As the only daughter of a Midwestern spendthrift shop keeper, Mom would have found it laughably ridiculous to be told as a teenager that she would one day command household staff. That she would do so in different languages thousands of miles from home would have added to the impossibility of such a notion. Sometimes it’s better not to know what lies ahead.
Funny how normal changes. When my sister, Susie, and I were told we were moving to the United States for the first time in our lives (after twelve years overseas), we fought about who was going to get the romantic assignments of doing the dishes, cleaning the house, and washing and ironing the clothes. I’m pretty sure the novelty wore off shortly after we moved into the split-level in the Washington suburbs, and it felt comfortable to return to normal life with a cook and a housekeeper when Dad got assigned to Madrid.
Anchoring my life as a Foreign Service Kid was Josefina Garcia Romaris. In 1955, Fina was, like us, a foreigner in Caracas; she had arrived from post-Civil War Spain to earn a living for her rural family, joining a post-WWII European servant class. Mom and Dad were brand new to the diplomacy business, with its evening and weekend requirements on both of them. In Minnesota, they’d never even had a sitter for new baby me, so having live-in help in the small Caracas garden apartment was a huge change. Fina was willing, putting away her dark mourning clothes, luto, at Mom’s request, and anxious to impress her new family: the day she put a box of cake mix on the breakfast table thinking it was cereal lived on in family lore. And Fina was ready to love: she created a warm, Spanish-speaking world in which I had her all to myself for nearly two years, and her heart grew even bigger when my sister was born. We blossomed into little girls.
When Dad received orders from the State Department moving us Italy in 1959, our Fina-world ended.
The bonds of love between her and us little girls were as strong as blood ties. She’d spoken of when she’d be with mis niñas, my girls, en Italia, but the State Department budget for transferring our family to the new post did not include her, and Mom made arrangements for Fina to go to work for a new family. Mom asked Fina to not make a scene when it came time to leave.
All Susie and I knew was that we were going on a “wonderful Santa Rosa Boat.” I was ready: as first-born, I’d spent nearly five years doing what my parents said to do, no questions asked. Susie was a different creature.
At dusk, the black station wagon from the Embassy pulled up past our mango tree and stopped at the gate. My mother walked to the car with me. Fina carried Susie, chattering to her about the wonderful Santa Rosa boat.
My sister must have picked up on Fina’s tension, because she suddenly burst into tears and buried her head into Fina’s broad shoulder.“No! No!” she blurted. “I don’t want to go!”
“Sure you do,” my mother said. “It’s that wonderful Santa Rosa Boat!”
“No, no, nooo!” Susie sobbed. She clung to Fina, who by now had lost control and was weeping openly. As Mom ushered me into the back seat, Dad pried Susie’s limbs from her beloved Fina and carried her into the car.
My sister cried all the way across Caracas and halfway down the mountain to the coast, and then fell into an exhausted nap. She groggily walked up the ramp to the boat and to our stateroom. Just before dropping off, Susie stated that she still did not want to go on that boat.
The next day, the boat docked off Nassau in the Bahamas, and the four of us took a tender into shore for a bit of sightseeing. Looking out over the bay, Susie noticed the cruise ship bobbing gently at anchor. “Oh, what’s that?”
“Why,” Mom said seizing the opportunity, “that’s the Santa Rosa boat.”
“Can we go on it now?”
“Great idea.” Classic Mom move.
We boarded the tender back to the Santa Rosa. America, and then Italy, lay ahead.
Mom stayed in touch, sending Fina the annual holiday card and snapshots of mis niñas as we moved from Milan to Bologna to Rome to Bogota, and then to the States. She never married. When we headed back overseas in 1971, this time to Madrid, Fina had retired and moved back to the family farm in La Coruña, a rural area in northwest Spain.
Two years later, I had graduated from high school and had a year of the University of Madrid under my belt, and it was time to head back to America to get my college studies seriously underway. After the usual Home Leave to see family in the Midwest, the rest of the family would be moving to Rome, Dad’s final post.
We made a detour to La Coruña on our way.
The road widened as we approached the largest of the rustic buildings. Hay tumbled out from a covered stable adjoining the house, what in Maryland would have been a carport. Dad pulled to a stop where a steep stone stoop jutted out of the dirt and we clambered out. The front door opened.
A stocky woman started down the steps. She was dressed in black with the sturdy stockings and footwear of country folk, her graying hair pulled into a bun of expedience, her brows thick, her mouth held self-consciously over an uneven set of teeth. “Geni…. Sussi… Señor y señora….”
