The Way Back: Tía Amelia’s House

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The Way Back: Tía Amelia’s House

Julia Alvarez
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When I was growing up, in a large extended family in the Dominican Republic, one of the things that distinguished me from that indistinct mass of siblings and cousins was that mine was the best godmother. 

Her name was tía Amelia, and in her youth she had been a legendary beauty. Even as an older woman, which is how I remember her, she was beautiful. Her skin was dramatically pale in contrast to her black hair, which was, by then, streaked with silver threads; her eyes were an astonishing sky blue. I say “astonishing” because I had never known a Dominican with blue eyes. I thought of blue eyes as a trait of Americans, like speaking English, freckling, and sounding silly speaking Spanish. 

She had been born into a poor family, but she was so beautiful that one of the richest men in the country married her. Tío Felipe, who was sixteen years older, doted on his young bride, spoiling her with trips; expensive gifts; a big, fancy house. That’s another thing that made her a fairy-tale character: hers was a fairy-tale life. Up to a point, I should add: she was widowed young and lived alone in her enormous mansion, surrounded by spacious grounds, with a swimming pool she never used and a chapel where, every day, tía Amelia said a rosary, surrounded by her numerous staff.

Tía Amelia was not just rich; she was generous. Several times a year, her chauffeur would drive over to our house to deliver a beribboned box. My cousins and sisters would flock around me, eager to see what I’d gotten. The gifts were often disappointing, though I tried not to let on in front of everyone. They were an adult’s idea of what a child would like: a tasteful ring, nothing glittery or pretty I could trade for something more fun from an older cousin; an Easter bonnet trimmed with a clutter of flowers—I would have preferred ribbons riding down my back; a diary in which to write down my thoughts—“thoughts” to write down at age seven or eight? One gift I did love was a pink taffeta dress with lots of flounces, which I was allowed to wear to Sunday Mass. I felt like a gift myself when I wore it, with its big bow tied at the back, its sash that held me so tight I could never forget I was all dressed up and on my best behavior. But what I most loved about this dress was its noise. The flounces rustled luxuriously each time I knelt or sat or filed down the aisle to the altar. Any benefits that might have accrued to my soul by going to communion were rendered naught by this gift, as all I could think of as I received the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ was how dazzling my rustling dress was and how all eyes were on me for once. 

My godmother was also not one of those titular godmothers, who might as well have been plain and simple tías. She took her godmothering duties seriously. She traveled a lot: to Rome for an audience with the pope, to Paris to buy perfume, to New York to check with her bankers. But whenever she was in country, she would send her chauffeur over with an invitation for me to come spend Saturday at her mansion.

I don’t think I was ever consulted about whether this was something I would like to do. There was no question that I would accept this incredibly kind invitation. Besides, my cousins and sisters were full of envy at my good luck. All they had ever seen of tía Amelia’s house was the high wall that spanned several city blocks, and it was only through my stories that they knew what lay on the other side: the swimming pool, shaped like a giant kidney bean; the chapel, with rosaries from all over the world; a house full of hallways and winding staircases and so many parlors, dining rooms, sunrooms, and bedrooms that it always seemed like the house was a living thing that had spawned more rooms since the last time I’d visited. 

The Saturday following the midweek invitation, with my bathing suit wrapped in a towel and many admonitions from my mother that I was to behave myself, I’d climb into the black car my godmother had sent for me. At the front gate a uniformed guard would raise a hand in salute as we drove in. Tía Amelia was in her dressing room, sitting at her vanity, still involved in getting dressed, which seemed to be an all-morning affair. She would give me a kiss and ask me a few questions about my family before she lost interest and sent me out to play. Her affection was genuine but impersonal, except for those few moments when she trained her eyes on me and asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I never seemed to think up a suitable enough answer to detain her astonishing blue gaze. 

It was a long, empty day at my godmother’s house. A maid was assigned to take care of me, with strict orders not to leave me alone. She was a tired old woman who had been with my godmother forever and no longer had any specific duties, so she was free to attend to this untoward child in the household. I’d change into my suit and wade into the pool while she sat nearby under the cabana, dozing off, no doubt as bored as I was. For how much fun could it be to have a whole swimming pool to myself with no one to splash and jump with, no one to scream with when a boy cousin grabbed at our legs underwater, pretending to be a shark? The old woman did not want to toss a ball or play tag. In fact, she got cranky if I wandered around too much in the hot sun, tiring her out. 

We ended up in the dark, cool chapel, where she’d let me play with my godmother’s collection of rosaries while she sat in a pew, resting. Or she’d lure me to the kitchen with a promise to show me “el dumbwaiter,” which I’d heard my godmother refer to often at lunch: “Súbalo con el dumbwaiter.” Send it up with the dumbwaiter. Thanks to my English lessons, I could decode simple words and phrases. I would wait for a large, bald, stupid man dressed in a uniform to walk in with a silver tray of crystal bowls filled with wobbly flan or melting scoops of ice cream. But he never materialized. Instead, a slot opened in the wall, and inside was a shelf that was raised from the ground-floor kitchen by pulleys, with glasses of water or platters full of vegetables or the salt and pepper shakers. That was “el dumbwaiter,” my godmother explained, after the nursemaid had successfully tricked me a number of times. Fiction, I was learning, was a lot more exciting than the facts.

Which was why at the end of my long and lonely visit, when the big car drove me home and my sisters and cousins rushed to the door the chauffeur was opening for me, I told them all about my fabulous day at tía Amelia’s house. The swimming pool shaped like a valentine with red-colored water; the chapel with jeweled rosaries from all over the world; the large, bald, stupid waiter in a gold-and-­crimson uniform. But when I saw their eyes fill with longing and their faces turn pale with envy, I felt a pang. Where was the feeling of power and specialness I had expected to feel? 

It was not enough to be a storyteller to suit myself, I was learning. What good was a story that made others feel left out? The minute you used a story for an outside purpose, it lost its true usefulness of belonging to everyone and no one, of stirring the winged life inside all of us, of allowing each one to become someone else. 

I did not know how to tell that kind of a story yet. The story that would allow my cousins and sisters to become the lucky girl invited to spend the day at her godmother’s mansion. The story that would make it interesting to be that lonely girl, bored with treasure she couldn’t share. The story that might detain the blue gaze of my fairy-tale godmother. The story I still yearn to tell.

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