In the previous post, I wrote about some misadventures on our trip to Argentina. Why Argentina? I was born there. My father worked for an imperialistic American company, which I am still embarrassed to name, and he handled their legal affairs in Argentina. My parents lived in Buenos Aires for many years; my brothers Don and Dick were raised there. My younger brother fell in love with Esther, the little girl next door; they married at 22, had seven children, and were together almost sixty years.
We left Argentina and returned to the States when I was 6 months old. I had been back only once, for a glorious two weeks at Christmas when I was nine. We lived in Bolivia, and though we were living high on the hog, it was a very scrawny hog.
Surely our parents took us around to see the sights, but all that I remember from that vacation is the food. In Buenos Aires we ate huge quantities of beef and dairy. I had frogs’ legs and snails for the first time, bamboo ray with black butter and capers. We stayed in a luxurious old hotel, and breakfasted in our room on eggs, bacon, creamed mushrooms, croissants, and hot chocolate with whipped cream. At night my parents went out and Luli and I had room service again: delicious sandwiches of turkey and ham, fresh fruit and butter cookies.
In the 1930's when my parents moved to Argentina, many middle class families in the US still had maids. When they moved back home in 1948, they didn’t understand life in the States. They brought with them an Argentine cook, a maid, and a nurse for my brother, who was recovering from polio. The maid and the nurse soon found other jobs; Elisa Dellepiane, the cook, stayed with us until I was eighteen, and returned to nurse my mother when she was dying.click
I write this in my newly cozy office, where I’m now spending a lot of time on the day bed, Here I read, write, crochet, practice my singing, and retreat from my uneasy role as mother of a teenager. To my left is a large sepia photograph of my mother at twenty, in front of me a black and white photo of her at forty. In this room I feel loved.
Like any immigrant who goes back to the old country to find her roots, I went to Argentina looking for echoes of my family’s life. I knew the stores and streets had changed. But on every corner, in every cafe, I tried to imagine my mother.
Mother about 1932
On Christmas Eve, after our money-changing adventure click, we took our taxi back to the Recoleta neighborhood for lunch and a museum. Our driver pointed out all the sights along the way, including the race track and polo grounds. My parents loved to go to polo matches and horse races, along with Buenos Aires high society, which took its cue from the British aristocracy.
Dad was descended from Jewish Eastern European immigrants. His maternal grandfather had gone to Colombia in the nineteenth century and established a sugar plantation. My great-grandfather is referred to as El Fundador (the founder); I call the Colombian side of the family the oligarchs.
Dad grew up in New York, and while he acknowledged that his father was Jewish, he always denied that his mother was. Like the Argentines, he yearned to be British aristocracy. Esther, my sister-in-law, says he always reminded her of a little boy pressing his nose against a bakery window.
We sat outside at an elegant Recoleta cafe, and relaxed for perhaps the first time in BA. Amanda had a very disappointing ham and cheese sandwich; Joe and I split a delicious “lomo” sandwich on baguette - the most tender, tasty beef, cooked medium rare. Amanda was happy and jokey, asking about how I learned Spanish, interested in everything she saw.
We sat a long time in the warm sunny day, under the shade of a huge historic rubber tree. Its spreading branches were supported by posts, except for one, held up by a statue of a man bending over and taking its weight on his back. A busker nearby, wearing a most penile clown nose, played carnival music on his accordian.
That evening we went to the outdoor ‘midnight’ mass at Iglesia Nuestra Senora de Pilar, next to Recoleta Cemetery. It was held at 9PM, since Argentine families have their Santa Claus and Christmas feast on Christmas Eve. As we neared the church after a mile-long walk I heard Adeste Fideles in Spanish. The night was soft and clear; people brought folding chairs from inside the church. It was a big crowd. The choir, high school kids, sang many songs, and the congregation often sang along - Christmas carols, soft rock, folky songs.
The priest’s brief sermon was sweet and kind, focusing on the shepherds, and how you can change the world, Argentina, Buenos Aires, and yourself, by letting Christ into your heart. Or something like that. I understood 87 percent of everything that was said, and of course recognized all the readings from Luke and Matthew. They finally got the bread turned into flesh and the wine turned into blood, and many people lined up to take communion, while others carried their chairs inside and left.
