Sunday, 19 January 2014


Grandma Paquita at the age of 14

Lives are lines that criss-cross time and space; sometimes these lines meet serendipitously, sometimes they run along parallel lines that are never meant to converge. However, if we could observe these lines from above, we would marvel at the beautiful pattern they make.

View from the Tate Modern Members Room

Let’s take two moments separated by one thousand miles and nearly twenty years in time. In the first one there are two women sitting at the Tate Modern Members Room contemplating how the weak November sun sets behind St. Paul’s Cathedral. One of them is pregnant, but the baby is not the topic of their conversation. They are talking about the history behind her family, who left Indonesia after the independence war that followed the Second World War. It’s the most engaging story: a beautiful Indonesian woman had two daughters: the first one with a Dutchman and, ten years later, the second one with an Indonesian man. When the colonists decided to leave the country, the ‘pure’ ethnic Indonesians took revenge on those who were descended from the Dutch, because they had enjoyed privileges which they never had. Many people who had just returned from the terrible Japanese prison camps were interned again in Indonesia, especially those of Dutch descent. The government of the mother country made a decision: the Dutch descendents would be invited to move to Holland. However, the Indonesians would have to stay, however harsh their plight. This separated the two sisters for life.

In the second moment, the woman who was listening to the story is eighteen years younger. She is in the South of Spain, in her hometown, and she’s visiting her grandmother, who is very ill. The old lady lives with her youngest daughter, who is married to a Dutchman. All of a sudden, she looks restless, and asks her granddaughter to come nearer and whispers in her ear: “My darling, as you like travelling so much, I’m sure you’ll be able to lend me a suitcase. I am going to the USA.” The young woman thinks that her grandma is speaking nonsense, that this request is just another symptom of the dementia that has been taking hold of her life during the last months. She promises that she will bring her the suitcase, being sure that she will have forgotten by the end of the day. This day the young woman’s life will change forever, but I won’t tell you about this. Yet.

The two moments are connected because there are two parallel stories, the story of two sisters who were separated for life but stayed linked by an invisible thread. The first woman in the story is my friend the painter Marenka Gabeler. I am the second one. This is the story I told her that evening in the Tate Modern.

Grandma Paquita as a young girl

In every family there is someone who is the guardian of the stories, who keeps them and who transmits them to the new generations. In my family, it’s my mother, Paquita. She says it’s important to tell the children where they come from. When we were kids, she used to tell me “adventures” instead of fairy tales. The protagonists of these adventures were always members of the family: there was the one about how my uncle Juan Manuel ran away from the seminary several times (how my grandma thought he could become a priest is a mystery to me), the day my mum took a sun ray for the Virgin Mary, how la tata María cut the chickens’ necks and they started to run about headless... The stories went back generations until the middle of the nineteenth century, when my grandmother’s grandfather, a Frenchman, came to the South of Spain with Empress Eugenia de Montijo. This man spent all his fortune on gambling and having a good time, so there was no money left for the next generation, who had to earn their living as labourers. In fact, his son, my great-grandfather, worked in the building of the famous King’s Path which goes around El Chorro reservoir. Life was hard, my grandmother, another Paquita, was the oldest of twelve children of whom only five survived. My mum always said that the sadness of seeing so many of her brothers and sisters die in their infancy never left her.

My grandparents and their children. My mum is the one on the left.

A very important person in my grandmother’s childhood was her cousin Francis. They were like sisters, as Francis was growing up without her parents. Her mother was dead and her dad had emigrated to America. My mum told me that her grandparents almost did the same but when my great-grandmother, who was holding my grandma Paquita in her arms, saw the ship, she told her husband: “I don’t know about you, but I’m not travelling on that shell”; so all the family decided to stay.

One day, when the two girls were thirteen, Francis’s father returned from America as a rich man. I can imagine the shock of meeting a father you had never seen since you were a toddler. He suggested that he could take his daughter to Malaga to buy her some new dresses. The village where they lived is only twenty minutes’ drive nowadays, but then it took more than a day to get to the capital. So off they went, and they never saw Francis again. Her father put her on a boat and they sailed to America. Cruelty? Certainly. It was a great blow for my grandmother to lose her cousin. But with hindsight, it wasn’t such a bad thing for Francis to be taken to America: she went to the best schools, married a millionaire, had a good life. Paquita, on the other hand, went through the civil war and the post-war years in a country that was in ruins and, without international help, did not start to recover until the 1960s. On the bright side, all her six children survived, including my mum, who was always ill and spent months in bed during her infancy. According to what my mum says and as far as I remember, my grandma had a perennial smile on her face, which was one of her charms.
Grandma and her sisters. She's the smiley one on the left.

Despite the distance, Francis and Paquita kept in touch. She even visited Spain in 1942 with her husband, as you can see in this photo. She also sent parcels to her family, and this is how my mum received nice clothes and nylon stockings. But she did not return until both of them were old ladies in their late seventies, when following the American tradition, she decided to spend a holiday in the place she came from. I was living abroad then, so I never met her. My aunt Cristina says that her English was exquisite but she spoke Spanish with the broad accent of her village, which was very funny, considering she was such an elegant lady.

The two cousins reunite in 1942. Francis' American husband is on the left.

So this brings me back to that evening almost twenty years ago, when my grandma wanted to make the reverse journey and go to the USA to visit her cousin. One week later my auntie told me that she had received a phone call from America: Francis had died on the same evening Paquita had asked me for the suitcase. I don’t know if she somehow sensed her cousin was dying but the coincidence is intriguing nonetheless. 

Paquita died two months later on 31st december 1996.

Grandma with her two youngest daughters: Marilo (left) and Mª Carmen (right).

Marenka’s grandmother refused to go back to Indonesia. The two sisters reunited for the first time in the ninety-seventies. Marenka told me that her great-auntie had the power of seeing people’s spirits; my grandma certainly had a connection with her cousin’s soul.

And how did my life change on that day? After leaving my grandma’s house, I went out for the first time with a man I barely knew. My husband.

(Click here to see Marenka's project on her grandmother and her sister: Sister project And here to see a photo of them published in Marenka's website: photo)


  1. Intriguing, deep, short.

  2. Marta, Marenka- such beautiful poignant stories and so powerfully yet simply stated. Interconnectedness and chance. I'm so pleased you did decide to record the stories. Julia S