Wednesday, March 26, 2014
an old letter
I can’t remember when I discovered that old, crumbling letter from many, many years before, perhaps a third of a century before or more, in which some family member was warning my granddad about the impending visit of somebody in the family that, according to the letter, ‘wasn’t wholly a man’ and who was to be helped to find his footing in Caracas. When I saw that all I felt was much pity for someone who I never knew but could imagine the situation of living in an extremely conservative, reactionary even, environment where being gay would have been just short of a death sentence and certainly would mean being a freak with everybody and anybody having the right to abuse you. My granddad, that old man with a felt hat, who walked with a slight limp, who had a mole on his nose that would eventually become a skin cancer, was one of those extremely conservative people that would probably have regarded a person like that as something unclean and unnatural and not wholly human; I am sure nonetheless that he tried to help. They were taciturn mountain people, my family on my mum’s side, very serious and a bit solemn people who didn’t speak much and seemed able to keep grudges for a lifetime.. My dad, an Italian, was mercurial and volatile, typical Italian perhaps -given to express disagreements very loudly and shaking the fist and voicing terrible threats that, now I know, he had no intention of ever carrying out. My granddad was almost the opposite. He didn’t utter threats but he was very capable of killing you of you offended him. On at least one occasion we had to jump on him to disarm him when he would come downstairs with a machete while my dad would rain insults and threats on him. As for the person referred to in the letter and what my granddad did about that -I seem to remember he was supposed to offer him lodging while in Caracas- I never knew the first thing; never learnt who it was, when all this happened or what my granddad did. Just one of many little puzzles about the environment in which I grew up. They came from La Grita, a place that by that time was a small town or a large village in the middle of the Venezuelan Andes near the border with Colombia. There ware all sorts of legends in the family about them but we don’t know anything about any of them before the generation immediately preceding my grandfather’s. I was told at some point that we had bumpkin cousins in that part of the world who at that point (the late nineteen-sixties) still possessed no shoes. My granddad and my mum would take us to visit some relatives who lived in parts of Caracas as modest as the one where we lived. We would all be sitting down very straight in living rooms, dressed in our Sunday best, sipping weak sweet coffee out of small china cups, they would be catching up on events back home and of the family. There were those mysterious places they mentioned, the ‘Páramo del Guamal’ or ‘Páramo de la Negra’ (a ‘páramo’ is a bleak kind of desert on top of a mountain). Slivers of stories of times of hardship, of old feuds unforgotten, of trivial everyday family things of a family far away in a setting of fog, majestic mountains, bad roads and deeply conservative outlooks.