Intimate Conversation 4
Ramón Sender Barayón
Life being a one-way street, there finally came to me that moment we
all must face the death of a parent. I was previewing a friend's
art show in a basement gallery in North Beach when Judy, my fiancée,
appeared in the doorway.
For myself, I do not care because I die for you. But the children.
What will become of the children?
"Your sister phoned, Ramon!" she said. "Your father has died!"
A heart attack had dropped my father beside his bed the previous night
in San Diego, two weeks before his eighty-second birthday. He was alone.
When he did not answer the telephone the following morning, the building
manager had broken the dead-bolt at my step-mother's request. Two close
friends accompanied her from her apartment four blocks away. After the
police had taken statements, she had his body removed to the funeral society's
mortuary to await cremation. Because they had been divorced for ten years,
a next-of-kin signature was required, and she phoned my sister Benedicta,
an Episcopal nun stationed in Georgia.
Sorrow, relief, anger - awash in conflicting emotions, I prepared to
fly to San Diego. How could he die with so many unresolved questions hanging
between us? And shouldn't I alert the Spanish family? In Spain he was considered
one of the great novelists of his generation, winner of the National Prize
in Literature in 1936, the Critics Prize in 1967, the Planeta Prize in
1969 and nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970.
I telephoned cousin Magdalena in Málaga, the first Spanish relative
to whom I had ever spoken, and only a month earlier. When her distant voice
came on the line, I struggled to explain what had happened in my long-forgotten
"Papá es muerte," I said.
My fiancée Judy, in fluent Spanish, quickly corrected me. "Papá
I had said, "Papá is death."
Yet in a sense I had spoken the truth. Throughout my life, my main
contact with my father had been through his translated novels: Pro Patria,
Seven Red Sundays, Counterattack In Spain, Chronicle of Dawn, The Sphere,
Dark Wedding, and The Affable Hangman. They all contained a
macabre element, a fascination with death that struck an alien tone within
the "happily-ever-after" American culture that had absorbed me as a four-year-old
refugee from the Spanish Civil War.
On the airplane, I thought of how throughout Franco's reign my father
refused to return to Spain. For thirty-five years his books went unpublished
in his native land. In 1974, when the dictator lay more dead than alive
in a final lingering illness, Papá allowed two visiting Spanish
novelists to coax him home for a literary conference. He was greeted in
Barcelona by enthusiastic admirers. "Sender Returns!" read the newspaper
headlines. His life work, comprising more than fifty books, finally overcame
the years of censorship and a new generation of Spaniards began to read
On his return to California that year, he told me that wherever he
went, two bodyguards took the hotel rooms on either side of his. He had
received death threats from both the far right and far left. He warned
me not to visit Spain under my own name. Yet I knew I had to go back. Almost
forty years had passed since my mother Amparo had been imprisoned and
shot in the first year of the Spanish Civil War. Why had she died? Who
had killed her? My father, the obvious person to ask, always refused to
discuss her or to divulge any details.
I even turned to hypnosis in the hopes of retrieving my earliest memories.
One night a phrase in Spanish floated up from the depths: "No quiero ir"
"I don't want to go." I repeated it over and over. During the next
hours I seemed to relive Amparo's arrest and my abandonment for what seemed
a whole night. I wrote up the experience as an essay entitled ASHES, which
The CoEvolution Quarterly published. But still I yearned to retrieve the
forgotten memory of the mother torn away from me when I was eighteen months
A few weeks before Franco's victory in April 1939, my sister and I
arrived in New York with our father. She had just turned three; I was four-and-a-half.
Papá, destitute, placed us with American friends he had met in Spain
before leaving for Mexico City to try to find a job and a home within the
growing colony of Spanish exiles there. With the fall of the Spanish Republic
his passport was invalidated and he was issued some of resident visa by
the Mexican government. Because we were not residing in Mexico, he could
not include us on his application. As of that moment, we became children
without a country, technically illegal aliens in the United States.
Meanwhile, a volunteer with the Spanish Refugee Aid office searched
for someone who would take us for a longer period, preferably someone with
a house in the country where the fresh air and tranquillity would help
us regain our health. She appealed to a close friend, Julia Davis, a woman
who craved children without being able to bear them. Julia agreed to take
us for six weeks if we came with a Spanish-speaking nurse. Shortly thereafter,
we moved to her home in Bedford Village, a renovated farmhouse with 40
acres of pastures and a brook. The weeks became months, until by the time
our father visited one year later, we could no longer understand Spanish.
"You have stolen my children," he said to her sorrowfully when she
drove him from the airport to rural Westchester County.
"Je suis perdue," Julia replied in French, their only common tongue,
and proceeded to lose her way on a road she had traveled for years.
