Living in old-town Toledo is a little like living in a museum, the skyline, buildings, narrow stone streets marking an everyday connection to the past like the tapestries and tall thrones of a centuries-old royal museum. The main streets of town are dominated by tourist stores, golden souvenirs, handbags stamped with “Toledo” hanging next to fluffy red polka-dot Flamenco dresses. My father-in-law has made his living selling these souvenirs, walking around town visiting the owners of stores filled with glittering gold plates, jewelry, and long, silver swords. All traditional products from these parts, once handmade in small workshops, hammer meeting metal to pound the old damascino designs, now shipped from factories in China, assembled here.
As I drive into town to visit my Spanish Grandma, I look at the city, the Alcazar and Cathedral standing tall against the late afternoon sky. I think about how living in this museum of a town seems to go hand in hand with conservative values and a desire to keep the past alive, keep the uncertainty of present-day change at bay. Isn’t that what growing old is about, after all? They say we all grow more conservative as we grow older, working to protect what we have, pass on what we have learned to the next generation. When there’s money involved, or power, people hold even tighter, guarded and fearful of the impulsiveness of the young.
Having grown up with little connection to the past, not even knowing my grandparents, living far from where my parents were born, I’ve often felt seduced by the curves of history here, Roman bridges still providing a path across the river, castles a roof over peoples’ head. But it’s the stories that sweep me away, capture my imagination, make me wonder what kind of person I’d be if I were born in a place like this. How is it different to become who you are when so many physical reminders of the past surround you each day?
While packing for our trip home tomorrow, I listen to a podcast I’ve discovered called New Letters on the Air, an old episode from last June where Tobias Wolff talks about his book Old School. He says the book is partly about questions of identity, “how do we become the person we’re going to be”. He asks, “What part does imagination play in that?”
Wolff makes me think about the possibilities for creating who we are; he makes me feel like who we are is merely a question of the bounds of our imagination. At the same time, being in Toledo, listening to my Spanish Grandma’s stories, makes me think about how the past draws boundaries around our experience, colors how we see the present. What do you think matters more in defining ourselves, imagination or the past? How do both matter to you?
My husband is from an old city in Spain, born and raised among stone buildings and wide open Castilian plains. We flew here yesterday, and I spent this afternoon visiting his grandmother while he went to the Madrid soccer game with his dad. I never knew my grandparents, and am in love with this Spanish grandma, 91 and full of spirit and a lifetime of stories.
We talk in her sitting room, in flowered easy chairs surrounded by family photos and the sounds of heels on cobblestones below the window. She’s lived in this same first-floor apartment since the mid-1940s, between the Alcazar and the Cathedral, centers of military and religious power that dominate the Toledo skyline. She tells me about growing up here, going down to the community fountains with a bucket to get water, lingering with her friends talking about boys. Working in her family’s bakery during the Spanish Civil War, trading bread for produce with people who rode donkeys into the city from the pueblos. Going from house to house through tunnels in the walls when it was too dangerous to walk on the streets.
I am going to interview her, record the stories, write a history of her life. When I ask her, she likes the idea, goes and gets a small pad of paper and begins reading me her family history in dates; births, weddings, deaths, where people were from, full names (a mix of Spanish and French from her mother’s side of the family). When she finishes reading, with the last two grandchildren, my husband’s adopted cousins, it’s quiet, and I’m thinking about how much she’d like to write down a great-grandchild in this small family history. “Have faith” she says, as I kiss her soft cheeks goodbye, and bundle up against the cold.
And I feel it, because she is smiling, so full of life, spirited and beautiful after all she’s lived through.