When Maria Vazquez returns to Nicaragua for her beloved grandfather's funeral, she brings with her a mysterious package from her grandmother's past—and a secret of her own. And she also carries the burden of her tense relationship with her mother Ninexin, once a storied revolutionary, now a tireless government employee. Between Maria and Ninexin lies a chasm created by the death of Maria's father, who was killed during the revolution when Maria was an infant, leaving her to be raised by her grandmother Isabela as Ninexin worked to build the new Nicaragua. As Ninexin tries to reach her daughter, and Maria wrestles with her expectations for her romance with an older man, Isabela, the mourning widow, is lost in memories of attending boarding school in 1950's New Orleans, where she loved and lost almost sixty years ago. When the three women come together to bid farewell to the man who anchored their family, they are forced to confront their complicated, passionate relationships with each other and with their country—and to reveal the secrets that each of them have worked to conceal.
Lushly evocative of Nicaragua, its tumultuous history, and vibrant present, Eleni N. Gage's The Ladies of Managua brings you into the lives of three strong and magnetic women, as they uncover the ramifications of the choices they made in their pasts and begin to understand the ways in which love can shape their futures.
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About the Author
ELENI N. GAGE is a journalist who writes regularly for publications including Real Simple, Parade, Travel+Leisure,The New York Times, T: The New York Times Travel Magazine, Dwell, Elle, Elle Decor and The American Scholar. Currently Executive Editor at Martha Stewart Weddings and formerly beauty editor at People, Eleni graduated with an AB in Folklore and Mythology from Harvard University and an MFA from Columbia University. She lives in New York City with her husband and their young daughter.
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The Ladies of Managua
By Eleni N. Gage
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Eleni N. Gage
All rights reserved.
THURSDAY, JANUARY 8, 2009
"Revolutionaries make bad husbands," my abuela always says. I don't think that's fair, really. It's not like my papi was such a terrible son-in-law, such a bad husband to her daughter for the brief time my parents were married. His only mistake, as far as I can tell, was being in the wrong hall at the wrong time, opening the wrong door. Like a game show contestant on The Price Is Right choosing door number two; my Bela used to watch that every afternoon when we lived in Miami, before I went off to college and my grandparents returned to Nicaragua. Only this wasn't a game, it was a revolution, and choosing the wrong door meant that my father was shot and killed. He died because of a choice he made, I see that, but it was all a mistake. It's not like he opened the door in order to hurt my mother, to abandon us. It hardly seems fair to hold his death against him.
But my abuela would say he shouldn't have been there in the first place, in that general's mansion in Managua, playing at being a soldier, trying to change the world. Not when he had a baby at home, and a baby girl, at that — to my Bela, it makes a difference.
And I see her point, I do. There's a little hubris involved there, sure. But if no one ever tried to do the impossible, there would be no real change anywhere in the world. Mostly it's pretty noble, I think, to see something wrong and try to set it right. Besides, his whole generation tried to reform their country, to change everything. And they did, in some ways. They didn't like the way Nicaragua was being run as Somoza's personal playground, the way the dictator and his government stole and celebrated while most people lived in poverty. My parents didn't like it, even if they didn't really count as "most people." Fomenting revolution, spreading reform — it's what people their age did back then, try to turn the world upside down. The same way my Bela and all her friends try to shore it up, to write letters, to look decorative, to conform to society instead of changing it. When I think about it, both my parents and my grandmother are just followers of trends. Although maybe I should give them more credit; maybe I'm the follower and, really, they're more trendsetters.
How many Christmas parties have I been to on holiday trips "home" to Nicaragua where some tipsy woman my mother's age trips over her Ferragamo heels on her way to tell me how she fought in "la Revolución," how she trained and battled in the mountains of Matagalpa before deciding to help the movement in other ways, press relations, consulting on the rebranding effort? She'll slip me a fuchsia-and-turquoise business card with the words CRISTIANA,SOCIALISTA, SOLIDARIA on it, a little reminder that her rebranding effort has succeeded in making the Sandinistas a religiously affiliated political party, garnering them the support of the Catholic Church, and Daniel Ortega a win in the last elections. And then she'll step a little closer, so I can smell the ronpopo on her breath, and whisper, "Your parents were like movie stars to us when we were all young; so beautiful, so tragic." She'll touch my face, and say something maudlin and semi-unintelligible: "Your father, he was so ...," she'll start, but she'll never finish her sentence.
