“Could it be that inherited objects can be outlines of our incomplete secrets?”
–Maria Gabriela Llansol
Our grandparents’ homes are full of portraits. They observe us from behind the glass and it seems as if they might start talking to us at any moment. Sometimes I think they’re too quiet. Other times, that they’re scolding us with their gaze. I like to stop and think about how those photographs were made and why; who chose the scene, the frame, and that ideal place for them to end up frozen in an instant, contemplating us from the wall. There’s a certain care and ceremony that our most recent generations have left behind. Today we can take a picture any time, anywhere we want, but it has neither the value nor the ritualistic aura that it held for our elders. There are no thought-out portraits, taken calmly, with care. Those dedications that could be found on the back don’t exist; there’s no place for time to pass, for the color to yellow the hands and faces, the corners, the landscape. We, children of progress, no longer save photographs in albums or old cookie tins that were first sewing boxes and now are ending their days as a depository for faces and memories. Old framed photographs were a kind of sibling who lived among us, an intuition that averted its gaze as we passed, a need, sometimes real, for us to want to straighten them, dust them off, touch them, speak to them.
The way we look and our process of looking have also changed. It’s no longer enough to raise our gaze to the walls to remember why one more element, technology, comes between the paper and our body. We rummage through computer applications, tools, systems, and social media so we can reminisce; we need some apparatus foreign to the ones we’re thinking about in order to get closer to them. But truth is painful, and abrupt, if one stops to think about it. None of the people in the photographs hanging in the homes of our grandparents are alive now. There are only frames, empty frames.
It wasn’t until the death of José Antonio, my paternal grandfather, the veterinarian, that I began to pause and dwell on the photographs that inhabited my two family homes. The questions began, the fear, the anxiety that I would continue my day-to-day life without knowing anything about the lives of those who came before me. It’s interesting because José Antonio wasn’t my first grandfather to die, but the second. José, my maternal grandfather, died when I was seven years old. Cancer took him too soon. He’d worked his whole life and the illness drowned him suddenly, like new puppies who can’t swim and drown in a pool, without complaint or making a sound, without his realizing it. I was too young and I didn’t notice it either. My only memory of him is of his bloody hands skinning hares in the yard behind his house. His shirt open, exposing his white undershirt, his pants held up with twine, his hands strong and tan, full of wrinkles, mixing with the animal’s red entrails. I remember the heat clinging to our skin, some stray fly, a sweet kind of smell between life and death that overwhelmed the air itself, the clothesline, the flowerpots, and the stairs where he sat and turned into a figure that would appear again and again in my memory.
His death was a kind of process for me. Maybe because I’d hardly spent any time with him. He always seemed to be in the background. Now I wonder what would have happened if death had taken these men in a different order, if death had become a kind of solitary player that alters events and creates different paths through the lives of others. I can’t help feeling a mix of anger and regret for not spending more time with him. It’s something unconscious, that surges up without realizing it. Sometimes it seems like some kind of fiction.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve known that I wanted to grow up living like I did when I was a child.
Many years later, I woke up sweating, nervous, my heart pounding in my throat. It was extremely hot. I’d just had a dream, but I wouldn’t remember it until hours later, when I was at work. Driving, coming back, not thinking about anything and only concentrating on the continuous line of the highway in front of me, suddenly, the images appeared. It was the first time I’d dreamed about my grandfather José. We were together, among his olive trees. In his hand, a little tree in a rusted, grime-covered can filled with dirt. On the ground, several freshly made holes, candidates to shelter and nourish the roots of a future olive tree, waiting, their anticipation punctuated by some stones. Hares ran between us, avoiding us as they left their burrows. We were just another element in the landscape, something that didn’t interfere with or break the rhythm of the countryside. He spoke in the dream, but part of me knew it wasn’t his voice. It’s true that I let myself be carried away in the dream, only watching, my hands covered with dirt, holding the can with the little tree when he spoke. A mixture of grief and profound anger came over me while I was driving.
I’d forgotten his voice completely.
