Saturday, May 22, 2010
New or old, grand or modest, there's always a favorite spot in one's house. A family room with a battered La-Z-Boy recliner that over the years has been the victim of coffee spills or cat clawing but still remains the most comfortable place for reading a book or watching TV. Or a workbench in a dark corner of the garage, lined with dozens of cans and jars of screws, bolts, washers and rusty pieces of you-never-know hardware, ready for an operation on a dead vacuum cleaner or some other household equipment. For cooks--I'm not one them--I imagine the kitchen is that sweet spot.
Six months after moving into the new house, the entrance courtyard has become that perfect place for me. Quiet and secluded, it's a great place to drink a cup of tea or just close your eyes. I even mumble to myself occasionally. Not to worry: A shrink once told me that was not a sign of craziness as long as I didn't overdo it or argue with myself.
It's in the courtyard that I wrote part of this blog. At this time of the year the space is half-shaded and cool, compared to the back terrace which is sizzling hot. Two hummingbirds are zipping around, along with several butterflies. The only noise is the water filter in the fish pond and the soft meowing of two of my cats sitting behind the screens, no doubt plotting how to get out and eat the hummers.
This space also has the odd effect of bringing me back to Cienfuegos, Cuba, to the patio in my maternal grandmother's small house, where I spent the happiest moments of my childhood. I'm 62 years old now yet her overgrown, chaotic patio remains a favorite spot in my memory.
There are some eerie similarities between her courtyard and mine. Many of the plantings--elephant ears, crotons, philodendrons, ferns and even an orange tree--are the same. But the plants are the least of my fond images, which have to do more with the emotional warmth and unconditional love I always felt in her house.
And her cooking: If the Michelin guide rated Cuban cuisine, grandma would have gotten a three-star rating hands down.
Interior courtyards are part of most houses in San Miguel and throughout Latin America, even modest ones. They muffle street noises while whispering to the visitor, "Welcome, come on in." They may offer a shady nook with weathered chairs and tables, and the soothing tinkling of a fountain.
A courtyard was always in our vision for the new house. In the seven-and-a-half acres where we ultimately built, noise is not a problem except for the occasional braying burro or gurgling turkey. But this small lush oasis is a welcome relief from the semi-desertic surroundings, which are brown most of the year and can desiccate one's spirits as much as one's skin.
Ours is only 20 by 25 feet, a bit smaller because one of the walls is rounded. As I remember it, my grandmother's patio was no big colonial landmark either.
As I planted our patio I tried to recall all I had read about landscaping small places and container gardening and seen during visits to other gardens. I think I achieved the proper mixtures of foliage textures, heights, flower colors and so on. I'm very happy with the results even though the main event, a 15-foot "trueno" tree (a Chinese privet, according to Google) which was supposed to be the focal point, promptly went into transplant conniptions and lost about half its leaves. During the past two weeks it has miraculously revived and is sprouting new leaves throughout.
Still, my garden may lack a certain element of, hmmm, disorder and spontaneity. It may be a bit too much like one of those rooms featured in home and garden magazines that are perfectly decorated yet off-putting because they reveal nothing about the personality of the owner.
I'm sure my grandmother didn't follow any design scheme when adding plants to her patio. New specimens, which usually arrived in rusty tin cans, were simply those that caught her eye while walking through the market. Upon arrival some were planted on the ground, others stayed in the cans and were placed under other plants or nailed or wired to any blank spot on the wall. In the hot, humid Cuban climate not many plants died though many became terminally scraggly and misshapen in this temple of laissez-faire gardening.
Her house was L-shaped, with the courtyard nestled in the inside of the "L" and walled in on the other two sides. The rooms were organized railroad-style, one after the other, beginning with a sitting room on the short leg of the "L" which faced the street--and where no one ever sat--then a real living room with a small Philco radio, followed by two bedrooms, a bathroom, a dining room and finally the kitchen.
There was no television so the fickle Philco was the main source of entertainment. One memorable program was hosted by a man named Clavelito. He must have been a Caribbean version of Oprah, Dr. Phil and Shirley MacLaine, all rolled into one. Clavelito would counsel listeners, suggest various herbal cures and even channel good "magnetic" vibrations through a glass of water they were advised to place on top of the radio.
Nonsense some of you may say, but to a five- or six-year-old it was part of the old tales and magical realism that made grandma's house unforgettable.
The backbone of the house was the long patio. All the rooms opened to it, and from it received light, air and the aroma of any plants in bloom. Unless it was raining, one traversed from room to room through the patio. The breezes flowing through the patio also carried the smells of my grandma's cooking everywhere.
Grandmother lived with my spinster aunt Estela and their regal, long-haired cat Cachucha. As it was often the case in the old days, from among five siblings Estela somehow was drafted to be the one who would take care of grandma. I never met my grandfather and no one ever talked about him. I couldn't say how Estela felt about her designated-caretaker role; she never married or complained. She just carried on.
Grandma and her beloved Cachucha glided into senility simultaneously, hand-in-paw. Grandma gradually forgot the names of family members though not their faces, particularly mine. Cachucha gradually gave up preening herself and took up absent-mindedly sauntering about the patio with turds hanging from her furry tail like precious mementos from her last visit to the litter box.
At this point I must confess that the center character in this warm scene was...Alfredito. I was the youngest and favorite grandchild and the child Estela never had. All rules and regulations set out by my strict mother were quickly ignored as soon as she and my dad walked out the door. News that I would be staying at grandma's so my parents could go away was like hearing the Three Kings would be making an extra summer visit to bring more presents.
Alfredito also got to enjoy grandma's and Estela's wondrous cooking--whatever occurred to me. Their kitchen was antique, downright rustic. The tiny GE refrigerator, a size we would now call "apartment-size" was constantly clogged with ice and frost. The stove was a combination gas and coal contraption that only the two of them could understand, let alone master. I don't recall seeing a shelf with cookbooks: The recipes must have sprung straight from my grandmother's head, with Estela patiently playing second fiddle.
Grandma's insistence on fresh ingredients complicated things further. Arroz con pollo called for a live chicken whose neck had to be twisted and its feathers plucked in hot water in the bathtub. The final dish required pimentos, peas, saffron rice and God knows what else, and was the arroz con pollo to end all arroz con pollos, even if the effort took hours of pot-banging and coddling of the cantankerous stove, and left the kitchen, dining room, bathroom and back portion of the patio in a shambles.
As I looked proudly at my entrance courtyard a couple of mornings ago, and thought about my grandmother's patio, some improvements came to mind, a few of which will take time. I can't wait for the plants to outgrow the neat areas I've assigned them and start pushing and shoving each other and become a lush, untidy garden like grandma's. I'll speed up the march toward uncertainty by bring up all my pots from storage and filling them with whatever catches my eye on my next trip to the nursery.
Stew had suggested that we sand and repaint the three gnomes so they look nice 'n neat. They do look bedraggled after all that travel; one even lost part of his pipe.
I don't think so. Grandma would just leave them the way they are and wait for the vegetation to cover up any bruises.
at May 22, 2010