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TELL ME WHO I AM

Julia Navarro  

0


Fragmento

1

“You’re a failure.”

“I’m a normal, decent person.”

My aunt looked up from the sheet of paper she held in her hands. She had been reading it as if the information it contained were new to her. But it was not. It was a CV, which summarized my brief and disastrous professional life.

She looked at me with curiosity and continued reading, although I knew there was not that much left to read. She had called me a failure not out of any desire to offend me, but simply as if she were confirming something self-evident.

My aunt’s office was oppressive. Well, what really made me feel uncomfortable was her attitude, superior and distant, as if her success in life gave her permission to look down on the rest of her family.

I did not like her, but I had never been her favorite nephew either, which was why I had been surprised when my mother told me that her sister wanted urgently to see me.

Aunt Marta had become the family matriarch; she even dominated her brothers, my uncles Gaspar and Fabián.

Everyone asked her advice about everything, and nobody made a decision without her giving the go-ahead. In fact, I was the only one who avoided her and who, unlike all my cousins, never sought her approval.

But there she was, proud of having saved and even tripled the value of the family business, a company that dealt in and repaired machinery: something she had managed to do, among other reasons, because of her opportune marriage to her good-hearted husband, Uncle Miguel, for whom I felt a secret sympathy.

Uncle Miguel had inherited a couple of buildings in the center of Madrid, and got a good amount of rent each month from the tenants. He used to meet with the building administrator once a month, but otherwise he had never worked. His only interests were collecting rare books, playing golf, and taking every opportunity to escape from the vigilance of my Aunt Marta, to whom he had gratefully ceded the monthly meetings with the administrator, knowing that she had the intelligence and the drive to succeed in everything that she did.

“So you say that a failure is a normal, decent person. So people who succeed are abnormal? Indecent?”

I was about to answer yes, but that would have gotten me into trouble with my mother, so I decided to give a slightly smoother reply.

“Look, in my line of work being decent usually means that you end up unemployed. You don’t know what it’s like being a journalist in this country. You’re either on the Right or you’re on the Left. You’re nothing more than a conduit for transmitting the slogans of one side or the other. But if you try to simply describe what’s happening and give a truthful opinion, then you end up marginalized and out of work.”

“I’ve always thought you were on the Left,” my aunt said ironically. “And now the Left’s in power...”

“Yeah, but the government wants their reporters to shut their eyes and mouths as far as their own errors are concerned. If you criticize the government, that means isolation. They stop thinking that you’re one of them, and of course, you’re not one of the others, so that leaves you in no man’s land, or unemployed, like me.”

“It says here on your CV that you’re working for an internet newspaper at the moment. How old are you?”

The question annoyed me. She knew very well that I was in my thirties, older than any of my cousins. But this was her way of showing me how little she was interested in me. So I decided not to tell her how old I was because it was clear that she already knew the answer.

“Yes, I write literary criticism for an online newspaper. I haven’t found anything else, and at least I don’t need to ask my mother for money to buy cigarettes.”

My Aunt Marta looked me up and down, as if seeing me for the first time, and appeared to hesitate before deciding to make her offer.

“Okay, I’m going to give you a job, a well-paying one. I trust that you can live up to my expectations.”

“I don’t know what the offer is, but my answer is no; I hate company press offices. If I’m here it’s because my mother asked me to come.”

“I’m not going to offer you a job in the company,” she replied, as if the idea of my working for the family firm were crazy.

“So...”

“So I’m going to ask you to do something for the family, something more personal. Something private, in fact.”

My aunt carried on looking at me as if she were still not sure if she was making a mistake.

“I want you to investigate an old family story, having to do with your great-grandmother, my grandmother.”

I didn’t know what to say. My great-grandmother was a taboo topic in the family. No one spoke about her; my cousins and I knew almost nothing about this mysterious person, about whom it was forbidden to ask questions and of whom not a single photograph existed.

“My great-grandmother? What do I have to investigate?”

“You know that I have almost all the family photographs. I wanted to give my brothers and sister a present for Christmas. So I started sorting through the old photos and choosing some to make copies. I also looked through my father’s papers, because I remembered seeing some photos mixed in with them as well, and I found some photos and... Well, there was a sealed envelope, which I opened and found this...”

My aunt turned back to her desk and picked up an envelope, from which she took a photo. She gave it to me doubtfully, as if she thought I was clumsy and that the photo would not be safe in my hands.

