Archive for April, 2011
Yesterday, I was Me.
Today, I don’t know who I am.
I look in the mirror and this woman with drooping eyes and lips and jowls stares back at me.
Without makeup and without a smile, she looks sad – and beat. Then she smiles, and wrinkles appear all over her face – smile wrinkles – and her eyes light up, and she laughs, and it’s a laugh I recognize.
I smile back at her. We do know each other. We’re old friends. We may have changed, but not completely.
Yesterday, she always looked eager, sparkling-eyed.
People called her attractive, but she never cared for them or even believed them – she’d rather have been complimented on her work, her mind, her opinions.
Today, when there are no more compliments, it’s as if a part of her former self has disappeared.
Yesterday, her mother told her, “You want to grab onto life with both hands. Slow down. Don’t throw away your life.”
But she was careless, the way so many are when they are young.
She was careless with her loves, her health, her money, and her choices.
Or maybe, she was just too carefree.
She gave away too much and asked for too little.
She ignored the omens of health problems, financial insecurity, and alcoholism.
She worked very hard, but she played just as hard.
She was careless with her money. Twice, she inherited. The first time, she made poor choices and lousy investments, losing it to a corrupt government. The next time, she invested in her own business, and lost everything due to mismanagement.
She was also fortunate: as a career woman, and as a single mother of two boys.
She was able to give them a lovely home, a good education, and a life surrounded by family and friends.
Her career in advertising was unplanned, accidental, starting at a time (the 1960s/70s) when women were trying to break through the glass ceiling. She became a top executive handling Fortune 500 clients. Then it was all gone – and she, a victim of a company merger, downsizing, and ageism.
In her mid-fifties, she made a successful comeback in another career. Until financial corruption rocked the country/world, and like many others, she was left without means of support.
Once again, she would have to make a new start.
Search for new opportunities, seize the day before it grew old and stale.
Yesterday, she believed she would become a great writer.
She believed that she’d be secure in her old age, and could retire to write all those books inside her. Today, she is still working, and her books seem as elusive as when she was young.
Yesterday, she was romantic and dreamed of a great love. For years, despite setbacks, she held onto her illusion that some day that one man would be there for her in her old age. Until that door closed and he was lost forever.
Yesterday, she had years in which to prove herself and use her life as she wanted.
She never imagined that today, looking at her almost unknown face, it would be so different.
Perhaps if she had done this or that, made different choices, even heeded her mother’s warnings.
No, nothing could have contained her adventurous spirit. Her mistakes are as much a part of her as her successes. And she has few regrets at the course her life took.
Her face creases into a smile. Come on, she seems to tell me, it’s not over yet. You can still make it.
Yesterday got away from me.
But it also gave me the experience and understanding of what I can do today to fulfill my dreams.
Tomorrow holds the promise of a new start.
“Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.”Betty Friedan
“I speak of our public history, and of our secret history, yours and mine,
I speak of the forest of stone, the desert of the prophets, the ant-heap of souls, the congregation of tribes, the house of mirrors, the labyrinth of echoes.” Octavio Paz
The home where I’m staying in San Angel in Mexico City is filled with memorabilia and antiques – a blend that makes me feel as if it’s inhabited by figures of the past. I’m surrounded by colonial religious icons and antiques as well as a wall collage of photos of ancestors. Six generations of brides, from my great-great grandmother to my niece, gaze down at me. Proud mothers oversee small children long grown and gone.
The echoes of their lives seep into me and fill me with nostalgia for when they were here.
San Angel, a former colonial village in the southern part of Mexico City, is reminiscent of a bygone era, with narrow, cobbled streets lined with town house fronts that often disguise stately residences. However, modern day has leaped in with a vengeance on the main street, Altavista, dotted with exclusive restaurants and designer name boutiques. One jewelry store, in a mansion surrounded by a large garden, reeks of wealth and splendor. What kind of extraordinary jewelry is sold in such a setting?
