I am balanced, but I owe it to my mom who taught me by example to take everything in stride. I was never in want of anything, but that’s thanks to my parents who always provided us with everything that we could want or need. I have made choices in life confidently but that’s because I know that I am loved unconditionally. I am stable, but that’s because my parents have always provided me with a strong foundation. I have known kindness and generosity, but that’s because I have been surrounded by it. I don’t curse – and never have – but that’s because I knew that I would get in trouble by my big sis if I ever did. I had the courage to think big and go far from home in search of my own path, but that’s largely because my siblings forged the path before me and showed me what was possible. And, thanks to my grandmother, I have come to understand moral integrity and have been driven to live a life even just a quarter as great as hers. I am the product of all of this, yet it wasn’t until I grew up that I realized that what I had was something special: Family.
Growing up, I simply assumed that just because my family was so close-knit, everyone else’s was. I naively thought that just because my parents had been together for decades, everyone else’s had. And I took it entirely for granted that I had two parents who loved me and provided for me because I thought that that’s just how it was. Then, when I grew older and the innocence of childhood had faded, I realized that my reality was not the reality that is. And I realized that growing up in such a family was more the exception than the norm. And I realized what a head start in life I had gotten and what an advantage I had simply by having an uninterrupted, happy childhood.
So when David was feeling the need to be with his family, I pushed him to go to Paris to spend time with his half brother and sister and his mom. It had been years since he had seen his siblings and I knew that, after the fiestas, January would be a slow month. I also felt more confident running AlteArte on my own ever since I had survived September when he had gone to Lisbon for five days. The first week passed without incident, but by day 7, loneliness was setting in, and I tried to stave it off by going down to the water. It was my day off. I needed to get out and distract myself with nature and people.
I had just sat down on a bench facing the sea with my book in hand when I checked my phone and saw that I had received a text – from my sister. As soon as I saw it, I knew that something was up. She would never send a text unless she was in Europe. I took the fastest route and ran up the winding streets home. When I didn’t find her out front, I ran inside to call her. As I knew she would, she tried to play it off, to delay the surprise a little longer, but I know my sister. And, after I hung up, I knew that she would head to the house so I ran outside so that I could see her as soon as she was within sight, and, sure enough, minutes later, she rounded the corner with suitcase in tow, tired but happy.
For my sister to stop her busy life and come all the way from the US just because I was alone might sound extravagant, but that’s what my sister does. And while I was thrilled, I was not surprised. Because I know my sister. She’s fiercely loyal, over-the-top generous, selflessly giving, and, as a big sis, super protective. And she has always spoiled me rotten.
And, for the next week, she stayed by my side. She helped me clean, she kept me company while I worked, and she talked to the customers. And people who I had known for years opened up to her and shared with her their concerns. One talked about his broken heart, another about his need to travel and to reconnect with that feeling of being alive when chance encounters could be carried through and signs from the Universe could be heeded and acted upon.
And when we weren’t at AlteArte, I took her to my favorite places: we had a vegetarian sandwich at Caramba, tapas at Xef Pirata, Marinara pizzas at El Castell, and vegetarian sushi on the terrace of the Japanese restaurant with its super nice owner and sweeping views of Altea’s rooftops and the sea and mountains. And we visited the outdoor market where we stocked up on oranges and olives and artichokes. And on our day off, we enjoyed a beautiful afternoon and walked along the water to Albir, the neighboring village, and we had lunch at an Indian restaurant and then back in Altea we stopped at one of my favorite cafes along the water and we had a coffee and watched the moon rise – a moon that was so full and bright and orange that I initially confused it for a streetlamp. And, I realized that, for the first time, I was on vacation in Altea.
And then when she extended her trip for one more day because David’s return got delayed, we visited her favorite ceramicist on Calle Mayor. Having owned his store for 30 years, Eugenio makes up part of Altea’s history. He has crafted many of the signs in the old town, and plays a role in my own beginning in Altea for he was the ceramicist that we visited during my family’s first visit to Altea more than three years ago. At that time, my Spanish was still too basic to translate but my dad heard the classical music coming from his workshop in the back and they connected through a different kind of language as they both spoke the names of composers they admired. And he continued to play a role as, each time that my family came, we would visit his shop and my sister would buy up a slew of his trademark doves and although my dad was no better at Spanish and Eugenio no better at English, I had become better at Spanish and could finally bridge the gap and translate as Eugenio gushed over his daughter who’s a violinist in Madrid and he showed us articles about his son who’s a movie director. And his eyes shone with pride every time he talked about his children who are making it big even in Spain’s tough economy.
