Tata was Raul’s mother, Melodia’s Ecuadorian grandmother, and the person I eventually learned would be my best friend and partner in crime while I was living in Ecuador. Our beginnings as in-laws were awkward and sometimes painful, for both of us. I was naive and in love with her son, and Tata was a devoted mother, understandably protective of him.
Tata had three sisters, Tia Lucha, Tia Inez, and Tia Nana. Each was to play a critical role in my life as I struggled to become acculturated to the Ecuadorian way of life. From the sisters, I learned many valuable lessons about the importance of identity, family, homeland, and grace. Tata was the first of the sisters that I would come to know.
In the beginning, days after I arrived in Ecuador, and before my marriage to Raul, his family saw me as what I appeared to be: a stranger in their midst, a person of different values and upbringing, a young woman with unfamiliar roots. For Ecuador, this was the era of arranged marriages, and clearly, I was not a part of that plan. After his first marriage ended in divorce, Raul bucked the system the second time around and made the decision for himself. He was determined to marry me, a fiercely independent American girl, part flower child, part university grad, part world traveler. Previously, he had gone with the family’s plan to marry his first cousin (legal in Ecuador), a beautiful and elegant woman whose family name and connections to Raul’s family were both strong. The marriage was short-lived, just long enough to produce a lively, brilliant son, Roy David.
Raul and I had met a year prior to our separate arrivals in Ecuador. At the time of our meeting, we were both living in San Diego, California. When Raul’s request for an extension on his American visa was denied, he returned to Ecuador. The family was elated to have him home. Their elation rapidly began to fizzle when I arrived months later.
I had been in Guayaquil, Ecuador for only a few days when Raul told me that we were going to attend a family luncheon to celebrate Mother’s Day. I had no idea what to expect. Raul hadn’t talked to me about his family in Ecuador. I had met his brother, Eduardo, in San Diego, and we became instant friends. Normally, I was shy with strangers, but with Eduardo, my timid nature didn’t have a chance to appear. Both he and Raul shared the endearing quality of immediately making you feel as if you were old friends. Based on this, I assumed the rest of the family would embrace me, too. I felt especially happy about meeting Raul’s mother. He had a deep affection for her, and since I was close to my own mother, I had only the greatest of expectations about knowing his.
On Mother’s Day morning, I showered, washed my hair, and put on my favorite dress, a cotton flower print sundress with a halter top. Perfect, I thought, for a hot, tropical Sunday. I let my shoulder length curls dry naturally in the heat, and ran my fingers through them before leaving the house for the luncheon. My make-up regimen in those days was lip gloss, suntan, and gardenia-scented body lotion. On my feet that day I wore my favorite (and only) sandals, a pair of rustic handmade leather sling-backs crafted by a master leather artisan in California. Finally, I adorned myself with the Egyptian ankh necklace my mother had given me as a farewell gift before I left for my trip to Ecuador. She had removed it from her neck and placed it on mine. Now ready to be presented to the family, I was happy at the thought of meeting Raul’s mother. I pictured laughter, connection, and friendliness as the theme of the day. Raul’s light-hearted mood fueled my expectations.
Our rickety taxi took us from Raul’s apartment in the hub of the dusty, noisy city center to an elegant neighborhood of manicured lawns and sprawling homes. Our cab drive ended at the foot of a tree-lined driveway, where we came to a stop in the midst of several parked, highly polished Mercedes-Benz sedans, each flanked by its uniformed driver busily polishing the hood or wiping clean the windshield. A doorman emerged to open the front door of the house. He greeted Raul respectfully with a nod of the head, “Don Roy. Bienvenido. Pase.” The doorman looked at me, caught himself quickly as he fought to keep his brows from rising in two surprised arcs, and choked out, “Buenas tardes. Pase.”
Raul took my hand and led me across cool marble floors, past velvet sofas, and crystal chandeliers, through the open veranda, down the sloping emerald lawn to a gathering of silk-suited ladies and gentlemen situated under graceful, lacy shade trees next to a trickling stream. The ladies, seated in a circle on cane chairs imported from France, chatted amicably between sips of wine and puffs on their Pall Malls. At their sides were tiny tables for holding their Lalique champagne glasses. The gentlemen stood casually behind them, in small groups, smoking, drinking cocktails, conversing, leaning in to hear the latest state of affairs of the banking business, which they happened to own, the biggest, most powerful bank in Ecuador at the time, El Banco de Descuento.
And then everything changed. Conversations came to a halt. I heard a communal gasp of breath, a sharp, impactful punctuation point to the moment. Heads turned, cigarettes paused held in midair, halfway to lips. Somewhere a glass clinked abruptly against a marble table top, a throat was cleared, a slight, slow murmur emerged, all heads turned to see. I saw a sea of faces turn to me. And then turn to each other. And then turn back to me.
Raul took my hand and led me to Tata. I saw a lovely red-haired woman, petite and impeccably dressed, beautifully groomed and graceful, the Titian-haired counterpart to my blonde mother. I reached my hand out to her for a handshake. “I want you to meet my mother. You can call her Tata. Her name is Aida, but family and friends know her as Tata.” I was transported to the day in seventh grade that I stood alone on stage for a community theatre ballet performance, heart beating so hard I wasn’t sure I’d hear my musical cue, the audience a blur, a sea of eyes boring in on me, waiting for me to make a move, wondering if I would miss my cue, holding their breaths in anticipation of the next move. All eyes were on Tata and me. Though her hand was reassuring in mine, we both felt the current of disapproval swirling around me.
I took my seat by her side, there with the ladies in silk, on the green lawn stage, unprepared for my live performance at that moment and less prepared for the life moments to come. That day there was no applause, no ovation, no audience throwing roses at me or asking for an encore. Instead, there was a one-act improvisational performance, the kind that can only open doors or slam them in your face, depending on what you do with the moment. As I sat there, mute with fear, my cotton dress to their silk designer wear, my handmade leather sandals to their Italian pumps, my flower-scented lotion to their Chanel No.5, my unrestrained curls to their precise French twists, my simple Egyptian ankh to their Tiffany diamonds, I longed to be accepted by them, I vowed to learn from them, and I hoped to be one with them. On some level. Someday. Clearly, it wasn’t meant to happen that day. Barely a word was spoken as we sat in uncomfortable silence. The men wandered off to peruse the buffet table while the women tried to avert their eyes from the uneasy outsider whose presence confronted them. In the stillness of the afternoon, forks clinked nervously against plates of fine china.
Though I couldn’t have foreseen it on that Mother’s Day, eventually the closed door was to crack open, and a tiny but powerful gesture of acceptance would shoot through it. This would become my chance to hatch a plan to enhance my dubious status with the family. Soon Tata was destined to play a leading lady role in the breaking down of barriers, the fostering of acceptance of our very different cultures and the nurturing of love between our two families.
…to be continued in the next episode, “Return of the Golden Ankh”