Her first family had no idea who Harriet Tubman was, even though they had the paper delivered every day, and, to Harriet’s amazement, one entire room in their apartment was filled with books.
At three months of age, Maria Lopez Ruiz’s eyes turned blue. Not just any ordinary blue, but turquoise, the color of the sea near Porto San Sebastian, where Sophia Lopez Vargas, Maria’s maternal grandmother, lived. She, too, had turquoise eyes.
It was a sign; Maria’s brown-eyed mother told the rest of the family that her child, the fifth daughter of a fifth daughter, would be a woman of great importance.
Maria’s father worked at a grand resort in Las Almandas, which was over three hundred miles from Porto San Sebastian. Because of the distance, he only came home twice a year: the month of August and the week of his birthday.
It was in January of Maria’s sixth year that her mother died with the fever, leaving the family adrift. Maria moved in with her grandmother, Sophia, in the small house that overlooked the sea.
“Being successful, Maria,” her grandmother always began her stories, “requires being in the right place at the right time.” As she continued to braid her granddaughter’s hair, she repeated the adventures that led her to Porto San Sebastian.
“My first marriage was arranged, or that is what my husband believed. He was from Madrid and I was from Las Rozas. He had seen me…” Her grandmother went on to describe how, at the age of fifteen, she had used her turquoise eyes for the first time. “I have not always lived in this quiet village,” she said, ending the story the way, she ended all of her stories. “And you will not, either,” she added.
“When you are fourteen, you will leave here. You will go and live with your oldest sister in a faraway place. You will become independent and a woman of great importance.”
Maria leaned against a pillar on the platform of the Christopher Street Subway station and rubbed her belly. She was in her fifth month with her first child and the heat was the one thing that felt familiar. Taking a deep breath, she considered how far in ten years she had come to be in this place so removed from San Sebastian.
That evening she told her husband: “If I close my eyes for a moment, I am transported home: the thick air covers me, and I can almost hear the sound of the waves.”
“Why is that funny?” she said.
“That’s not why I laughed it’s just…”
Maria sighed as he kneaded his fingers deep into the arch of her right foot.
“I’m proud of you. Remember when I introduced you to my aunt? We agreed to make her think I was seeking her approval,” he said.
Maria smiled and looked toward a window where the air conditioner hummed relentlessly. A sound so familiar and yet so far away, a steady summer wind rattling her grandmother’s house in Porto San Sebastian before a storm.
“Your aunt took me into her lavender bedroom, she pulled the shades and read my cards by candlelight. I know she whispered the readings to you, mi amor. It was a good thing that you had already proposed marriage, or you might have changed your mind.”
He furrowed his brow.
“You are a beautiful woman,” he said. “When we walk down the street, people stare at you. I don’t think you even notice.”
It was at the age of twelve that her grandmother told Maria about men who were only interested in the superficial.
“We are like this,” she gestured toward the sea with one hand, as they sat in old wicker chairs on the stone patio sipping cold tea. “Men see what they want to. It is useful.”
Maria’s boss, Xavier Batista, was one such man, expecting to get his way with anything and everyone he touched. Xavier moved in all the right circles at Telemundo.
“Brilliant!” He clapped his hands. “But, why just New York, Maria? Think bigger. This country is changing. You have a story to tell, use your biography. Remember my mantra: demographics. Women are our audience; this show will speak to them.
“You have been so generous to me, Xavier.” She turned her eyes toward him and could see the heat rising into his face. “If the network buys my show, how will I repay you for your advice?”
He looked at her, smiled and reached out to touch her arm. “Tell your husband who the father is.” When he began to repeat his dream of how they would move to the city of angels together, Maria moved away. “We are meant to be together—a team.”
“It is too soon to talk of these things. My husband thinks…”
He pulled her toward him. “We will work this out.” His face was now flush with color.
For several months Maria let Xavier think what she needed him to.
A scent of bitter fruit infused the air as Maria felt the rumble of the Number 1 train before its lights turned from the tunnel and flooded the tracks ahead. When she entered the crowded subway car, Maria stood in front of a young woman.
“Oh! Sorry,” the woman said jumping up, offering her seat. Maria sat, closed her eyes, and started to review the presentation of her show Háblame: Talk to Me.
Thirty minutes later, when she walked off the elevator onto the twenty-first floor of an office building in mid-town Manhattan, she spotted her secretary, Julia, leave her cubicle and run toward her.
“The presentation has been postponed; something happened this morning.”
Maria let Julia take her briefcase and watched as the woman put her finger to her lips.
