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Portrait of Paloma
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AFTERWORDS — Letters from Haley's younger daughter to her sister offer glimpses of Paloma's life after the conclusion of Portrait of Paloma.

Gwyn Talbot Sands to Lys Talbot Vandermeer

1 August 2018
Villa Vigliano

Dear Sis,
Sorry you and your tribe can't be here. We miss you and hope Will gets better soon. In our three days, we haven't done as much as you might expect, mostly because Dad has been out of it. You know how peppy he was acting when you took us to the airport? Well, I'm afraid that was psychic energy and it ran out during the flight. He went to bed as soon as we got here and really didn't leave his room till today. He seems OK, but not up to speed yet. Ninety will do that to you.

Everyone here appears quite composed, quite accustomed to putting on big events. I've asked this and that about wedding preparations, and each time everything had been anticipated and arranged. Twice, Paloma has told me to relax, so I guess I'm having a tough time accepting that the mother of the groom is not much more than an honored guest. She must suspect how useless I feel, because this morning she walked me through the areas and we talked about the routines for the wedding day activities.

I've made a few diary entries, especially after visiting with the two old ladies, and I do mean old. Paloma says Nourrit must be pushing a hundred. I believe it only because she finally appears frail. Otherwise, she sees, hears, and still has all her marbles. (And Lys, you're right, she does give off the air of rose potpourri!) I only wish my Spanish were better, I'd love to visit more than my vocabulary permits. Bessie is fine and still bright too, but her hearing is only so-so, even with the latest miracle device imbedded. But we do OK face to face in a quiet place, and she's a great source for small details about life here, especially the Giordanos' preparations for the big event. I was particularly happy to hear her describe Paloma and Carlo both as enthusiastic about our Birk marrying Giulita-Bessie wouldn't make that up for me. It's welcome because Ted and I have been a little antsy about their real feelings. We've asked ourselves how we'd have felt if Lynne had wanted to marry when she was months short of twenty.

I must say, Paloma has been warm and welcoming. The first time we really got together, she took me by the hands and told me how wonderful it was to her that we were to be consuegras (pointing out that English has no word for this relationship between parents of a man and wife). And Giulia was certainly honest about her feelings. She admitted to feeling that no one was good enough for Giulita, but she made it clear she wasn't singling out our son. She explained, "I suppose that is the fault of the pedestal on which I put a child who came into the world to do everything right, who always does, and does it joyfully." Then she said something quite mystical. "It comes to me so often - in Giulita, God lets us see Paloma, innocent, reborn into a proper family." I think I know what she means. Giulia has the heart of a poet.

I'm reassured about the timing and appropriateness of this marriage when I talk to Giulita herself. She is the most mature twenty-year-old I've ever been around. I hate to say it, but at six years younger, she seems like the senior partner of this pair in many intellectual and emotional ways. We've had serious discussions with Birk, like, "You'd better go into this marriage planning to grow with it and keep up - or you and the marriage will get left behind. You have a tiger by the tail." He smiles, but he knows what we mean, and I know he loves her more than anything he's ever dreamed of. So, we have hope. And you know we're crazy about our daughter-in-law to be. (Who, by the way, says, "Thank you, Auntie Lys, for your special note and the lucky sixpence to put in my shoe.")

So, what else is news? Well, it's been two years since little Nourrit spent the summer in your house and ours. (And the bad thing never told us that everyone here calls her "Picca," some slang or play on words for "little" and "skinny." She says she thought it was elegant when we all called her Nourrit!) She is about to be fourteen, and so changed you would hardly know her. A foot taller, her face lengthened out (and her nose too), slimmer (if you can believe it), and more energetic than ever. It looks to me as if she's headed to be around Paloma and Giulita's size and shape - and a good thing because she's finally growing into proportion with that great head of kinky auburn hair; it doesn't dominate her the way it did. But she's still a character, full-time mimic, pun maker, gadfly, and family snitch. Anything you want to know, Picca knows - and tells - but, I must say, with surprising discretion.

