In Search of Estela by Fran Antmann
“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible
well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood? Some afternoon that is so deeply part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it. Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the new moon rise, perhaps twenty and yet it all seems limitless.” Paul Bowles
had lived on the second floor of an apartment building in the Bronx and spent countless hours looking out the window. Looking. Looking. At what? I don’t know.
Perhaps I was fascinated with the boys playing stick ball beneath my window, dodging oncoming cars while trying to keep the ball moving without ever stopping the game. This seductive game from which I was always excluded even though I wanted to play, was dying to play and even though my name Frances(is), is a boy’s name. At sixteen, I was looking out the window when I discovered flames shooting from the top floors. I so much wanted the building to burn down that I had to make sure I hadn’t dreamt it. It was early in the morning and I was the first to discover the fire. As the firemen chased us out of the building, we had a few moments to collect our most beloved objects. I grabbed a painting I had recently finished, in pale chalky blues with the motif of an old Singer. A sewing machine, like the kind I was to encounter later, years later in the Peruvian countryside in almost every family dwelling. In every home, a Singer sewing machine, yes twenty years later, in Peru.
n sunny days I wander around a Peruvian mining town with my camera looking for anything that moves me or seems interesting. When itâ€™s wet and cold and the light is flat, I hitch rides because the distances are vast and my equipment is heavy. At night I tear pages out of my notebook and make calendars to post all over the walls, checking off the days, trying to push time along.
he black woman who answered the door wouldnâ€™t allow me or my black Peruvian boyfriend inside, hard as I tried to convince her that my childhood lay hidden in her apartment. Through the half-open door, I could hear my past breathing in the walls, through the windows, on the speckled linoleum kitchen floor. As I left the building, I glanced at the broken mailboxes that had figured so prominently in my dreams for years. I crossed to the other side of Loring Place and saw a little Puerto Rican girl sitting on the stoop by herself. I could still feel the cold stone stoop against my bare skin as I recalled the time I was nine and sat on the stoop in my cotton pinafore realizing that I had forgotten to wear underpants which made me burst out laughing. I loved the feel of the stone against my bare bottom, the secret of no underwear, knowing somehow that it was naughty but delicious. I looked at the little Puerto Rican girl and thought that she too was having a childhood just where mine had been. Like laminated time, one childhood replacing another. She didnâ€™t know all the things that I know about growing up on that stoop. And what would follow. And how much of what was to happen afterwards would never matter more than the permutations of time that had already taken place there.
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or days and weeks on end, Estela sits at the top of the hill waiting for me to return from Lima. She’s never been on a bus or train, so she measures distance by horizons, and she wonders if the pampa ever ends. Her landscape is rock, ice and silt; she finds occasional warmth in company offices and crowded bars. Estela lives in a one-room house stacked high with boxes and crates, the walls papered from floor to ceiling with pages from magazines, pictures of far-away places, yellowing calendars, patron saints. On an afternoon of rain-into-snow, I sit with her and her mother sipping tea and making molasses pops. Estela searches through the cartons until she finds an old phonograph. She plays old 45 rpm records and sings along with the huaynos, songs from her mother’s village, which she’s never seen. She dresses up in traditional Quechua clothes: layers of heavy embroidered skirts, a vest, and woolen shawl. This is the only time I’ve seen her shed her torn clothing for something different. The new clothes I buy her in the market always find their way into boxes before she gets to wear them. Estela stamps her feet and twirls her skirts, singing the same song over and over: Oh maybe my mother was a vicuña in the pampas or my father was a mountain stag wandering, walking without rest through the mountains and the pampas wrapped only in the wind in the creeks and on the hills clothed by wind and cold.
looked down the street for the old penny candy store at the bottom of the hill. Egg creams and string licorice and candies like doves’ eggs with a sweet liqueur in the center. But those cost more. And buttons that weren’t buttons but chocolates wrapped in metallic paper brilliantly colored that could be transformed into a dazzling butterfly. And other button candies that you peeled off something that looked like flypaper. The rest of the houses on the block were poor single family homes and there was nothing I craved as much as living in a house with its own interior staircase leading out from an imaginary drawing room. My mother tried to assure me that our small apartment was much more desirable than all the private houses put together. In one of those houses lived Margaret Cohen with her enormous breasts. I don’t know what attracted me to her more, her big breasts or the marvelous staircase because I didn’t have either. When I was ten, I first started going to Margaret’s house and was determined to return till I met her father. Margaret for a long time before she confided that her parents were divorced. I came to associate the dark ugly house with textured green walls, the small bird-like mother and the grandfather’s ugly war scar with divorce.