This time, my sister was here alone and she picked out one signature piece, and as he updated us once more on his children’s success, I finally mustered up the courage to ask the one question that I had been wanting to ask for years though had always been afraid to: “Eugenio, what happened to your wife?” And, after I said it, I held my breath, worried that I had been too direct or my question too personal, but he barely skipped a beat before he stated that she had passed away from cancer 14 years ago, and, without any further prodding, he started telling their story. He described how he had worked in agriculture, doing as his dad did and tilling his own land, but had decided to take a ceramics class at night. They met in class, fell in love and were married by the second semester, and, together, they discovered Altea and turned a dilapidated house for rent into a store with a workshop in the back. They sold their work there for the first four summers before moving to Altea and opening the shop year round. In the workshop behind, he guided his four year old son as he made his own creations – dinosaurs – which they later sold in the shop. Later, when his children were verging on adulthood, he provided the financial support for them to pursue their dreams – his daughter went to pursue music for three months in New York, his son to Madrid to learn about film – but he carefully explained to them that, should they deviate from their paths, they would have to come back and work in the store, by his side. Neither ever did. And I realized that, just as the ceramics that he created came from the earth, so did his children who were so rooted with ethics and morals that they had been able to find their way even in the most difficult of industries. But he hadn’t done it alone.
He now turned our attention to a bust of a woman displayed elegantly behind the register. It had been there since we had first visited his store 3 years ago, but we had never understood its significance. He explained that his wife had made it and he had kept it there to be by his side as he carried out the dream of the store that, together, they had envisioned and shared in life. He explained how, 14 years ago, she was diagnosed with cancer and given 6 months to live. Desperate, he had told the doctor that he had a house he could sell, but the doctor silenced him saying that there wasn’t enough that he could sell because there was nothing they could do. And, as I quickly translated to Coral, I choked up. And the weight of that moment and the sadness of that realization overtook us and Eugenio relived the pain once more and, simultaneously as if in chorus, silence embraced us and our tears began to fall. Taking off his glasses and wiping the tears from his eyes, Eugenio explained that everyone suffers from something – a love lost, difficulty in work, etc. – as if life is designed to prevent us from ever being too happy. His suffering came in the form of having found the love of his life only to lose her too early in life. And we thought back on the people who had visited during the time that Coral was at AlteArte and thought of the man with the broken heart and the other yearning for the freedom to travel once more and realized that, yes, everyone suffers from something.
We exited his shop and stood in a daze on Calle Mayor, blinking in the afternoon light and struggling to get our bearings. It was as if we had traveled back to a time long ago and relived Eugenio’s life – full of its joys and sorrows – with him. The moment had been so intense as he recounted his story, reciting it as if a poem memorized, as if his heart had been welling over and the words were just waiting to be released. I had not been able to translate fast enough, for he had spoken without pause. It had taken me more than three years to ask the question, but I realized that the story came not at a time when my spanish was good enough – even though that was essential – nor when I knew Eugenio well enough – even though it would have been inappropriate to ask earlier – but, simply, when the message was ready to be received.
Eugenio will retire soon. He will finish off the high season this summer and then he will empty the store of his ceramics and he will rent out the four walls. What kind of merchandise will fill the space only time will tell, but Eugenio’s exit will signify the ending to a significant part of Altea’s history. Once he is no longer tied down to the opening hours of the store which he respects strictly – as he does everything in life – he might finally accept the invitations that have come in from around the world to exhibit his work. And he surely will be behind the set of his son’s films as Eugenio Jr. gives him inside access to the world of film which has always fascinated him, and there won’t be anything that will keep him away from spending time in Madrid with his newly born first grandchild.
And we understood why Coral needed to stay that one extra day in Altea. And when she left, I recalled the full, bright, orange moon that had risen over the Mediterranean as we sipped our coffee and wondered whether that was perhaps why all of the interactions during the time that she had been here had been so intense, for the effects of a full moon in Altea are unlike anywhere else I have ever been. In any case, the time that we shared together had been deeply meaningful on so many different levels.
Family anchors us. They give us strength when life is hard, they guide us when choices need to be made, and they root us to the soil so that we stay grounded even in the most trying of times. I am so grateful for my family who have served as my rock solid support when I was doubting myself in high school, finding my way in college, spreading my wings in Paris, and running a business in Altea.