We remained with her even after Papá returned to the United
States and married a American woman named Florence. They settled in New
York City where he taught a course at Columbia University and translated
film scripts into Spanish, presumably for subtitles. We spent Easter
vacations together for three or four years, but our relationship remained
distant because of the language barrier. They moved to Albuquerque
in about 1948, where he taught Spanish Literature at the University of
New Mexico for fifteen years. We visited them the summer of 1950 for six
weeks, and then saw them again the summer of 1952 when they stayed
with us in Connecticut while Julia traveled.
Throughout my growing up, I wondered, 'What had happened to Amparo?
'All that we kept of her was a full-face passport photo of a Spanish woman
on the first page of our childhood album. It was a woman we did not recognize.
She stared out at us with a somber expression, her brown, curly hair trimmed
to her earlobes. I possessed only one other piece of evidence. As a teenager
I had found a yellowed, typewritten scrap of a press dispatch in Spanish
in the box that contained our father's letters to us. It mentioned the
death of Ramón J. Sender's wife and quoted from her last letter:
In haste - Amparo
The summer I was fourteen the note disappeared. My father was visiting
at the time, and my sister thought he destroyed it. However I remember
carrying the fragment in my wallet as a boy, fondling it occasionally,
sensing it contained a clue to the mystery of my mother's disappearance.
Unfamiliar with Spanish at the time, I was unable to fathom it. Already
fragile and torn, it may have finally decayed into shreds or I might have
replaced it only to have Papá dispose of it.
As I grew older, I developed a curious obsession: whenever I visited
a library, I invariably searched for one name: Amparo Barayón. I
found a few references to "the wife of Ramón J. Sender" listed among
examples of the ferocity of the fascist beast, but that was all. Constancia
de la Mora referred to her in her book In Place Of Splendor, a passionate
account of a mother caught up in the Spanish people's struggle to save
their Republic. It was one of the few books written by a woman about that
era. According to someone who knew her, the author never forgave my father
for abandoning us.
My desire for my mother continued to grow. But to rediscover Amparo,
I would have to battle my father's refusal to discuss her. On several occasions
he specifically warned me not to write anything about her. I had no choice
but to go back to the libraries.
Thirteen months before my father's death I had brought my fiancée
Judy down for a Christmas Eve first meeting with Papa and Florence. Dinner
table talk focused on the New York publishing scene.
"It is being ruined by the Jews," he had rumbled. "The last Jewish author
of any consequence was King David of the Psalms."
I gently begged to differ. "Come on, Papa! I can think of at least
a dozen Jewish authors worth a mention!" I should perhaps have said, "Don't
put yourself down. I often have wondered whether our name 'Sender' could
have originated among the Catalan Jews.
But Papa was in no mood to be contradicted. He stomped away from the
dinner table, firing his parting salvo from the front door. "Now I know,
Ramón, that you have not yet grown up!"
Judy and I did not allow the evening to end in disaster. We proceeded
on to the Coronado Hotel as planned for dancing and tennis the following
morning. I wrote him a conciliatory note saying that life was too short
for minor misunderstandings. But his final remark, non sequitur although
it was, did remain in my thoughts. In order to 'grow up,' I would have
to confront my father's ongoing refusal to give me any information about
If only he could tell sit down with me and describe my mother's life
and ultimate sacrifice. The truth of Amparo's disappearance, no matter
how horrifying, would have allowed the natural mourning process to take
place. But he saw me as a living reminder of his greatest failure, his
inability to protect his wife and children. He never understood my need
to know the reality behind the evasions and outright lies.
Gradually, during that final year of his life, I began building a bibliography
for my story. There was my father's book Counterattack In Spain that described
his life during the last six months of 1936. Surprisingly, he did not mention
Amparo's fate until, at the translator's urging, he included a few brief
paragraphs on the final pages. According to what he once said, the heroine
of his untranslated novel The Five Books Of Ariadne was modeled after my
mother. I began laboriously translating segments of Ariadne's life story.
How much was truth, how much fiction? Over the telephone, my sister mentioned
a woman character in another novel, Seven Red Sundays, supposedly based
on Amparo. Also she gave me an address for Amparo's niece Magdalena in
Málaga, someone she had met during her brief week in Spain a few
years earlier. She had relied on a translator to speak with her, and returned
very frustrated by her inability to learn more than the sketchiest of details
regarding Amparo, but with a photo of a white sepulcher in the Zamora cemetery.
How strange my letters must have seemed! The Spanish family must remember
only a distraught two-year-old whose terror reflected their own.
Yet if I could reach back through time and tell that child the true story
of what happened, perhaps the cloud that obscured my memory of Amparo would
dissipate. And perhaps the perpetual winter that existed between my father
and me would thaw before death froze our estrangement permanently. I had
to try. After all, my affliction was also his.