“I’ll explain in your office.” Julia twitched like a small sand bird, weaving her way through the maze of gray cubicles.
As she followed Julia, the young employees, heads focused on screens, sat quietly typing. They didn’t look up. It was not their usual morning buzz over prefabricated walls where they stopped to welcome her.
“Xavier has resigned,” Julia said breathlessly as she closed the office door. “I mean he has been fired—resigned is what his memo to the company said.”
Maria took out her phone and saw for the first time the messages, starting twenty minutes earlier from her staff, multiply with every second.
Julia went over to a table where a carafe of coffee waited to be poured. She turned and looked at her boss.
“Are you surprised?” Maria said looking up from her phone. They had never discussed the rumors about Xavier.
“Some of the interns had problems with him,” Julia said. The cup rattled on the saucer as she walked across the office.
Maria flinched. A few years earlier one of the production assistants told her something suggestive Xavier said to her. She remembered laughing. Now the child inside of her rolled and pulled tight against her.
“Talk to me, while I get up to speed.” Maria sat adjusting a pillow on her back and logged into her computer.
“There’s an executive committee meeting in fifteen minutes.” Julia handed Maria a printout of Xavier’s letter to the company. “I told them you would be there,” she said.
“How are you feeling?” her secretary asked.
“About this…or just in general?”
“You work…worked really closely with Xavier. Did he ever…?” Julia’s voice was trembling.
“Of course not, a total professional since the first day I met him. I’m shocked.” She rested her hand over the kicking inside of her. “Give me a few moments.”
“Can we meet?” read the text from Xavier.
Maria waited and when a second text appeared on her phone she read: “Are you there?”
“Can’t. It’s crazy here,” she responded. She was walking toward the Board Room.
“I need to talk to you,” he wrote.
They all will have stories, Maria thought. Even now, on the other side of the building, the President of Telemundo was finishing telling his to the media.
“None of it is true,” Xavier added.
Maria knew he couldn’t possibly know everything everyone was going to say.
This story was published in Adelaide February 2020
Each generation has a heaviness and this one, as so many others before, is no different.
Those of privilege, the ones who have feasted on the world as it is, seem surprised for what has become of us. How could this be happening, they ask with greater and greater incredulity.
Some who know silence as well as their native tongue claim it is not their story, not their neighborhood, and not their people. The idioms of silence allow for excuses.
These sentiments remind me of the novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. I read this book twenty-seven years ago, and while the reviews speak to a love story, I felt it was more. For me, it was about the weight of the world and those who feel too deeply. The conceit is that the heaviness, for some, who are lucky enough to feel, is a freedom. Feeling nothing is unbearable.
Photo: Elsa Mora
In an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2015 (reviewed here), the images of women marching for the right to vote remind me of all the women who came before us, our grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Those women had a voice to raise, just as our voices were heard last month and all the days to follow. The difference is our ability to vote.
I hope that this month, where we celebrate Women’s History (in the U.S.), we will encounter voices both present and past, those we know and especially those that are waiting to be discovered.
Deeds Not Words was the rallying cry of the suffragettes. Women’s Rights is a recurring back-story in my novel, The Last Daughter of Elizabeth Light.
In Chapter Three, Sydney, Australia, Maude Anderson reads to her mother, Caroline, from the London Times.
It is the story of Emily Davidson throwing herself under the King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby.
In Chapter Five, Christchurch, New Zealand, Mary Müller speaks to Martha Light about whether she ever thought for herself without first consulting her husband.
The ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft in Vindication the Rights of Women, written in 1792, are pressed forward through multiple generations.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. –George Santayana
Primary image credit: ALEX BROOK LYNN/THE DAILY BEAST
Last February, just about now, I found this image.
Creative disruptors change the way we look at the world. Here, an icon is turned around, and our perception of what we thought we saw is something entirely different.
One of my favorite artist disruptors is Louise Bourgeoise.
“One must accept the fact that others don’t see what you do.” – Louise Bourgeoise
Born in Paris in 1911, Louise Bourgeoise was an inspiration, an outlier, and a disruptor throughout her life. Bourgeois died in New York in 2010 at the age of 98. Her images and sculptures may not be everyone’s cup of tea-but that’s what art is about.
I discovered her at the Tate Modern in London, 2002, where art is always disruptive and resistant to the status quo. A massive thirty foot spider standing in the atrium of an old power station startled me and made me want to know more about this woman artist who was then only 92.
As she put it, “Art is a guarantee of sanity.” And so it is for me, too.