She spent last winter with her aunts in Sevilla and went to school there. That brought her Spanish up to the level of her English and French, or so Paloma says. But that's not enough for her. Benito recently married a woman (she seems like a child) just Giulita's age. Shaiel is a lively, round, smiley person raised in an ancient Christian enclave in Jordan. God knows what she speaks, but she and Picca speak it together, and they are best friends. Shaiel does all the Villa's flowers - I guess she has other duties as well - and Picca helps her and tutors her in Italian at the same time. They seem to dance around and through this place - I love hearing their laughter and the singsong of their voices. Paloma watches them and smiles - happy nostalgia, she says. Apparently she had just such a friend in a woman who worked in her house when she was Picca's age.

Since we were here two years ago, Betta has gone from girl to woman. She's nearly seventeen and she's lost that soft look she had, swimming and tennis have hardened her up - and she's passed her parents in both sports. She has Paloma's broad shoulders, but I guess she's going to end up an inch or so shorter, the shortest of the three girls. Ted and I marveled at her light hair and blue eyes, but Carlo told us Paloma's English grandmother was a blue-eyed blond, and Carlo's mother, from Ticino, Italian Switzerland, was also fair and blue eyed. That's the genetic dice for you. I guess it hasn't been easy to be the child in between brilliant Giulita and lively, gregarious Picca, but Betta clearly is finding herself, and nowadays she is serious about cooking. She's voluntarily apprenticed to Benito in the kitchen, and he's enthusiastic about her skills and inventiveness.

That's it for now. Ted needed a rest, and this quiet time has been good medicine. Now that Dad's on deck, I guess things will liven up. Paloma and Carlo send their best wishes - and so does Giulia. She says she wrote to you about your invitation.
Love, Gwyn

4 August 2018
Villa Vigliano

Dear Little Big Sister,
Great news about Will! Thank God he finally agreed to an operation - I guess it took an emergency to convince him that his back was never going to heal itself! Now you get to keep him quiet long enough to recuperate. Good luck!
Well, we have big news, too. Last night after dinner, Birk said Giulita had an announcement. She then let drop that she's been accepted at the UC medical school in San Francisco! This fall! She and Birk are going to live nearby. He and his partners will still rally around the Valley - it's an hour's drive away - but only to stay in touch and promote. Part of the reason they sold their patent on "Bloodhound," their detector for proprietary software strings, was to be free of day-to-day chores related to development, marketing, etc.

Giulita was so sweet. She said she'd wanted her news kept secret from even her family until Dad could be present because Dad was the one who always talked to her about the wonders of having a goal and working toward it, and having some greater good lying beyond that. So her dream that we all thought so far away or unlikely five years ago when we were here together (remember how emphatic she was even then about not just medicine, but pediatric medicine?), that dream is alive, well, and on course. Everyone is very proud of her. Our concerns are about the hardships along the way, not the outcome.

I don't know about you, Lys, but I'll admit that Dad's influence on Giulita made me feel more than a little wistful. I don't remember him taking that line very pointedly with us. There were times when I certainly could have used more guidance and direction. Maybe he learned something from raising us and had regrets and found Giulita as a way to salve his conscience. What do you think, better late than never?

Oh, I almost forgot. After Giulita sat down and we had a round of congratulations, Dad got up and made some pointed remarks, tongue in cheek. He reminded Giulita that he'd once tried to sell the "life goals" plan to Paloma - with no observable success. But, back then, he said, he had no idea how patient Paloma could be, and how good at delegating responsibility. "So," he said to Giulita, "you've been designated to bear the family burden in this arena."

Paloma pretended to be much affronted, but she stood up with Dad and took his hand while she explained that he once had overly lofty ambitions for her, wanted her to become more intellectual than she was. But, she said, with her, family was always first, and she rejoiced in all of it. And next came the Villa. Then, after Dad had come to visit several times and seen how her plans were working out, she'd hoped he'd forgiven her for choosing her own goals instead of the ones he picked out. "But," she said, "I must tell you, he never gave up."

Then she turned to me. (I guess I was supposed to represent our family. She often sounds as if she thinks we all live under one roof!)

"He was looking, looking, always looking to make his point, just like your old dog, Jack. So, he seized on Giulita when she was you-would-not-believe how small and started to fill her with plans and ambitions. Now, he's going to get his way. And Giulita won't be distracted, believe me."

Then she gave Dad a big hug and we went back to snippets of family chit-chat.

Spending days with the Giordanos reminded me of things you and I once wondered about. Remember that first time we came over here together - little Nourrit was only a baby - and we asked each other how we'd have reacted to a mother as demonstrative, as much a physical presence as Paloma? Remember how she reveled in every moment of her kids' growth and flowering, hovered so much we both thought she might be overwhelming to grow up with? Well, I guess we needn't have worried. These girls are self-assured and have adopted very adult perspectives.