The photograph had torn edges and had turned yellowish with time, but the portrait, of a young woman in a wedding dress, smiling and holding a bunch of flowers, was still intriguing.

“Who is it?”

“I don’t know. Well, we think it could be our grandmother, your great-grandmother... I showed it to your mother and my brothers and we all agreed that our father looked a lot like her. We’ve decided that the time has come to investigate what happened to our grandmother.”

“Just like that? You’ve never wanted to tell us anything about her. And now you find a photo that you think could be of one of our relatives and you decide you want to find out what happened.”

“Your mother’s told you something about her, surely...”

“My mother’s told me the same as you’ve told your kids: practically nothing.”

“But we don’t know that much; our father never spoke about her, he couldn’t get over losing her even after a long time.”

“As far as I know, he never knew her. Didn’t she abandon him when he was a newborn baby?”

My Aunt Marta seemed to be vacillating between telling me all she knew and throwing me out right away. I suppose she was thinking that I might not be the right person to deal with the business at hand.

“What we know,” she said, “is that our grandfather, your great-grandfather, imported and sold machinery, above all from Germany. He traveled a great deal, and tended not to say when he was going, much less when he was thinking about coming back, something that his wife can’t have liked very much at all.”

“It’s impossible that she wouldn’t have known. If he was packing, I suppose she must have asked him where he was going, that’s how these things work.”

“No, he wasn’t like that. Your great-grandfather used to say that he carried his suitcase in his wallet, that it was enough for him to take money with him. So he didn’t have to get anything ready, he just bought whatever he needed. I don’t know why he behaved like that. But I suppose it must have been a source of conflict in their marriage. Like I told you, your great-grandfather was an entrepreneur and his business was always getting bigger, he didn’t just sell industrial machinery but also repaired it, and Spain needed a lot of both at that time. One day he headed off on one of his trips. While he was away, she had the kind of lifestyle that was normal for people of her position in those days. As far as we know, she would go to visit friends, you know that back then visiting people was an innocent and above all cheap form of entertainment. You’d go and visit some friends or relatives one afternoon, they’d come and visit you a few days later, and the drawing rooms of these houses turned into meeting-places. At one of these meetings she met a man, we don’t know who he was or what he did. Once we heard a rumor that he was in the Argentinean navy. And it looks like she fell in love with him and ran away with him.”

“But my grandfather had already been born; she had a son.”

“Yes, and he was very young. She left him with her nurse, Águeda, who was the woman who your grandfather thought was his real mother until he found out the truth when he was older. Your great-grandfather shacked up with Águeda and had a daughter with her, Aunt Paloma, your grandfather’s stepsister; you know about that side of the family already.”

“Not really, we’ve never been that keen on knowing each other, I’ve only seen them at some funerals,” I replied insolently, to provoke her.

But my aunt wasn’t the kind of person to rise to a provocation if she didn’t want to be provoked, so all she did was look at me with a flash of annoyance and decide to carry on talking as if she hadn’t heard me.

“Your grandfather decided to get rid of his mother’s surname, that’s why he’s named Fernández. When you change your name, you have to change it to one that’s common.”*

“I’ve never found out what he was really named,” I replied, bored of this conversation.

“We don’t know, we’ve never known.” My Aunt Marta sounded sincere.

“And where does this interest in your grandmother’s history come from?”

“This photo I’ve shown you has caused us to make the decision. I’ve made copies; I’ll give you one to help with the investigation. We think it’s her, but even if it’s not it doesn’t matter: It’s time to find out about these things.”

“What things?” I liked trying to irritate her.

“To find out who we are,” my aunt replied.

“I don’t care what happened to my great-grandmother, it doesn’t matter, I know who I am and that’s not going to change, whatever this woman did so long ago.”

“And I don’t care that you don’t care. If I’m asking you to do this it’s because we don’t know what we’re going to find out, and I’d like the dirty laundry, if there is any, to stay in the family. That’s why I’m not hiring a detective. So I’m not asking for a favor, I’m offering you a job. You’re a journalist, you know how to do research. I’ll pay you three thousand euros a month and expenses.”

