Las Estacas

          It was my father's story: Mexico's romance and intrigue, youthful revelry amidst bougainvillea, tequila, mariachi bands, pyramids and family lore. His father: an expatriate nestled into the slopes of mountains south of Mexico City. His absent father. His absent father's other life: a new, brilliant, exotic other wife and her children from a previous relationship. And their one new child together: Jenny, my dad's half sister, a model, a stranger, a new friend.
          In the mountains south of Cuernavaca, where they all lived, is a river - a spring, actually, born from deep in the Sierra de Tlaltizapan, the place where Emelio Zapata made his southern headquarters for a revolution. This magical spring-fed river, flowing beneath royal palms and banana trees, is Jenny's favorite place on earth.
          Over the years, my father's story was understood to be a sore point in our family, not something we talked about over dinner, or ever, really. "Those people were horrible." That's what my mother would say. "What kind of man abandons his three-year-old son, sends him and his wife off to New York City, says he'll follow and then never does? Instead, he runs off with his boss's wife and moves to Mexico..."
          It wasn't a family secret. It was a family shame. They never talked to any of "those people" again. My grandmother never remarried, although she kept her husband's picture framed and on the hutch with her good dishes.
          My absent father preferred to spend his nights in Northern New Jersey go-go joints, playing pool. He was a salesman. In one of maybe two letters he ever wrote me in college, he said he never wanted to be a Willy Loman. Now I watch the "Sopranos" and see him in there, the Bada Bing, avoiding coming home where his choices lived.
          When he was 19 or 20, my father went to Mexico. His father's new family took him in, lavished him with love, took him to a spring-fed river near Tlaltizapan in the state of Morelos, 37 kilometers away from their house built from volcanoes. Part of the family lore was that my grandfather would pack up the car with his wife and kids and dogs and birds and take them all to Las Estacas. After they'd all leap from the 12-foot-high platform into the 25-foot deep posa azul, where the spring is freed from the mountain at the pace of 8,000 liters per second, they'd float the one-kilometer-long river all day long in inner tubes or just swim under the amates, long-lived Mexican fig trees sprinkled with cooing birds. Long picnics on the grass followed, tortas and hibiscus iced tea.
          My father never mentioned Las Estacas. But there was that one photograph, in bathing suits with smiles, kept with the others of those people that were not displayed in our house. They were in a box in the garage, and when we got old enough to ask questions, he would simply say, "Oh, that's Jenny (you'd love her)."
          The actual stories of what went on during his three months in Mexico went unspoken. All he'd say was that he partied, drank, hung out, had fun but had to choose. He had just met my mother before he left Brooklyn: Stay in Mexico or go home to his girlfriend... They got married a few years later. It was 1959. His father didn't come to the wedding.
          In that one photo, my boyish father is laying on a large blanket spread on the grass. He's wearing a bathing suit and white T-shirt. He's leaning slightly into a woman, a brunette laying on the blanket next to him, his arm evidently positioned behind him (her) to prop himself up. An inner tube is just off to the left on the grass, behind the group of six. Jenny is there, looking maybe 16 - leaning playfully into the chest of a young, dark-complexioned handsome, thin boy.
          I was 26 before I knew Jenny existed outside of these yellowing, storyless photos. My dad had died and none of "those people" knew. We should tell them, my sister and I thought. Not really knowing where to begin, we called information in Mexico."Dowling in Cuernavaca..." A listing... A shaky, trembling phone call. One of the other children answered. "Oh, you want to call Jenny. She's your real aunt," said Diana, who still escapes Mexico City on weekends to visit the house made from volcanoes.
          Jenny. An aunt. A stranger. "Your brother died. Our father," we told her. She was in the Bronx. That whole time we were in Northern New Jersey. Her kids, our cousins - she told us stories about them. They sounded like us.
          Six years after that phone call, five of us piled in a Toyota Tercel and took the road south out of Cuernavaca toward Jojutla, scraping tope after tope, making wrong turns. We had the deflated inner tubes stuffed in the trunk. Shouldn't fill them until we got closer, Jenny advised. For a few pesos at a roadside concrete hut with a tile roof, the man pumped our tubes with air. We hung them like hula hoops on our arms out the windows, driving the short stretch up the dirt road to Las Estacas.On our long, blizzard-detoured drive to Cuernavaca from Colorado, we'd looked at my father's photos we'd brought along and wondered what kind of place we were going to find. ("Turn left at the Kmart" was a key part of directions to the house.) We pondered guide book after guide book, but nothing had prepared us for hidden Las Estacas and the glassy river that's carried my family for generations. The tall white-barked royal palms' reflections on the river made it seem like we were swimming through a window.
          "Oh that's me and my boyfriend," Jenny explained, looking at the photo taken some 40 years earlier, along that same riverbank. "And that's Diana. And I don't remember who that was next to your father..."
          The five of us, my husband, me, my sister, her boyfriend and Jenny, walked along a path, up to the posa azul - the beginning, the source called El Borbollon (The Bubbler). After hearing outlandish tales about my daring, carpe diem grandfather - once diving off the roof of the house into the family pool! once going parasailing when he discovered he had cancer! - I braved the rock platform. I tucked my head, hands extended and leapt. An eternity later, lifetimes later, I was surrounded by a river: eyes opened, tiny crabs crawling on the pool's floor.
          When you're a child, your parents' stories are theirs. But in some point in growing up, they cease becoming only your parents' stories. This river, crystal clear and newly freed each day for 10,000 years, told me more of my father's story. Now it's my story.

submitted by Donna Dowling
Colorado, USA
June 2001

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