A Room of her own

As I remember my room…

About a week ago, someone posted an interesting question on Facebook:

When you were a child, did you share a room or even a bed with one of your siblings?

Quite a few remembered that they did share, and a few wrote, “Goodness no!”

One of my clearest childhood memories was made the year I turned 6. I can remember that starting about 2 weeks before my birthday arrived, my parents, grandparents, and even my godparents, spent a substantial amount of time in the basement. I could not imagine why, but I wondered if my granddad was making me a pair of roller skates. I figured he could make anything, and after all, I had asked for skates. On the morning of May 9th, 1959 I woke up early and with great anticipation, I started looking for my presents. But hey… I couldn’t find a single one.

“We need to wait until your grandparents arrive, and then you’ll get your birthday gifts,” said my mother.

Finally I heard their dark green Morris Mini chugging up the street. I could hardly contain my happiness. But Granny and Granddad took such a long time getting out of the car. And of all things, Mom and Dad insisted on taking them downstairs.  What was going on?

After taking a careful look for spiders, I noticed a big pink bow on one of the bedroom doors. I had never noticed that the door to this room was varnished. The rest of that lower part of the house contained the laundry room, the furnace, unfinished rooms, spare building materials and lots of tools.

I loved my Granny a lot because she always answered my questions. “Why are we here,” I wanted to know. She suggested I open the freshly varnished door. I turned the knob and inside I discovered the most beautiful bedroom I’d ever seen. “Who would be sleeping here?

“This is your room Joany,” my mother said, “Granny and Grandad, Uncle Lewis and Auntie Chris, Dad and I all worked on it for you.” Dad and Grandad did the carpentry. The curtains and bedspread were sewn by Granny, and I painted. Uncle Lewis and Auntie Chris brought over the fuzzy, soft, pink bedside rug. I was thrilled. But it didn’t take long for me to catch on to the hard part. I would be sleeping there, in the downstairs by myself. “What if spiders come,” I asked.

Granny passed me a box wrapped with pink paper. Inside I found a statue of Mother Mary. “Our Lady will watch over you,” my grandmother assured me. I still did not feel good about this, so Dad passed me his gift. It was a book. “A special one,” he said, “written for little girls who turn six. He cracked the spine and began to read:

If ever there is tomorrow,

when we’re not together…

there is something you must

always remember. You are

braver than you believe,

stronger than you seem,

and smarter than you think.

But the most important

thing is, even if we’re apart,

I’ll always be with you.

Many will recognise these lines as the Introduction from, “Now We are Six,” by A.A. Milne.

Next Grandad gave me his gift, a little chair he’d made, with my name written on the back.

Mom’s gift was the final one… a flashlight. Wow, such a grown-up gift. “If you need to get up in the night, you can turn it on and you’ll find your way,” she assured me.

I figured I’d be using that flashlight this very night to go upstairs when I couldn’t sleep because of the spiders. But after my full-of-fun day, that included an afternoon party with cake, balloons, games and more presents, I fell asleep and didn’t wake until after 8 am. As I toddled upstairs, I saw my father was cooking bacon and eggs. “Now, today it is your turn to help me make as nice a Mother’s Day for Mummy as your birthday was for you.

My room was just 9’ X 12´, but I didn’t need more. It was my place, separate from my 7 brothers and sisters. And two months after my room was done, Dad and Grandad got my brothers’ rooms finished. Nonetheless, I still had to worry about the spiders because those three boys were terrified of them.

And I have a piece of music that is a perfect wrap-up for this piece… the Beach Boys classic, “In my Room” sung by a 9 year old.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cbRGlZWRlbE   Thanks for sharing my memory.

Lest we forget

In our family Remembrance Day was always charged with high emotion. It is a statutory holiday, and as a schoolgirl I made paper poppies and learned to recite the poem, “In Flanders Field”, by John McCrae. I begged my father to tell me about his experiences as member of the Canadian Armed Forces in Europe during WWII. He would not. “It is his private memory,” Mom explained. Later on I learned some details of what he went through. He was 19 when he shipped out and the photo taken six years later shows a thoughtful, still very young man, with sad eyes.

His brother Lewis, 3 years older, enlisted at the same time, but he did not see combat on the continent. Nonetheless, stationed in England, he too served long days and nights. He met his wife there. My Auntie Chris moved to Canada to be with her husband and she never returned, not even for a visit. Behind my aunt and uncle’s youthful smiles, lay yet more secrets.

Lewis and Chris van der Gracht during their coutship in England

The third snapshot, taken 40 years after D-Day, shows my aging uncles all ready to proudly march in the Remembrance Day parade. The events of 1939 – 1945 figured prominently in their memories during their long lives. But they had the opportunity to re-visit the battlefields of their youth, and came to terms with the memories. I wish Dad had been able to.

My mother's brothers, Douglas, Bill and John approximately 40 years after D-Day
My mother’s brothers, Doug, Bill and John, about 40 years after D-Day

I have listened to “stories about the war” many times and I feel such gratitude to the men and women who were there. I’ve read the (censored) letters they wrote to their loved ones back home – women like my mother – who at all times carried a tiny keepsake of each brother. “The photographs lived deep in my pockets, even when I was playing grass hockey,” she said. She believed if she kept her brothers close, they would return to her. My Auntie Missy carried photos of her brothers too. In Canada, and on the front, no one asked too many questions, even though they often doubted their orders. They understood that all the Allies needed to “pull together”.

Years ago, I brought a poppy home after a fall trip to Canada, and during Remembrance Week, I wear it here in Merida. Some people have never seen one and they ask me what it is and why it is pinned on my blouse. It is not possible to explain fully, but I tell them I wear my poppy with gratitude and love for those who sacrificed a part of themselves to ensure that I would grow up in freedom.    

