONE but us could understand, and I rushed this out: "Patricia ...  is really good at it. El hablado al revés!” But no mention of backwards or forwards seemed to break the tension at the table until, for some crazy reason I thought I would bring up the best example. "Right before we left Havana and we spoke to her and Maria, Patricia told us backwards, so that the Puerto Rican doctors would not understand what she was telling us long-distance, Me To-Ma, if you don't come soon, Me To-Ma!"  My parents were startled that I had remembered how she had told us backwards that she would...kill herself. to  also my aunt parents smiled and were about to recall some instance when a phrase backwards like Velázquez’s picture had saved some ladies in the family, in their rocking chairs, from some embarrassing situation with some visitor there in their porch, who of course did not speak the speak, and was on the verge of incommodating them in some way. But I was quicker. I jumped in with the painful example of how my sisters, especially When she had led the jailbreak out of their convent school in Puerto Rico, and my parents had managed to speak to her long distance, worried to death about her daredevil act and what she might try next, she said it backwards to them on the phone from the house of one of the Puerto Rican host families, who at that point began to realize the difficulties of young Cuban pre-adolescents living far from their parents, --

And as she sniffled and spiraled some vocal lamentations at the table, attracting , I wanted to master the conversation and show just how well : “Me to-ma! Patricia told us on the phone, Me to-ma! The other day. She’d kill herself!”

“Shhh---whispered my father with a tilt to his head like Velazquez’s in Las Meninas. “Shhh, muchacho!  “

“Yes, Pepín. Me mato. She would kill herself, Patricia!”

 

[1] Calliope, Euterpe, Terpsicore, Cleo, Urania, Talia, Erote, Polimnia, and Melpomene

we could eat a bean and meat fabada asturiana, or un lechoncito asado, by way of pork. In no time, our palatte and guides had led us to a hearty table to lunch to our heart’s content, and chat about our outing.

Mercedes went back to the lack of beauty of The Girls in the canvas, and when she saw my father did not pick up her theme but continued to lap up his fabada, she ventured: “But tell me again why everything would be backwards there in the painting, and why the painter would use a mirror to reverse the room and everyone in it.”

“Mercedes,” my father replied after a silence: “In Vista Hermosa you and your aunt and your cousin used to joke around that you talk backwards, especially when you didn’t want people around you to understand. . . . Your cousin Rosa Margarita is especially good hablando al revés---.”

“Ha, ha, ha,” I helped her remember: “Pin-pe (Pepín) – De-ce-mer (Mercedes) – NOFOLETE (teléfono)….”

My parents smiled and were about to recall some instance when a phrase backwards like Velázquez’s picture had saved some ladies in the family, in their rocking chairs, from some embarrassing situation with some visitor there in their porch, who of course did not speak the speak, and was on the verge of incommodating them in some way. But I was quicker. I jumped in with the painful example of how my sisters, especially Patricia …” is really good at it.” When she had led the jailbreak out of their convent school in Puerto Rico, and my parents had managed to speak to her long distance, worried to death about her daredevil act and what she might try next, she said it backwards to them on the phone from the house of one of the Puerto Rican host families, who at that point began to realize the difficulties of young Cuban pre-adolescents living far from their parents, -- “Sí, en esta separación, Pepín!” --- My mother pulled out of her purse one of the small, white embroidered pañuelitos, usually smelling of her favorite perfume, Flor de Roca, and dried the tears welling up in her eyes, under the dark tiny gem-studded calobars.

And as she sniffled and spiraled some vocal lamentations at the table, attracting haughty looks from several madrileñas dressed in mourning in nearby tables, I wanted to master the conversation and show just how well Patricia could speak backwards, so I rushed it all out : “Me to-ma! Patricia told us on the phone, Me to-ma! The other day. She’d kill herself!”

“Shhh---whispered my father with a tilt to his head like Velazquez’s in Las Meninas. “Shhh, muchacho!  “

“Yes, Pepín. Me mato. She would kill herself, Patricia!” my mother agreed.

********* 

Pareidolia (/pærɪˈdoʊliə/ parr-i-DOH-lee-ə) is the tendency for incorrect perception of a stimulus as an object, pattern or meaning known to the observer, such as seeing shapes in clouds, seeing faces in inanimate objects or abstract patterns, or hearing hidden messages in music. Pareidolia can be considered a subcategory of apophenia.

My Aunt FE DON

The real Las Meninas de Velázquez