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>Home & Pilar

October 10, 2010

>We’re coming to the end of my sojourn in Mexico. Next week will be the final post. But, cheer up – I’ll be starting another blog soon, either next Sunday or the following Sunday. I’m calling it “The Uncommon Citizen.” Stay tuned. Meanwhile, enjoy these posts about finally getting home and some very special thoughts about Pilar. 


Taken at a party I no longer remember. The girl on the left is Chelo, Pilar’s sister, seated next to Carlos, her boyfriend. Don’t remember the next two. Then Pilar, Alejandro (standing), me and Ramon.

SNAPSHOT: This is JC and me in the Guadalajara bus station, looking more than a little worse for the wear. We’re standing alongside the big black and red first-class bus that brought us from San Luis Potosi. You can just make out the white lettering: Autotransportes Rodriguez, S.A.
The bus covered the three-hundred-forty-odd kilometers in just over six hours, pulling into Guadalajara’s Central Camionera at 12:45 in the afternoon. I’m sure I must have been exhausted from the stress of the previous twenty-four hours and from lack of sleep, but I was so happy to be finally on the home stretch (literally!) that it didn’t matter. JC and I got off the bus and said our goodbyes, promising to keep in touch. “Everything’s okie-dokie!” he said, winking. It was the last time I was to hear that phrase, in spite of our enthusiastic promises to keep in touch. I collected my suitcase and my ever-more-battered cardboard box and walked over to one of the ticket booths.
The clerk, in a starched white shirt with his name, Rafael, embroidered above the pocket, sat reading a newspaper. “Voy a Santa Anita,” I told him. “When’s the next bus?”
“That green one,” he said indifferently, not even looking up but pointing to a second-class bus behind me exhaling the diesel fumes I was inhaling. “It leaves for Cocula in five minutes.”
I bought my ticket and hurried my luggage over to the bus and wrestled it aboard. My timing was perfect: The driver began grinding the transmission into gear just as I sat down and we were off.
SNAPSHOT: There is no snapshot of my arrival. This page in my album is blank.
An hour later my suitcase, my box and I pushed our way through the crowd of standing passengers and past the impatient driver, getting off on Highway 54, in front of the farm. Before crossing the roadway I stood there, looking around, savoring the familiarity of everything I saw. After a couple of minutes, I walked across the highway, down the unpaved drive to the door of the house and stood in front of the door, home again. And then . . . nothing. I don’t remember anything after that. I don’t recall hugging Mom and Val or greeting Jose and Maria. There is no memory of stepping back into my old bedroom and unpacking and changing into something fresher. Did I sit down with Mom and Valerie and tell them all that had happened to me? Did Mom make me something to eat? Did she tell me about the changes in her life and about the farm? What did Valerie have to say? I don’t know. Returning home after nearly a year and a half, you’d think this would be a very special occasion. You’d think it was something I would remember, that there would be several snapshots in my memory album. But all I draw is a frustrating, inexplicable blank.
Why should my memory be so faulty? I think one reason is my newly-discovered independence. I’d been away from home (and Mom) for sixteen months and survived, even been promoted to Airman Second Class (never mind that the promotion from E-1 to E-2 was automatic unless you screwed up). There was probably a self-imposed psychological distance between me and my family, between me and my memories of how things used to be and my former life. I didn’t need them anymore so they weren’t that important to me. I suspect also that excitement over seeing Pilar again overrode the excitement of being home.
I’m also having a great deal of difficulty piecing together Mom’s situation at this time. My memories are both conflicting and confusing. What follows is my best recollection.
Over my six weeks of leave Mom and I got along well, something I had been worried about. She was drinking less and seemed much more relaxed. She was also much less critical. It helped, of course, that I gave her fewer reasons to be critical. I must have picked up some of that maturity Mom always accused me of lacking.
            But much had changed at home. For one thing, Valerie – also home now for a visit – was in a Catholic boarding school in San Antonio and, while it was probably hard on her, it was also better than remaining with Mom.
The break with Antonio was final. Mom learned that he had married another American woman, the woman he had taken as his lover to replace Mom. Never mind that he was already married to Mom in a civil ceremony. The fact that it wasn’t a church-sanctioned marriage and that Antonio was a member of a wealthy and powerful family obviated such niceties as the need for a divorce. The last I knew of Antonio, he had moved to Chicago with his “wife” where he died some time later. Mom told me this. I’m not entirely sure how she kept track of him but my guess is that it was through people she had met through Antonio and with whom she was still in touch.
 More importantly, Mom had forged another relationship, one that provided her with emotional and, very probably, some financial support. He was a retired Marine Corps major named James Collier. Fifteen years Mom’s senior, he was a crusty but affable man. He stood five feet ten with a full head of light brown hair turning gray. In his Marine years he had undoubtedly been physically fit; now he was merely paunchy.
