My great-grandmother gave away her jewels in the street. In a different setting, this might be just a good story. But my family has always been ambivalent about money and events. Extravagant by nature, we throw our stories away, misplace them, wear them out by constant repetition, or hoard them for important occasions that never materialise. And although our store of anecdotes has been replenished by accidents of fate (death, dementia, displacement) it has also been depleted. We should be rich, but all we have are stories.
When I was a child, this particular story was kept within the family circle. The implication was that my great-grandmother must have been out of her mind to give away her jewels, and since madness was thought to be hereditary, her behaviour might reflect on her descendants. Now that madness and senility are no longer considered so shameful, the story is occasionally told. But the details and my great-grandmother’s possible motives are still vague. How did she give the jewels away? Did she press them into outstretched hands? Did she scatter them on the pavement or toss them in the air? The story was always told with a mixture of regret and admiration: regret that we were deprived of our inheritance and admiration for her recklessness. It was a story that made us feel that our family had been important (we had an ancestor with jewels to scatter) and consoled us for our reduced circumstances (I think of the clothes my mother bought us second-hand – in particular, a shiny pink party frock I loathed).
It is possible to explain my great-grandmother’s gesture by considering the deaths of her son, his wife and their six children – all passengers on the Lusitania, which was sunk off the coast of Ireland in May 1915. Perhaps that loss made her feel she had no one to leave her jewels to, even though she had a younger son (my grandfather), another daughter-in-law (my grandmother) and a baby granddaughter (my mother).
When the Lusitania was torpedoed, the British government insisted that it had been carrying only baggage and ballast; the Germans claimed it was packed with arms. When the wreck was finally located in 2008, divers found a huge quantity of rusty weapons. My grandfather and his brother had strong family ties with the Booth shipping line. Were they aware of the Lusitania’s real cargo? Did my great-uncle Paul, anxious to return to England with his wife and children, ignore the dangers? For months after the ship sank, my grandfather went down to the docks every day, hoping for a miracle. My grandmother told me that he scarcely spoke a word for three years.
In 1936 my Spanish father was a promising young composer. When the Civil War broke out, he volunteered to fight for the Republican side and soon discovered he had a talent for military strategy. By the end of the war he was a lieutenant-colonel with the authority of a general. Stranded in Valencia, he managed to escape and eventually reached England, where he met and married one of the four grandchildren who had not inherited my great-grandmother’s jewels. All he brought with him was a travelling clock; he didn’t have a penny. Perhaps he tried to repay his foreign hosts the only way he could – with a good story. In 1939, he wrote to a fellow exile:
Let me say straight off that I don’t intend to tell you the story of my escape from Spain … I’ve told the story so often, each time adding so many details (because the imagination never stops even when it’s raining), that at this point the account has absolutely nothing in common with the events that made us suffer so much.
Over the years different versions of his story have been told to me in Rome, Barcelona, Athens, New York and London. I didn’t ask my father to tell me his version. I felt that would be wrong – asking him to reduce three years of hell to an anecdote. Here is one version. When the Nationalists entered Valencia in March 1939 they shot or bayoneted anyone they suspected of being a Republican. My father, who was extremely fastidious, decided he would prefer an official execution to disembowelment and went to the Nationalist headquarters to surrender. But in that way life has of imitating fiction, the first officer he met was a former classmate (‘Gustavo, are you out of your mind?’). He gave my father a scribbled 24-hour pass (we still have it) and told him to go to the US embassy. The American ambassador was philosophical (‘In a war one side loses. I’m afraid we can’t help everybody’), but fortunately a cleaning woman saw the despair on my father’s face and suggested he try the British consulate, where her sister worked. The British consul was sympathetic, and offered to drive him the following morning to the port of Gandia, where the very last Republican ship was set to leave for Marseille: my blond, blue-eyed father could pass as an Englishman, but if the car was stopped he was on his own. No one stopped the car, and he was among the last passengers to board the last ship. He never returned to Spain.
I think my father seldom talked about the war not because it was too painful but because he didn’t want to forget the pain. (He told me towards the end of his life that he felt his part in the Civil War was his greatest achievement.) Turning an experience into a good story is a way of closing a wound; what is unbearable can be left out. In the version above, I left out the fact that my father’s father committed suicide after hearing a rumour that his son had been executed and that all Republican currency had been declared worthless (that much was true). My grandfather’s mistress fled with his valuables, while my grandmother, whom he had committed to a madhouse for the sake of the mistress, spent her days patching shirts he would never wear.
My father’s travelling clock has been lost. All I have from the past he could not bring himself to share with us are a few photographs and the black lace mantilla my grandmother wore on her wedding day. Spanish women of her time were almost always in mourning for one family member or another. In retrospect, the black seems prophetic because I died myself once. It’s a story that has been borrowed several times. My mother’s version was so different from mine that for a while I didn’t realise it was me she was talking about. More recently, a close friend, rather drunk, offered the story up like a gift to her other dinner guests, possibly to make me sound more interesting than I look. At a poetry reading I was introduced to a Spanish writer who told me he had included my death in one of his novels. And then there was the film director who tried to persuade me that it would make a ‘neat little script’.
