In Writing

On Saturday, I told myself I was due for a news fast. Wave after crashing wave of bad news has been leaving me drained, and I wanted a clear head and a fun weekend.

With a bit of downtime but my go-to, CNN, off limits, I nosed around for something else to watch. I came across something I had been meaning to check out for years: Finding Your Roots.

Finding Your Roots is a PBS show which investigates the genealogy of celebrities, and presents them in themed episodes: celebrities with war heroes in their families, slave owners, slaves, recent immigrants. I watched an episode with Scarlett Johanssen and Paul Rudd, each with recent immigration stories in their families.

I thought, not for the first time, that one day I’d like to travel to Spain, where all my family before my grandparents lived and died, so that I might learn more about the people I come from. My parents came here to the United States alone, and although I often heard tell of relatives far away, I found it hard to keep them straight. I always yearned for family. It felt like I’d been dropped from somewhere far away (which, I suppose, I had), cut loose from kin and kind. Who was I?

I remember once hearing a story of someone giving Prince Charles a compliment on his polo playing. His alleged response: “That’s nine hundred years of breeding.” I burned with envy at the phrase, and it rattled around in my mind. Why didn’t I come from anyone, just a sea of nameless peasants living a hardscrabble existence on an earth so unforgiving, all they could do was leave it, first in a wave of immigration from Spain to Argentina, and, one generation later, in my parents’ move to the United States. Where was my breeding?

In a coincidence I might ascribe to a moment of kindness by the fates, the next morning, when I woke up, I had a Facebook message from an old relative from Spain. I’ve been Facebook friends with him for years, back when his Facebook name was the name of the small village where my father was born. I’d only been there once, at eight years old, during my two-year exile from the United States. But I vividly remembered a New Year’s Eve spent there in the one-street village, eating one grape for each strike of the clock at midnight in a bid to make 1978 a kinder year than the last two had been.

I had accepted his friend request years back, but had never communicated with him. He was from my parents’ generation, and I didn’t imagine he’d have many memories of the little girl of forty years ago. I certainly had no memory of him. And, yet, inexplicably, on the day after I had bout of genealogical longing, he went to Facebook and sent me a photo of a document: my grandparents’ marriage certificate, written by hand in 1947.

I hadn’t posted on Facebook about my viewing of Finding Your Roots. I’d never written him asking for anything. Yet here it was, in an even, slanted hand, what was clearly an old document from which I could decipher only every fifth word or so. I made out just enough to catch my grandparents’ names, the date, but not much more. It was faded and impenetrable.

My mother came over for her weekly visit, and I put her to the task. I know she reads that handwriting better than I do, and she was able to get through most of it. In laying out the record of marriage in formal, formulaic language, it said my grandfather’s name, and then it said, “legitimate child of [my great-grandfather] and Maravillas Fernandez Munoz.”

I was tickled. I had met my great-grandfather briefly when I was “exiled” from the U.S. between the ages of six and eight, but he died soon after I arrived. But I’d never met his wife, Maravillas, who died the month my parents met. I’d never even known her name, but when I saw it on the paper, it delighted me. “Maravillas” is not a common name in Spanish, particularly in that age when pious, saint-based monikers were preferred. “Maravillas” means “marvels,” a word akin to “wonders.” It reminded me that when I was confronted with the task of writing my intro for Facebook, I wrote, “Writer of words, lover of green things, mother of marvelousness galore.”


I asked my mother what she remembered about Maravillas. Since she’d never met her, everything she knew was second-hand. She knew that in Argentina, where she emigrated to be with her husband, who fled Spain after landing on the wrong side of the Spanish Civil War, they’d called her “Mama Villas.” She knew she was diabetic, and obstinate about eating sugar anyway (a stubborn streak she clearly passed on). The story goes that on the flight from Spain to Argentina she threw up the whole way. (They’d only been able to fly instead of take a boat like most others did – like my mother’s family would do a few years later, from another province – because my grandfather had sent money for everyone to sail, but most of the family had been afraid to go). My mother only had stories of the old woman, the one my father would have remembered from his childhood.

I pressed my mother for more details, but she had no more to give. “I think your great-grandfather was the personality in that relationship.” I reserved judgment. Too many a marvelous woman have been lost to history for me to give up on Maravillas that easily.

My mother had one other story: the man who sent me document, unbidden, is from a small town in Spain (the one I always assumed all the generations of my father’s family came from, back through time). This man’s grandmother was Maravillas’ sister. The other story my mom remembered was that initially, the people of this small village hadn’t liked my great-grandfather very much, because he was an “outsider” from another town, come to take one of their prized young women away. He serenaded her with a guitar to try to woo her, and people tried to shoo him away. How they met, or what prompted his romantic gestures, I don’t know. All I can imagine is that one only must go to such lengths for someone quite marvelous.

What did she dream about? What did she want? What led her to get into that terrifying flying machine, leaving everyone she knew and loved, for a life in a strange land? What prompted her parents to give her that unusual, and lovely, name?

I may never know. But it getting just a glimpse of her, she made my life just a little more marvelous.

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