I often wonder if childhood is a mirage. I return to it so many times that I’m afraid I may have deformed or idealized it. For as long as I can remember, I’ve known that I wanted to grow up living like I did when I was a child. Becoming an adult by retracing my steps, returning to what surrounded me and made me feel so connected to the country. I am who I am because of my childhood. From an early age, I knew that I wanted to be a field veterinarian like my grandfather. I spent my childhood with him, among animals, in the garden. The rural environment was the essential substrate where my family, both maternal and paternal, has been rooted and prospering: our garden, root cellar, cork oaks, holm oaks, and olive trees; our siblings, animals, coworkers, and livelihood.
Those of us who write are often asked why we do what we do. How does that first word emerge, the first poem, the first story. And we try, in vain, to explain something that has no boundaries, to make sense of it, to look for the root or origin of our obsession to express everything through words. I don’t remember when I started to write, or why. In my head I imagine it as something automatic, routine, like someone looking for glasses, their hand fumbling across the bedside table after waking. It’s something that has always been there. I could write about what makes me want to write. Those elements that suddenly become protagonists, hold the light and my attention, and that’s it. Sometimes they appear and are with you for hours, days, even months, before they turn into words. I like to see them like a flash of light. Something that bursts in and illuminates, that changes the course of things.
My childhood is a flash of light: my grandparents’ hands, the bindings and knives used for grafting, the motherless lambs, the goats coming to the shepherd’s call, the olive trees and cork oaks, the cowbells, wool sweaters, my grandfather’s veterinary books and manuals . . . Also what happens in my day-to-day life as a woman field veterinarian: the animals passing each other on the trails, the livestock producers—men and women—I work with, their words, their hands, the wicker baskets full of vegetables and eggs, the freshly boiled goat’s milk, some hijo, or plant sprig or shoot plucked from one pot so it will grow in another, songs, stories, lullabies, little words you don’t hear in cities and that here, thank goodness, roam freely and continue shifting through the hands of those who work and live on the land.
For the Portuguese writer Maria Gabriela Llansol, her garden at Herbais—her house in exile where she spent so many hours caring for the plants as she read, or just sitting, thinking—was her invisible narrative, the initial flash that later allowed the word to rise up so she could begin to write, as if that light springing from what obsesses us and excites us, in a certain way, moved into the hand that ends up tipping the word onto the page.
A question that haunts me is what would happen if this invisible narrative that is such a part of my life weren’t this one. Would I write? Would I have a different one? This, so to speak, is my invisible narrative, and here I take shelter, and here, and like this, I try to build a home, still fragile, timid, sometimes body and sometimes spirit, where furrows, branches, animals and seeds, where the word, beating, trembling, seeks to remove shadow and dust from the rural environment and all the people who live there.
Another flash, one of the most recurring ones, is the trip we took and continue to take by car to our hometown, our pueblo. When I was little, my cheek always pressed to the glass, whether it was hot or cold, looking sideways, squinting and straining to see, sharpening my ear as well, as if I could cross through the window, counting live oaks between the holm oaks, bushes, and cork oaks, seeing the little animals crossing beyond the fingers and the attentive voices of my parents, the steps of some hesitant, always doubting deer on the side of the road, the rockroses spreading along the shoulder, scratching the car, as if they were reaching out to us. Counting was a way to make time pass more quickly, a way of wanting to know, calling to those animals that appeared in front of us. Substitute them for the minutes; turn them into the minute hand that never stops and was a complete stranger that emerged in our childhood. Maybe that’s where I find a sort of calm, tranquility, unreal serenity, that little voice that tells me that everything is okay and that everything will be okay when I learn the name of something I don’t know. I think it was George Steiner who wrote that “what isn’t named doesn’t exist.” But who will continue to name those who cease to exist? Will they still be around despite the fact that they no longer exist and have ceased to be named? And who will name for the first time what isn’t named? What sets off the first voice and the first name?
I think it was George Steiner who wrote that “what isn’t named doesn’t exist.” But who will continue to name those who cease to exist?
When my paternal grandmother Teresa’s senile dementia appeared, I discovered that I knew nothing about her. Absolutely nothing. I tried to follow her trail, to question, to investigate. But I was also late. My grandmother had an eighty-some-year-old body and a spoiled brain that made her think she was still in her twenties. I wasn’t her granddaughter; I was just another friend from the town. A companion to confide in and laugh with. My grandmother had turned into a kind of sassy young woman who laughed and talked to me about where she’d hide the letters boys had written her so her mother wouldn’t find them. In a low voice she laid out plans for pranks; she told me where her mother hid her coin purse so that afternoon we could go to the plaza for ice cream. She talked about the beach, about a house with a giant piano. My grandfather, my father, and the rest of my uncles didn’t exist, they didn’t have any place in her photograph. Another empty frame.