A few weeks passed. November 18th, 1981: the forty-fifth anniversary
of the date of Amparo's death carved on the ornate family mausoleum in
Zamora. In San Francisco, the sky sparkled a crystalline blue after the
rainstorms of the weekend. This should be a day of darkness, I thought,
of counting up blood debts still unpaid. I decided to try to telephone
Magdalena. Why hadn't I ever called Spain before? During the Franco years
I had become habituated to its being out-of-bounds. I listened with deep
emotion to the operators speaking in Spanish. When was the last time I
had heard Spanish women talk? There was so much drama in their inflections,
so much humor as well. Amparo had worked for the telephone company. Perhaps
her voice was like theirs, throaty and expressive. At last I was speaking
to my mother's niece! My poor grasp of Spanish did not allow me to express
my feelings fully.
"I spent a week with your father in Madrid and told him everything,"
she said. "I gave him letters, documents and photos."
"Papá cannot talk about these things," I explained. "Do you have
copies? Did you receive my letters?"
Magdalena's voice was not too friendly. "He does not want anyone writing
about Amparo," she warned me. "But I'll send you everything I have."
I thanked her and hung up. Over the next week I finished a version
of Amparo's story as best I could from what few sources I had available
- mostly my father's novels and my imagination - and I sent it to him with
a carefully constructed letter of explanation. I hoped it would provoke
a sympathetic response. Instead, my stepmother Florence replied, scolding
me for disobeying his admonitions and disturbing his whatever it was
I disturbed in him. A few days later I received a letter from Magdalena.
She would not help me. She said my father had everything - names, dates,
documents, photos, but he absolutely did not want anyone to use them.
She continued: "A short while after the dictator died, an important editor
of this country gave me a blank check to write the story of your mother.
I told him there wasn't enough money in the world to pay for a sad story
of the accursed war about someone of my blood. I feel for you, but search
in another place."
Nothing was left but to telephone the old man - the confrontation
I had been avoiding ever since I began the book. I was positive Magdalena's
refusal was all his doing.
"Magdalena will tell you nothing because there is nothing!" he shouted.
"All you want to do is make money out of your mother's bones!"
I drew a deep breath. "If the book makes any money, I'll donate it
to the Spanish Refugee Aid if that makes you feel better."
"Then you want attention! You are screaming for fame!"
I changed the subject to my upcoming marriage to Judy. I invited him
to attend and, mentioned that my American mother Julia was planning to
"Bah, you are crrrazy!" he growled. "Julia has no respect for you. She
will never come."
"She says that she is," I replied, stunned by his response.
His laughter rasped in my ear, edged with hysteria. "I tell you she
will not! You are stupid, an imbecile! The truth is that she hates you!"
This had gone too far! What was he trying to do? "Why do you insult
me like this?" I asked.
"Because I am your father!" he screamed.
"Well, then, I'll insult you because I am your son."
He hung up on me. Unbelievable! There was our relationship encapsulated
in one phone call. Shaking with sup-pressed fury, I put down the receiver,
my fingertips icy. Such a classic Oedipal struggle over the mother! Money?
Fame? No, I wanted to evoke the forgotten perfume of her presence. I wanted
to make soup of her bones and drink it down to the dregs! I wrote three
drafts of a letter to him until I had vented enough anger to strike a conciliatory
tone. He was obviously sick, I decided. I should not hold him responsible
for his incredible behavior.
"It makes my heart ache to fight with you," I wrote him in that final
letter. "Please, help me! Why must we be enemies? Why must we repeat the
fate of so many other generations?"
But he never answered (except via letters from Florence branding my
attitude as "unforgivable"), and that phone call must forever remain our
last conversation together.
Afterwards I wrote to the editor of the Madrid newspaper El País
requesting information from anyone who knew my mother. Over the next months,
I received over twenty replies, several from Amparo's relatives inviting
me to visit. I also mailed a letter to the Barcelona daily, and received
about the same number of replies, this time from Sender relatives.
My arrival at the San Diego airport coincided with that of my sister's,
and we shared a cab to our stepmother Florence's in the vicinity of Balboa
Park. We found her surrounded by a few friends, the phone ringing non-stop
with Spanish press inquiries. Spain's greatest novelist-in-exile had died
and they wanted all the details. Florence, nursing a broken foot, was desolated.
A diminutive, white-haired lady, her utter dedication to the man of her
dreams had continued in spite of their divorce. Over the years they had
established an arrangement whereby they lived near each other. He walked
over to her house almost every evening for supper and allowed her to do
his laundry and tidy his apartment. To his credit, he had nursed her through
several illnesses, although he never ceased treating her in the traditional
manner of the 'Old Order Orthodox' husband - as a second-class citizen.