I said nothing. My aunt had made me an offer I knew I could not refuse. I had never earned as much as three thousand euros a month, not even when I worked as a television reporter. And now that I was in a woeful professional situation, making almost nothing by writing literary criticism for an online paper that couldn’t even pay me five hundred euros a month, along came my aunt like the snake that tempted Eve. I wanted to say no, she could stuff her money, but I thought about my mother, how every month she had to lend me money for the mortgage on my apartment that I had bought but could no longer afford. Well, I thought, there wasn’t anything dishonorable in looking into my great-grandmother’s history, nothing wrong with getting paid for it. It would be worse to have taken a job puffing up this month’s politician.

“A couple of months should be enough, shouldn’t it?” Aunt Marta wanted to know.

“Don’t worry, I don’t think it’ll take too long to find out about this woman. I don’t know, I might even find out all I can in a couple of days.”

“But I want something more,” my aunt said in a threatening voice.

“What?” I asked hopelessly, as if I had suddenly woken up from a dream: Nobody pays three grand a month to find out what happened to their grandmother.

“You have to write my grandmother’s story. Write it like a novel, or however you want, but write it down. We’ll get it bound and it’ll be my present to the family next Christmas.”

I interrogated my mother, exhaustively, to find out what she remembered about her father, my grandfather. She spent some time praising him to the skies and I tried to remember what I could as well. I remembered him as being tall, thin, standing very straight, taciturn. One day they’d told me that my grandfather had been in a car accident that kept him in a wheelchair until he died.

Every Sunday when I was a child I would go to my grandfather’s house with my mother. We’d have a family meal with lots of chatting at the dining table and I would get very bored.

Grandfather would watch us all in silence as he ate, and only every now and then would he say something.

Aunt Marta was the youngest of her brothers and sisters. She was single and lived with her father, and that’s why she’d taken control of my grandfather’s company, just as she’d become the owner of that enormous dark house. So my memories offered me no clue about my grandfather’s mother, that mysterious figure who had disappeared one day, leaving my grandfather in the arms of the nurse.

I must admit that I started my investigation without much enthusiasm, I suppose out of an extreme lack of interest about what might have become of one of my relatives.

I started searching in the obvious place: I went to the Civil Registry to ask for a copy of my grandfather’s birth certificate.

Of course, the names of both parents appear on a birth certificate, so this was the best way to find out the name of my grandfather’s mother. I asked myself why Aunt Marta might not have done this herself, instead of paying three thousand euros for me to go to the Registry.

A very kindly civil servant dashed my hopes by telling me that it was impossible to issue a birth certificate for someone who had died.

“And why would you want a birth certificate for Javier Carranza Fernández?”

“He’s my grandfather, well, he was my grandfather, I told you he died fifteen years ago.”

“Okay, but I’m asking why you might want his birth certificate.”

“I’m drawing up our family tree, and the problem is that my grandfather changed his surname, the maternal half of his surname, because of a family problem. He wasn’t really named Fernández, and that’s what I’m trying to find out about.”

“Ah, well, you can’t do it.”

“Why not?”

“Well, because if your grandfather changed his name, then his file’s kept in the Special Registry, and you can only consult the information there if it’s your own file or if you get a court order.”

“Obviously he can’t ask anything about his own file,” I replied crossly.

“That’s true.”

“Look, he was my grandfather, he was named Fernández, and I don’t know why. Don’t you think I’ve got a right to find out what my great-grandmother was named?”

“I don’t know what your family problems are, and I really don’t care. I’m just doing my job: I can’t give you any birth certificate related to your grandfather. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a lot of work to do...”

When I told my mother about this, it was clear that she wasn’t surprised at all by the scene with the civil servant. But I have to admit that she gave me a clue about how to get started.

“Just like us and like you, his grandchildren, grandfather was baptized in the church of San Juan Bautista. He got married there, and we got married there, and I hope that one day you’ll get married there.”

 I didn’t answer, because at that moment my only relationship was with the bank that had given me my mortgage. I had signed up to pay them back over the next thirty years.

The church of San Juan Bautista urgently needed to have its dome repaired; at least this is what I was told by Father Antonio, the old parish priest, who decried the apathy of his congregation in the face of the church’s ruinous state.

“People are giving fewer and fewer donations. You always used to be able to find a benefactor to help with these problems, but now... Now rich people prefer to set up foundations to decrease their taxes and cheat the treasury, and they don’t give a penny for these kinds of things.”

I listened to him patiently because I liked the poor old man. He had baptized me, given me my first communion, and if it was up to my mother would also officiate at my wedding, but I thought he was a bit old to have to wait so long.

