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SPRING 2000 ISSUE

My Mother's LAST DREAM

by Pedro Almodóvar Caballero

 

As I step into the street on Saturday, I face a sunny day. It is the first day with sunshine and the first without my mother. Tears run down my face, hidden by my sunglasses. As the day progresses, this will happen several times.

After a sleepless night, I walk like an orphan until I find a cab that takes me to the Sanatorio Sur.

Although I may not be the sort of son who pampers and visits often, my mother is an essential character in my life. I never made it a point to include her maiden name in my stage name, as she would have liked. “Your name is Pedro Almodóvar Caballero. What is this nonsense of simply Almódovar?” she expressed once with a tinge of anger.

Lorca used to say, “People think that children are made in a day. But it takes a long, long time.” Mothers are not made in a day either. And they need not do anything extraordinary to become essential, important, unforgettable, didactic. Mothers always keep their feet on the ground.

I learned much from my mother, although neither one of us was aware of it. I learned something that became essential to my work: the difference betwen fiction and reality, and that reality needs fiction to make life a little easier.

I remember my mother in all stages of her life. Perhaps the most epic stage took place in the village of Badajoz, Orellana la Vieja, a bridge between the two universes, La Mancha and Extremadura, that I inhabited before I was swallowed up by Madrid.

Although my sisters do not like for me to remember, during those times near Extremadura, our family’s economic situation was quite precarious. But my mother was always creative and had more initiative than anyone I’ve ever met. As a popular proverb in La Mancha says, “She could squeeze milk out of an oil can.”

The street we lived on had no electricity. The house had dirt floors and never appeared to be clean, for the rain would quickly turn it to mud puddles. The street was on the edge of town, and had been built on earth and slate. I can’t imagine young girls being able to walk in high heels along those slippery slabs. In my eyes, ours was not a street, it was a town in some old Western.

Life there was one of hardships, but it was cheap. As compensation, our neighbors turned out to be wonderful and hospitable people. They were also illiterate.

To supplement my father’s salary, my mother embarked on the business of reading and writing letters, just like the protagonist in the film “Central Station.” I was eight years old. Normally it was I who wrote the letters; she would read the ones that our neighbors received. More than once I listened as my mother read, and much to my amazement, I discovered that what she “read” didn’t quite correspond to what was in print. My mother would improvise. Our neighbors never knew. In some way, her elaborations added to their lives and they would be delighted after hearing my mother read.

Once I realized that my mother never stuck to the original text, I confronted her on our way home. “Why did you read that she often thinks of her grandmother and that she misses the times she would brush her hair, with a basinet full of water in front of their house? The letter doesn’t even mention a grandmother,” I pointed out. “But did you see how happy she was to hear that?” she responded.

She was right. My mother filled a void in those letters — she read the things our neighbors wanted to hear, and sometimes, perhaps, things that the writer had forgotten to say but would have been happy to include.

My mother’s improvisations taught me a great lesson. They showed me the difference between fiction and reality, and they taught me that reality needs a bit of fiction to become more complete, more pleasant, more liveable.

My mother bid farewell to this world exactly the way she wanted to. It was no accident; she had planned it that way long ago, as I was just about to discover here at the sanatorium. Twenty years ago, my mother had told my sister Antonia that the time had come to put together her burial dress.

“We went to Postas street,” my sister recalled as we stood over our mother’s body, “to buy the maroon dress of San Antonio, along with its rope.” My mother also said she wanted the saint’s insignia on her chest. And the scapularies of La Dolorosa. And San Isidro’s Medallion. Plus a rosary in her hands. “One of the old ones,” she specified. “You girls can keep the good ones (referring to my sister María Jesús).” They also bought black veil to cover her head, which now was draped all the way down to her waist.

I asked my sister about the meaning of the black veil. Apparently, in the old days widows would wear a thick black veil to demonstrate their pain and loss. As time went by and the pain diminished, the veil would be shortened. At first it would reach down to the waist and in the end it would barely cover the shoulders. This story made me believe that my mother wanted to officially depart dressed as a widow. My father had died twenty years prior, but as expected, there had never been another man nor husband in her life. She also asked to be barefoot, free of stockings and shoes. “If they tie my feet,” she instructed my sister, “untie them before you lower me to my grave. Where I’m going, I have to travel light.” She also asked for a full-length mass and not only a responsory. We did as she wished and the whole village (Calzada de Calatrava) showed up to “nod their heads,” the regional manner of offering condolences.

My mother would have been delighted by the many bouquets that adorned the altar and by the presence of everyone in the village. “The entire town was there” is the highest form of praise at this type of event. And so it was. My deepest gratitude to all: thank you, Calzada.

She also would have been proud of how perfectly well my siblings Antonia, María Jesús, and Agustín played their roles as host and hostesses. I merely allowed myself to be dragged around, blurry eyed, with everything out of focus.

In spite of my draining promotional trips, I was fortunate to be in Madrid and at her side. (My film “All About My Mother” was premiering in all parts of the globe. Fortunately, I had decided to dedicate that film to her, as a mother and as an actress. At first I hesitated because I was never sure if she liked my films.) All four children remained by her side the whole time. Two hours before “all” came tumbling down, Agustín and I walked in to see her during the half hour allowed for visiting while my sisters sat in the waiting room.

My mother was sound asleep. We woke her. She must have been in the middle of a pleasant and absorbing dream, because she clung to it as she spoke to us. She asked if there was a storm outside, and we said no. We asked her how she was feeling and she said she was just fine. She asked Agustín — Tinín to her — about his children, who had just returned from a holiday. Agustín said they would be with him for the weekend and they’d be eating together. My mother asked if he had already bought groceries and my brother said yes. I told her I would have to leave for Italy for a promotional appearance in two days, but I would stay in Madrid if she wanted me to. She said I should go and do all that I had to do. Regarding the trip, she was only concerned about Tinín’s children. “And the children, who are they staying with?” she asked. Tinín told her that he wasn’t going with me, he was staying. She thought that was good.

A nurse came in, reminded us that visiting hours were over, and told my mother they’d be bringing her meal soon. My mother responded, “Food will have little effect on my body now.” I found her comment beautiful and odd.

Three hours later she died.

Of all that she said during that last visit, what stays with me most was that she asked if there was a storm outside. It was a sunny day that Friday, with light leaking in from the window.

What storm did my mother see in that last dream of hers?

 

—Translated by Trinidad Castro

Pedro Almodovar Caballero won “Best Director” at Cannes last year for his film “All About My Mother.” ©1999-2000 El País



© 2000 El Andar Magazine