NEVER, EVER TRY TO ERASE THE PAST!
(Continuation of THE PERPETUAL GIFT Semanawak Part Three)
By Natalia Lucia Aguilar Gaona
“Many a trip continues long after movement in time and space have ceased”.
Caroline’s paternal side of the family came from the northern state of Coahuila, simple country folks, who spent a lot of time at grandpa Clemente’s ranch (my great grandfather), it was a rugged place high in the mountain range people were reserved, healthy, strong and wise, among them gifted healers. My mother Caroline, takes after her maternal family the Martinez, a lofty Pachuca town dwellers descendants of gold miners, who lost everything during the revolution. A time when tens of thousands of innocent people were murdered, poverty was greater and infiltrators flourished. My great grandfather Clemente Garza was head of a big clan; twenty-four children, eighteen with Guadalupe Guzman his first wife and six more with Apolonia.
The Garza clan spread all over, a few stayed at the ranch. Caroline and Ramona moved to the US because of their husbands, but the majority stayed in Mexico and did very well. Ramona was five years older and managed to survive successfully after the passing of her husband almost forty years ago, a successful rentier in the San Gabriel Valle. About a month after Tex’s funeral, we were invited to Mona’s lavished 80th birthday celebration, I drove Caroline to the party, we met with family whom I hadn’t seen in twenty something years, but right there and then she decided to impress her cousins celebrating their sister Ramona (we all kindly called Mona), begging them to come have dinner at her home before they left California.
Every five years or so, I would take Caroline to visit her cousin Mona. According to Caroline my sisters never had time to take her there. Mona and Caroline, both were petite, attractive and had unusual light turquoise eyes, despite their similarities they each other kept to themselves. I was well into my early fifties, when I discovered what really set them apart. Caroline was crafty and selfish, while Mona was naturally gifted; a diligent, mindful soul and who was extremely clean, in fact she designated a good portion of her income to support her parents, sisters and brothers, she also took in nephews and friends, even from her husband’s side of the family, they found work at odd jobs till they saved enough cash and could return to their hometown she never charged them a penny.
Caroline didn’t support any member of her family, she would always invite people to stay at her home, when somebody ventured out to California to stay with her, she showered them with attention the first week and then demanded a “small fee”, a rent of a hundred fifty dollars which was a lot in 1982 really covered the entire utility bills for the whole house; gas, water, electric and phone. The situation never lasted, because of her rotten disposition, people avoided her like the witch in the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel. And without a notice Caroline would evict them, asking them to leave because she needed the room.
We all felt embarrassed knowing her outrageous greed, poor Tex, how much time he wasted trying to talk some sense into her. We learned to stay out of her sight and out of her mind. People who didn’t know we were related, complained about her when she owned a garment store down in Baja: perhaps lack of social skills; such as like welcoming people when they walked in the store, things like asking if they needed or were looking for something, she had a petty way of snapping at people for inquiring, always suspicious, expecting them to shoplift from the store.
I made hundreds of excuses for her lousy behavior, was it her missing thyroid? Did she resent life for a small height? Why did I need to convince myself? Why did I find it all meaningless? I wanted find the source of her frustration; Was it her disappointed with the excessive cost of the liquor license she wanted, but couldn’t afford, did she hate the fact it was really more of a bribe than a liquor license? Or the that U.S. tourists in general were cheap and brought their own booze and food across the border? Could it be that the local insurance company swindled store owners, after thieves broke in and stole most of her inventory, or that the corruption of the police and authorities was overwhelming. All this was projected onto people throughout her life. In hindsight; sometimes I guess she couldn’t trust anyone, after her father died of a sudden heart attack when she was fifteen, and at the peak of his career as an elected State Senator for Nuevo Leon, she never forgave him for the misfortune and disgrace that the family endured without him, fueling resentment and an empty existence.
After investing huge amounts of money and years of effort to build the liquor store in Baja California, it turned out that none of her cousins or family wanted to visit her at her beach house. She didn’t earn the locals trust or sympathy, they started calling her “la Chilanga”, a denigrating label for persons from the capital. Five years later Tex had enough of the nightmarish ocean front lifestyle, packed up and went back to Los Angeles. Caroline stayed on another year attempting to salvage her an unfulfilled dream, selling everything after a year of emotional stagnation she reunited with her husband under the condition that inside their home they wouldn’t talk to each other and she wouldn’t meld with Tex’s finances any more. They appeared “normal” to the outside world, hermetically concealing their failure, no one, not even the grandchildren would suspect just how miserable they were.
Caroline’s lived in the South bay area, a two-hour drive from San Gabriel Valley. Her plan was to be the center of attention and need me to cook supper and bring the audience to her. Also for the evening to be a smash hit she decided on the menu; a traditional seasonal dish from the central part of Mexico, “Chiles with Nogada” that requires Poblano peppers, stuffed with a mixture of ground beef, onions, garlic, tomato paste, candied citron, almonds, raisins, pear and spices, topped with white walnut sauce and garnered with pomegranate seeds, an exquisite old recipe. It takes fifteen hours to soak and peel the walnuts, another seven hours to prepare the whole meal for ten guests, knowing that my uncles rarely traveled to the US or to the southern part of Mexico, they had never tasted such a dish.
This alone was good reason to take on the laborious endeavor, a once in a lifetime occasion. We agreed and planed well ahead; my mother brought out her best china, dinnerware and ironed the tablecloths, I cleaned the house, patios and cooked. By ten a.m. everything was ready, I was dressed and just before leaving the house to pick them up, a woman knocked at the door, and stated she had brought the “chiles rellenos” for Caroline. I asked my mother why did she order those “chiles”? She responded that they were for my sister. I could not stay and argue with her, I felt very disturbed over the fact that she never said a word about these other “Chiles”.