Besides, you and I have always said these girls really have two mothers, and I've seen the idea reinforced since we arrived. First, it was Giulita standing behind her aunt Giulia as they listened to music at the lawn party, her arms around her and her head on her shoulder. And later I saw Giulia reading on an outdoor chaise when Picca came up, threw one leg over her, sat on her lap, and started some lively questions and answers. I'm sure it's been a counterbalance to Paloma's huge presence to have this more introspective, other mother. How many kids are this lucky?

I'm here in the business office, Dad is standing over me, Bessie too, they send their best. I'll get back to you right after the wedding.
Gwyn

Sunday, 12 August 2018
Villa Vigliano

Dear Lys,
The great wedding was yesterday but the revels went on so long I couldn't face staying up to write - even with much to tell. Revels and skeletons in the closet! How about that?

We got up yesterday to find heavy clouds and showers outdoors, and heavy gloom indoors because the wedding was to be in the grand garden. But some heavenly messenger had whispered in Giulita's ear and she was all smiles from the start. By noon there were shafts of light, and by three, when everyone was gathering, it was clear blue sky and the wind was gone. All the arrangements were perfect, Birk behaved himself, and it went off beautifully. The service was short and made more impressive by the music Giulia and Giulita selected - two arias and two madrigals by seventeenth-century Italian women composers - performed by people they know from an early music group we've heard in Florence (you may have too, I can't remember).

Oh, Giulita looked so beautiful. She wore a simple, all-white tea length dress with long sleeves (some gorgeous, heavy, washed silk) and a Renaissance-looking lace cap. She carried lilies of the valley. Her sisters and her aunt and Lynne (her attendants) wore equally simple, bone-colored dresses and had red-brown flowers, some kind I don't know. Birk's partners both stood up for him, the long and the short of it, as you know. (By the way, you may remember that Paloma told us she would wear a long, rust-colored dress, so, I had something similar and figured it would be appropriate. Well, hers was a mite more revealing, but otherwise it was quite amazing how closely the colors and material matched. Carlo insisted that we stole the show, which was the kindest sort of white lie, but being as tall as we are, we were conspicuous, I could feel it.) You can see some of this for yourself in the picture files Ted is sending you now.

You would have been proud of Dad. He sat during the wedding with Bessie and Nourrit, and, at the reception, brought people to them and kept things moving. Honestly, when Dad and Nourrit are together, they look and act like a couple - I've seen them holding hands(!)

Benito and Shaiel were guests, as you would expect, but I was interested to see that practically all the staff were invited, right down to gardeners. The prepping and serving was done by a caterer, but I'm afraid the Villa kitchen was on overtime before the big day - I recognized a number of their elegant specialties. The caterer did contribute amazing platters and grand bowls of goodies - artistic statements at first and popular delicacies when we all fell to.

The party afterward was very jolly but leisurely and Italian - nobody inclined to go home. The wedding actually came off about four-thirty and the last (non-resident) guests left close to midnight. We did miss all of you, but everyone understands your problems and how tied-down your kids are.

Giulita and Birk partied along with everyone else and then headed upstairs. No honeymoon for them - unless you call apartment hunting in San Francisco a honeymoon. But they get no sympathy - they'll be in love wherever they go, and love whatever they do. Giulita, in particular, has that gift. I'm rather jealous, actually. I can be so slow to recognize how much fun I'm having, even when I'm doing something fun.

The day before the wedding, we met the English couple - actually she's Dutch - the ones who own the hotel in England where Paloma and Carlo met. She's Anneke, but his name and their last name escape me for the moment. Ted has found a lot in common with another Ted, Ted Schmelzer, the husband of Paloma's favorite teacher from her high school days. It cracked me up to overhear the two Teds earnestly discussing the investment of funds belonging to non-profit organizations - here in Tuscany, at a gathering for a family wedding. Men! Mrs. Schmelzer, Jane, is a bright, energetic soul (both of them have responsible positions with The World Wildlife Fund). She has children the ages of mine, but I had no trouble talking to her on a broader range of subjects than that. She and I had a tête-à-tête over mid-morning tea.