It was Fina. Fifteen years stood awkwardly between us, the woman old, the babies grown, and the couple young no longer. Mom pushed the years aside. “Querida Fina,” dear Fina, she said, hugging our former maid.
Dad extended his hand as Mom disengaged Fina. “Hola, Josefina.”
“Bienvenido, Señor Amerson,” Fina said as she pumped his hand. She dipped her head in a noble nod. “Mi casa es su casa.” My home is your home. She looked over at Susie and me. “Mis señoritas,” she said, hiding her teeth behind one hand as she smiled.
Her strong arms pulled us to her dark padded bosom. She smelled of smoke and sweat. She released us with an extra squeeze and walked us up the high stone steps and into the house.
The morning sun glanced off the rough beige walls of the kitchen, where a tiny old woman swathed in black stood hunched over a bubbling vat. “Mi tia Maria.” My aunt, Fina said by way of introduction.
Aunt Maria gave us a shy gummy smile and kept stirring. “Conejo,” she said.
Rabbit. I hoped that what they said was true, that it tasted more like chicken than like bunny. Mom and Dad sat on one side of the large wooden table that took up most of the room. Susie and I eased into the chairs on the other side as Fina took some small glasses from the shelf above the sink. She placed them in a row on the table.
A man with a weathered face and a sturdy jacket came through the front door carrying a couple of jugs. “Muy buenos dias,” he said by way of greeting as he entered the kitchen. He put the jugs on the table and extended a clean but rough hand toward Dad.
“Mi hermano Manuel,” Fina said, introducing her brother.
“Mucho gusto,” Dad said. My pleasure.
“Señora,” Manuel nodded and shook Mom’s hand. He uncorked one of the jugs and filled the small glasses with a sherry-colored liquid. “Vino para celebrar,” he said as he set a glass down in front of each of us. Wine for celebrating.
“A familia,” Dad said, raising a glass toward Fina. To family.
“A familia,” Fina echoed as we all lifted our glasses.
The wine was fruity and sweet and left an acidic tingle on my tongue. Fina brought two long baguettes to the table and cut each into chunks. I reached for a piece and bit in, feeling the crust poke at the roof of my mouth as the soft insides wiped clean the wine’s remnants. The chewy mouthful went down smoothly.
At the stove, Tia Maria ladled steaming spoonfuls of meat onto plates, the juices shiny with oil and tinged saffron orange. Fina brought the first plate to Dad. In Caracas, the men always ate first.
“Gracias, Fina.” They exchanged a look.
“Señor,” she said.
I watched my parents as the rest of us were served. Fifteen years before, Mom, Dad and Fina had stood in the little living room in Caracas in the pre-dawn hours, listening for the roar of Perez Jimenez’ airplane overhead as the dictator left the country. We’d logged a lot of Foreign Service miles since then, yet here we were under the same roof once again.
“Te gusta, Geni?” Do you like it? To Josefina, I was not Juanita or Giovanna but her own version of little Jane. She set another loaf on the table.
“Oh, sí,” I said, putting a forkful of meat into my mouth. It did taste like chicken. “Rico.” Tasty. I soaked a chunk of bread in the amber juices and packed my fork again.
Manuel poured more wine. Tia Maria ladled out more rabbit. Fina added more bread, until we slowed down and leaned away from the table, too full for more. Mom stood to help clear.
Fina protested. “Ay, no.” She moved our dishes to the sink and retrieved a small paper bundle from a drawer in a nearby cabinet. “Sus cartas,” she said, and lay fifteen years-worth of Christmas letters on the table. She pulled a photograph out from the bottom envelope, and there were Susie and me on the terrace in Milano. “Mis niñas.” We were still her girls.
Mom and Fina sorted through the envelopes, arranging Dad’s photographs that chronicled us girls: ice-cream lipped on the stony beaches of Capri; hugging our dog in our Bogota backyard; sitting at attention in five years’ of Maryland school pictures; Susie as a cheerleader at Torrejon Airbase outside Madrid and my Torrejon graduation picture.
“Mucho tiempo,” Mom said at last. A whole life of time
We stood to go. A round of handshakes with Manuel. Stooped little hugs with Tia Maria. A last long hug with our Fina.
They stood in the dusty farmyard as we drove off, waving until we rounded the curve and hit the blacktop.
We were on our way again.