The absence of my mother

“Compra-li calcetins negres a Miguel que no en té” (Get Miguel some black socks as he doesn’t have any”), words related to her husband that hours before her death Esther, my mother, said to Joaquineta, her own mother.

Always a kind and thoughtful caretaker, always thinking of others. Did she think she had to come last, as the middle daughter and mother of four? Esther was the second child of the three descendants had by Joaquineta and Herrero, as her husband was known. Joaquín, the male heir and a renowned cunning businessman with the arrogance natural to one driving a car while others only had bicycles, if any.  The youngest sibling, Julia, was an excellent student, hot tempered and beautiful, adored by many, I have been told.  She died unexpectedly during Christmas of 1961, not even seventeen, after a road accident less than 1 km from the family home in Benilloba.  This tragedy took another young life, Milagritos, and adversely impacted many families in this small town.  I remember the sadness that permeated all our Christmas’ celebrations, specially around grandmother Joaquineta.

My grandparents’ house held a room in Julia’s memory with a beautiful marquetry writing table full of her school books from Las Teresianas in València.  Both sisters had shared that room yet I do not remember seeing there any notebook with my mother’s writing, or even any personal object from her childhood around the house now that I think about it.  Maybe it was the equivalent of burning every discarded item cheering for the new life, come spring or funds for acquiring new furniture, Valencian as we are.

Familia Herrero Doménech y sobrino J.V. Cortés García, 1952 (archivo familia Herrero Doménech)

Esther was thirty-eight years of age when she died, four years after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis. Our family’s suffering seemed that will never stop to grow darker as aunt Layeta had suddenly passed away at childbirth in 1973 and neither her beautiful son Ricardo was to have a long life.  

I have few memories of my mother, in one I am a sickly eight-year old child, sitting up in a bed by the door, the first one of three, and talking to Esther, who was lying down in the next room.  Another one takes place in the morning at the kitchen, she is wearing a dressing-gown in apple-green with satin around the neck and telling me for the umpteenth time to drink my glass of milk.  The milk most possibly ended up going down the drain.  Unfortunately I personally recall little else of Esther, of her words towards me or the way she must have comforted or hugged me.  Forever deprived, always asking others about her and obtaining some words, never enough, about her kindness and sweet nature, an excellent cook and wife.  Next to nothing I know about her memories of childhood, adolescence or other, her favourite book or song, her thoughts or even her regrets. 

When I moved into the Herrero Doménech family manor around 1999, grandmother Joaquineta had passed away five years prior, I discovered a set of letters on a blue ribbon. The first one I opened included my mother’s recollection of the Castell’s collapse (the Lord of Benilloba’s manor) in 1957 -after the town’s leaders decided to widen a tiny steep road parallel to such historical building- and her worries for her dear friend Inma and family members.  I felt such a thrilling joy when I started reading it and then my principles stopped me, this was a private conversation I was not a part of.  The correspondence was an exchange between Esther and his friend Fernando from València, a relationship that I have been told came to an end due to pressure from Herrero, her father.

Julia y Just, 1959 (Archivo de familia Ivorra Casanova)

Esther’s must have been a happy childhood, least I am unaware of crisis taking place then.  Gil, her grandfather on her mother’s side, had passed away at thirty years of age, possibly due to meningitis.  His widow Joaquina, who run the ultramarinos or general store, got married again to José, a well-known businessman. They lived on the corner between carrer Major and Sant Joan and had two children, uncles to Joaquín, Esther and Julia. On her father’s side my mother did not get to meet her grandfather Vicente, a builder like many other male members of the Herrero branch, whose heart stopped only at sixty-four in 1934. Esther surely received daily doses of love and support from grandmother Joaquina, aunt Elisa, the great-aunt of the García branch that lived at the top of carrer Nou or from any of her extended family or neighbours in our lively and closely-knit small society.

The family lived in the Doménech manor, a beautiful bourgeois house in the village’s narrow main street (carrer Major) that was refurbished in the 1950’s decade after the end of Benilloba’s first general store -initially launched next door by Esther’s great-great-grandmother Teresa María around 1870-. 

The Herrero Doménech family were better-off than most though nowhere near rich. Besides the ultramarinos, both family branches also owned productive land and made wine. Vicente Herrero García and his younger brother, Joaquín, had started a business of textile women undergarments and had established a commercial network as subhastadors or street traders across Spain. From undershirts to sweaters, their own “American dream” was in the making, as the brand El Moro was to become a referent of textile industries here. Besides his entrepreneur skills, Joaquín Herrero García became the town’s Justice of the Peace and later, following its brother footsteps, its Mayor under Franco’s dictatorship. Aunt Camelia, aunt and life beacon to me, told me of my family’s support for the Democratic side, that is the Republic elected Government’s, during the Civil War in Spain brought about by a military coup in 1936. I would have loved to ask my grandparents’ political and social thoughts, but “if youth knew; if age could” my interest in history arrived when few remained to take me back to their past.

posiblemente 14 abril 1935, Elisa y Joaquín Herrero García, entre otros (archivo familia Herrero Doménech)

The home at Major, 20bis had plenty of people working for the family, such as those responsible for doing the laundry at the village’s llavador by the river Frainos or the feminine team serving the family celebrations like the formidable Amada who refused to clean the floors standing up. I cannot imagine my mother doing any heavy handwork. She surely must have carried out embroidery and crochet labours with Joaquina, Elisa and Joaquineta, though I do not recall any pieces known to be hers. A family’s data and memories disappear if nobody invests time and energy to remember, to capture and to pass them on, as a history amateur I am painfully aware of this. Money, however, does not protect anybody from suffering hard blows in life though it surely softens some of their effects. I was not fully conscious of such truth -and my personal dose of luck- until I spoke to Paco, an elderly gentleman whose mother died at childbirth in a family that struggled to keep everybody warm and fed during winter.

