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The Ladies' Gallery: A Memoir of Family Secrets

The sea extends on every side. Storms followed by sudden calms. The coastal plain a green glimmer beneath the blue sky. It is still covered with sugarcane that year. The road cuts through the cane linking town after town, spare houses built up near the grinding mills close to the sea, chimneys casting long shadows in the barren landscape.

The trade winds stir the cane that grows high at the edge of the road. Machetes sweep down and across the stalks, cutting them close to the ground; leaves fall, littering the road, and the soil gives off heat with the smell of sugar. My brothers and Don Toño, the gardener, catch land crabs in the canefields; dogs and roosters and croaking frogs, the coquís . . . I could add to this picture, seen at sunset from my window (a postcard you can still buy in a supermarket), a few waving palms, some coconut husks, more of the sea, the sky . . . but not much more. Memory, a young troubled woman looking for the past. Where? Everywhere, because even the picturesque landscape of the haciendas and colonias (the great farms of the corporations that control most cultivated land in the municipalities where cane is sown) was already in extinction by the time of my childhood. So there is not even the landscape of the colonized to be offered here. Even that is past; not completely lost, but grown into the ground, below the ruined shells of the haciendas’ warehouses, old abandoned barracks left from times of slavery . . .

I never liked the mosquito net over my bed. But between me and the net was that black woman who sometimes used to take care of me and whose name I can’t remember. That’s how her grandmother died, she said, of a mosquito bite, in the late 1920s, at age seventy-eight, having been born a slave around 1848. She and her old mother lived on the road to the beach, right across from the pounding surf, in a house roofed with galvanized iron sheets, with three rooms, two bedrooms and a small living room with a window facing the sea. There was no TV in that house, and the woman ceaselessly looked outside the window. Like a refracting view of my childhood she is always the woman staring into the distance with a fixed look, at a point in the ocean invisible to me, beyond the pounding surf, a point that always gave me the illusion of being somewhere else. Where? What was she looking at? “Mother . . .” I wanted to run away, run across the fields to our house, to play with my brothers, my good dog Lassie. But the old woman’s hand clasped my arm in its wooden grasp, for minutes on end, her doll face staring at the ocean, where her ancestors came from the coasts of Africa and other Caribbean islands, and spoke about her grandmother, the slave who died of perniciosa, or maybe it was malaria because of the incredible appetite she felt once the fever had gone down. Two years after the abolition of slavery, in 1875, her mother was born. How much better it was to dance than watch TV. Lots of dances, good accordion players, tambourines. In the late 1920s she was a young woman and, of course, like many young women of her condition, she worked for Central Monserrate. They needed somebody to carry sacks of seed and spread the manure. After work, her old mother would take her to the ballrooms. Men would come back late, tired. But it was nice. Now she too was tired, she was in her seventies, old like her mother and grandmother. Three generations of women. No, they were not women. They were part of the barren landscape seen at sunset from my window . . .


Maybe I would have preferred believing that the drafty house with a thousand doors where I grew up had no antecedents, that its Draculas and stepmothers were entirely mine: the treasured secrets that frightened me and only me. Today I can still claim it as my own, though there is no escaping those other houses, the ones in dreams and literature that mingle with the memory of it and make me think that Palmas Altas, the house of my childhood, was already, like so many other houses of ours, inhabited by secondhand ghosts springing up at me from the cracked doors and ceilings; family stories echoing stories read to me as a child and refunded into books I myself read as a grown-up. A fecund treasure box of real and imaginary memories.

It was a house that belonged to the Land Authority, and it was rented out to Papa as he was a land surveyor for the Cambalache Sugar Mills in Arecibo. We ’d been living there since 1969, but the house had been built in the forties as part of the sugar project on the northern coastal plains. It was an inviting, open house, and no matter how many exterminators and carpenters Papa brought to plug up all the crannies in the door and window frames, all sorts of mice, tarantulas, flying cockroaches, ticks, scorpions, gongolies, centipedes, and unforgiving red ants would sneak in through some overlooked hole, and once even a juey, a land crab, moving like the sea variety, curled up on the kitchen floor to lunch on old lettuce leaves.

Three days before my birthday, Lassie appeared. From the top of a tree I’d climbed I could see a dog stretched out across one of the dirt roads that led into the canefield. I watched it for a long time and saw that it wasn’t moving even though the sun was beating down directly on its black body. I went down to the kitchen, folded a package of salami under my blouse, and went out to the road to find it. It remained there, looking at me with its brown eyes half-open, but it still didn’t stand up or wag its tail the way the tangy dogs that visited the house from time to time did. So I took the salami and moved it closer to its nose. Nothing. It was still motionless. I touched its little belly and it was so hot that it burned my hand. I petted it more and then it lifted its tail a few inches off the ground, as if trying to show joy, but quickly dropped it. I ran to get Papa because the dog was acting very much like the hawksbill turtle we had at home that got sick and had to be taken to the doctor in San Juan and stayed there and never came back. Papa and Don Toño, who was cleaning up the yard, went with me and confirmed that it was a sick dog. They sent for a blanket and put it under her and carried her to the car. On the way I asked Papa if, since I would turn six in three days, he would let me keep the dog as a present. Papa said yes. After two days they brought her back. She was limping on one leg and seemed sad, but when she saw me and heard the name Lassie which I’d chosen for her, she started running on the other three, wagging her tail back and forth as if she’d known me all her life. From then on we did everything together. When I ate I would bring her meal, when I bathed I would wet her down with the hose, when I went out she went with me, when I went to bed I would wrap her in her blanket on the balcony, and when they gave me those terrible cod liver oil pills I would slip them to her and nobody was any the wiser. Our closeness worried Mama, because Lassie might give me ticks, and when Mama finally found one crawling up my leg she told me I wasn’t to let the dog in. To shut the doors.

