The last time I passed through the narrow street to my old, pink house was in a taxi coming from Santiago. When the taxi arrived in front of the house, the door was open, people came in and out, and at the end of the living room, there was a cross and a coffin.
14 years later, I walked through the same narrow street of my old neighborhood in Valdivia, Chile again, but now accompanied by my husband, Damon, who I met when we served a mission in Concepcion South mission. Our mission was only five hours away from the place I was born. In only five hours, the landscape and the people were completely different. He was excited to get know a new part of Chile. My favorite part of Chile; home.
The smell of smoking chimneys took me back to when I was 8 years old when my grandma was still alive. The vivid memories of my old neighborhood and happy childhood replaced the sad days when my grandma passed away. The sky was gray as always, and I had the chills. I’m not completely sure if the chills were a product of the cold air or because even after 14 years of my absence, everything remained the same. Nothing had changed, same people, same neighbors, same kiosks, same park and same yellow rusty swings.
I wandered through the old streets, feeling like I reconnected with myself. The frozen neighborhood was my foundation, “mi cable a tierra,” which literally means, “ground wire,” but that doesn’t quite ring in English.
Gloria’s kiosk was still next to my old house, I wondered if she remembers the little girl who passed by every day to buy all the chocolates she could with only one dollar. Don Beto’s kiosk was still in front of Gloria’s kiosk, competing about who had the best food.
In my opinion, Don Beto’s bread was softer, warmer and had the perfect amount of salt. In the corner of the street, I saw my old pink house that now was white and red. The house that held so many memories of my grandma and my childhood.
The house looked better. In front of it, there was a small park with yellow bars where I used to play and hang all the time. The same park where a crazy stranger, who once babysat me, told me that she believed she was my real mother. In front of that park, there was the street where I saw my first pet get run over by a truck. Valdivia is where I lived the strangest moments of my life, but where I also learned to treasure the good days.
Valdivia is where people come to live a simple life. In my times there, the possibilities of emerging from poverty were little, but people were always the happiest. The Valdivian slow pace and eternal rainy winter brought families together for dinner, the cold made them find warmth by sitting next to each other by the wood stove.
This time, I was sitting around the table with my husband and my entire family on a sunny day a couple days before Christmas. It was the first time my husband met my uncle Julio, aunt Sandra, my cousin Pamela and all my little cousins and nieces, who at one time reached only my hip and were now towering over me. My whole family loved Damon and they were excited to show him our Valdivia.
In February, my entire family and I used to take the number 7 bus to go downtown for the Valdivian week where we celebrated the city. People would be out in the “Plaza de Armas,” a small Spaniard-gothic style park located in the center of the city, laughing, eating German chocolate, and throwing confetti in strangers’ mouths. The whole city would become a big family. People were selling food and confetti on the medieval streets in front of the Torreones, Spanish tower ruins, giving an old-fashioned look to the busy and happy city. My grandma, before her death, told me, “Next year, I will go to the Valdivian celebration.” She never had a next year.
On a sunny Saturday, my family and I would take the number 20 bus, and in only 30 minutes, I got to see the beach, Niebla, which in English means foggy. This was its name for the obvious reason of dense fog in the mornings. In my recent trip, I took my husband to visit Niebla. We went down to the beach, we held hands and walked. The infinite horizon made me feel like I was lost in the wilderness, the dark sand was finer than flour and caressed my feet.
Most people would think that the ocean in Chile would be warm, but not all South America is tropical. Let me tell you: the water was freezing. My butt would cramp by simply stepping into the water up to shin-level. The water that comes to Valdivia comes from the Antarctic. I did not remember the water being so cold, but maybe it was normal for me back then.
It was unusual that we had many sunny days, even for summer. Valdivia is one of the rainiest cities in Chile. For this reason, the grass is greener than any green you have seen anywhere else; this green was almost neon. Lotus flowers were everywhere during the summer because summer time is the spring of Valdivia.
My family and I took a tugboat to go to one of the islands that surrounds Valdivia, Mancera Island. Mancera island is a tiny island full of purple and green hydrangeas, in the middle of nowhere. There, we found a Spanish ruin called, “forte” which was a place where Spaniards prepared for the war against the indigenous Chileans during the 1800’s.
It had big, dark-gray walls surrounded by green, humid moss, old canons on the edge of the island next to a Chilean flag furiously flying with the strong wind, and secret dungeons underground where many Indians were executed. At the top of the ruins remained a vigilant old lighthouse. We explored every inch of the ruins. What once was a battlefield was now a playground for my nieces and cousins.
It took us one hour to walk the whole island. The white butterflies followed us while we ran through the green, flowery path back to catch the tugboat where we ended our day of adventure.
The next day, God knew we were going to see my grandma because the sky was a little sad. Small streets, which once felt huge, seemed to close in on us as we walked down the sidewalk. Damon and I went to a flower shop and bought orange lilies, yellow Calla lilies, purple Status, white Peruvian lilies, and red carnations. We walked through more than 1,000 graves, some of them made of cement and others lined with wood.
The dismal path took me back to when I walked in my grandma’s funeral procession to the place she was going to be buried. This time, I felt more hopeful because I knew she was okay. In the sea of graves, there it was, my grandma’s resting place. My cousin Pamela and I bought the same colors of flowers which made it perfect because we united them to make a big bouquet for my grandma. My cousins, sister, mom, nieces, husband and I arranged her flowers and took a moment of silence to commemorate my grandma.
Nothing could replace the old medieval streets; the humid, cold and vivid landscape, the memories of my poor and happy childhood, the memories of my family, and especially the memories of my grandma. I was deeply happy to share my life with my husband, to reconnect with who I am because my roots are my ground wire.