I married young, having met Miquel in Barcelona in the early 1960s, where he was part of a circle of writers and poets, all of whom warned me against him. Since Miquel had already told me they would, I didn’t listen. We went to live in New York, where we both found work. We soon found we didn’t get along and we both began to come home from work later and later. One night I got back in after him. I had just taken my coat off when he knocked me down and began kicking me. His heavy boots shattered my glasses. Shards sliced through my right eyelid, cutting through my right eyebrow so that it hung over my face. I realised that there was only one way to save myself: I was bleeding badly and Miquel was terrified of blood. ‘The blood! Look at the blood!’ I cried over and over again. Miquel rushed out onto the balcony, threatening to throw himself over (the flat was on the 11th floor). I groped my way to the telephone, though I could hardly see for the blood, and dialled 911. Miquel staggered back in from the balcony, but didn’t look at me. I must have been in shock, because I wasn’t afraid.
Two policemen and a policewoman turned up. I told my story. Miquel had sufficiently recovered to protest that I was lying, that I was insane. In his version I had tripped over an open drawer and fallen headlong, smashing my glasses. The policemen exchanged glances, while one of them wrote down Miquel’s version, even repeating the words ‘open drawer’ out loud. Still, they helped me into my coat and drove me, sirens blazing, to the nearest hospital. A junior doctor patched me up with great skill. All I have to corroborate my story are a few scars and a slight puffiness under my right eye.
I left Miquel. Several years passed. I didn’t write to his parents, though I was very fond of his mother. What could I say? That I had left her son because he had beaten me up? Miquel was an only child, and a mother is a mother. As far as I was concerned, he could say anything he liked to her. Eventually I met someone else. I never ran into Miquel: New York is a big city. Then one day I received a thick envelope from my father, enclosing a long letter from one of his Spanish friends, the poet Jaime Gil de Biedma, along with letters and cables from Miquel’s mother.
There are people who have remained in my mind simply because I assumed they were still living, despite my not having heard from them in years. I felt guilty when I found out they were dead, as if I should have sensed the truth. But look at it the other way round. Imagine how you’d feel if you were told you were dead and buried in other people’s minds. That’s what happened to me, and it was unsettling. Inside the envelope was a cable from Miquel to his parents. It was dated 2 May 1965 and reads:
CHELI SUFFERED SERIOUS ACCIDENT STOP HORRIBLE STOPLETTER FOLLOWS M
The second cable ended the suspense:
CHELI DIED LAST NIGHT MAY 2 STOP HORRIBLE DESPERATE STOPLETTER FOLLOWS M
According to Miquel, the ‘serious accident’ which resulted in my ‘death’ had occurred on a dark, rainy night at a traffic light in Manhattan. The actual cause of the accident wasn’t made clear, so I don’t know whether a car or a truck skidded through a red light as I was crossing the street; or whether I was in a taxi that crashed; or even whether Miquel was with me at the time. My sternum was crushed, my spinal cord was broken in three different places and one of my legs was shattered.
Miquel’s mother’s letters to my father’s friend informed him that Miquel flew back to his home town, pale, distraught and in full mourning and that he sobbed uncontrollably through two funeral masses – one in the city where his parents lived, and another in his aunt and uncle’s village. Apparently, for the next two years, Miquel’s mother wore full mourning and kept a vase of flowers by my photograph. She wanted to offer her condolences to my parents, but Miquel always found reasons for not giving her their address.
Perhaps Miquel confided in someone he slept with or he got drunk and blurted out what he’d done. Rumours circulated. An anonymous letter hinting I was alive was slipped under the door of his aunt and uncle’s house. Then, in January 1967 a Chilean friend passed through Barcelona and asked de Biedma for Miquel’s address. He gave it to her, but told her I had left Miquel. The Chilean then called on Miquel’s mother, to say she was sorry to hear of the divorce.
Horrified and incredulous, Miquel’s mother flew to New York. She brought me a present: a gold bracelet on which was engraved ‘no me olvides’ – ‘forget me not’. She said she was very happy I was alive but that as a mother she felt ashamed and humiliated. Her hands trembled. She begged me to tell her why I had left her son. I both wanted to tell her the truth and protect her from it, so in the end I said very little. She insisted that Miquel still loved me.
I heard from Miquel once more. He sent my mother, Bonte, a cable after my father died:
BONTE, CHELI – I LOVED HIM – YOU TOO – WE SHALL OVERCOME – M
As you can see, just like my great-grandmother I’m giving my fortune away – the stories I inherited, and a ghost story from my own life. Why do this? Well, that’s a good story too.