Posted Monday, September 3rd, 2007
Mid-Day in Matanzas
The massive colonial church squats at the center of a hot, dusty Cuban town. I enter quietly, my voice tuned to a whisper. My feet follow the dips of the stone floor and my eyes strain in the copper light. I hesitate behind the sexton. He moves aside to let me walk through the dancing motes, a deep hush suddenly upon me, engulfed by this cavernous space, where voices still ring from generations of marriages, funerals and processions since the days of the Spaniards. I shrink at the sight of wooden doors tall enough to admit a caravel and dip my fingers in the cracked bowl of the holy water. “In the early days” he tells me, “this altar was so laden with gold that the sight of it was painful to the eyes”.
I kneel in the well rounded cups of the pew while the noon hour sun beats outside and even the cashew vendors rest in the shade. Within, I rejoin thousands of brides walking down the aisle to men they had not chosen, mothers offering bundles of whimpering linens to the waters, young girls in white lace and tight shoes squirming during Sunday mass.
At the church of my childhood, I followed my father in the Stations of the Cross, rolling forward on the balls of his feet as he mumbled the prayers. I squirmed at the paintings, distressed, but he wouldn’t let me break the silence. During Sunday mass my sister and I played foot games under the bench and giggled at the hats in front of us. My mother dug finger into thigh and stopped us in our tracks. We knew when to stand, kneel and sit while the voice droned in the pulpit, thinking at once of loaves appearing in the desert, the bleeding heart of Christ, and new white lace socks. Every Sunday morning, with freshly ironed clothes and polished shoes we filed in from the front of the church to our family pew, children first, father last. There we learned the pride of First Communion and the gripping sadness of the coffins, up front, under a velvet cloak. They were my friends, lost to a head-on collision on the way back from summer camp. In nice weather, processions formed outside the church and ambled up the streets, rows upon rows of golden banners flapping in the wind. My brother, along with other choir boys, held high a heavy relic, taken out of the church with elaborate rites and brought to the town people in thick veils of incense. Over time, with men aging and devotion failing, the processions stayed closer to the church and finally never went out at all.
My daughters know this only through story telling. They grew up in a wide world where homes and schools were there in passing. In our travels, all paths took us to a church. There they hushed their tone, walked between the altars and chose the saint that appealed to them. We then knelt together, the peach fragrance of their hair mingling with that of melting wax. I watched their stubby fingers hold the long match and, eyes intent, light candles that they thought would burn forever. Now, continents separate us.
The sexton is at my side. He points to a stone slab with an iron ring handle, carved with boxy letters in Castilian. In the musky cave underneath, lie the remains of a man who brought his bride to this resplendent altar. Against the towering wooden doors, in front of St.Lazarus’statue, author of many miracles, I drop a coin in the offering box and light a candle for my daughters. At this point on the map of the world, both of them are exactly equidistant from me. The clay-coloured wax of the taper pools on the tile and stiffens, starting a siege on their absence.
Comments [post a comment]
Posted by Donna Levy [ email@example.com
] on Monday, September 3rd, 2007 at 3:42 PM
What a beautifully written piece, Suzanne. Your decriptions brought the words alive. Thank you so much. Donna
Posted by Bonnie ZoBell on Monday, September 3rd, 2007 at 4:09 PM
This is breath-taking, Suzanne. The colonial church squats...the dancing motes...thousands of brides...peach fragrance of their hair mingling...starting a siege on ther absence...
Posted by Margot Miller on Monday, September 3rd, 2007 at 4:24 PM
Gorgeous, Suzanne !
Posted by Nicholas Taylor on Tuesday, September 4th, 2007 at 10:54 AM
Terrific descriptions. Thanks, and well done!