We also met Paloma's half sisters from Sevilla, pleasant women, both, who speak quite good English. They seemed happy to be here and happy for Paloma and Giulita, but all in all sort of subdued - hard to believe they're our contemporaries, they seem older. They've spent most of their time here heads-together with Picca, you can see she has them quite enchanted. And more than once I've seen them come up to Nourrit and spend some time with her. Picca had told me they once resented the old woman's place in the family, but they seemed to have a lot to talk over today.

OK, now the uncloseted skeleton I promised. Two or three days ago, little Nourrit (Picca, I keep forgetting), came up to me and told me she'd undertaken the job of sorting, identifying, and mounting or storing her parents' old pictures. She wanted to know whether I might want copies of some that showed Dad or Dad and Paloma together. I said sure, if it was convenient, and she told me that she knows a boy in the village whose father does color reproductions. So yesterday she brought me a dozen nicely duplicated pictures. I looked them over and right away spotted some puzzlers, pictures of Dad and Paloma together in places I couldn't imagine around Florence. Besides, in the same pictures he looked too young, and she looked positively adolescent. I asked Picca when they'd been taken, and she got out her lists and read me the dates and places involved. They turned out to be from Portugal in 1996 and England in 1997. So I talked to Ted and we figured it out. Remember when Dad went off to Portugal the second year after Mom died, and told us he was meeting a Spanish woman? Well, that was Paloma! You could have knocked me over with a feather. He let us assume his famous "Spanish woman" was a contemporary of his. Hah! She couldn't have been much over twenty. Well! I couldn't stand it. The wedding's over, and Paloma and I are now consuegras, so this morning I up and asked her about those photos (just as if it were any of my business).

She acted sheepish, at least sheepish for Paloma. Well, no, she admitted, they hadn't exactly told us everything when we came over to visit that first time in 2002. And then it never seemed very necessary to set the record straight. But she didn't hold back. She told me they'd had an affair, and it was her idea. When she met Dad, she was attracted to him, she says, as a father figure, and she added, "I'd never had a father." Then she said she wanted to be closer than that. Well, the old boy had something beyond fatherhood in mind too, because they traveled together for weeks on end. Paloma was sweet about my surprise (and disapproval). "Don't be too hard on your father," she said. "I responded to the feelings I had, and I had strong feelings for him. He was lonely and I offered to do something about it. We had a great time for a while, but I should tell you it was he who called it off. He told me his fun wasn't more important than my life. He encouraged me to go out and make a life." She told me she and he had their only quarrel over her refusal to listen to his advice. Her comment, all these years later, was, "He was right, of course, and I did finally listen."

So, they were traveling together in England when Dad met Carlo. The two men found common ground over Carlo's plans for the villa, Dad introduced Paloma, and the die was cast. So that's the real story of how Dad helped to create the Giordano clan and then got adopted by them. Kind of set my teeth on edge, but what would he, or rather, what would we have done without these people?

And I don't know what Paloma would have done. Here's the note she gave me just hours after she 'fessed up to the sins of the past - and knew I was a bit upset.

Please try not to judge your father or me too harshly. I needed help and he answered my cries. For me, the picture of a family was a gift from your father. It was more than the photographs he brought or sent with letters to us. Before I was married or had a home, he didn't talk that much about your mother or you or your children - and I know that was to spare my feelings. But I must tell you, his whole perspective is family driven, I was so aware of you all in him. I had no such family, he became for me the advocate of family. And when I went off on my own, I took his vision with me, not the poor, crippled thing of my own memories. The family with which you are now linked grew from that vision. Please rejoice with us.

I read it in front of her, and Lys, I'm telling you, Paloma was smiling at me with tears running down her cheeks. She apologized for her part in the deception, but never for the original actions. She told me, "I'm not ashamed. I'll tell you what I told your father, it was my past that took me to him, and it was he who took me to Carlo. Should I regret him, and us, and Giulita and Betta and Picca? Just to make a case for more conventional behavior back when I was a confused girl? No."

It was all so long ago. I spoke for both of us, I hope, when I told her how happy we were that Dad had their family's friendship, especially in these difficult last years of life. She gave me a big hug. Sometimes it still feels as if my consuegra is larger than life, but I think we are going to get along fine.

We stood arm in arm today as Giulita and Birk left. Paloma said, as if to nobody or to everybody, "What have we done?"

God only knows! People have endings, families play on.

Love, Gwyn