Father Antonio complained for a while before asking me what it was I wanted.

“I’d like to see my grandfather Javier’s baptismal certificate.”

“Your grandfather Javier was always a good friend to the parish,” Antonio remembered. “Why would you want to see his baptismal certificate?”

“My Aunt Marta wants me to write a family history and I need to know a few things.” I had decided to tell almost the whole truth.

“I don’t think it will be easy.”

“Why not?”

“Because all the older documents are in the basement archive; they went through the parish records during the war and now they’re all disordered. We’d have to reorganize everything that’s down there, but the archbishop doesn’t want to send me a younger curate who knows about archives and I’m not as young as I was and can’t think about organizing so many papers and documents, and of course I’m not going to let you just rummage through them all.”

“I’m not promising anything, but I could ask my Aunt Marta to see if she might want to help the parish and hire a librarian or an archivist to help put things in order...”

“That’s all very well, but I don’t think your Aunt Marta would care very much about the parish documents. Anyway, we hardly see her round here.”

“Well, I’ll ask her, there’s no harm trying.”

Father Antonio looked at me thankfully. He was a gentle man, one of those priests whose kindness justifies the existence of the Catholic Church.

“God bless you!” he exclaimed.

“But I would like you to let me look for my grandfather’s baptismal certificate in the meantime. I promise I won’t look at any document that doesn’t have anything to do with what I’m looking for.”

The old priest looked at me intently, trying to read the truth of my assertions in my eyes. I held his gaze while I composed my face into its best smile.

“All right, I will let you go into the cellar, but you must give me your word that you will only look for your grandfather’s baptismal certificate and not start poking around... I trust you.”

“Thank you! You’re a wonderful priest, the best one I’ve ever met,” I said thankfully.

“I don’t think you know that many priests, you don’t come to church that often either, so the odds are in my favor,” Father Antonio replied ironically.

He took the keys to the cellar and led me down a staircase that was hidden beneath a trapdoor in the sacristy. A bulb hanging from a wire was the only light in this damp place, which needed, like the dome of the church, a thorough restoration. It smelled like some shut-up place and it was cold.

“You’ll have to show me where I need to search.”

“It’s a bit of a mess down here... When was your grandfather born?”

“I think 1935...”

“Poor child! Right on the eve of the Civil War. A bad time to be born.”

“Well, no time is great,” I replied, just to say something, but I immediately realized I had said something stupid because Father Antonio gave me a severe look.

“Don’t say that! You, of all people! Young people today don’t know how lucky they are, you think it's normal to have everything... That’s why you don’t appreciate anything,” he grumbled.

“You’re right... I said something stupid.”

“Yes, my son, you said something stupid.”

Father Antonio went from one side of the room to the other looking at archive boxes, rummaging through boxes lined up against the wall, opening trunks... I let him look around and hoped he would tell me what to do. In the end, he pointed out three boxes.

“I think that this is where the baptismal records of those years are kept. Of course, there were babies who were baptized a long time after they were born, I don’t know if that’s the case with your grandfather. If you don’t find it here, we’ll have to look in the boxes.”

“I hope I’m lucky enough to find it...”

“When are you going to start?”

“Straight away, if you don’t mind.”

“Well, I have to go and prepare for midday Mass. When it’s over, I’ll come down to see how you’re getting on.”

I stayed alone in that mournful cellar, thinking that I would more than earn Aunt Marta’s three thousand euros.

I spent the whole morning and part of the afternoon looking through the baptismal record, a book yellow with age, but found no sign of my grandfather Javier.

By five in the afternoon my eyes were unbearably itchy; also, my stomach was rumbling so loudly that I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I went back to the sacristy and found a lay sister who was folding the altar cloths, and asked for Father Antonio.

“He’s resting in the rectory; there’s no Mass until eight o’clock. He told me that if you turned up then I should tell you. If you want to see him, go out through this passage and knock at the door you come to. The church is connected to Father Antonio’s quarters.”

I thanked her for her directions, although I knew the way very well already. I found the priest with a book in his hands, but he appeared to be dozing. I woke him up to tell him that my search had been a failure, and asked his permission to come back early the next day. Father Antonio told me to be there at seven thirty, before the first Mass of the day.

