Once upon a time, my Dutch grandfather married and brought his bride to Mexico City. Business interests brought him there. My grandparents raised five lively and intelligent children living in various parts of what is now Old Mexico City.
The oldest of the five children was my red-headed, green-eyed aunt, my tía from Mexico. She left to her children, nieces and nephews a treasure of a book recording the history of being born and brought up there in DF. She had worked quite a while on the book with her youngest daughter, and finally with books in hand she appeared for lunch one day at my mother’s ready to distribute them. Around the dinner table, she asked me to read the first chapter. I was so honored to be asked and proudly I began to read aloud. However, When I got just paragraphs into her book, the story I knew so well, but with extra details I never knew, inexplicably, at that moment my 44 year-old self started to cry and could go no further.
“You read it, Tía, please read it. You wrote it; you should read it. I don’t know what has gotten in to me, that I simply choke up and can’t go on, ” I explained. To this day, I can’t remember who carried on the reading that afternoon around the family dinner table. What I do remember, is the first chapter was read aloud and then as soon as she left, I found a place to be alone and read the rest of her book in one sitting. Her inscription inside the cover says “For Georgette and Rick, with love –hoping the family is closer to you through me!!! Hugs, Tía, 1994.”
That was certainly Tía. Three exclamation points and a desire that we be close. Her oldest sibling, my father’s brother stayed in Mexico City. Her second brother, the uncle I visited in Spain raised his family there, as did my father’s youngest brother. And, my dad and my Tía made their way here in the States raising their respective families. It was my grandmother Moesje, who I have written about, who had kept us together with her annual visits filled with news about all her children and her grandchildren. Family reunions were not possible, but through letters, annual Christmas cards and birthday greetings, infrequent phone calls and one family member visiting another I cherished all the news that came our way in order to put the pieces of our story together. And now, Tía through her book followed her own mother’s commitment to do all she could to keep the family closer through her.
What brought on the tears that afternoon around the dinner table? I think it sprang from the years of staying in touch, the years of purposefully inquiring after one another, met by the unleashing of her story, our story in one glorious sitting. One chapter followed another, and I only had to turn the pages to feel the fluidity. Our far flung family had kept in touch, but it was not a daily ebb and flow, a natural give and take of frequent conversations through weekend or monthly visits. We had kept our birthday and holiday traditions. We had sung Dutch birthday songs, had *candle races after the cake was cut and we enjoyed Christmas and New Years celebrations, as my mother and father interpreted them in the blending of cultures within our home. All of a sudden, the presence of this book brought our story together chronologically, naturally, and effortlessly through my aunt’s conversational writing style. It was richly filled with so many details about which I had not been aware.
Perhaps we were blessed to have the miles between us and the long stretches of time between visits. I like to think we were lucky to not live so close. Somehow we avoided petty squabbles. Whenever the aunts, uncles and cousins got together, it was a time to treasure, filled with laughter and inside jokes. We all knew the same songs, danced the same dances and even told similar stories with some variation. We took pride in the ties that bind us.
[However before this sounds like paradise, please know we have known illness, divorce, prejudice and hard times. Under my own immediate family's roof...within extreme close proximity, we children had our share of sibling rivalry, name calling and rebellion, but I choose to write things that won't tear us apart.]
Había una vez, was the book my aunt wrote. There was once a time. I tell you this, because I have a similar goal to produce a book that tells the stories my mother, my siblings and I know. I want this for our family, for the generations that my mother and father produced. Presently, I have over sixty stories and vignettes. It will be different from my aunt’s book, and different from my grandmother’s memoires bound in a spiral book in her own handwriting.
Some of you may know the show “Who Do You Think You Are?” I do love that show. I cried when Ashley Judd found out that she was related to Stephen Bradford who came over on the Mayflower. And I cried again when she visited the prison cell in England where he spent more than a year for religious persecution. I could relate with how the significance of what she was told about her family sank in. People do need to know their family stories, the good so they have a sense of who they are and where they come from. Families need ties that bind so we can bind with others. They also, need to know the bad so that “history may not repeat itself.”
Note: Two interesting things have developed in this first year of blogging. A Dutch cousin from Canada and another one in Holland found me. I am so thrilled that they both reacted to the stories about my grandmother, who they knew through their parents, my grandparents’ cousins.
* the candle race: a game our family plays with every birthday. We light the candles again after the birthday boy/girl makes a wish and blows them out. We drip a drop or two of wax on our dessert plate and stick the longest looking candle we can find to the wax droplet on our cake plate. As we continue to engage in family chatter and banter, we note whose candle lasts the longest by flickering out last. I have found this is one tradition all my paternal grandmother’s children, grandchildren and perhaps great grandchildren know.