My next door neighbour is called Modesta. She is 89 years old and she lives alone in her little house in our tiny hamlet perched atop a hillside in Asturias, Northern Spain. She doesn’t drive and she has never travelled on a train nor seen a plane. She has never visited Madrid, nor even Covadonga (Asturias’ most famed tourist attraction, forty minutes drive from here). Nowadays, the only time she leaves the village is to visit the doctor five kilometres down the hill.
But none of this is to say that she hasn’t lived. Far from it. Quite apart from living through a bloody civil war and the subsequent dictatorship that still cast a long shadow on the Spain of today, her personal life has been hugely eventful and packed with more than her fair share of pain and suffering.
Modesta was only thirteen when her parents died. As she says, they died young in years but they were already old – fruit of a tough peasant life. Yesterday, as she showed me a sepia photograph of them, she calculated the number of years she had been an orphan – 76. That’s a long time to feel alone and unprotected in this world.
Modesta never married. But she did have a son. I can’t begin to imagine how difficult life must have been as a single mother in the ultra-conservative 1950s Spain of Franco. This was a place where many unwed mothers were told in hospital that their babies had died at birth and those babies were taken and given (or sold) to wealthy families who were struggling to conceive. Giving birth at home in the countryside, far from any hospital, with a local woman in attendance as midwife, quite possibly saved Modesta from that too cruel fate.
Nor can I fully imagine the deprivations of a life truly lived hand to mouth, scratching a living from the soil of a tiny smallholding. No wonder she often looks at me and shakes her head and mutters words to the effect – ‘You don’t know you’re born.’
As if all that weren’t enough, over twenty years ago, Modesta’s son died at the age of 40 in a car crash that also killed his wife. The couple left behind a 17 year old son, Miguel, but he gradually lost contact with his grandmother, an easy thing to do in those days before phone lines or a tarmacked road had reached this village. Ultimately he disappeared without a trace.
I have pieced together the fragments of Modesta’s sad story over the six years that I have lived here, as my Spanish has improved and my connections with people deepened. So naturally I was delighted yesterday when, on overhearing voices coming from Modesta’s kitchen, I ascertained that it was not her asistente (home-help) but a hitherto unknown great grand-daughter come to visit. Modesta had new-found family!
It turned out that a neighbour had set out to track down Miguel via the internet. Sadly, they discovered that, like his parents before him, Miguel had died tragically young – in a train accident five years ago. But he left behind a family, and his twenty one year old daughter had now made the thousand kilometer journey from Barcelona to meet her great grandmother and to spend a few days with her.
I was thrilled for Modesta and after chatting with her great grand-daughter in the morning I spent much of yesterday composing a blog post in my head – trying (yet failing) to control my schmaltzier tendencies. This really was a ‘telenovela’ (soap opera) unfolding on my doorstep, complete with Hollywood ending. I think I may even have quietly wept at one point, swept away by the lyricism of it all.
At 5pm I went next door, armed with my camera, ready to take a shot of Modesta with her great grand-daughter for posterity (and, let’s be honest, my blog). The girl had left for the evening with a cousin however and Modesta was not in a lyrical mood. ‘That girl doesn’t have the sense she was born with. I don’t know what she’s bothered to come here for’ was her somewhat crotchety take on the situation, leaving my soaring romanticism sorely deflated.
And I wasn’t the only one. Everyone in the village had been terribly excited about this family reunion. They had all come round to introduce themselves and to invite the girl round to their houses for a coffee and a chat. We were all equally disappointed that the visit had failed to have a miraculously uplifting effect on Modesta.
But then I realised that I’d been missing the point all along. The redemption in this tale comes not from a brief family reunion but rather from those who orchestrated it and those who care so much for Modesta and her happiness. It comes from the people she sees every day – us, her neighbours, her ‘familia de verdad’.
For Modesta may live alone but every day her friends and neighbours pop in to visit, to spend some time and to make sure she is okay. In this quiet country place, where for many years thirtysomething Sandra was the youngest resident, there are now six young children all of whom love Modesta unreservedly and who are unreservedly loved by her in return.
My own toddler Jack insists on visiting her several times a day – and not just for the biscuits she always gives him. He loves to bounce on her bed, to throw walnuts around her kitchen and to play hide and seek with her.
Even the cats and dogs of the village know that Modesta’s is a house where they will always receive kindness and affection as well as food. She worries about Dogly (our cheeky, accident-prone greyhound) if by midday he hasn’t scratched at her door in search of his daily biscuit.
As Modesta herself said to me today, ‘la vida da vueltas y vueltas’ – life has many twists and turns and many of the turns that her life has taken have been sad ones. But she knows she is loved and cared for by all her neighbours. And that is no small thing.