An Intimate Conspiracy & A Sweet ToothFriday, January 09, 2009
My grandmother Lolita had a sweet tooth. There is one time that is still vivid in my mind. I must have been around 14 and we were at the breakfast table. She was served a large cup of coffee in which she poured Carnation evaporated milk and a generous amount of sugar. She then buttered her bolillo, spread peanut butter on top and then spooned a thick portion of strawberry jam as if it were the most expensive caviar on it all. She looked at me with delight, winked and then dunked her creation into the coffee. I will never forget the clicking of her false teeth when she bit into her food. We had a conspiracy between us. Anything was allowable and or excusable because we were artistic. My mother and my father were the disciplinarians but if my grandmother was around I was always safe. She would say, "He did nothing wrong. He is an artist. He has inherited that from me and you need to understand that."
Because of my abuelita I was dispatched to painting lessons with Robin Bond in Mexico City. Bond had honed his skills during the London Blitz as an expert in the art of camouflage. In Mexico City he was the only one who knew how to paint TV sets in the right shades of gray in the primitive era of b+w television. He was an old-style bohemian who smoked lots, drank large quantities of espresso laced with amber liquids from mysterious bottles. He mixed the paints for his canvases on his studio walls. It was at Bond's where I found out that artists liked lots of women. There were always many there. He had a studio couch with rumpled sheets. Perhaps his women posed for him there or perhaps not. I wondered.
With my abuelita I discovered the wonders of Technicolor movies. They always featured handsome swordfigthers or weathered men like Randolph Scott. I learned about opera from her. "I was a coloratura soprano but my father did not allow me to become a professional. He said only harlots did that sort of thing." The word harlot was always the softer euphemism "mala mujer" or bad woman. She would then break into an aria from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.
I cannot remember on single incident in which my grandmother ever told me I could not do something. It was always, "If you do this, this is what is going to happen to you." My favourite reaction from her when I would refuse to eat something I didn't like was (she said it in Spanish), "The donkey that got used to not eating died." But then she knew I knew of her own trick for not eating what she did not like, "I just love Brussels sprouts but they are so bad for my liver. If I were to eat them I would have a tremendous attack." Invariably she would look at me from the side and I knew the wink was coming.
Until one day in the late 60s when Abuelita returned from Cairo and she looked at me an did not recognize me we had a special relationship. One particular incident is memorable. We went to the opening of a young Filipino painter and the pride of his show was a very large painting featuring a pair of ugly Mexican huaraches. "Tell me," she asked the young man, "why is it that you would paint something so ugly when there are so many beautiful things you could have painted?" The painter retorted very quickly to the delight of my grandmother, "Ah, but there is the beauty of ugliness!" Suddenly the three of us were onto something.
For a while I had hoped to reverse this role and relive it with my granddaughter Rebecca but it seems that the "conspiracy" between us is on hold and the distractions inch her away, day by day. Perhaps the longer days of late spring and the scent of my roses will bring her back.