“I speak of the markets with their pyramids of fruit, all of the flavors and colors, the smells, the tide of voices – water, metal, wood, clay – the bustle, the haggling, the conniving as old as time.”
The two sides of Mexico are evident where, just a few blocks further on, I walk into the San Angel market, selling everything from cheap clothing to stinky, highly flavored, cooked meat taco stands.
It took fifteen minutes on foot to scale the socio-economic ladder.
“I speak of the buildings of stone and marble, of cement, glass and steel.”
I walk along the 19th century boulevard, Paseo de la Reforma, towards downtown on a Saturday afternoon. Both sides are like small parks, tree-lined with spacious walking paths.
Some sights, such as the bicycle lane with families cycling down it, are new. (On Sundays, this main street is closed to all traffic except for cyclists.)
Other sights such as the high-backed, carved stone seats, have been there over a hundred years. My great-grandparents would have passed them in their carriage. My grandparents probably sat on them, as did my mother, and my younger self as a child.
Sadly, one by one, the gracious Victorian mansions on this avenue have succumbed, and been turned into 30-50 story financial and bank buildings. I count seven – maybe a couple more – of what I think of as the “old ladies” left, and these have been turned into banks, real estate offices and – horrors – an Oxxo store (similar to a 7-11).
Echoes follow my steps. Mine – as a child, an adolescent, a young woman walking along this avenue.
All the streets on one side of Reforma are named after rivers. I lived in four: Rio de la Plata, Rio Nilo, Rio Tigris, and Rio Guadalquivir.
My mother’s friend, a former Italian countess, owned the red, Moorish style house on the corner of Rio Nilo. A gracious house with marble floors, intricate curves and steps, and sudden specks of sunlight darting across mosaic walls, it was hushed and gloomy except for the garden, a place of enchantment out of the Alhambra.
Now it’s a Uruguayan restaurant, confirmed by boisterous voices and the smell of roasting meat. This former residential street is also home to restaurants of all types and ethnicity, even a Bread & Cie.
I glance at my former apartment across the street. What used to be the bedroom that I shared with my new baby is now a candy and soda pop store.
Echoes of our laughter follow me as I walk away.
On the corner of Rio Guadalquivir street is a slightly shabby building, a remnant of the 1950s.
The first condominium in Mexico.
How my great aunt sniffed at the idea that her close friends, Mexican film director Fernando de Fuentes and his wife, Elena, had bought one. “They won’t even own the ground they live on.” There, I gave my first English lessons to their granddaughters. It was two-floor splendor with all the latest in architectural advances. Today, it’s been divided into offices.
Further along this street is the ground floor apartment where I lived as a young married woman. The door is open so I glance inside. A real estate office.
Flashes of faces. Newborn baby. Little boys. Working mother. Days of wine and roses. All of us feasting on our youth. Where are they/we now?
All echoes of this city.
I have become the past, a walking relic of this city’s history.
Or have I?
On to Sanborns at Reforma and La Fragua, the second in this restaurant chain to be built after the traditional “House of Tiles” (1903) downtown. A hangout for young people in the 1950s and 60s. It always reminded me of my secret dates here with my first husband, Mr. Blue Eyes. I used to know my way around it, blind. Now, the whole layout has changed and I scramble to locate my friends. They, like me, are former high-flying professionals. Now in their sixties, they have found new opportunities in Mexico. They tell me what I’ve heard from others: there’s a big demand for bilingual, bi-cultural people like us with our skills and experience.
“Come back, Pennie. This is where you belong,” they say.
Do I want to become part of this city’s present and then of its past, again?
What do you think? Would you return to your past to make a new start?
“Is that music coming closer or receding, are those pale lights just lit or going out? Space is singing, time has vanished: it is the gasp, it is the glance that slips through the blank wall, it is the wall that stays silent, the wall.”
Excerpts from “I Speak of the City” by Octavio Paz
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