He lived in a spacious villa in Chapala, about three blocks from the lake, and here’s where it gets hard to sort the memories. I remember spending quite a bit of time at the lake but I have no memory of any time spent at the farm, although I know we still had it. Had Mom moved in with the Major (as everyone called him) pending disposal of Granja La Rosita? Or did she simply spend most of her time at the Major’s, returning occasionally to the farm? And what finally happened to the farm? And to Jose and Maria? These are all things I wish I had answers for, but I don’t. In later years, when I would ask Mom about this period, particularly about Antonio, she would tell me that she didn’t want to talk about it. The priorities of youth are the regrets of old age.
The Major endures for me in three memories.
One day the four of us were at a restaurant in Guadalajara having lunch. The Major ordered a beer and it was served in a very distinctive stein. I liked it and when I told him he responded by saying, “Hell, we’ll just take it, then!” I laughed, thinking he was joking, but no. When lunch was finished and the bill paid, he quickly unbuckled his belt, passed it through the handle of the stein, rebuckled it and stood up. Except for a suspicious bulge, his jacket covered the purloined beer mug. We walked out, one stein richer.
On another occasion, the Major and I were driving around Guadalajara, running errands of some kind. I don’t remember the kind of car he had other than that it was what we would now refer to as a “muscle car.” As we were driving along a wide, sweeping boulevard we were passed by a convertible with two attractive young women in it. The Major honked and when they turned to look he waved and smiled. They waved and smiled back and continued on. A few moments later he floored it. The car shot forward and as we neared the convertible he pulled the cutout lever under the dash, uncovering an opening in the car’s muffler and we roared past the two women, the noise from the muffler overpowering everything else. As we passed, the Major waved again, the women laughing; to me it was all very cool.
SNAPSHOT: The small, light blue sailboat is lying capsized, its sail full of water. The Major and I are clinging to the hull. The nearest shore is a mile away.
The Major had a “505” class sailing boat, so-called because its length was 5.05 meters. There was a regatta scheduled during my leave and the Major entered it, requesting that I crew for him. I, of course, was very excited, even though I’d never been on a sailboat in my life. “It’s easy,” he said, “just do what I tell you.” And it turned out it was pretty easy. Until I geed when I should have hawed and we capsized in the middle of the lake. With all the other boats around us, though, we were in no danger. We got picked up, the boat was righted and we headed for shore, out of the race and wet but safe. No recriminations from the Major, either.
            I look back somewhat fondly on the Major, although I never got to know him really well. He was easy to be around and he laughed a lot, two things I’m sure attracted Mom. He gave me a book I still have, The Rhyme of All Flesh, a privately printed first edition (#899 of 1000) of very witty, but very obscene, limericks, each with its own equally witty commentary.
Did he treat her well? I think so. I hope so. But even if he hadn’t, what could Mom have done? I don’t think she had the emotional stamina or the financial wherewithal to make a life for herself alone, either in Mexico or in the States. (I did what I could for her. I had been sending Mom most of my monthly pay for over a year.) I think she felt, if not defeated, at least resigned to her situation. In my memory, she seemed happy and I’ll have to be content with that.
Serenading Pilar
The day after I finally arrived home I drove to Mercado Libertad, the market where Jose and I had bought fireworks for our Fourth of July celebration. This time, though, my errand was much different. I hadn’t seen Pilar yet and she didn’t even know I was in town. I was in the market to hire a mariachi band to serenade her. It was to be a surprise. 
SNAPSHOT: The street on the west side of Mercado Libertad. Musical performers hang out here, waiting for gigs: solo acts with guitar or accordion, vocal duos and trios, small groups, children, father-son combos and, of course, mariachis. There were half a dozen mariachi groups, all of them resplendent in their colorful regalia: black bordered with silver; blue bordered with white; red with brown; charro hats to match.
 These weren’t Mexico’s finest; the finest played for rich folks and in clubs, at festivals and special events, in the movies and on television. But they were good. They had to be – their livelihood depended on it.
I parked the car and crossed the street, listening to guitars being tuned, songs practiced. After a bit I approached the leader of Mariachi San Juan, who was also their lead violinist. “Oye, maestro,” I said, “I’m looking to hire some good mariachis. Can you give me a sample of your music?”
“Si, , what would you like to hear?”
Mi favorita, claro, La Negra. La Negra is the song of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. It’s a stirring piece of music, powerful and intense. It picks you up and sweeps you along from the slow, opening trumpet notes right to the furious finale. Of all the hundreds of Mariachi songs, this is my favorite.
He turns to his musicians. “¡Vamos, muchachos!” They pick up their instruments, do a quick tuning and launch into the familiar melody with its difficult rhythmic changes. And Mariachi San Juan is good. The trumpets are crisp and bright and the violins refuse to be overpowered. The guitars add a strangely appropriate finesse to the piece and the big bass guitarron lays the foundation. The vocal part is as polished as the rest. I’m still tingling when they finish. I tingle whenever I hear La Negra.
