Wednesday, May 17, 2006

That Was Spain

Tina asked me about my time in Spain, why I was there and how. Here's what I remember.

When I was seven, I lived in a coastal town called Calpe. We stayed in a famous architectural landmark resort called La Manzanera which was built in the 60's and designed by Ricardo Bofill. Now, I only know all of this because I put clues together and because the internet is my best friend. My mother used to say we lived in a town called La Manthanera, adding the castilian lisp annoyingly. For years, in high school and such, no one had heard of the place, Spaniards included. Then I remembered that my mother had this great canvas totebag at the time with a big apple on it. I realized that she was saying La Manzanera. The internet told me the rest. And I knew I guessed it all right because when I saw the picture of the gorgeous red angular resort, my heart skipped at beat.

But before we fled, actually, to Spain, we lived in England.

At age four or just five --mid kindergarten-- my mother, who was only twenty-two or twenty-three, packed us up and moved us to England. She had met an Englishman and he wanted her to come back with him, me in tow. To this day, my mother’s downfall is her hope in men’s promises. The Englishman looked like a more handsome Marty Feldman and what I remember most was his blonde, chin-length comb-over. It was the 70's and I think this was working for him then. He had a nice, very British tall slight build and he was obsessively into my mother. We first lived in Newcastle where eventually I attended first grade. At school, I wore a grey jumper and a navy tie and we raised our hands in class with a pointed index finger, not a loose, open hand like we do in the states. My favorite food at school was the custard and by the end of each day there would always be blobs of dried custard spots on my little navy tie. The climate turned my hair from a honey-wheat color to a dark red and I developed an English accent in which my mother took great pride. During this time, she had me call her "mummy", and this suggestion still turns my stomach. I remember stuttering over the word consciously even at age five as she beamed at Blonde Combover. Eventually we moved to a small town south of London called Byfleet. I’m not sure why. Byfleet was known for a huge Tudor-style pub called The Blue Anchor and we spent much time there eating fish and chips wrapped in vinegar-soiled newspaper, my mother downing gin and tonics with Blonde Combover.

One night, my mother and Combover went to The Blue Anchor, just across from where we lived, and left me to myself. "Go to sleep. We're just across the way." And they left. I think that was common to leave little kids to themselves then because I remember being left alone before, but that night a car backfired in the street so violently that I panicked, believing it had been a gun shot. I convinced myself that my mother had been shot. And I paced the flat, and worried and paced and panicked and finally deciding to go find her. I think of this as an adult, of this image: A five year old girl in a night gown walking down a dark street looking for her shot mother, and it hurts my heart. I don't see this girl as me. I usually think of my girlhood in terms of That Girl. So, That Girl crosses the street and she doesn't walk into the pub, but climbs the bushes to look in the window of The Blue Anchor hoping she'll see her mother. And I don't. And I panic more and I pace outside the pub until a neighbor retrieves me and stays with me until my mother comes home from wherever she was. Combover shuffles me to bed and when I look at my mother on the couch in the little flat, she says nothing. She is drunk, her hand to her head.

The defining moment of our time in Byfleet, was when my mother met another man full of other, better promises. He was intensely handsome in a reckless way. He looked like a young Oliver Reed.And I imagine that he could make a woman feel the same as it would to stare down the real Oliver Reed; kind of dangeous and stomach-churning. My mother left Blonde Combover for the Mr. Reed Look-A-Like which sparked a literal hunt-down by Combover. We fled Byfleet and maybe that's when we went to Newcastle -- damnit, it's not exactly clear -- but what was clear was that we were on the run. My mother cut my long hair severely short and dressed me as a boy. She home-schooled me through second grade and when the pressure became too great from Combover -- apparently detectives were involved then -- we left for Spain.

Mr. Reed knew people at La Manzanera and it was a dreamy, loungey six months spent by the sea. Mr. Reed and my mother vacationed without a care and I wandered off often and taught myself how to swim in salt pools that lay parallel to the ocean. Gorgeous women wore no bikini tops, and I turned a shade of almond brown, my hair blonde again. I lived off of steamed mussels and spanish orange soda. We took a trip to Pamplona in July and caught the Festival de San Fermin and we watched the running of the bulls on top of an apartment building. It was sickingly exciting, and I remember most the sound of hooves on cobblestone. It was earth-shaking and terrifying. From where we sat I saw no one skewered by a bull, but the stress of that possibility was almost too much to take. We ended that trip by watching a bull fight and I thought I would be dazzled by the dance of the matador and the fantastic outfitting, but I only remember the bull minutes before death as at least five spear-type weapons shot out of him like pins in a cushion. His tongue hung so low and long out of his mouth and he gasped. He was monstrous and magnificent and he went down to the crowd's roar, including Mr. Reed's and my mother's. And I was despondent.

