Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Meaning of Cuernavaca

The city of memory, the city of nostalgia, of everything that's been lost, and found, forgotten, remembered.

We--my father, my mother, and I--moved from Mexico City to Cuernavaca in December 1975, when I was two months shy of three years old. I have fragmented memories of that December. For instance, walking around the pool wearing corduroy pants and a woolen sweater (yes, winters in the central altiplano of México can be cold), but my parents were wearing swimming suits, and I remember remarking on that, briefly, internally.

View of the house I grew up in, from the carport. The deep end of the pool is just off-frame to the right.
In the back you can see half of the sandbox I played in for hours, the tree where I had my treehouse
(long gone, rotted or something, before this photo was made), and a corner of the tennis court
(you have to look hard).
My father made this photo five months before he died.

The mystery didn't last long; when I was most distracted, when I least expected it, they pushed me into the deep end of the pool. Having just moved from an apartment into a 1.5K-square-meter property with a giant, very deep body of water in the center of the manicured landscape, they needed to know that their little girl--their only little girl--could save herself if she fell in unobserved. (The swimsuits were in case I couldn't.)

I did, though. I swallowed some water, I froze half to death (my perception; apparently I wasn't even blue when I came out), and it took me a long, long time to forgive my parents for this, the ultimate betrayal of trust (again, my perception), but I doggie-paddled without any trouble to the stairs leading out from the deep end of the pool and climbed out. All by myself.

View of the house from the lawn. The previous photo was
made from the highest tier, just under the blue carport roof.
Yes, I remember that. I remember the feel of the soaked clothes. The water-logged weight of the shoes on my feet. The chill of the slight breeze. How the sun never had felt so useless. Most of all, though, I remember the sense--even though I had no words to define it then--of having grown up a smidgen. Of having done something momentous, if unpleasant. I filed it away, then: growing up comes in bursts, and they're mostly distasteful.

Cuernavaca is that, above all. The scene of those bursts of growing up. Most are painful: the loss of my father, the betrayal of my first love, the end of an entire life of dreams. Some are shameful, others embarrassing, many giggle-worthy (now, in hindsight). I understand why I left, why I needed to leave it all behind--and, now, I understand too why this city exerts such a pull in spite of the two decades I've been away.

Returning to Cuernavaca is the cusp of nostalgia. The childhood I lived in that huge house was a thing of fantasy. The friends I made, the people I loved; they're all there, in unexpected corners. That house is a time machine that pounces, much like my parents that December morning 4 decades ago, when I least expect it. And I've never felt it as strong as I did this time.

Reunion with high school classmates I hadn't seen in
twenty years. Yes, TWENTY. Funnily enough, conversation
(and laughter--especially laughter!) flowed like we'd seen
each other just a few months ago. Like time hadn't passed
at all.
Maybe it was the reunions I had. Maybe it was the fact that I hadn't been there for three years, the longest I've stayed away since leaving in 1998. Maybe it's the sadness I feel at how Mexico has fallen, what it's become--and is becoming. Maybe it's just the particular moment of my life now; since deciding to write full time, I've been immersed in an introspection of a--perhaps--unnatural intensity. That first novel I'm working on (should be, anyway) is, after all, about Cuernavaca and the denouement of my life there.

Whatever it was, being there was a hard thing. Leaving, though, was even harder. If I didn't have such happiness to come back to in Curaçao I'm not sure I could have gotten on that plane.

Being a writer, I recorded the whole emotional roller-coaster in my journal. It'll be most helpful in the not-too-distant future :)


  1. Hi Julia ... Cuernavaca - holds a memory bank for you ... of reality and the scenes from your novels that you will adjust and bring some feelings to life once again in a book form ... It must have been a glorious place to grow up - looks amazing .. and how lovely so many school friends were able to get together, meet up and laugh about life ... lovely photos and true memories - loved reading about it - cheers Hilary

    1. Thank you, Hilary. I'm glad you enjoyed this post. You put it so well: "a memory bank"--that's exactly what Cuernavaca is, yes. I forget, because I'm away so much of the time. And I can't imagine what it would feel like to live there full-time--with the past rolling me over every day. Whoa.

  2. What a beautiful place this is...I look forward to "seeing" it in your brought out something tender and longing in your words..


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