Hoping the traffic wasn’t too bad, I got in Tex’s big SUV and drove two hours to pick up my uncles in San Gabriel and drove another two hours back to Caroline’s home and took them back after supper, an eight-hour journey. When we arrived my sister and husband were not at my mother’s home. I asked Caroline if she forgot to tell them the time because I knew Victoria was always casually late? She simply said; “I told them to come after six, because she didn’t want them to eat any of the “Nogada chiles”; Why? I thought to myself, if I had prepared thirty peppers and enough walnut sauce to spare. Why did she order more of the regular “chiles rellenos” from that woman? This was so unexpected but there was nothing I could do or say, it was her home and her food.
Such was the situation when my uncles happily sat at the beautiful table set for eight, they ate the “Nogada chiles” with amazement and delight, they said; “Lucia you’re a fantastic cook! In Coahuila food isn’t this sophisticated”, they kindly inquired how did you learn to cook like this? Caroline of course told them about her ex, my father and that his family came from the state of Tabasco where women cook with elaborate ingredients. Mona knew that Caroline didn’t like cooking and then she admitted that there was a period of my life where I was doing all the cooking for my father, after their second divorce, because Lucia didn’t want to live with her and Victoria. Putting me on the spot as the “ungrateful child”.
Despite the fact that my father was a narcissistic, medieval, tightwad macho, no one could understand why on earth I decided to stay with him, and not with sweet loving Caroline. Her cousins were baffled, I turned to look at my mother and asked her; well you know why I stayed with my father, why don’t you tell them? Caroline opened her eyes wide and exclaimed, “I really have no idea why you chose to live with him!” Well then I said, looking at my perplexed and inquisitive family, eager to hear what the hell happened.
Obligated and uncomfortable to be the center of attention, I started to explain; alright my sister Victoria was fourteen and I was thirteen when she overdosed on drugs at a football game, casting a grim tone to my story, I continued; but the story does not start there, eight or nine months before that, money started disappearing from Caroline’s purse, remember? I remarked while looking at my mother. You do remember that? I said and continued my story: At first it was a five-dollar bill that mysteriously disappeared, then a twenty, you kept asking me if I took it from your purse? Perhaps you didn’t want to ask Victoria because she would probably deny it, or at least that was what I thought. One day in our bedroom, Victoria showed me a jar of pills and told me I should have one, moving my head and said no thanks and ignore her offer, but I knew then where the money was going.
That went on for months, until one Friday evening the police called our home, you answered, looking at my mother and then you asked me to translate because it was someone who wanted to speak to my father, he was at the university so, I spoke to the police officer who explained; that Victoria was at the football game, but fell ill and was taken to a hospital, that they saved her by pumping out her stomach. He told us to pick her up at the emergency room and well, since it was her first time she was off with a warning. Carolina and I went to the hospital brought Victoria home, in a very drowsy state put her to bed just before my father got home.
At that time my father was studying psychology and of all the people in the world, he alone, could have been the right person to help and understand my sister. Instead of paying attention to Victoria’s addiction, or finding who sold the drugs to my sister, Caroline decided she need to conceal her neglect and months of denial of Victoria's misbehavior. We all knew that my father had little tolerance for mistakes, and if he found out about Victoria’s stealing and overdosing, he would go ballistic and probably try to slap some sense into her, and of course blame my mother for hiding the truth, so Caroline begged me to pretend nothing happened.
One might like to believe that Victoria’s escapades were over, and that she had learned her lesson but no, yet nobody mentioned the “incident”, she was regarded as a silly teenager trying to fit in with the other silly people her age. Did Caroline understand the scoop of Victoria’s substance abuse, which almost killed her? Well no, she was not going to waste her time on us, and that was not the end of money disappearing either, Caroline simply stopped asking where her money went.
My uncles intrigued with the story begged me to continue, so I did. Ah yes; two months later after the first overdose, we got another call, but this time my father answered the phone and talked to the police, and again Victoria was at the hospital recovering from having her stomach pumped. This time she was detained and could have ended up in juvenile hall for drug abuse, my father declared he was a psychologist and convinced the police that he was dealing with the problem and wanted to protect Victoria. Needless to say this ordeal ended in another divorce. And this will answer your question, looking straight at my uncle’s eyes. That was when I told my father I did not want to live with my mother, nor my sisters. I knew he had mood swings, dealing with his nasty temper was stressful, but for me that was less painful than watching my sister kill herself and with a deep sigh I ended my story. My tiny audience embraced and understood my predicament with a long and compassionate gaze.
At that precise moment my sister Victoria arrived with her husband to meet the uncles and sat at the table to have dinner, Caroline went into the kitchen and served them the other “chiles rellenos”. Around seven they all said their good byes and got into the SUV; I drove my aunt Mona, uncles back to their home. The trip felt much shorter this time around, the sincerity and intimacy of my story ignited a warm conversation, or perhaps the resilience our blood line reunited.
They were rugged country folks, sons of migrant farmers, part of a generation that learned how to survive in the middle of wilderness, people who never encountered a rattle snake they couldn’t cook. I asked them about the life on the ranch, they spoke in a simple manner, but conveyed enchanting stories of grandpa Clemente, the forest the fact that there had been a ten year revolution and they never heard about it, till it was over. Lovely tales of hunting and lace-making much more interesting than the greed ridden and drug infested suburbs of southern California.
I dropped them off at Mona’s, we hugged and I wished them a safe trip back to the ranch. On my way back to Caroline’s house, I realized my story was almost forty years old So much had happened since, that evening they opened the capsule sealed in 1971 of an untold story; their presence allowed the the gift to come forth and the memory of my agonizing decision forged a different path for us all.
First published March, 2021
(story continues in Semanawak Part Four)