Historically, this was about the time that the brutal Franco Era was coming to an end. I think it was just a couple years before Franco acually died. I remember seeing military holding machine guns on all major street corners. I remember the buzz about this time and not understanding it.

Eventually, the Spanish climate made my mother homesick for California and we returned. I had not spoken to my grandmother, who I loved more than anyone in life, for over two years. My aunt told me years later that the time away from me crushed her in many ways. Mr. Reed came back to California with us and my mother became Mrs. Reed until he took to beating her; a couple physical fights I tried to break up myself. Not easy for a seven year old against Oliver Reed.

And that was Spain.


LeS said...

I don't have the right words. They just aren't accessible to me at this moment.

I CAN say that my heart aches for that little girl who lived in a nightmare/dream. And that I have great admiration for you - the woman who loves and fiercely protects her girls now. You - the "great raiser of women".

Who had to raise herself.

You deserve to stand proud of who you have become. I send all of my love to you on this day, my friend.

Kathleen said...

i admire the strength of That Girl, and of the woman that she became, so much.

*hug*. one for each of you.

thank you for sharing so openly.

Marigoldie said...

Big love.

ESB said...

wow, sounds like the beginning of a judith krantz novel...

SUEB0B said...

I was just thinking there is a book in there somewhere.

acumamakiki said...

Wow Madness. That was an incredible story. It hurts my heart to think about you being 5 y.o. (Ava's age) and looking for your mama. You are one special person girlfriend.

pixielyn said...

My god you made my heart hurt. My throat is constricted and my eyes welled up with tears. really.
This is what has prompted me as a lurker to come out and offer warm hugs.
Madness this is why you are such an AMAZING woman that I suck in my breath and wish I was a TENTH of what you are. You are a success at being a raiser of women because you have been a strong woman since being a wee child.
Dont mean to write too much but damn you wow me.
-a huge fan, Lyn

tina said...

Amazing that you have any good memories at all of that time! I'm sorry you had to be taken to Europe and live there under those circumstances when it could have been so wondrous. You should go back; take Husband and your girls, exorcise the demons...incredible story, Madness. Beautifully told. Thanks for sharing it.

madness rivera said...

Thanks for the great comments. Especially the ones about me being a mother now; a raiser of great women - yes! I do think of Spain fondly, to be honest; England not as much. My mother was at ease in Spain, not as troubled, and that made me feel . . .less worried.

Hi Tina, thanks for the motivation to tell the story. I did go to Paris about ten years ago Christmas. And I took my mother - ahahha. It seemed fitting and I think I've blogged a little about that trip (, but the strangest part was that my mother caught a terrible flu and I spent 7 days wandering Paris alone . . .which I actually really loved doing. But I am dying to go with just Husband, and the girls when they are older.

angela said...

No new thoughts from me that have not been expressed really...just so awed by you, and the mother that you are despite everything.

amstar said...

our stories - wow. what doesn't kill us...and the fodder for your book that lies somewhere in the future is astounding. you rank high on my list of magnificent ladies.

I think (from what little I know) that you cultivate in your girls that same spark and fierceness that seems so innate in you tempered with the unconditional safety and security you had to struggle with to earn for yourself.

love love love

Green Whale said...

Your mother's canvas tote bag with the apple on it that helped you remember the name of the town -- lovely, astonishing, Proustian detail. Great last sentence and great title.

Rebel Girl said...

Madness - clearly we just kept missing each other all our lives. Andrew and I stayed at the Bofill place for a month in Spring editor's father owned a flat there...I saw the photo at the top of your post and literally gasped.

We'll have to exchange photos...

more later - Rebel Girl

kiki said...

sometimes the road that got you to the woman you are today, a woman i am very fond of, fills me with sadness.

Glamorous Jo said...

Such bravery at such a young age....I love this story, although the fact that it's true haunts me.

Laini Taylor said...

So often when I read your posts, especially your memories of your unique childhood, I feel like I'm reading a novel. A really GOOD novel! This is fabulous writing, and it's interesting to read how different you are as a mother than your own mother. Some people seem to helplessly fall into the patterns of their own experience, but you're so strong, to have built such a different, stable life for your own daughters.