It is November 15, 2017 and Grandma “Angelita” Newton would have been 96 today. So, I am marking the occasion of her birthday by finally sharing this very personal story. We made a family pilgrimage up to the north of Spain last summer, to retrace grandma’s unusual childhood. The trip was a memorial, a tribute. But mostly, it was a goodbye.
Maria de los Angeles “Angelita” Gilbert Alonso was born in Barcelona in 1921 and lived on Valencia street. But she was abruptly taken from her mother, by her father, and brought up to the north of Spain when she was only 19 months old, along with her brother Wilson, who was just three years old. These two young children were left in a town called La Frecha, located in Asturias, Spain.
My mom and dad, my aunt Pam and uncle Ben, my cousins Janine and Christine (and their husbands) and I met up in Madrid.
The nine of us, ranging in age from 34 to 75, meandered around Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor taking selfies and eating large quantities of tapas, as Americans tend to do.
We strolled through Retiro Park, taking photos with the big stone lion statues beside the pond (just as grandma had done on a visit to her beloved home country in 1947 at the age of 25). Mom and I watched flamenco dancing under a full moon
We had cocktails at sunset, overlooking Ciebles Fountain and had a good laugh while looking at art in the Prado.
and then walked back to the Hotel Ritz to sleep.
On June 17, 2016 (my brother Bentley’s birthday) we piled into a rented stick-shift van, and affectionately referred to it as a “prison van” because of how uncomfortable it was.
But as we ascended into the north, with plenty of comraderie and funny comments–I even started a book of quotes–the vans’ lack of comfortable seats mattered less and less. And as the scenery of the stunning mountainous region of Northern Spain began to unfold before us, it was clear our adventure had begun. We arrived in La Frecha after five hours and climbed out of the van, having a tough time standing up straight, but in very good spirits nonetheless.
And then there we all were, standing before a 300-year old stone house. Grandma’s House. The house and its surroundings looked just as they did in all the old photographs from when grandma was a child.
We were warmly greeted by a mom and her daughter—two women from the village who mom had corresponded with by letters and emails.
They remembered Grandma and Uncle Wilson. They brought us into the kitchen and fed us a Spanish feast of bread and cheese and meats, and the traditional pungent sidre, that they poured from high above, without even looking—a lifelong skill.
These women, so warm, so welcoming, so wonderful, reminded me of grandma, the way they moved their hands, and the way they pulled us inside with their mannerisms, their warm touch and the lilting sound of their voices. It was the same way that Grandma behaved when we arrived to her home in Bermuda, every year of my own childhood.
I felt that warm nurturing sense of being taken care of and of being invited into a home where I was truly wanted. It was so enveloping and so calming. The way they fed us felt familiar too. The food was all prepared in advance and laid out, and they encouraged us to drink sidre and then to eat ‘til we could barely move.
They spoke mostly Spanish, while we spoke mostly English, but the communication was strong nonetheless and the welcome was heartfelt. We walked around the damp thick-walled house after the meal. I stood stock-still in grandma’s old bedroom, trying to picture her in it.
Then we opened the windows to the little balconies and leaned out. We then took a family photo of us perched in the windows and doorways like that and it was a full circle feeling to compare it to the photo of grandma standing in front of that house, so many years ago.
We walked down to the river in front of the house. We scattered grandma’s ashes and Uncle Wilson’s there. I did not cry.
We drove on, to Oveido. We ate dinner at a restaurant, all nine of us, with sidre being ceremoniously splashed from high above every table.
We were all reminiscing about grandma and grandpa and uncle Wilson and we were smiling and laughing a lot. It was so good to have this common denominator, to share our matching and mismatching memories of grandma. It reinforced our feelings of being a family. I needed this trip. I needed to put her to rest here. I still need her, but I have the women in my family to lean on and to remember her with. To talk of her sayings, and of her cute little quirks and of her mothering ways.
Grandma and Uncle Wilson, on a visit to La Frecha, 1985
I miss being mothered by grandma. She was great at it, in spite of not having her own mother in her life as she grew up. Grandma was our collective mother hen, and we all loved her for it. I wanted to mother like her when I grew up—feeding, worrying and clucking about.