“The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. .”- Louise Bourgeoise
Bourgeois transformed her experiences into a highly personal visual language through the use of mythological and archetypal imagery, adopting objects such as spirals, spiders, cages, medical tools, and sewn appendages to symbolize the feminine psyche, beauty, and psychological pain.(1)
Through the use of abstract form and a wide variety of media, Bourgeois dealt with notions of universal balance, playfully juxtaposing materials conventionally considered male or female. She would, for example, use rough or hard materials most strongly associated with masculinity to sculpt soft biomorphic forms suggestive of femininity. – (1) The Art Story
I never tire of finding life in her face and in her work.
“#ItWasNeverADress is an invitation to shift perceptions and assumptions about women and the audacious, sensitive, and powerful gestures they make every single day. In science, technology, arts, mathematics, politics, houses of worship, on the streets, and in our homes, insightful women are often uninvited, overlooked, or just plain dismissed… When we see women differently… we see the world differently!” – Axosoft
Read more about Louise here: MOMA’s archive has a wealth of information.
In 1869, almost twenty-five years before the first woman cast her vote in New Zealand, Mary Müller wrote an appeal to the men of New Zealand. Müller’s argument, as so many arguments that followed hers, was that “without political rights women could not make their full contribution to the progress of the nation”. She signed the article in the Nelson Examiner –“Fémmina” because her husband, a local politician, objected to her views. Today we stand together and tomorrow we continue to write our letters, proudly signing our names for all to see. Keep Writing.
Here are the dates by country of universal suffrage:
1893 New Zealand
1902 Australia (1)
1917 Canada (2)
1918 Austria, Germany, Poland, Russia
1920 United States
1928 Britain, Ireland
1947 Argentina, Japan, Mexico, Pakistan
1957 Malaysia, Zimbabwe
1963 Iran, Morocco
1990 Western Samoa
1993 Kazakhstan, Moldova
1994 South Africa
2006 United Arab Emirates
2011 Saudi Arabia (3)
NOTE: One country does not allow their people, male or female, to vote: Brunei.
1. Australian women, with the exception of aboriginal women, won the vote in 1902. Aborigines, male and female, did not have the right to vote until 1962.
2. Canadian women, with the exception of Canadian Indian women, won the vote in 1917. Canadian Indians, male and female, did not win the vote until 1960. Source: The New York Times, May 22, 2005.
3. King Abdullah issued a decree in 2011 ordering that women be allowed to stand as candidates and vote in municipal elections, but their first opportunity did not come until Dec. 2015, almost a year after the king’s death in January.
A character is born in Christchurch, NZ. I know her, but where does she live? What is the address? What is the view from the front window?
The house, imagined from a combination of old photos found in the archives of the National Library of New Zealand (collections), comes to life. The newspapers of the day report the daily sports events, petty crimes, and news from London; this becomes the morning breakfast chatter between mother and daughter. And then, of course, there is a need to walk out the front door, turn onto a street. Her mission is to buy a dress, but where? Ballantyne’s. And then a photo falls from google-space and you find a place rich in detail to build a believable encounter.
Chapter 4, Caroline Light, Christchurch, New Zealand – 1895.
For another journey through the streets of a London, this interactive link, on Charles Dickens Oliver Twist written in the New York Times last week is exactly the trip I like to take.
“The end is where we start from.” T.S. Eliot Little Gidding
As a writer of fiction I am invested in the belief that time travel is possible.
Going backward or forward—or any combination of actions—in story telling is critical to engage the reader. But time can also be an abstraction, even if it is an anchor to the most important moments of our lives.
I first became aware of the effervescence of time while dozing in the front row of a London theatre. My late mother, at my side, also doing a head-nod—after a too heavy English dinner—was equally unimpressed by the play being performed two feet in front of us.
Copenhagen by Michael Frayn had won a Tony and was the hot ticket that year. Unfortunately a discourse on quantum mechanics was too much after a long day of visiting with Mom’s old friends.
Embarrassed? Yes. So I bought the script and continued my examination of time. Reading In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat was also sleep inducing, but the thought of something (a cat in this example) existing in two different states of existence at the same time was more than an interesting time bending story, and, I was already down the rabbit hole. (Illustration above by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland )
Of course, time travel and the notion of other levels of existence have been around for a long time. More reading for me here: brain pickings.
And it continues…. the movie Arrival is another tour de force on the subject.
Looking at her from a distance of two centuries, you might wonder how Mary Wollstonecraft, so ahead of her time, arrived at her inspiring thesis: Vindication-The Rights of Women. In her day, the late 1700’s, she was an outlier, an independent thinker, who wrote for us, and for that matter, every generation who followed her.