I can still hear him scold her: "Woman! You have just lost a perfect opportunity
to keep quiet!" However a brief gleam of affection occasionally softened
his fierce mockery of her. Also, Florence had learned over the years -
finally! - to stand up for herself and not just quiver beneath the patriarchal
In San Diego, both Benedicta and I wanted to see Papá one last
time. We could not let him disappear anonymously into the unknown like
Amparo had done. His apartment had not been sealed by the coroner, and
Florence suggested we sleep there. After supper we were driven over by
Juan, the quiet Catalan who had been the last person to see him alive.
The modern two-bedroom on the second floor of the Andorra Apartments
was just the same as always except for the small bloodstain on the carpet
beside the bed. I realized that I never had felt so relaxed in these surroundings
before - and in retrospect realized how ill-at-ease I had felt during my
few other visits. I glanced at Benedicta. Framed by the black veil and
white habit of her religious order, her elongated Spanish features - dark
eyes, strong chin and sensitive mouth - expressed the same strange satisfaction
that I was feeling. A year-and-a-half apart in ages, we always had shared
almost the same emotional telepathy as fraternal twins. At last we had
access to our father's life without his overwhelming presence! Under the
circumstances that may seem an unusual sentiment, but he had kept us at
such a distance, both from himself and from our Spanish family. He had
been such a difficult person at best, unwilling to share details about
Spanish relatives with us and turning down any requests that I made to
accompany him on recent trips to Spain or even a dinner in his honor in
Los Angeles. Now that he was dead, the barriers were gone. Until that
moment I had not realized how much he had stood in the way of my reattaching
myself to my Spanish roots and my relatives. Just how many of them there
were I began to appreciate when I studied his address book and the transatlantic
condolence calls began to arrive. Between the Senders in the eastern half
and my mother's family the Barayóns in the west, we more or less
blanketed the upper half of the Spanish peninsula!
Among the addresses, I found a phone number for our half-brother Emmanuel
whose mother Elizabeth had been our first stepmother in France. Emmanuel
at last! Papá had not even admitted to his existence until Benedicta
wrote a short story for an English class in college about us. In a letter
she described the incident:
In my short story there was only you, me, Julia and Papá, only
I named Julia 'Elizabeth' and I named you 'Manuel' which prompted Julia
ask me what I remembered. That made me smell a rat, and I worked out of
her the truth about Elizabeth and Emmanuel as she understood it. However
I had a dream in which we were three because I was twins and one of the
twins was lost in the war. I often had this dream at boarding school until
I found out about Emmanuel, when it stopped.
Did I ever tell you that I had a compulsion during those days to tell
the whole Spain story (as much as I knew of it) to anyone who would listen?
I'd go searching through the dorms for someone who hadn't heard it or,
barring that, who might be willing to hear it again. The compulsion stopped
after I learned about Emmanuel. I think I must have been searching for
someone who would fill in the missing part.
Through the years we repeatedly asked Papá for Emmanuel's address
without success. At last here it was - and in Queens, New York! I phoned
and his wife gave me his work number. Five minutes later, I was talking
to him. His English was good, with a French accent. Of course he would
fly out in time for the scattering of the ashes.
A half-hour later the downstairs doorbell rang. Margareta, my father's
Peruvian girlfriend (and Florence's nemesis), demanded to see us. She already
had made a considerable pest out of herself by insisting the funeral society
release Papá's body to her for shipment back to Spain - against
his express wishes. She must have imagined herself first in the procession
of mourners at a state funeral in Madrid, perhaps with her husband as chief
pallbearer. Benedicta would not allow her upstairs, so I went down to the
lobby. She was accompanied by another of Papá's loves, a Central
American woman poet whom I had met years earlier and liked very much. Among
some collected correspondence, I had found a letter in which he described
the early days of their romance to his literary agent:
My friend is (keep my secret) my lover, my chauffeur, my landlady,
my colleague - she writes also and not badly - my housekeeper, and also
an enchantress and beautiful (a blonde) and fifteen years younger than
I. Not too much, right? In order to write the enclosed article, I had to
lock myself in my room (she doesn't leave me in peace for one minute) and
comes to the door protesting, saying that I'm a thorny type, incivil, etc.
And it's not more than ten in the morning after having passed, according
to my calculations, fifty hours together! You say that this is delicious?
No. It's a sort of chaos with both excellent and exasperating aspects.
But this is the way life is!
I numbered it among my favorite library discoveries because I never
had seen this aspect of Papá - flushed with romantic ardor. I only
knew he was capable of charming the daylight out of restaurant waitresses.
Margareta originally had been one of Papá's doctoral students
before becoming his favorite and accompanying him upon one of his returns
to Spain. She was now totally out of control, insulting Florence and claiming
to be Papá's only true love. Tearfully she begged for a final viewing
of his body. I explained it was impossible. Then she asked me for some
of his ashes after the cremation and mentioned she had a verbal will on
tape, photos of Amparo, paintings, manuscripts. This did not surprise me
because Florence and others had described her tendency to trek home from
her weekends with him loaded with whatever she could carry - manuscripts,
paintings, even his cufflinks and stereo radio.
