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.
"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 native tongue.
"Papá es muerte," I said.
My fiancée Judy, in fluent Spanish, quickly corrected me. "Papá se murió."
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 For thirty-five years his books went unpublished in his native land.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 them.
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 old.
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:

For myself, I do not care because I die for you. But the children. What will become of the children?
               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 Amparo's death.
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 attend.
"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 tempests.
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 to 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 culture.
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 angry drafts.
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 in return.
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 over trifles.
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 the berth.
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.