Through one of those many doors would one day come Blanquita. Ever since Mama’s death the house seemed more wide open than usual. In the morning, before getting dressed, I would inspect the dresser drawers in case some creature had hidden in the clothing or the underwear --- the panties more than anything else: I would shake them in the air several times before putting them on. The thousands of people who came to Mama’s funeral (though actually to see Lolita) during those first days of March had loosened everything, right down to the flagstones. Doña Sofía, at the eating place in town, would prepare our meals in lunch baskets that we would stop by to pick up on our way back from school. At night I did my homework next to Papa, who absentmindedly sketched out projects on thin surveyor’s paper, claiming that these were farms, buildings, and even whole cities, when all I could see were lines and numbers. Only a few months had passed since Mama had “gone away,” as we said then. You feel the pain less that way and there ’s still the promise of a return. Besides, there was the dressing table with her things. In one of the drawers, wrapped in bras and panties, there were half a dozen bottles of Bal à Versailles perfume. I got into the habit of perfuming the furniture, the towels, even the bedclothes, with Bal à Versailles. That smell helped me sleep, and dream about my mother’s return. I was eight years old now and I would repeat to myself that this was all one of Mama’s jokes, since she ’d spoken to me so many times about the day when she wouldn’t be there. But, little by little, I stopped thinking about Mama’s jokes. I was under the influence of the dense fragrance of Bal à Versailles and waited for the incomparable miracle that only a child could expect: seeing her come out of a mysterious bottle of perfume.

One afternoon early in 1978, Papa left me in the care of my brother Fonsito and went off in his car, saying that he was going to pick up somebody I would like to know. It was already almost nightfall when he returned with an elegant and pleasant woman. I was studying my English lesson for school and while he changed and got ready for dinner, she came over to my desk, put a package on my English book, and asked me to open it. They were little Italian cookies, all wrapped in tissue paper, each of different color, and covered with a fine, sweet white powder. I’d never seen anything like them.

Her name was Blanquita. She began coming to the house more and more often, and a short time later and with the same sweet smile took up permanent residence. To take care of me, they said. Papa bought new furniture and Mama’s things were placed in boxes and ended up in the back of a closet among the junk furniture. First came the sweets, then the furniture, and then one day Blanquita said that so much junk piled up was dangerous, it might bring on an invasion of cockroaches.


Almost all stepmothers have a bad pedigree, it’s true. The stepmother is the dark gnome who drives off the children and takes over the father and the house, the one who transforms the children’s paradise into the grown-ups’ hell. Stepmother: mythological serpent of the fall of the child. I knew that from fairy tales, and from my mother, who used to torture me with that nightmare. Blanquita thought she could escape that fate, and from the moment she arrived in the house she tried to fill the void my mother had left by devoting herself completely to me. And to do that she decided that it was necessary to change the house, change me, change everything: get rid of any sign that would chain our memory. “Rub it out and start from scratch” --- a favorite phrase in my family. But who was to rub it out? Everything was so recent. Blanquita’s life wasn’t mine. For her, erasing my past was a necessity without which she wouldn’t be able to start a new life; for me, it would be falling into the old trap: the familiar scorpion curling up to sting and poison me with things that will be repeated later on, becoming habit.


Nothing on this earth will erase from my memory the night when my dog Lassie died, burned by a flamboyan tree. It was 1976, the last autumn when sugarcane would be planted on the plain. It was harvest time, and the canefield that surrounded the house in Palmas Altas and the Plazuelas Sugar Mill was burning with radiant fire on all sides. In the house they knew that next year it would no longer be necessary to run to the village to take refuge if the weather changed and the trade winds suddenly came out of the West. Nor would it be necessary to clean off the ashes that would accumulate on blinds, cover flagstones with a slippery gray mantle, and hopelessly stain the petals of the poppies. Lassie liked the fire. At harvest time, when it was the practice to burn the fields for the next planting, Lassie didn’t run or do anything. She would remain peacefully under the flamboyan, the poinciana tree, for hours on end, her eyes fixed on the burning landscape.

