by Constance Garcia-Barrio
Sly, handsome, 26 years old, he let his song and his guitar music embrace me first. “Depierta, dulce amor de mi vida!” (Awaken, sweet love of my life!) he sang that night under my window in Valladolid, Spain, more than 40 years ago. He’d seen me out walking days earlier and followed me to learn where I lived.
At 19, on my junior year abroad, how could I possibly resist a serenade? Luis Manuel Garcia-Barrio, or Manolo, and I married a scant year later. We began full of fierce young love that took decades to wear thin. We labored for more than 30 years to make a marriage. Yet, when a quick, massive heart attack killed Manolo about 11 years ago, we were separated.
We’d hammered and sawed one another, trying to fit our lives together, but when a policewoman brought word of his death one night as I got ready for bed, sadness ambushed me.
How could it have been otherwise? We had flung ourselves into marriage heart-first, sure that love would lift us past differences of race, religion and culture. Old Castile and West Philly met, or tried to.
Trouble began before we even got near the altar. “Es negra y extranjera! (“She’s black and foreign!”) Manolo’s family lamented. “He’s white and foreign!” my folks cried. Our families were chilly but mostly polite.
Soon after the wedding, we came to the States so I could finish college. Manolo missed his tapas with good red wine, his corridas de toros, his family, his friends. Still, he wrestled English to the ground, becoming a superb interpreter and translator, and he earned a doctorate degree.
Other challenges came harder. Cultural expectations, spoken and silent, made it hard, and sometimes impossible, for us to set financial goals and divvy up chores, and even decide what was fair fighting. As our son Manuel grew, we struggled with questions such as whether he should receive a “propina” (money given freely) for ice cream or video games as occasions arose, the way Manolo had in childhood, or get a weekly allowance to spent as he wished in exchange for doing chores, the way I had.
Despite the heartache, children on both shores of the Atlantic enjoyed some gains. A couple of Manolo’s nieces and nephews would come in summer to live with us and take courses in English. We would send Manuel to Spain, not to learn Spanish, our household language, but to get better acquainted with his grandmother, cousins, aunts and uncles. We celebrated many a Christmas in Herrera de Pisuerga, Manolo’s hometown of 4,000 souls, and we ate many a meal at my mother-in-law Maria’s table before we separated.
After so many years, we could have no tidy end. I couldn’t sidestep grief. He couldn’t stop holding on. When friends helped me clean out his apartment, I found that he had kept a postcard I’d sent him in September, 1966, during our courtship.
As I carried his ashes from Barajas Airport in Madrid north to Herrera, I took in wheat fields, orchards, vineyards and sheep. Nothing might call me to this land again.
We had begun with a song that leaped past our differences. During that ride, I decided we would end that way.
“I’m going to sing a goodbye,” I told Manolo’s family. Eyebrows shot up in alarm. I explained that I had spent years with their brother, and my song would honor our time together. I wanted to fold into my farewell our love and our defeat, and sing my ancestors to me through the moment. Most of Manolo’s family didn’t know the words or the tune, yet some cried when I sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
Next week Germantown resident Constance Garcia-Barrio explains what it is like to attempt to meet a new loving partner as a senior citizen in this age of computer dating. Constance, a former professor at West Chester University, can be reached at email@example.com.