For years my parents would send my brother and I to their small hometowns in Spain to spend long summers of indoctrination to the world they left behind when they emigrated to Canada and the United States. I have been thinking a lot about those summers lately.
The time I spent with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins could not have been more different from the world I was living day to day in New Jersey and yet there was a remarkable sense of comfort and familiarity with my family in Spain.
I recall that one of my grandmothers had an outhouse and some of my earliest joyful childhood memories are of fighting a band of chickens to make my way to the outhouse in the back.
My dad is from a fishing village in northwestern Spain and many an early morning I accompanied my grandmother on the ritual of buying fish when the boats returned to the docks full with their bounty.
My dad's mother was a tall, large beautiful woman with a kind face, lined with the knocks life had dealt her. I on the other hand, a small slight boy with the child-like face of her husband and his blue eyes etched exactly on mine. The fishwives were scary big women with the vocabulary of loud drunken sailors. I recall being in awe at my grandmother's ability to battle with them...the words, the gestures the loud voices. She was my super-hero.
Everything about those summers was filled with wonderment for me and even though I always had a sense that I was an outsider in these little towns, something larger than me connected me to these places.
As an adult I continue to go to Spain often and while my grandmothers have been gone for years and my aunts and uncle have grown frail with age, I am called back to these villages like a pilgrim. Like homage to them, I return to honor their memory and remember who I am.
On a recent visit I was in the cemetery of my mother's village. This is something I do often for all my grandparents armed with a bucket, a brush, some cleaner and flowers. It is the custom in these towns to visit the dead and tidy their niches or tombstones. It is something that still fills me a great satisfaction. As I hover over my grandmother's tombstone tending to the earth above her, a tiny wrinkled woman squints at me from the other side of the cemetery.
"Who do you belong to?" she yells out from across the sunny field. I answer almost instinctively, "Rosa, daughter of Valeriana, the baker." It's my badge of honor and I acknowledge it proudly.
The old woman walks towards me and I stand up so she can get a good look at me. She examines my face like an immigration officer at the airport.
"Yes I see your mother now. Your grandmother was good woman. Raised those four children alone...her husband taken away during the war..."
It's a story I have heard hundreds of times. A story I never grow weary of hearing.