The last time I saw my great aunt Margot she was 80. I walked into the home I grew up in, one that still held the sound of my running, bare feet.
Everything seemed the same, the chandeliers that hung like drops of diamonds, the mahogany four-poster beds, the Virgen Maria with her golden crown strung with stars, except I could tell time had passed and I had grown up. I kissed her, and she handed me a beautifully wrapped gift. What could it be, I thought.
I tore the paper expecting jewelry or perfume, but what I found was a magnificently illustrated Kama Sutra. She smiled and said: “Te lo doy, para que no te pase a ti lo que me pasó a mí.” (I am giving this to you so that what happened to me doesn’t happen to you.)
What she meant was that she didn’t want me to live a life devoid of passion; she wanted me to be totally free.
As a little girl, I remember Titi Margot reading cowboy romance novels and hating her husband. In order to keep the family’s Spanish lineage intact, she was married off to a Spaniard, Rafael Ruiz, when she was 15 years old, he was in his late 30’s.
My aunt had no idea what to expect on her wedding night. Her mother, Antonia, had explained nothing and left her daughter to climb into bed like a lamb to the slaughter.
My aunt still drank a glass of milk before she went to sleep, and her mother told Rafael to put sleeping drops in it. It was basically a form of matrimonial rape. She woke up to find she would never be the same. The story my Titi whispered to me of that night — and all throughout my childhood — left me angry and cold. I swore it would never happen to me.
The marriage was also a business deal. Rafael was put in charge of the family’s import and export textile business — one of the biggest in the Caribbean.
During one of the trips, Rafael caught syphilis — or so the story goes. Margot was saved from any further intimacy with a man she loathed. She had already secretly aborted his second child (she had one daughter by him) because she couldn’t bear to bring another child of his into the world.
Margot had guts. It was the 1940’s.
Rafael died early one morning as he was shaving, and a massive heart attack landed him on the bathroom floor. His funeral was her deliverance.
We were standing in front of the grave, a 50-year old woman and a girl of nine all dressed in black, holding hands and clutching rosaries. As the coffin was lowered into the ground, and the first fist of dirt hit the wooden lid, my aunt turned to me and said: “I am free.”
From then on, she put the romance novels down and went on cruises, made friends, spoke on the phone for hours, her hair up, and her feet bare on the Spanish tile. And before she died, she handed me the Kama Sutra. In the end, my Titi Margot was free, indeed, giggling, girly free.
I went on to grow up in the age of Woodstock, the Cuban Revolution, Vietnam, Joan Manuel Serrat, and El Principito. I got more degrees than a thermometer, became a journalist and moved to London. I covered wars, rose in the corporate media, and became a single parent. I saw women in high places and women in the direst of situations, and I realized that what they both had in common was guts – just like Margot.
Why am I telling you this story?
First of all, because it’s true, secondly, because I was asked to write about Boomers vs. Millennials and I thought, “how can I best explain what we can give each other?” I believe that intergenerational women can learn things from each other, and our stories can change lives. It changed mine. The best I can only give you is my story.
When I am called a Boomer, I just smile and say that because of us and women like Margot, spaces were open that allowed you to be where you are today. Just that. No awards necessary or undue praise. Just be aware of the women that came before and paved the way, respect them, and take their stories to heart — they might change your life.
This Julia de Burgos’s poem reminds me of Titi Margot – Yo Misma Fui Mi Ruta – because this is the message she left me with, and I, in turn, leave you:
“I wanted to be like men wanted me to be, an attempt at life, a game of hide and seek with my being. But I was made of nows, and my feet level on the promissory earth, would not accept walking backwards, and went forward, forward, mocking the ashes to reach the kiss of new paths.”