Because I hoped to convince Margareta to inventory her memorabilia
- and disgorge Amparo's photos - I tried to be diplomatic. The conversation
went on for so long that Benedicta sent the building manager down to make
sure Margareta had not added me to her Ramón J. Sender museum. I
promised to visit her and her husband soon. There had to be some way to
pry the photos loose. Inspiration hit. I would trade her a spoonful of
wood ashes - masquerading as Papá's - for Amparo's things!
Upstairs, I discovered to my relief that Benedicta had opted to sleep
in Papá's bed and left me the other bedroom that he used as a painting
studio. I gave a final lingering glance at the littered desk, the half-corrected
proofs on the typing table, the walls covered with his paintings and collages
(photos of Brooke Shields figured strongly in the latter). A copy of Picasso's
portrait of Sender as a youth hung over the sofa. When Picasso did not
leave the original to Papá in his will, Papá had reproduced
it in oils and with complete aplomb signed the artist's famous signature
in the corner.
The following morning when Benedicta left for seven o'clock Mass,
I began sorting Papá's things into piles. His clothes were in worse
shape than my own, and I have never set an example of sartorial elegance.
I stared at the stained suits, the threadbare pants, and gave up any hope
of improving my wardrobe. When the phone rang, I ran across his bedroom,
caught my bare foot on the protruding bedframe and fell with a resounding
thud. Great God, this was just where they found him! I stared at the bloodstain
on the carpet next to my face. Could he have tripped in the same way? That
damn frame was a deathtrap! I asked Papá's friend Juan about it.
He referred me to Eduardo who, with his wife Flo, had accompanied Florence
to identify the body for the police. Eduardo later obliged me by assuming
the position in which they had found Papá. It duplicated my own!
But there had been no mark on his foot, I was told, while mine had suffered
a gash. I decided that the psychic 'imprint' of his fall had been strong
enough to trip me. Was I destined to follow in his footsteps so closely?
He certainly had picked the ideal way to leave the planet - boom! - no
hospitals, no doctors, none of the gadgetry that complicates dying in our
The funeral society told us they did not allow "viewing" by relatives.
Instead, they offered to deliver Papá to anyone who could handle
the arrangements according to our wishes. Benedicta's Episcopal Church
contacts set wheels in motion for his transfer to their affiliated mortuary.
We spent the rest of the day cataloguing items including a remarkably thin
correspondence file, about thirty letters in all - and most of them old
love letters from women. On the kitchen table I found my last letter to
him, as if he had kept it nearby to reread. My throat ached at this proof
of his desire not to forget my offer of a lasting peace - or at least
a truce - between us. Well, he had gone to find his lasting peace elsewhere.
I could only be grateful I had sent those placating words and not my previous
I am writing a memorial to Amparo because she was my mother and because
I feel compelled to leave something that will value her sacrifice," I wrote.
"I understand the pain and difficulty this causes you, but I ask you to
put yourself in my place, to be a person who has no memories of his real
mother and who must, finally come to the point where he must learned who
his mother was..."
A few hundred pages of manuscript lay scattered about, the left-hand
desk drawer stuffed with forty or so book contracts. Didn't he have a literary
agent or a business advisor? On an old tax form I found the name of an
accountant and phoned. "Yes, Mr. Sender had walked in off the street one
day six years earlier." Yes, he had seen Mr. Sender just a few days ago.
Papá had said, "I'm through with this business of writing books!
Now I'm going to have a good time!" He must have felt his life work was
finished. He had achieved his triumphant return to Spain. Only the Nobel
Prize had eluded him. The year he was nominated, he kept insisting he didn't
care one way or the other about it, but I knew he was deeply disappointed
when another Spaniard was chosen.
Throughout my childhood, he contributed perhaps a thousand dollars
to my expenses - I include birthday and Christmas presents as well as the
food I ate on visits - and not more than six months of his time after
his arrival in America. It therefore came as a complete shock to find bank
books filled with large deposits in his desk drawer. The total was enough
to support one person off the interest income. I truly had not expected
to receive anything from his estate because I was accustomed to thinking
of him as humping along on the poverty level the way most writers do. But
the thought of an unexpected windfall was not unattractive. For one thing,
it would make my trip to Spain a great deal easier to achieve. The irony
was that if a will were found, I knew that I would be disinherited. Benedicta
also felt the same way. She was certain Papá would not have wanted
her religious order to benefit from his death.
Because he did not own a car, he managed his daily rounds on foot,
four blocks to Florence's, to Balboa Park just beyond her apartment to
feed his favorite squirrel "Adela" or the birds who perched on his shoulder.
