When I was five, Tía Quela and I had drawing dates. That’s what they were: dates. It only occurred to me now—twenty-six years later, sitting in a room full of art books she would have loved—that a less enchanting woman might have called those afternoons with a five-year old “babysitting”. She did not. They were dates. She treated the occasion as a solemn encounter between fellow artists, one of whom happened to be seventy, whereas the other was five. That was her gift: Tía Quela always played with you, never at you.
Adults say all kinds of things to children, and most of them are empty calories. They’re words the adult barely hears herself, even as she murmurs them; sweet but incoherent sounds made in the direction of small persons but without much reference to them specifically. Children bear the bulk of our generic love.
Tía Quela was not one of those adults. When we sat down to draw, or to tea, she paid me the compliment of treating me as an equal. An idiosyncratic equal, but an equal nonetheless.
That doesn’t mean I wasn’t coddled far beyond my deserts; I was, for the simple reason that I wasn’t her equal. She was a gifted artist, but she framed my five-year old efforts in color-coordinated frames, then hung them in the hallway. When we sat down to tea, I ate far more than my share of lemon drops, biscotti, toast, and jam. And when she taught me how to make queque, she equipped me with a small footstool of my very own so that we could be exactly the same size.
It’s hard to explain how much it matters, when you’re young and so terribly inadequate, to feel that an older person enjoys your ideas and your company. And she did. The loveliest thing about her interest was the fact that it was unfeigned. Only now that my friends have children and it seems to be my turn to confront them as fellow humans have I begun to realize what a special trick this was.
It helped, of course, that Tía Quela was deeply, essentially interested in people. And not just people in general: she was interested in you. Copuchas—gossip—is the currency of love in our family. Like all currencies, its circulation demands that most of it come secondhand. But the jackpot is getting the stuff straight from the source, and at this, she was a master. At first glance incredibly conventional, she was in fact a jovial contrarian. This, in a culture where conventionality can be tyrannical, is liberating, and inspires the desperate within it to make confidences.
She liked a discussion, and she did the best thing you can do with a know-it-all teenager like me or with anyone: she argued. She listened carefully to what I said. We battled over first principles. Often, she came to our meetings armed with a train of thought she’d been developing, to see what I would say. On how women should always marry someone more intelligent than themselves. On how financial stability trumps love.
There is no one I enjoyed disagreeing with more.
I say this, incidentally, as a woman who has lived her life pathologically avoiding disagreement. It’s devastating to me when I’m unable to see eye to eye with someone I love. A punch to the gut. A blocked artery. How, I panic, will we bridge this distance that suddenly appeared between us? How, despite our different conclusions based on the same set of facts, can we be friends? Which shared values can we use to rebuild? What route will bypass the blockage and restore a harmonious circulation?
Tía Quela, like her sister (my grandmother), had a rare talent: in her hands, arguments brought you closer. You did not agree, nor would you ever. That was certain. But no philosophy, no matter how deeply felt, could undo what a thousand teas had done. The relationship existed in a universe apart from logic, politics, and world governments, and so remained safe. That tacit understanding left us at liberty to parley—and cover not just politics, world governments, and logic, but the gulps and tangles of family history too.
There are some things Tía Quela wasn’t. She was not inoffensive. One of the better things to come out of Downton Abbey is the character of the Dowager, to whom I have pointed, with relief, when trying to describe my aunt. Though a lady, she was an understated comedian who was never, ever so boring as to be merely polite.
Hospice came to her house when she began to seriously decline, and she was outraged. I went in to see her shortly after they’d left. “Has homicide left yet?” she asked, deadpan, before informing me that she had a pistol on one side of the bed and a rifle on the other in case they came back. Some days later, when a male nurse knelt down next to her bed to write something in her chart, she said quietly, in English: “I am the Queen.”
She is 94 and unimpressed, overall, with the young priest who comes to see her. “A little too good-looking for the clergy,” she says.
She gets worse. She dreams one night of a black hole and the terror wakes her. She sits bolt upright in bed, aggravating her broken rib. Her daughter and niece find her sitting off the edge of the bed, bent over, her head down by her knees. The pain is excruciating, and this is the only position she can bear. The cousins hold her there, on the edge of the bed, for forty-five minutes. The pain subsides.
The next day she says she is in a big white circular building that is very clean. Later, she sees before her an enormous wall full of holes. Maybe it’s the morphine; maybe the boundary between this existence and another is becoming more porous. She complains, annoyed, of a small brown chicken in her bed. Her hands, which for days have been anxiously gripping the corners of the pillowcase so hard that her fingertips have turned white, begin to release.
Her hand twitches when you hold it. It’s warm, relaxed, thrumming with life more than an ordinary hand would be. You can feel things you wouldn’t feel in an ordinary hand, a healthy hand, because this one is so very thin. Holding this hand with its mottled green veins, blood trickling through the vessels, quickly, choppy, like a brook. It feels lively. It twitches.
I loved watching these hands make strawberry jam. I loved how they carefully dissected toast so it would have no crust. I loved how she whistled to herself when she was concentrating. I loved her famous teas, her empanadas, and her house. But what I loved most—what meant the most to me growing up, and always will—was her company. What a gift that was. All those years standing between us might have thickened to a haze, but she waved them aside like cobwebs; and then, just like that, we could see each other clearly, sit down at the kitchen table as old friends, and talk.