give Estela a five-by-seven portrait of herself with a white border, and she says she loves it, the border; it makes the picture look just like the ones she’s seen in books. She also thinks the picture makes her look beautiful, older and taller. She shows it to the kids on the street, and they pass it around while she stands by, solemn and proud. Then, suddenly worried that someone’s going to soil it, she whisks it away. At Estela’s house the old man and his friend from the Municipal Hall are sitting around drinking beer they’ve bought from Estela’s mother. (Most days Estela can be seen scurrying around town carrying the bottles.) Estela shows them her picture. The old man wants to be photographed too -- with Estela’s mother, who protests, embarrassed because they’re not a couple. Nearby on the street another bedraggled little girl is playing with a doll dressed in newspaper and slung over her back, the way Andean women carry their children. Would it be all right to photograph her? “No,” she replies very seriously. “My doll is too dirty.” The old man contemplates Estela’s portrait. “Well, yes…we’re too old to be photographed anyway.”
n the old armoire that no one in my family ever opened, hidden among the family debris of another epoch, I found a mandolin with broken strings. I contemplated it, totally absorbed by the smell of the wood. I discovered it when I was five-yearsold and opened the armoire to escape my parents. I didnâ€™t tell anyone about my discovery. Unlike other family secrets, it delighted me to know that it would remain hidden in the old closet, like a magic relic. How the mandolin came to live in our closet was a mystery to me because there was no music in our family. I never played an instrument or took a music lesson, never sang in the school chorus or played in the local band. Other kids complained of the drudgery of piano lessons, I longed for the music that sweetens life. My father had a lovely voice. Who knows if at another time, in a far- away place he sang with his lovely voice to the accompaniment of that mandolin. I remember a blind man accompanied by his sister who came to the mines only on pay day strumming on a mandolin with broken strings.
y father carried the night with him on his shoulders. In our house, we moved in his darkness... the dark, deep seams of earth that he brought back with him above ground. He never told us what it was like down there, but we felt it, smelled it. The only thing he ever said was “You don’t want to be a miner like me.” But I always wanted to crawl into the earth with him, to that place where girls were forbidden to go. I used to dream that he carried me on his shoulders. I felt his body heat despite the icy wind on my back. We descended into a darkness that got thicker and thicker, peeling away layers of rock and earth. On top of me I heard the deafening sound of rain just beginning. But it grew fainter as we escaped below. When we reached pit bottom, we filled our lungs with air and swam through a winding river of blackness, with the suffocating weight of the earth on top of us, but our bodies light and buoyant.
y Aunt Yetta, short and vivacious, brought me pizza, Napoleons and rosecolored kid leather party shoes - everything forbidden to me. Scented bottles crowded her mahogany vanity with folding mirrors and silver brushes from the old country. Every Saturday, we went to Rushmia’s on the Avenue (as she called it) where I had a cream cheese and jelly sandwich and a strawberry malted and a little piece of the world for that brief moment held together. She had a bad temper; only I was spared. All the years I was gone, she wouldn’t let the family speak ill of me and when I returned, she had no reproach. The only time she ever got mad at me was when, as a child, I lost the ruby ring that she had bought me. She cursed me in Yiddish. Other than that, she rarely spoke. When her husband Fritz, the shoe salesman, died, she closed the door on all those shoes. I used to wonder why she didn’t have any children until I found a framed photograph of a milk-faced immigrant boy with soft brown curls in a baseball uniform awkwardly holding a cap as if he had practiced that American gesture. Then I finally understood the dread I had seen too often in her face. I saw her coming home from the factory, the screeching sound of the ambulance, the flashing lights coming to a stop in front of her house, the other mothers holding their breaths praying it wouldn’t be theirs, her son splayed across the sidewalk, baseball mitt in hand..