It was an area of doctors' offices, banks and restaurants. He must have
been a familiar figure on the streets, a short, dignified, white-bearded
gent with his cane and grey fedora, striding along after his barrel chest.
He was a cat lover, especially fond of the black one next door who lay
in ambush for him and then pounced on his leg when he walked by, an event
that always evoked a delighted chuckle.
"How smart these creatures are!" he would say, rolling his eyes at me.
Flo and Eduardo, devoted friends, visited Florence that evening. Talk
centered around their memories of the old man. Eduardo told me that during
Papá's favorite TV show, 'The Muppets,' he would not allow conversation
or interruptions. I suddenly remembered how as a child I had identified
Papá in my mind with the Little King in the comics. They both had
beards, puffed-up chests and an air of self-importance. The Little King's
silence (he never spoke) seemed the equivalent of Papá's execrable
English. Now I thought how this Balboa Park neighborhood was his little
kingdom over which he presided as a sometimes tyrannical, sometimes benevolent
monarch depending on his mood or on how well his asthma and emphysema allowed
him to sleep. He could project a childlike quality, especially in the presence
of a beautiful woman, a small child or an animal. If only we could have
bridged the wasteland between us! But too many broken bodies of loved
ones, too many cultural cross-currents separated us. My failures terrified
him almost as much as the possibility of my success. My nervousness in
his presence communicated itself and resonated his own tensions.
The next morning we continued cataloguing items. I found a few letters
that Florence had written during their separation and divorce. They were
agonized cries of love interlaced with cautions about his health. "Don't
mutilate yourself any further," she begs. "We are eternal and sweet friends!"
A year later, he realized how dependent he was upon her care and began
to allow her to visit again. Without her nuturance, I am convinced he would
have died ten years earlier in Los Angeles. I will always love and respect
her for her selfless adoration of a man from whom she received so little
I also ran across a letter I had written after the Christmas Eve blow-up:
Thank you for being yourself. Perhaps I take your jokes too seriously?
Anyway, you know how I love you and I hope we will learn not to lock horns
The funeral home phoned the following day. We could come and visit
Papá. Benedicta and I walked with Juan the five blocks to the Michaelson-MacElvaney
Mortuary (so many 'M's, I thought vaguely). Juan seated himself in the
foyer while we were ushered into a tastefully appointed side room. There
was Papá, lying on a gurney, a sheet covering him up to the Van
Dyke beard on his jutting chin. We gave a sigh of relief, having braced
ourselves for something grotesque.
"He looks wonderful!" Benedicta whispered.
Never had we seen him so serene. He looked like a medieval crusader
home from the wars. His bushy eyebrows curved into space over the granite
profile, a touch of dried blood around one nostril - the source of the
bloodstain in the bedroom. We smiled shyly at each other. This was more
than we had hoped for. At last we could have our fill of him without the
distraction of his gaze. Now he was so vulnerable to our love!
The sheet was folded over his chest in a manner that to Benedicta suggested
a monk's habit. She opened her prayerbook and recited the last rites of
her faith. I thought how he and I shared the same concept of the universe
in which matter, spirit and consciousness were indissolubly one. We both
spoke our final words to this difficult, tortured man whom we had loved
and hated so unabashedly. I mentioned my deep disappointment at not having
achieved that final understanding for which I had yearned - I had
hungered for my father's blessing, a desire common to sons everywhere.
Reluctant to lose his tranquil features, I sketched him with a ball-point
pen but finally gave up. Over the phone, Benedicta overcame the qualms
of a local photographer and he arrived with his camera.
The cremation was scheduled for the following day. The mortuary director
suggested that we not attend. I wondered why. Was the crematorium out of
harmony with these last devotions? Afraid to disturb the perfection of
our final visit, we agreed to his passage through the flames without our
presence. I would have preferred a bonfire on the beach or a blazing canoe
floating out into the Pacific on the sunset tide.
A first cousin arrived from Barcelona, a tall, bearded man just my
age named Joaquín. I was delighted to meet a male blood relative,
and talked until 2 A.M. in my stilted Spanish. He worked as a journalist
for a daily newspaper and had two half-English daughters.
In the hopes of shaking loose Margareta's grip on Amparo's letters,
I set up an appointment with her in Ensenada and drove down with Juan and
Joaquín. We were greeted by her husband. When she showed up, she
insisted on taking me upstairs to her study for a private listening to
some tapes of my father.
"Do you have the ashes?" she asked.
I had brought a small plastic box of wood ash from Juan's house which
I now handed over. She blinked back the tears and tucked the box into her
bosom with great moans of bereavement. I don't like to cast aspersions
on anyone's grief, but the woman did not come across as sincere. And what
about her husband? How had he put up with her intimate relationship with
the old man?
"These ashes are our secret," I cautioned her.
"Yes, of course," she replied. "My lips are sealed."