The service moved me, because it all carried my own past, while I felt the strength of this community and how much I was not a part of it. And throughout it I was thinking of Mother. She was Episcopalian, my father was an atheist, but I imagine they both went to the Anglican church in Buenos Aires. They probably went to Christmas Eve midnight mass. The feeling kept rising in me, “I want my Mommy.”
Joe wanted to see inside the church. I stayed outside with Amanda, who had been well-behaved and surely dreadfully bored during the service, despite the lots of music, and was now surly and loud-voiced. ‘Ooh, I want to drink the wine, why can’t I.’ I told her I was disgusted and ashamed of her and I didn’t want to hear another word until we left the service. She shut up for a while, and then said, “Can I ask a nice question?” I agreed, and she asked why we left Argentina. She was very interested in my history, and impressed, I think, by my fluency in Spanish, as was I.
On Christmas Day we tried and failed to visit several parks and zoos, and found them closed. But one of the most famous places in Buenos Aires was open. The fourteen-acre Recoleta Cemetery is almost two hundred years old. Over four thousand above-ground tombs are crowded together along paved paths divided by tree-shaded pedestrian boulevards, each family striving to outdo its neighbor.
"Liliana Crociati de Szaszak (full)" by Iridescent
We arrived in the late afternoon when the light was particularly lovely, with long shadows and glowing statues. Joe went off to take pictures, and I was free to follow the pamphlet guide I had printed from the internet. Without it I would have been lost and aimless in that huge corpse-filled place.
The pamphlet gave a lot of information about Argentine history, which I appreciated, and explained the arrangement of the tombs. You can peek inside and see one or two coffins, maybe some urns, with an altar above them. The decor is elaborate - stained glass and wood paneling, sculpture and bas relief, crucifixes, paintings and photographs. Stairs lead underground so that when a new corpse arrives the decomposed remains can be moved to the basement. Families must pay for maintenance; when they stop paying, the spiders and dust move in.
I only made it to the first twenty-one tombs highlighted by the guide, but it was plenty. I didn’t see Evita Peron’s tomb, but the pamphlet had lots of information about her, unlike the stupid French biography I had tried to read, which was full of dreamy postmodern musings.
Evita died at 33 of uterine cancer. The military didn’t want her embalmed corpse to be a political organizing symbol, so they stole it from where it was displayed in the Peronist’s headquarters, and each general kept it for a while in his house. One general was so worried about it being stolen that he slept with a gun under his pillow. When his wife came home late one night he claimed he thought it was a Peronista come for the corpse, so he shot her dead. Hmmm.
Another story of marital disharmony was reflected in a large elaborate tomb. White marble man seated pompously, looking like a nineteenth century business man. Seated behind him, back to back, white marble wife, looking like a satisfied and respected materfamilias. She was a very extravagant woman, and he became so frustrated that he put a legal notice in the paper: ‘I will not be responsible for any debts incurred...’ She was so angry that when she had the tomb built she said she wanted to face away from him for eternity.
The sky was deep blue, the sun hot but the air dry. I loved all the stories, loved the puzzle of following the map and locating the tombs, peeking inside, looking at the statues. A guard came through, ‘fifteen minutes to closing,’ so I made my way to the entrance. I glanced at a very new tomb on a corner, brown granite with a full-length metal bas-relief of a rather glum woman with leaves above her. The family name was Dellepiane. I was stunned - that was Elisa’s name, Elisa who had been for me some combination of grandmother and aunt, who spoiled me and Luli in the kitchen, who shared the mate gourd with us in the afternoons.
Elisa, Liz, Luli
For a few moments I thought, My God, could it be Elisa’s family? I looked for names and dates, but apparently nobody was buried there yet. I was pretty sure Elisa’s family was not of the class that would be buried in Recoleta. Sure enough, when I googled it, I found a famous general, an Avenida Dellepiane, a Dellepiane Bar listed under gay bars, and all kinds of Dellepiane’s on Facebook, far too many to try to track her down. With all my thinking and grieving about Mother as I wandered in Buenos Aires - I only just then realized and remembered that this was Elisa’s life too.
Memory comes in scraps and bits, woven together by imagination. The stories I imagined as I wandered around Buenos Aires weren’t even my own. I pictured Mother with my baby carriage in the square in Belgrano, Don and Dick and Esther in the white uniform smocks that children wore to school, Elisa returning to her niece’s family when she retired.
It is all fiction, but if I were rich, I would go back to Argentina for a month or two, and dream more memories.
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