This post is also available in: Spanish
Isabel’s mother recently returned to Chile after an extended visit to the California House of the Spirits. I miss her already. She is a feisty grande dame, and it is almost impossible to keep up with her. If Isabel is a Ferret on Cocoa Puffs, Panchita—don’t call her Panchetta, that makes her mad—is a hyperactive squirrel. She tops Isabel in energy—and even in the arena of story telling. (You see almost immediately that Isabel gets her storytelling abilities through genetic osmosis conditioning, a scientific term I just came up with.) Panchita can spin a yarn that will leave you wide-eyed and wondering where these people come from. Honestly, I wonder if she and Isabel are making stuff up sometimes, but I know they are not.
Here is a story Panchita told while she was here:
When Panchita was young her husband abandoned her, leaving her with three kids—two toddlers and a newborn. She had no choice but to go back to her father’s house. After he helped her annul her disastrous marriage (the three kids would never see their father again), Panchita realized she needed to find a way to support her family. She opened the first fashion boutique in Santiago, hiring excellent seamstresses to satisfy the whims of her upper class clients, and using her beauty and charm to smuggle in fine fabrics from Europe. When it came time to pay taxes, she would invite the collector to a fine meal of oysters and chilled white wine; usually that would soften the man’s heart and he would overlook at least some of the shop’s success. What’s a little bribery in a weary world?
Soon Panchita fell in love with Ramon, a married man with four children. In Catholic Chile of the time (and in fact until only recently) you could not get a divorce, only an annulment if both parties agreed to it. When Ramon’s wife refused his request for an annulment, he left her, although he always honored his responsibilities to her and his children. For the next sixty years, Panchita and Ramon lived together without being able to marry.
In 2000 Panchita came to California to visit Isabel, as she does every year, although the trip is a killer—it takes almost 22 hours door-to-door. One day, when they were driving, Panchita lamented the fact that she was still Ramon’s mistress and not his wife. “What’s your problem, Mom?” Isabel asked. “Do you want the white dress or something?” Panchita’s response was immediate. “Yes!” she exclaimed. “That’s what I want!” Isabel turned the car around and drove her mother, who was 80 at the time, to the Jessica McClintock store in San Francisco. She marched her into the store and said to the first clerk she saw, “Make this woman a bride!” Everyone in the store rallied around to fit Panchita into a beautiful gown with lace and pearls and a flowing veil. Willie was summoned to the shop and ordered to bring flowers and a camera. Isn’t Panchita a gorgeous bride?
In 2010 Ramon’s 94-year-old wife died, and a few hours later he asked Panchita to marry him. Her initial response was indifference—or so she pretended! “I would have to think about it…” But she accepted, of course, and they were married in a private ceremony. The following December, when Panchita turned 90, family and friends gathered to celebrate this extraordinary couple. (According to Isabel, the most extraordinary fact is that they have made it this far without therapy.)
Summing up her story, which left us alternately in awe, laughter and tears, Panchita tilted her head to one side, shrugged and said, “Well, that’s life!”