Yes, there have been others: Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer, and Gloria Steinem. Yes, hundreds, if not thousands of others, who knew the same truths, experienced the same issues and fights. They all wrote for us. Some of these books might seem dated, not relevant, or out of touch with today, yet, the news of the latest insult repeats unsolved issues. Mary’s ideas, published in 1792, had a bite. They left a mark on me.
Reading Mary’s biography by Lyndall Gordon, I knew I had the link to the past I was looking for. I had been researching my family history, using stories my mother told me, census reports from Australia and New Zealand, journals, and newspaper clippings . I was elaborating, embellishing, and I was creating a fictional history of women, of mothers and daughters. How far could I, in any good conscience, retreat from the truth and create a fiction that was universal? And then Mary stepped in.
More about Mary later.
Jen stubbed her cigarette out on the window ledge. The room behind her was quiet, her stepsisters still sleeping, lay twisted in the cotton sheet that barely covered them: Lucy faced north and Mary south, positions they had negotiated when they were six.
Hart Street was dark; there was only a hint of the morning sky. Jen looked over at her pack of Marlboro Lights. People should have warning labels: Dangerous to your health, Not fit for family gatherings, Unable to keep promises. She held the pack and counted the number of cigarettes left. If she didn’t have one now, the five would get her through the afternoon. The argument last night with her mother had kept her awake; if only her mother knew what she had to do today.
“You need to get away from him, you’re better than he is, don’t you know that?”
Jen’s mother, Maureen, was washing dishes while Jen slowly dried them. Mary and Lucy did their homework at the small table. The kitchen became too crowded when Jen’s brother walked in and opened the refrigerator door.
“You just ate, Billy,” Maureen said. She turned away from her daughter who was drying a glass and faced her son. “Look at you, you’ve grown two inches in the last month. I can’t keep enough food on the table.”
“Sorry, Mom, just wanted something sweet. Do we have any ice cream? It’s so hot tonight.”
“Not in the budget this week.” She looked over at Jen and shook her head.
“Don’t worry Mom, I won’t get fired. I told them I was sick, had the flu, and needed to be out for two days so I wouldn’t infect anyone.” She touched the bruise around her eye.
“Well, I hope they believed you, because you know….”
“I know, Mom. I know you need to cover the bills.”
When Jen’s stepfather walked into the kitchen, she turned so he wouldn’t see her face. If he had seen the black eye, he would have gone looking for Lewis, and he would have taken Billy with him. That’s what Maureen had told her.
“Having a family meeting without me?” He leaned over the table and looked at what the twins were working on. “You girls must be really smart to be able to answer all those questions with this noise.” He smiled at his wife. “I guess you two have learned to block it out?”
“I don’t think so, they keep one ear on our conversation,” Maureen said.
Lucy looked up at her father. “They call it multi-tasking, Daddy.”
“See, honey, I never heard of that, and yet, Lucy and Mary are doing it in front of me,” he laughed. “I’m going back to the game, come on, Billy. Let’s leave the ladies alone in the kitchen.” He motioned to the boy, who moved around the two girls at the table.
Maureen looked at the closed kitchen door. “He had a good day today, Jen. I’m glad he didn’t see your eye.”
Lizzie Bower waited on the second floor landing while the next load of furniture was hauled up the stairs. Decisions needed to be made: the contents of her mother’s apartment had arrived on Ellis Street.
“Oh, oh…so who is sending you these things? They are all so—so beautiful!” her landlady shouted up the staircase.
Lizzie didn’t need to see her face, she could imagine Mrs. Thorn’s mouth open as each item marched up the stairs: a five foot gilded lamp from a South Hampton estate sale, a small Chinoiserie desk, an iron Napoleon camp chair with brass arm rests and a leather seat. It was a seemingly endless parade of exotic furniture and boxes whose contents could only be imagined.
“Belated wedding gifts from my Mom,” Lizzie shouted back.
Turning toward the growing piles, Lizzie showed the movers where to place the excess of her mother’s life. The men positioned the alien furniture next to the Goodwill discards that decorated the apartment; they demolished any semblance of balance the room once held.
“Jeeze, whoever packed this … supposed to use the fourteen by fourteens for books, Miss, the little ones, yah know, the ones that say: BOOKS.” The mover gave Lizzie a look as he heaved himself through the door.
“Sorry, my mother…”
Lizzie raised her eyes toward the ceiling; she couldn’t expect him to be interested in the details of her mother’s move to London. It was difficult enough for her to explain her own life, but now she had to come up with a rationale for these castoff pieces of furniture. Slicing open one of the boxes with a knife, she found dirty ashtrays and cigarette butts.