She died, and with her death she left me with another obsession. That of rummaging through the trunks and dressers in my grandparents’ houses in search of photographs. Not the ones that hang on the walls, the well-known ones, not those. I was obsessed with the ones that remained in the cookie tins, alone, piled up, stacked on top of each other, away from the light that destroys them, without voices to accompany them and look at them, without dressers and desks to rest upon. They became the ones I questioned. In them I was looking for everything I had allowed to pass by without realizing, like someone who starts driving a car down a path and doesn’t realize that it’s the trees that are leaving, not us. And they leave without saying a word, not bothering to look back, without a word remaining, swaying on the path. They go away and leave us; they don’t wait for us to realize time is passing by. That minute hand keeps moving, despite the animals on the shoulders of the highway, the little birds crisscrossing each other, those waiting for us to point at them with our finger, to ask about them, to name them.
With the death of my three grandparents the rooms became empty. The chairs ridiculous, the pantries useless, the pots silenced in the shadows, the vestibules closed, pointless. The frames empty, once again. And not only in these houses, but in so many, and so many that are closed when the last of the living there are forced to leave and they cover their furniture with sheets, like someone who closes the eyes of the one who dies, that act that’s only done once, that is born and dies in an instant, knowing, like a wound is born, like a certainty is formed, that no one will ever come back to uncover them.
This is my invisible narrative. My home, in flames, that never waits for the last brick or for the word to be ready to be inhabited. Is this what writing is? Something you never expect? That comes up suddenly and imposes itself?
It’s reasonable to acknowledge the similarity and change of rhythm between writing, life in rural areas, and the life that is imposed upon us at this moment. Other tones, other songs, other rhythms. In literature just like in the country, I believe, there shouldn’t be immediacy. Two worlds that, at first, seem so far apart, share so much. The flashes, the seeds, the care, the calm, the patience while you watch all the multitudes that are born grow, care for them, and they expand and continue to do so regardless. Beautiful or cruel, they are the result of a caring hand and have the same goal: survival.
My grandparents had to disappear from my life for me to realize it. A little late, because children and grandchildren are always late for things, for life itself. As much as our fathers and mothers tell us, prepare the way for us, give us clues to see the bird we sense on the branch, but do not see. And we can’t see it because we are slow to learn to look, to settle our gaze and know how to touch along the edges, to realize that behind the little frames that hang in the houses of our grandmothers and mothers there’s an uncomfortable beauty, an ache, a history, a latent genealogy waiting for us to rescue it and make it our own. A genealogy where we belong and can recognize ourselves.
The essay that grows from here, like the coiled pods of wild clover clinging to the rumps of the transhumant sheep in order to germinate a thousand miles from the place where they were born, is simply that, an arrival, one that I hope isn’t too late, to what makes up my invisible narrative; an arrival to those women who were not named and existed, to those women who are still there in the shadows, with a voice, though one we don’t hear because there is no possible space or altavoz—no sound system for them to make themselves heard. This essay is a hand, in the end, determined to reach out and transplant, to take care of, before the little frames in our homes become completely orphaned, silent, empty, without anyone to look at them.
María Sánchez is a Spanish writer and field veterinarian and the author of Cuaderno de campo (Field Notebook), Almáciga: Un vivero de palabras de nuestro medio rural (Seedbed), and Tierra de mujeres: Una mirada íntima y familiar al mundo rural (Land of Women), a bestseller in Spain, with translations into French and German. Her poetry and prose have been translated into French, Portuguese, English, and German, and she is a regular contributor to publications on literature, feminism, and rural culture. She lives in Córdoba, Spain.
Curtis Bauer is the author of three poetry collections, most recently American Selfie. He has translated poetry and prose from Spanish for Luis Muñoz and other authors. His translation of Jeannette Clariond’s Image of Absence won the International Latino Book Award for Best Nonfiction Book Translated from Spanish to English. He is the director of Texas Tech University’s creative writing program and lives in Lubbock.