That night some spark, carried by the afternoon breeze, must have fallen onto the leafy branches of the flamboyan, and now that huge tree, which from a distance looked like a bucket of red paint spilling over the blue horizon, had been converted into a great ball of fire. We all went out onto the balcony to watch it from the steps and to feel the burning heat on our cheeks. A howl was heard, and we saw a shape, a reddish glow, as if it were breaking off from the flamboyan. Lassie was running back and forth in terror, trying desperately to shake herself loose from a landscape that was now enveloping her. The whole house ran after her, but I, still a little girl, had to wait on the balcony. From a car that had been racing down the highway, two men got out, practically on the run. They finally managed to put out the fire that was consuming her.

She didn’t die right away. My brothers carried her in their arms to the garage and laid her down on the floor. She was still whimpering. That night I couldn’t sleep. I carried my blanket out onto the balcony and I listened to her crying all night, and I moaned along with her, until I didn’t hear her anymore.



It might be said that it was the first time I saw grief in a house where those who stay don’t know how to shake themselves free from the memory of those who have left. A drafty, open house. Then, what is lost is still there? Is the past present in all the fugitive forms that lost things take? Like the charred scent of burnt hair, which one may smell forever?



Two years later the same familiar smell would awake me from my afternoon nap. As I saw the smoke and heard the flames crackling, I thought they were burning garbage. But no. I knew the scent quite well: I had precise memories of burning fields, and of the scorched body of Lassie. I went to the window and, in the yard, in between the fences, the fire was burning, the pyre on which Blanquita was burning the dangerous things in the house. It was the exorcism of my mother: she was making her die again (she would die more times, and not just at the hands of Blanquita), and she’d chosen the most ancient method, so that nothing about her would survive.

She was carrying out the clothes piece by piece and furiously tossing them in. Gone forever were the black vest and the orange silk scarf, the leather boots and the black string bikini, and the wigs and the hats and the photographs. Rub it out and start from scratch.

I didn’t say anything. It was just that the acrid and familiar smell that had awakened me must have evoked a fragrance I carried inside. I remember that after the “accident” the surgeons had given Papa a small package with Mama’s hair and that he ’d put it in one of the boxes. The fire would also put an end to her fine, long black hair.

A missing mother --- and one of whom not even her photographs remain --- is a problem. Memory works on its own, it invents, draws circles that never end. Blanquita wanted not to be the stepmother of fairy tales, but she couldn’t escape the spell of Mother. (Mama, in some obscure way, had set the stage for it: “You’ll soon see, when you don’t have me and when your stepmother arrives.”) In her struggle to drive off that ghost, Blanquita, without realizing it, was allying herself to the Vilars, the Lebróns, the Méndezes. For them, Gladys Mirna was the daughter, the wife, the exotic mother about whom they never, not even when she was alive, knew which tense to use when speaking of her. The imperfect of novels? The present of ghosts? Since they never learned the answer, Gladys Mirna had neither died nor been forgotten by them. In Blanquita’s world she went on to be the gothic character whom, for clinical reasons, it was best not to recall. For the sake of one’s mental health.

The ashes of the bonfire: singed smiles, a doll with sad eyes, a piece of landscape with no sky, a piece of sky with no landscape. Clinging to the sole of a shoe a Polaroid had escaped the fire. It’s one of Mama’s last pictures. She ’s wearing an Afro, the wig of the seventies. She ’s smiling (the smile typical of close-ups). I never understood why she preferred those wigs to her straight hair, jet black and reaching to her waist. Sometimes she’d take me into the yard and we’d divide her hair into two long strands and we’d make a game of who could braid the fastest. In the end, she got into the strange habit of wearing wigs. The photo looked like a punishment. A gray shadow fell across her features, darkening her eyelids, everything about her was sunken into that lethargic look that boded nothing good. It must have been close to the day of the “accident.” The red lips and the beauty spot at the right corner of her mouth, lightly touched with mascara, were still there, but they revealed a sadness that the “Spanish look,” with its fleshy scarlet on the lips, seemed to be trying to hide. It wasn’t one of Mama’s best pictures, and I didn’t feel like picking it up from the pile of ashes. Besides, it wasn’t photos I was looking for. I was looking for the little package hidden in the bottom of a box . . .

I imagine one last conversation with the woman in the picture: What you’re looking for isn’t in the pictures, Irene, nor in the body nor in the hair that was burning yesterday in this yard. It’s in the wigs, in those things that give you the illusion of being someone else every day. It’s in what you’ve never had . . .

We can see touches of the other: the eyes, the clothes, the smile. We hear the voice, the words. Very few times do we have access to the whole person. That’s what I’ve kept of Mama, bits and pieces, scattered objects or scenes, eight more or less sad or happy years and a singed photograph.

What did Blanquita burn? In the photo Mama was wearing a wig. All the rhetorical figures that can be drawn out of it are perhaps commonplace. Yet as I write I can’t stop thinking about disguises, about a faceless mother who is constantly changing.

Excerpted from The Ladies' Gallery © Copyright 2012 by Irene Vilar. Reprinted with permission by Other Press. All rights reserved.

The Ladies' Gallery: A Memoir of Family Secrets
by by Irene Vilar

  • paperback: 360 pages
  • Publisher: Other Press
  • ISBN-10: 1590513231
  • ISBN-13: 9781590513231