7 Dec 2016

32. Old Ladies

Old ladies, in my opinion, seem to be the guardians of what was and how it was and, as they "pass over", they leave parcels of emptiness that their menfolk - mostly concerned with football and politics - and their children cannot fill, or perhaps don't want to. Of course, they don't say "here's a bit of tradition" and, if you do hear something like that, forget it: it's probably invented since islanders everywhere love inventing their past. Just observe what old ladies do and say and you'll gain insights into the real Hierro lingering on in the collective psyche.

When my vineyard produced its first fruits I noticed that as they ripened the occasional bunch of grapes disappeared. I was approaching one morning when I saw an old lady with a straw hat and little basket of grapes coming out of the gate, carefully closing it behind her. Trying to sound as stern as I could I called out “Good morning! Excuse me!” She turned a pleasant, round rosy face at me.
“Is it normal here to steal other people’s fruit?” I asked.
“I didn’t steal anything. I just took what I needed. I’m sorry if I have upset you.”

Another old lady, this time in black widow’s weeds and not at all round and rosy, once came to the house to offer us a nearby piece of land.  I said I might be interested and asked the price.
“Well. I’m asking a million pesetas, but for you it will be two million.” 

On both occasions I felt like hugging the old women. There seemed to be something innocent, totally without malice or sophistication in their responses. But not so. The islanders, of their generation at least, had a completely different understanding of things. Their village society may have been small, inbred and vicious, but there had also been a sense of solidarity and community. The concept of trespass did not exist and no-one needed go hungry for a bunch of grapes or a plate of figs. Outsiders were welcome but since they were from elsewhere they just had to be rich, they had to be learnéd and were probably going to benefit at the cost of the locals. So, for an outsider, everything was double the price.

Things have changed since then but the possession of land still occupies an inordinate position in the minds of women over sixty, as it no doubt did years ago to whole families. The emmigration of the early twentieth century was not only about escaping starvation in years of drought. Socially it was far more important as a means of social mobility, of freeing the peasant family from serfdom by buying land from the impoverished landowners of the capital with the miserable savings sent home by those in Cuba, Argentina or Venezuela.

Living right next to the church belfry that chimes every half hour, the old lady in the photo had no need for the watch - perhaps it didn't even work! Someone had given it to her so she proudly wore it. Inside her two-roomed house there are only the bare essentials. Here she is enjoying her only luxury: sitting on the cushions on the stone bench outside her door of an evening. After a life of hardship, privation and emmigration she seems to exude resignation.