I hired them on the spot, one hundred pesos an hour for the nine of them: three guitars, a guitarron, two trumpets and three violins. Don Carlos, the leader of the group, and I shook hands and they piled themselves and their instruments into their VW bus parked nearby and followed me out to Colonia Chapalita.
We parked a block away from Pilar’s house and assembled. I didn’t need to give them any instructions. They knew what to do, having accompanied many young men over the years serenading their novias.
SNAPSHOT: I’m at the head of the procession making our way up Santa Maria, Pilar’s street. Golden shafts of afternoon sun stream through the trees overhead, blending nicely with the warm browns and tans of the charro suits of Mariachi San Juan. People are coming out of their houses to see what’s going on.
 The musicians tuned up and we were off, playing “Las Mananitas,” a traditional song that’s often the first one played at special occasions. I was at the head of the procession with the mariachis just behind me, playing as if there was nothing in the world they’d rather be doing at that particular moment – and there probably wasn’t.
People from all over the neighborhood began to join the procession, adults, children and even servants coming out of their houses and following us, adding to the excitement and anticipation of the occasion. And they all knew! It’s amazing how everybody seemed to know that I was back and “llevandole gallo a la novia,” going to serenade Pilar.
By the time we reached her gate Pilar was already there, as were the rest of her family. She stepped into my arms and we stood there, not moving, savoring this special moment of our lives. We could have stood there like that forever, but there were too many people around, too much going on. She stepped back, smiling and crying at the same time, her eyes shining as much from pure joy as from the tears. I took the watch out of my pocket and slipped it over her hand, wishing all of a sudden that it were a ring instead of a watch.
Her father sent Carlitos to the store for a couple of cases of beer and her mother, along with several neighbor women, went into the house to prepare food. Soon the celebration spilled out into the street, everyone drinking and eating, singing and dancing, the band getting better and better as afternoon slipped into evening and evening into night . . .
For the six weeks I was home I spent as much time as possible with Pilar. I’m looking now at pictures taken of us at a party, I don’t know whose or what the occasion was. One picture is of a group of us sitting and standing around a table: Ramon, Alejandro, Perico, Pilar’s sister Chelo and her boyfriend, Pilar and me. In the other one Pilar and I are dancing, both of us looking at the camera. On the back of the picture she has written, “For you and me only. One more memory for both of us and for me one of the happiest moments you’ve ever given me. I will always be as I am here, next to you, no matter what.”
Somewhere there exists another photo of Pilar, a color photo, taken in Colonia Las Fuentes. There was a small pyramid, modeled after the Pyramid of the Moon, near the entrance to the Colonia. It was maybe twenty feet high and Pilar is standing on the steps, about halfway up. She’s smiling and she’s beautiful. I treasure the memory of that photograph as much as I treasure the memory of serenading her with the mariachis. Pilar is a part of my life I cherish still; I carry her with me. She is embedded in my heart and in my soul, not like a prom corsage that becomes a faint, dry memory pressed between the pages of a book, but as something vital within me. Her voice still dances in my ears and her face gladdens my memory. The feel of her and the fresh smell of her tantalize me over a distance of decades, unreachable in fact but not in essence. Maybe it’s only because this was First Love, True Love, for both of us. Maybe that special feeling generated by First Love is the same for everyone who experiences it, becoming something not just remembered but experienced anew each time the memory returns. I don’t know. I do know that each time the memory does return, it’s a bittersweet experience. That special love I still feel for her overcomes me and I long to be in the photograph, holding her in my arms, dancing, hearing her tell me, “I will always be as I am here, next to you . . . “
I didn’t know it at the time, but my life in Mexico ended with that visit in the late winter of 1962. I never saw Pilar again, nor do I remember corresponding with her, although I’m sure I must have. I look back, puzzled again. How could I not have kept closely in touch with her? I loved her so much, she was so special to me, yet she disappeared from my life as completely as last month’s newspaper. My explanation to myself is that my new life as an Airman Second Class in South Korea, thousands of miles from Pilar (and from everyone and everything else in my former life) distracted me, involved me so totally that all else was forgotten, ignored. But opening a new door in life shouldn’t mean the automatic and permanent closing of an old one. I have only myself to blame.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 12, 2010 11:05 pm

    >Once again a great write! I am really going to miss these adventures as they come to an end.Mr. Pepz

  2. October 13, 2010 2:45 pm

    >It's been a pleasure to post these and read the comments. Thanx!

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