oday the Inka Restaurant smells of the oil that’s been used to shine the floors to a dance hall luster. It’s Catalina’s fifteenth birthday and she wants to tell me a dream she had about me. “You’re standing in the doorway of the Inka just waiting, but I know that soon you’ll be heading towards my house. You’re staring at the mountains and the sky. Too bad, there are no birds here, only black clouds -- clouds that move on, but sometimes they turn into rain and lightning and thunder. You’re walking through the plaza. The wind fills your blue jacket like a sail.” “You’re looking for my parents, I think. They’re down by Lake Huacracocha washing my sister’s clothes. She had lots of clothes, lots more than me. She had a blue dress with lots of buttons. It was too big for her, but it was her favorite. My cousin Jimena wore it before her and she wanted to be just like Jimena. Jimena’s my favorite cousin. When they finish washing my sister’s clothes, they go back home and eat and drink. They drink quemado. It’s real strong. No, I don’t drink it. It burns.” Catalina’s jaw tightens, her eyes soften. This is not a dream anymore. “They leave me alone with my sister. I’m taking care of her. You want to see her? No, don’t touch her, she’s cold like the ground. Papa put coins over her open eyes so she would stop looking at us.
e stood over the bridge by the Hudson River throwing old bread into the river to wash away our sins. The men wore sneakers, years before men were ever seen in sneakers. It was the closest to being barefoot, they said, and shoes weren’t permitted on Yom Kipper. I was the only girl with all those men. My father pointed out the gypsies on the grassy embankment below. They lived in the open, rebellious and fatalistic, I thought. If they bathed in the river, I wondered, would they find my sins and wear them like a fresh layer of leaves without ever knowing? My mother in her anger had once said, “You’re not mine. One of the gypsies in Romania switched you at birth. If you don’t behave, I’ll take you down to the river and give you back to the gypsies.” But even when I was good, I always knew the gypsy mother was looking for me.
close my eyes. It comes to me that the place, this mining town in the Peruvian Andes that Iâ€™ve alternately dreaded and despised has became an object of longing. I remember my diary entries: â€œGray day, but the sky was lovely... Sunshine today...â€? The diary measures my loneliness against the sky. At night, walking alone in the mountains, I played games with the stars. I used to paint dots on dark canvases, but in the Sierra I rearranged the sky, a vast unknown firmament borrowed from another civilization. I no longer held a brush; my eyes and heart did the work. Peru lent me its lives, its people, its land. At night, I painted with its sky.
e were city children; we chased each other through the alleyways, played handball against the sides of buildings, chalked our first-learned spelling words on the pavements in florescent colors and pushed our doll carriages down the hill till the boys grabbed them and drove them through the streets like getaway cars. At Orchard Beach in the Bronx, we dug for clams; thatâ€™s all we knew of animal life. And then Jeffrey and his sister Carol found a baby bird that landed on the fire escape outside their window, wounded, unable to fly. On the sixth floor fire escape, we all huddled together and nursed it back to life until its wings fluttered against the metal grating. We took turns cupping it in our hands, stroking its warm black feathers. When the bird died, we wrapped it in brown paper, placed it in a shoe box, never telling our parents. Behind the alleyway, in a small patch of bare earth, we dug a hole and covered it with stones we had collected that day. We stood together, the neighborhood kids, and felt something that weâ€™d never known before.
stela and her friend Paulina dart through the pews, the priest intones the final blessing, and the villagers shuffle away from the comforts of heaven toward the bitterness outside. Estela’s steps echo in the vault. Through the lens, I watch her skip through the pews; I count the swings of her arms. I know her voice, I know her. She’s dauntless, capricious; she’s figured out how to survive neighbors’ taunts, malnutrition, and constant cold. She’s organized a secret child- hood for herself, a life in the streets. She and her friends play cards on the floor of her one-room shack while her mother’s back is turned. I watch Estela watching her mother. In a soft voice she asks me to photograph this woman who beats her every day. She presses her face against her mother’s back. Then she ducks behind a pew. I see a different photograph now, different from the one I expected to take. Of course, of course… Through my work, I’m discovering something else, someone else: an intense longing within myself, a lost-and-found version of my own past in the life of Estela. Over and over again, with each click of the shutter, I cast myself as Estela. I follow the faraway look in her eyes over miles of muddy back roads toward towns and farms that can be reached on horseback – and then only in the dry season – until one of the roads ends, high in the Colca Valley. There’s a whitewashed colonial church and an Indian girl in a white dress that speaks only Quechua, and she’s standing next to the statue of St. Isidro el Labrador, the patron saint of the campesinos, and she’s sniffing the incense, and swaying slowly to the Quechua hymns, recovering a childhood that ends in the mines.
By Fran Antmann