The next day we drove in our now-beloved prison van to the seaside town of Gijon to find the boarding school, with adjacent church, that grandma attended from age 6 to 13. Standing inside that church where grandma had attended daily mass was a powerful pause button for me. Mom had also lived in Gijon for a summer when she was 14, and so did my Aunt JoAnn. It was a quiet beautiful town with a beach (and surfing!!).I felt grandma’s presence very strongly while I stood at the water’s edge, feeling the ocean breeze moisten my hair, my face, smelling the saltwater and gazing at the majesty of St. Pedro’s cathedral. An elderly husband and wife, she in yellow, held hands and walked slowly along the boardwalk in the foreground—and it felt like God giving me a special moment with my grandparents. The fisherman and the surfers, and even St. Pedro’s were all suddenly blurry, while this elderly couple came into sharp relief. I took a photo and felt that moment take a strong hold over me.
Afterwards we went to a restaurant and ate lunch with family members in Gijon. I cried alone in the restaurant bathroom, missing grandma fiercely. I guess it hit me then, in a wave of grief, that Angelita, my grandma, in all her regal Spanish beauty and motherly homemaking wonderfulness, was really gone.
We drove back to Oveido. We sat in a square by a church. We ate.
We then ran into a woman named Maria and her husband, while walking along the street. It turned out that they were relatives of ours. Well. How. About. That. So, of course we took a selfie…
Then we took a formal family photo with cousin Ignacio and left Oveido, feeling connected and complete. We drove in the prison van, past breathtaking poppy fields, and as we drove past La Frecha we made an unexpected stop.
We turned up a dirt road and parked. Then we got out and walked up a long road to the end of it, where a small lone church stood on a hill, surrounded by nothing but mountainous vistas. It was called Santa Cristina de Lena. It was such a special moment, standing in that space out in the middle of nowhere, in a town that grandma inhabited as a child. I understood why mom wanted us to do this trip. As we retraced grandma’s roots—her young years before she moved to New York at age 17 and married my grandfather at 18—we all felt closer to her. We understood her more. We felt more connected, to her, and to each other.
We then drove back to Madrid, maneuvering over mountain ranges while managing fights with “Greta” (the name we gave the navigation system), carsickness, claustrophobia, and some fairly unnerving toll booths and while my dad and uncle took turns burning the clutch. We made it to Madrid safely and retreated yet again to Retiro park for sunset.
We drank champagne on the hotel balcony before a late outdoor dinner in the Ritz garden, where jasmine bloomed.
The next day I woke up early to run, unfettered, around the streets of Madrid. I found myself drawn in by the old buildings, all strung together and full of storied history. I let myself get lost among the winding cobblestone streets of the old quarter—the ones that connected the plazas and the squares.A weightlessness took hold, and I decided I’d like to live there. I loved being alone, exploring, feeling so calm and so full of adrenaline at the same time. I loved being so unencumbered, so free. As I ran with no plan or idea of where I was, I suddenly found myself at the corner of Calle San Ricardo and Calle Santa Maria. And felt grandma’s presence strongly, yet again.
I continued on and found great little nooks and crannies and stellar views and my knees were holding up somehow, and I felt like I was twenty years old again. I loved Santa Ana Square and all its little feeder streets. I loved Madrid.
I found a youth hostel full of kids in line—all talking with each other instead of lost zombies on their phones. Heads were up, eye contact was being made, and smiles were appreciated in real time while body language was being read. They were connecting, in person, and it made me wonder if travel is truly one of the last ways that these twenty-something year olds can find freedom from their phones.
Somewhere between the limbo of cruising altitude, jetlag, patchy WiFi, roaming charges, time zone issues, and cultural interference (such as the 11pm dinner hour in Spain) we become free from our hostage-holding devices. That freedom further enhances the empowerment found by traveling with only the pack on your back. It is so much easier to process and to sit with the culture and revel in the scenery when not “plugged in” to our phones. It allows one to rediscover the lost art of conversation and to truly share in the experience at hand with the people beside you.
In my case, it was my extended family, and it was a gift. I am so lucky to have such adventure-loving, wander-lusting family members. The irony here is that Grandma would have SO LOVED this trip. Oh my goodness she would have reveled in the adventure of it, and of being back in Spain, and being in all of these places surrounded by her family.
Grandma, I so wish you could have been there.
I love you and I miss you every day. You live on in all of us.