Back in July 1978, I was kept far away from Esther’s last days ands sent away to uncles in Alzira. Being sick was not strange to me and when I gave her my last two kisses while sitting on her bed I must have thought that I would be seeing her again in no time. Although I understand the reasons my family had to hide death from me, a ten-year old child and the runt of the litter, I still harbour strong feelings about it. I was robbed of the chance to participate, to comfort and to be comforted by everybody who kept watch to surround my mother with love during her last hours alive on this Earth. I was also denied the necessary exchange of care, devotion, sympathy, connection, longing, sadness and memories during the wake on her honour. 

Morning of July 14th, 1978, I remember standing by the pantry door looking at the blue and white tiles in the summer kitchen of my godparents, Toñita and José Luis, while aunt helped me change my clothing, there was a black skirt with tiny white flowers. “We are going to visit your mum and everybody today at your village” aunt Toñita was saying, unable to hide a weird tone on her voice that a younger me did not know how to take. They both tried to reassure me and talked non-stop all the way to Benilloba while I played with a small doll in the back. It was only when uncle José Luis turned the steering wheel of his big car into carrer Sant Llorenç that I saw a large dark crowd covering the street space reaching our family home at the far end… Even today I can feel again all at once cheated, sad, nervous, not believing while understanding the impossible had come to happen. The rest of the day is nothing but a blur, except for somebody’s words -kind, I suppose- at the cemetery asking me to look through a glass window into my mother’s dead face inside a light wooden coffin. The horror I felt: my mother was to be locked up inside a cold, dark, lonely niche forever while us, her young four orphans, her sad widower, her lonely brother and her forever devastated mother, had to leave her there and go back to some sort of life, now without Esther.

It has taken me forty three years to write this recollection and still sadness and tears cloud my sight, not only a painful metaphor. Somebody important in my life recently told me of a cancer diagnose. Since then I have I found myself, again and again, thinking of my deceased mother and her own sadness and pain upon realising there was no life left for her and that she had to abandon everybody she loved and who in return loved her. Was she ever angry about it? Did Esther and Miguel had frank conversations about her upcoming death? What were her last conscious thoughts and words?

My mother was not there for me the first time I got my period, back from a cinema in a village, the red stain combining well with my white and red flowery skirt set. My father did his best to deal with the needs of his three daughters and only son, surely I was not going to ask any of them how to use a tampon and those at the chemist came with printed instructions. I remember a gynaecology book father bought for us with colourful drawings that I used as reference material when my girlfriends shared her feminine doubts with me.

Often, upon discovering my personal loss many people have kindly uttered condolences  to me while my standard reply was something along the lines of Thank you, it happened a long time ago. What a fool, I must have been kidding myself thinking I had overcome the pain. Not long after her passing  I believed my mother had appeared to me in a sort of cloudy form. I can no longer affirm wether it happened for real or that my longing for her to return to us made me to imagine things. Grandmother Joaquineta used to say, referring to the unusual noises and lights sometimes perceived in her home, never with fear: Estan parlant-me, però no entenc què diuen/They are talking to me but I do not understand what they are saying.  Although she was not outspoken, she had a certain wittiness about her, Joaquineta.

Layeta, Joaquineta y Esther en Andorra, 1972 (archivo familia Herrero Doménech)

Esther, the first for me, was a thought, more than a real perception, little was spoken about her that I can recall.  Not that I trust my memory, as the mind plays tricks, twists reality and brings about doubts every time I try to remember an episode in my life.  I would sometimes catch my father looking at Esther’s oil portrait high up on the wall, such a sad look on his face that pushed me to fix my eyes somewhere else.  People would look at me with compassion, a feeling I got to despise, however special it made me feel earlier on. 

The lucky ones to reach and live through adulthood with a mother and a father will never be able to fully realize the amazing good fortune life has dealt them.  In our street there was a childhood friend whose bright mother would take the time to prepare both a us a pomegranate, shelling the seeds and sprinkling some sugar on top, I was amazed and felt both grateful and jealous.  María, ever so kind and patient, took good care of all of us and the sad house we shared as a broken family.  Upon my return from one of my recurring appointments with the dentist, she would have cooked finely sliced potatoes and some chicken breast that I devoured.  The strong Dutch woman -mother to my best through-thick-and-thin friend-, with the brightest blue eyes ever, who welcomed me into their family house by an Amsterdam canal and taught me to drink home-made broth before leaving for an important dinner.   Aunt Rosa who had the patience and skills to use needle and thread to make me a summer neck choker of jasmine flowers from the old tree on her husband’s family courtyard. My search for a female figure will never stop, I guess. 

I have read somewhere, not that I can remember the author or the book, that humans are divided into those who are struck with sadness and misfortune at an early age and the ones that leave behind adolescence without suffering any serious blows until the passing away of a close relative occurs later in life. I wonder whose pain is stronger and, of course, there is no competition, hard and black pain is just pain.

I would like to finish by mentioning that I have felt my mother’s presence in several occasions throughout my life. Once a drug addict confronted me with a large knife inside a cash automatic teller near Cardenal Benlloch and I refused to empty my bank account for him, Esther must have been watching over me. It is a flimsy consolation price but I chose to believe that somehow my mother has never ceased to keep an eye on me and continues to send her protection over. You may call it energy, warmth or mere luck. I choose to think that Esther and Miguel, my parents, remain by my side every day.

July 13th, 2021

Niñas Julín y Merce con Esther, 1971 (archivo familia Herrero Doménech)

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