Alex Waterhouse-Hayward - PhotographerFriday, March 09, 2012
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward - Photographer
It was 1952 in Buenos Aires, a Buenos Aires with no Chinese, Japanese and the only Indians I had really seen (not knowing that the beggars on movie row on Lavalle were Bolivian aboriginals) were three turbaned Sikhs. They worked with my father at the Indian Embassy, and he had invited them for his home-cooked curry. They came in their Hillman Minx and, for days after, my friends of Calle Melián enquired about the exotic dark men and their turbans.
Exotic for me were red Indians or the inhabitants of a far away land we in Argentina called “La Conchichina”. It was many, many years later that I found out it was the ancient name for Vietnam.
When my mother came back from an exploratory trip to Mexico in 1952 I found out about the truly exotic. She spoke of volcanoes and pyramids, of Aztecs and of a curandera who had read her hand and told her that she would be moving soon to those parts. My mother spoke of a magical city where during the rainy season it would rain for a couple of hours every day and the sun would shine right after as before.
She had brought little obsidian idols that my uncle Bill Humphrey had sent. She told me how Aztec priests had used knives made from the same black volcanic glass to cut into the chests of their captives and how with their bare hands they would rip out the still-beating hearts as an offer to Huitzilopochtli.
It was about then when all the blood and gore was in my mind that she showed my abuelita and me a red rebozo. It was a red I had never seen before and a red I have not seen since except every time I lovingly and so carefully remove it from the Mexican Olinalá chest, made of a sweet scented wood, where it resides and has since we left Mexico for Canada in 1975.
The curandera had been right and we had indeed moved to exotic Mexico in July of 1954. During all my years there, until my mother died in 1972 it was the red rebozo that my mother would put on to go to parties or church. She had various ways of putting it on. For me it was magic. While many admire the softness of silk, I found a special pleasure in rubbing the rough cotton against my cheek. It could hurt if I wasn’t careful.
In some ways the rebozo has always reminded me of my mother’s ways. She would often tell me that love was not expressing it but doing. She proved this all her life by penny pinching to save from her salary enough money to send me to the best schools or to buy me whatever I would demand as children do so without knowing the sacrifice needed.
But it was difficult to get a hug from her or a kiss. I don’t remember her kissing me much but I do remember my father doing so. What my mother did do was smell me behind my ears. She said I had a lovely scent of an Englishman. I was allowed to do same, to smell behind her ears which always smelled of Chanel Number 5 of Jean Patou’s Joy. Smell was very important to her. I inherited that ability and its sense of importance. She told me that Mexico, as soon as you got off an airplane smelled of a combination of tortillas, smoke and the lime used to make nixtamal from which Mexicans make their tortillas. Getting off a plane in Ezeiza in Buenos Aires was like walking into a restaurant specializing in steaks. Buenos Aires constantly smelled of meat roasting was her assertion. As an afterthought she told me that deplaning in the United States was all about the smell of French fries.
My mother’s red rebozo, smells of that sweet Olinalá wood from the Mexican state of Guerrero. Her scent is gone. But its roughness remains, to remind me always, that loving isn’t expressing it with a passionate embrace but by the sacrifice of doing what you can.
But to this day, especially in the gray of the rainy Vancouver winters, a season full (as in all the other seasons) of exotic Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Hindus and Sikhs and Aboriginal Canadians, it is only the blood red colour of my mother’s rebozo that fills me with a yearning for the truly exotic, a Mexico of volcanoes and earth colours and a roughness that reminds me of an opposite.
That opposite is the kiss and embrace of my father. Perhaps my mother was much too shy to tell me that she, too, suspected, that love has to be both.
Lauren Elizabeth Stewart