I always want to scream, "What? He was so what?" I was four months old when my father died; I never knew him. And ever since I can remember, if I ask about him, Madre fusses with her scarf or studies her nail beds as if looking for clues before changing the subject. So I stop asking. When I was little, I stopped because I wanted to please her. With me living in Miami with my Bela and my abuelo, and Madre in Nicaragua, rebuilding the newly free country, I knew too well that her visits were precious; I didn't want to ruin the time we had together. She'd swoop in like a Very Special Guest Star in an episode of my favorite TV show, and I thought if I behaved, and I didn't upset her by making her talk about my papi, she'd return sooner. Maybe she'd become a series regular. I liked my friends, my school, so I didn't want her to take us back with her to Managua, but I thought if I could keep her happy the whole time she was visiting, maybe she'd decide it was a good idea to stay in Miami with all of us.
By junior high, I realized that she was never going to move in with us. Our apartment on Key Biscayne was too small, not in size but in scope. In Nicaragua, she was raising a young country, and therefore, reshaping the world. How could bringing up one not-very-interesting daughter compete with that? After my epiphany, I made myself stop asking about Papi, out of spite. Everyone else might act as if the Revolution was so fascinating, as if in talking to Madre they were interviewing some sort of female action hero, Jane Bond. But I wasn't everyone else, or I didn't want to be in her eyes. Let her ask about my life, for a change.
Now that I'm an adult, officially, anyway, I like to think I'm less stubborn. Most of the time now, I'll ask about my papi if the timing seems right, if we hear a song that makes Madre say, "We used to sing this during the Revolución." But when I do, she still flushes and looks away and mutters something that reveals nothing at all, even if I can manage to make out the actual words she's spoken. And I don't press the issue. I can tell she's upset, and I'd like to say that I stop asking because I don't want to sadden her. But that would be a lie. I just don't want to push her so hard that she blurts out what I suspect is the truth: that it's not simply too sad for her to talk about Papi, it's too painful for her to talk about him to me. That it hurts her to tell me about his death because I haven't properly honored his life. Because while she's carried on his work in his memory all these years, I've done nothing but resent her for the absence her efforts required. And that's not a truth I'm ready to hear.
So when I'm visiting Managua at Christmas and a (festively, never inappropriately) drunk woman caresses my face and intimates that she knew my father, knew him well enough to tell me something real about him, I can't help but stare. And she'll see the searching look in my eyes and recover with something like, "And your mother, so strong at such a young age. And so impressive now. We look up to her in the Movement, all of us women. How lucky to have such a strong mother."
And once again I've learned nothing more about my father, and I regret having revealed how desperate I am for information. Because all that I've gotten out of the conversation is a reminder that it's not just my parents, but their whole generation, who are amazed by how unlike them I've turned out to be, what a pale, torn copy.
* * *
I thought I'd avoided all that this year by spending the holidays with Allen and his mother at their house in the Berkshires, curled up by the fire, watching snow fall outside. I expected it to be everything Christmas in Managua isn't. Cozy. Quiet. A little boring. No listening to strangers' boozy reminiscences by the professionally decorated, artificial tree. It turned out that Christmas in the Berkshires was like the end of It's a Wonderful Life, neighbors caroling, bells ringing, angels getting their wings. A much larger cast of extras than I had anticipated. I had thought Allen and I would have time alone, to walk in the snow, to talk in front of the fire, to make plans for the future, to plot it out, making it seem manageable rather than frightening. But the house has been in his mother's family since before her own mother was born. The cottage, I mean — she called it a cottage, as if we were living in a fairy tale. So Allen's aunts and uncles kept stopping by, both real relatives and people who had just known him since he was a little boy vacationing with his parents, who stand across from him once a year, gin and tonic in hand, and ask about his painting and what's going on in his life, which, for Allen, is pretty much the same thing.
I was right about the coziness, and the tree — we were the ones who decked it with silver snowflakes and the ancient plaster handprints that I suppose we could auction off now as Allen's earliest artworks. But I was wrong about the quiet; apparently boozy strangers are inevitable at Christmas the world over.