Their example is a hard act to follow. I have done much whining during the pandemic and I wonder how I would have fared if I’d had to face what they did. My generation has its challenges but I feel we have lost much of the bravery, selflessness and determination of “the greatest generation”. The final verse of this poem is sobering.

On this November 11th, as world events continue to spiral out of control, I am reflecting especially deeply.

In Flanders Fields

BY JOHN MCCRAE

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead.

Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie,

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

*From memory

The Way We Were

Doña Bertha with the wives of her five sons, at her home for the Christmas Eve dinner, 1977

New residents in Merida often ask me how Yucatan has changed since I came to live here in 1976. And the first thing that always comes to mind is the way Merida’s physical spaces used to be laid out. Soon after I met my husband, Jorge, he took me to meet his parents, Don Humberto Rosado-Espinola and Doña Bertha Baeza-Delgado. They lived on Calle 56, between Calles 57 and 59. Their home was much like that of the other middle-class families who lived right downtown. But now, 45 years later, I can only think of a few properties that are still arranged like the home where Jorge grew up.

I am from western Canada, and at the time of my move to Merida, the longest-standing buildings in my hometown of Vancouver were barely one hundred years old. I felt awed when Jorge told me that his family’s home in El Centro dated back to the sixteenth century. And in fact, it appears on the first maps of the colonial city.

Solid stone and mortar walls soared six-meters up to meet the high ceilings that were held aloft by wooden beams. The house had been modified at some point during the mid-twentieth century and a large window facing the street was added. This allowed light and air to enter the cavernous space, and a couple of constantly-oscillating ceiling fans kept a breeze moving 24-7. Doña Bertha’s pride-and-joy were the twin crystal chandeliers that illuminated the whole interior.

When Jorge’s father bought the house in the 1950s, he had a divider built half-way up the facing walls, thus making two practical rooms out of the front part. It was fashionable for the lady of the house to have her own bedroom, and my mother-in-law’s occupied the newly-created one on the left-hand side. She could look out the window and see her sons coming and going. She used to say that no one could fool her about what time they arrived home.

Along with hooks for multiple hammocks, Doña Bertha had a king-size bed, covered with many puffy pillows and a pale blue satin quilt that spread out beneath a filmy white, lace-trimmed mosquito net. Never before had I seen such an enormous bed in anyone’s house. I couldn’t look at it without thinking of the Gulf of Mexico covered by billowy clouds. A handsome red mahogany armoire, a dressing table with a bevelled circular mirror, and a cabinet for her custom-made dainty shoes completed the furnishings. Portraits of the many cherished grandchildren lined the walls, and a statue of Our Lady of Sorrows brooded in the far corner.

To the right of the divider stood the proud sala (the living room). The front-and-center feature was la consola (a combination black & white TV and high-fi) My father-in-law showed me his collection of Frank Sinatra, and Big Band music, stored carefully beside his Asimil language-learning records. Don Humberto studied English, French, and Russian by that method. My husband used them to learn English, French and German. The room’s furniture included a green velvet-upholstered sofa and two matching armchairs, an enormous gilt mirror, and a marble-topped coffee table, covered with bric-a-brac that my mother in law collected. Sadly most of the figurines had been dropped a time or two by inquisitive grandchildren. The repair jobs with a glue called, Resistol-5,000, left bright yellow seams where the damage had been done.

The dining room with its sideboard and table for eight, lay on the other side of a Moorish-style arch, another architectural addition from the 1950s. Often there were three or four shifts of Rosados and assorted relatives taking turns, and fully enjoying, the amazing meal prepared by my mother-in-law. She had a justified reputation as a fine cook and the whole clan vied for an invitation to eat with her at holiday times. Doña Bertha also owned a glass vitrine with a porcelain dinner service and green crystal-ware for 16 persons, but this collection never graced the table. It was decorative, and not used even once!

On the other side of the dining room, three bedrooms and a bathroom were built down the length of the property, all the way to the kitchen. They had connecting doors and were also accessible from the garden. Full length windows drew in the fresh night air that kept Don Humberto and the five Rosado boys comfortable and cool in their pastel-colored cotton hammocks. Trees –  three avocado, two sour orange, one lemon and an achiote – soared to the sky from the narrow strip of vegetation. Peeking out from between the trunks and among the stepping stones, there were roses, hibiscus, climbing vines of all kinds, and other ornamental plants that Don Humberto loved.

The kitchen, laundry room and the maid’s room filled the remaining space at the back of the property. No room to hang up the clothes to dry at ground level – no, for that we had to climb a metal ladder made from railroad ties – to the roof, where row upon row of lines were strung. Believe me, getting all the way up there with a wicker basket full of wet laundry, balanced on one hip and the opposite hand clutching the railing, was the labor of titans.

Just outside Doña Bertha’s efficient kitchen, grew a fig tree – its boughs laden with fruit all year round. When I asked her how that skinny tree prospered, she pointed at her kitchen table and told me that fig trees only do well when they are planted close by a source of gossip. I nodded solemnly and hoped that stories about me did not garner too much attention.

Yes, I was naïve – of course they all talked about me – I was a never-ending source of unfamiliar comportment. And for Yucatecans, not behaving in the conventional manner produces a stupefied combination of wonder, confusion, outrage, threat and yes – a bit of envy. Propriety and predictability were the pillars that peninsular society depended on.  

Some years after my father-in-law passed away, Jorge bought the family home from Doña Bertha, and it is now part of the college he and I founded in 1990. The spacious rooms have new uses and few people remember how they once looked. Nonetheless, from time to time, my mind’s eye travels backwards with nostalgia, and I get a glimpse of “the way we were”.