That night I called Aunt Marta to ask her to make a donation to the church of San Juan Bautista. She got cross with me for asking, angry that I didn’t have more consideration for the way the family’s money was spent. I tricked her by saying that I thought Father Antonio was vital to the investigation and that we needed to keep him happy in order to make him collaborate. I thought that the poor priest would have been upset to hear me talk like that about him, but there was no other way I could have convinced Aunt Marta. She cared little about Father Antonio’s goodness and the difficulty he was having keeping his church afloat. So I convinced her that she should at least make a donation to help repair the dome.

It was not until four days later that I found my grandfather’s long-sought baptismal certificate. I was upset, because at first I thought it was not what I was looking for.

Even taking into account that my grandfather had changed his maternal surname to a more common one, Fernández, it took me some time to realize that this Javier Carranza was the man I had been searching for.

It is true that the names Carranza and Garayoa are not very common, even less so in Madrid, but even so I nearly overlooked it because of the name Garayoa on the certificate. But now I knew that my grandfather’s mother was named Amelia Garayoa Cuní.

I was surprised that she had one Basque and one Catalan surname. A strange mixture, I thought.

I took the photograph that Aunt Marta had given me out of its envelope, as if the image of the young woman could confirm, somehow, that she was indeed that Amelia Garayoa Cuní who appeared on my grandfather’s baptismal certificate as his mother.

That young woman in the photograph was very attractive, or maybe that’s what I thought because I had already decided that she really was my great-grandmother.

I read the entry in the register of baptisms several times until I had convinced myself that it was what I was looking for.

“Javier Carranza Garayoa, son of Santiago Carranza Velarde and Amelia Garayoa Cuní. Baptized on November 18, 1935, in Madrid.”

Yes, there was no room for doubt, this was my grandfather and this Amelia Garayoa was his mother, who had abandoned her husband and her son to run away, or so it seemed, with a sailor.

I felt pleased with myself, and told myself that I had now earned my aunt’s first three thousand euros.

Now I had to decide whether to share my discovery with her or to carry on with my research before I revealed our relative’s name to my aunt.

I asked Father Antonio to let me photocopy the page on which my grandfather’s baptism was recorded, and after promising faithfully that I would return the book as soon as possible, and in perfect condition, I left.

I made several copies. Then it was I who exacted a promise from Father Antonio that he keep the original book under careful guard, but easily accessible in case I should need it again.

I knew my great-grandmother’s name: Amelia Garayoa Cuní. Now I had to find out something about her, and I thought that the first thing to do was to look for a member of her family. Did she have brothers? Cousins? Nephews?

I had no idea whether the name Garayoa was very common in Basque country, but I knew that I should go there as soon as possible. I would call all the Garayoas I could find in the phonebook, but I hadn’t yet decided what I would tell them... If they answered the phone, that is.

But before I left, I thought I should look at the Madrid phonebook. After all, my great-grandmother had lived here, had married a man from Madrid. Perhaps she had family...

I didn’t expect to find anything, but to my surprise I found two Garayoas in the Madrid phonebook. I wrote down their phone numbers and addresses while I thought about how to proceed. Maybe I should call them. Maybe I should just turn up at their houses to see what would happen. I decided on the second course of action, and was determined to try my luck with the first address the next day.

2

The building was in the Barrio de Salamanca, the rich part of Madrid. I spent a little time walking up and down the street, trying to get every detail of the building into my mind, and above all to see who was coming and going, but all I managed to do in the end was attract the attention of the doorman.

“Are you waiting for someone?” he asked aggressively.

“Well, no... or yes, I suppose. Well, look, I don’t know if the Garayoas live here.”

“And who are you?” he wanted to know, and his question made me realize that there must be some Garayoas here.

“A relative, a distant relative. Could you tell me which of the Garayoas live here?”

The doorman looked me up and down in an attempt to convince himself that I was the kind of person to whom he could give this information, but I didn’t manage to dispel his doubts by my appearance alone, so I showed him my identity card. The man looked at it and handed it back straight away.

“You’re not named Garayoa...”

“Garayoa was my great-grandmother, Amelia Garayoa... Look. Maybe you could talk to the Garayoas who live here and if they’re willing for me to go up and see them I’ll go up, and if not then I’ll go.”

“Wait here,” he ordered, and I could tell from his tone of voice that he didn’t want me even to come into the doorway.

I stayed impatiently in the street, asking myself who might live in this house, if it was an old nephew of my great-grandmother, or her cousins, or just some Garayoas who

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