"Now my mother's photos and letters," I said.
"Oh, I'm sorry! I have been so sick with the flu. They are not here!"
Here we went, the old run-around! She promised to mail them to me.
In spite of my later phone calls and letters, she never sent them.
"I have a tape I want to play just for you," she whispered. "I think
you should hear it."
She turned on the cassette player, and Papá's voice boomed out
through the room. He had had a few drinks and was singing Spanish songs
in a dulcet baritone to Margareta's promptings. The subsequent story he
told was one of the most bizarre he ever concocted. In it he claimed that
Amparo and he had broken up early in their relationship and she had returned
to Zamora for an abortion. That in itself raised my suspicions. Aside from
the illegality of abortions in Spain, for Amparo with her Catholic convictions
to have made such a decision was unimaginable. Besides, her home town of
less than twenty thousand people would have been the last place to go for
such an operation. My father went on to say that she then had an affair,
became pregnant again and came back to Madrid. There she threw herself
on his mercies and he magnanimously took her back, promising to accept
the child as his own. That was me.
When the lurid tale ended, she paused for my reaction. I was not about
to give her the satisfaction of upsetting my equilibrium.
"Look, Margareta, as far as I'm concerned I wouldn't mind if he wasn't
my father because he was a miserable failure at it." I shrugged. "But every
time I look in the mirror I see a Sender."
What had Papá tried to do? Disinherit me on a psychic level?
I also suspected Margareta's motives for playing me such garbage. What
a waste of time! Still, I did not want to ruin my chances of getting Amparo's
photos by telling her exactly what I thought of her. After a few niceties,
Joaquín, Juan and I escaped. A year later I would receive a query
from Papá's birthplace: were the tiny box of ashes they had received
from a donor genuine? So much for Margareta's promise to keep our secret.
I shared with them the real story.
The real ashes had arrived at the apartment during my absence. The
cardboard box was labeled 'Cremains - Ramón J. Sender.' I hefted
it - about five pounds, I estimated. How amazing that Papá could
be reduced to something so small, so anonymous! Benedicta had washed the
bloodstain out of the carpet and carefully saved the droplets in a bottle.
"Take this little bit of him back to Spain with you," she suggested.
I promised her that I would.
Friday night our half-brother Emmanuel arrived. How Benedicta and I
had looked forward to this moment! We met at supper at Florence's. He resembled
Papá more than I, the same bullet-shaped head and tendency to baldness.
I resembled my paternal grandfather Don José whom my father had
hated so much that he left home at fourteen. How delighted we all were
to be together at last! Such a pity Papá had to die to bring about
this reunion. Poor man, how many of life's fulfillments he denied himself!
I made sure to write down Emmanuel's mother Elizabeth's address because
I wanted to visit her in France. After all, she had been our surrogate
mother for a year or more. Only circumstances had prevented us from growing
up with her.
Emmanuel told us her story. A strikingly beautiful eighteen-year-old
girl, she escaped from Spain to France with her uncle, the ex-mayor of
Guernica, in the winter of 1936. In Bayonne she fell in love with the radical
Spanish journalist who had arrived to reclaim his motherless children.
Although Papá, through Florence, always had insisted they never
married, Emmanuel explained they were wed in a civil ceremony. If this
was true, and he definitely did not divorce her before marrying Florence,
I could see why Florence reacted so violently to any mention of her. Papá,
again through Florence, always had spoken disparagingly of Elizabeth. He
said he had returned home one day to find her mistreating us. That same
day he left the house with us and never saw her again. I was eager to hear
Elizabeth's version of our life together and to find out what memories,
if any, her face evoked.
Emmanuel brought out photos of his children, Thierry, 13, and Isabelle,
17 - my niece and nephew. He described his difficult and impoverished
childhood. Papá's abandonment of them had been total. They had survived
the siege of Barcelona and barely avoided the internment camps in France
where so many Spaniards died. As a three-year-old, Emmanuel spent some
months at a health spa recuperating from a decalcified finger and later
was shunted from boarding schools to relatives and back. At fourteen, his
stepfather took him by the hand and apprenticed him to a chef. After working
a number of years on transatlantic liners, he was offered a hotel job in
New York. Now he was a top chef in charge of the kitchens at The Russian
Tearoom and had been featured in a number of magazines.
The strain of constant visitors and the lack of convent silences drew
Benedicta's temper a little thin. Also she was surrounded by males yammering
in Spanish. She confessed to me that whenever she heard a great deal of
it spoken, an uncontrollable urge to weep overcame her. I envied her tears,
because I had not shed one since my arrival. I felt distanced from my everyday
self, mechanically going about the necessary chores. At the same time,
a part of me buried for over forty years was surfacing, fed by the warm
presence of my blood relatives.
Saturday dawned warm and sunny. At noon we met in Balboa Park with
an NBC stringer television crew affiliated with Madrid TV. Originally Benedicta
balked at including Joaquín and Emmanuel in the scheduled interview,
fearful they might say something disrespectful. I managed to convince
her we had no choice unless we wished to hurt our newly found brother's
and cousin's feelings. She had inherited that incredible stubbornness
for which the Aragonese were justly famous. So had I, for that matter!
When we disagreed, it was like two mountain rams cracking horns. Luckily
it doesn't happen often.
For the press, I invited Benedicta to recite a quotation of Papá's
which we were going to read when we scattered his ashes. My thought was
to have the TV crew film the boat leaving the harbor with a 'voice over'
of the reading as a fitting finale:
"I feel God in the independence of my spirit for which there are only
victories. Failure is a victory and death also. Mine is a joyous spirit
and I could say, as did St. John of the Cross, more or less: 'Mine are
the heavens and the earth, mine the night and the day, mine the most remote
and abstruse wisdom, and mine the light. Mine is the glory of the heavens
and of the earth, mine the pleasure of the fearful shadows, mine the infinite
and mine the mensurable earth, mine the glorious deceit and the intoxication
of being, mine the very eternity of God without accidents or with imponderable
accidents. You yourself are mine, God.'"
At the harbor yacht club, a twenty-six-foot motorized sloop awaited
us. Emmanuel and I carried Florence onto the pier because she was unable
to walk because of her foot. The TV crew caught us puffing red-faced alongside
We cast off. Joaquín, Emmanuel and I made our way forward to
the bow, effectively blocking the skipper's view. A number of times, in
the intense weekend traffic, I thought we were going to be rammed. When
we cleared the final breakwater, the water grew choppier and I moved back
towards the stern. I inhaled the salt air with pleasure. It felt wonderful
to be in the company of my half-brother and cousin! My father's involuntary
parting gift to me had been access to my blood family. I was going to make
the best of it.
"Okay!"our skipper shouted, a retired minister wearing a Greek sailor's
cap. Benedicta began to struggle with the tape that bound the box of ashes.
"Usually there's a plastic bag inside!"
She tugged more boldly. When she removed the layer of cotton beneath
the lid, a few chunks of pure-white bone fell at her feet. No plastic bag.
She handed the box to Florence who wanted to be the one to empty it over
the side. Her broken foot made it difficult for her to turn around and
I offered to help. So in actuality it was I who lifted the silvered card-board
container and upended it, but I miscalculated the pitch of the boat and
a handful of bone fragments landed on deck. When I scooped them overboard,
I palmed four or five. These I would carry to Spain with me, to Amparo.
Maybe I would nibble on a few as an experiment. I wanted to try out my
theory that we should eat our parents in order to partake of their accumulated
wisdom and not have each generation constantly have to start over from
scratch. The bottle of Papá's blood that Benedicta washed out of
the carpet I would leave somewhere in Aragón, his birthplace.
Emmanuel read the quotation aloud in Spanish. I sat holding the bottom
layer of cotton containing the last traces of ash. I hesitated to litter
Mother Ocean, but how else to dispose of it? I tossed it overboard and
watched it swirl away in the current. What words could encompass my feelings
at such a moment? 'The flight of the Alone to the Alone,' the philosopher
Plotinus named our brief lifetime on this planet. A tearing feeling of
irreparable loss overcame me as I watched the last traces of my father
drift away forever. The sea wind tugged at my sleeve, scattering salt spray
in my face to provide the tears I could not shed. I thought of a childhood
summer when we owned a sailboat and Papá and Florence had visited
us. These family outings on the ocean were among my happiest boyhood memories.
The next day I embraced everyone in farewell and took the plane home.
Alone at last, my exhaustion and emptiness of spirit hit me. The highs
and lows had followed each other so relentlessly! When I arrived, San Francisco
was caught up in the throes of the Superbowl. I heard the Forty-Niners'
goal-line stand over my car radio driving on the freeway. The city looked
evacuated, everyone in front of their televisions. After the victory, a
jubilant citizenry rode around exploding firecrackers and honking their
horns. The shouts from passing cars, the derangement of normal behavior
patterns, underscored my feeling of detachment from my surroundings and
myself. The celebratory sounds - were they in some surreal way for The
Little King? The king is dead, long live the Forty-Niners!
The death of a parent, no matter how troubled the relationship, is
an ax-blow to the tap root of one's being. Can the old man really be gone?
I kept asking myself. It would take me time to accept the reality of his
having traveled beyond all possibility of a reconciliation. Most of all,
I would miss those mornings when I glanced up from my typewriter to think
how, at that very moment, just a day's drive south, he sat in his pajamas
punching the keys of his battered Smith-Corona. It had been a distant comradeship
at best, but better than nothing, this sharing of the same vocation beside
the same ocean.