I decided to relax and try to enjoy the nice long weekend, not to bring up anything important and possibly upsetting until Allen and I returned to New York, life got back to its normal state of controlled chaos, and the black-and-white glow of Christmas in the mountains faded. Which happened faster than I thought possible. By the time we were crossing the bridge into the city, all I could think of was how different this new year was going to be than last January, when Allen and I had been together only six months and were still blissfully floating along. A year later, I knew it was time to focus on our future, on our separate lives, and if we'll be building one life together, somehow.
While I couldn't wait to get back to New York to start making plans, Allen was just as eager to return to his paintings. As the short winter days passed, I got so worn out from trying to get Allen to focus, to look at me instead of the canvas in front of him, that by the time we'd been back in New York a week, all my senses felt dulled, as if I were a pencil in need of sharpening. Suffocated by my winter coat, I dragged my feet through the slushy streets, consoling myself with the thought that at least I hadn't gone home for Christmas and New Year's. At least I wasn't in Managua with Madre and my Bela, trying, and failing, to put on a happy face so as not to worry them, when in fact, the whole time I'd be wondering what my life will be like next Christmas, and if Allen will be a part of it. They'd each pick up on my anxiety and Bela would rage on about Allen not deserving me if he was making me suffer so. And worse, Madre would listen in judgmental silence before asking a probing question that made me realize I was overreacting, getting so worked up over something as trivial and bourgeois as a relationship. She'd pin me with that look, what seemed like concern shining in her big, brown eyes until I realized it was pity. Pity for me that I'm not like her — strong, confident, and consumed only by love for her country, her people. That I was so obsessed by my relationship with one petty little man. As long as there was no one to notice my anxiety — no, my fear — as long as I wasn't pierced by their questions or weakened by their sympathy, I knew I'd be fine. And then Abuelo outsmarted me, bringing me home anyway.
After what the doctor had said on his last visit to Miami, Abuelo's death was no surprise. I was sad that he's gone, but it was a selfish sadness, for myself, not him. "It's okay, niña," he'd said at Mt. Sinai, staring out at Biscayne Bay, after he told me he'd decided not to have another procedure. "I'm ready." And I knew he wasn't talking about going to lunch.
What's shocking is that I still feel surprised. By the normalcy of it all, the way my Bela's voice sounds the same on the phone, the way Managua still looks oddly, impossibly green as the plane swoops toward it. And by the timing, that he got me to come when my Bela wanted me here, despite my determination to have my own, uneventful holiday, followed by my own, quiet crisis.
At least Abuelo waited until January. With the holiday parties over, I'll be spared my mother's colleagues' tipsy reminiscences.
* * *
Do I sound callous? Making light of my grandfather's demise? Mocking people who are friendly when they see me standing alone at a party, whose only sin is wanting to relive their courageous youths? I don't mean to make fun of them, not really. When my college friends and I get together we rattle on and on about our younger days, too, even though it's only been a decade and change. In our case, we're yammering on about boys we'd kissed and shouldn't have, trips we took, lies we told. I admire my mother's friends and colleagues, I do. I don't know many people my age who would literally risk their lives to fight for something they believed in; I may not know any, really. But still, it would have been nice to have a mother whose world orbited around me occasionally. And to have had a father at all. I know it's selfish. But I'm tired of pretending that I don't feel that way. I do. Knowing more about where I came from, about the man who helped create me, it might help me figure out what to do now.
Occasionally my Bela will offer some scrap of information about my papi — that he's where I got my dark hair, when I could have been "even more beautiful," she'll say, "with chestnut-colored hair like your mother's." I know what he looked like from the few snapshots I've seen: Madre in a long dress like something out of Little House on the Prairie, and Papi luxuriously mustachioed, her clutching a Rojita and him a glass of whiskey at their wedding reception in my grandparents' yard.
"Don't raise your eyebrows at me; it makes you look just like your father," my Bela said once, when I was silently questioning her mandate that you can't wear shoes made of fabric during the day. "As if you think you know something I don't." That was interesting, because I wasn't aware I had raised my brows at all; it must have been an involuntary tic, a genetically coded response brought out by repressed skepticism.
It's from my Bela that I've managed to get all the basic information over the years — where my papi went to high school; that he had one sister who now lives in Honduras; that, even though he was an economics major at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua, he once won a prize for an essay he wrote about Rubén Darío's poetry. But whenever my Bela and I are finally alone, when I visit from New York and am sitting on her bed next to her while she strokes my too-dark hair, and I ask her straight out, "Tell me something I don't know about my papi," she always has the same answer.
"Your papi was a revolutionary," she says. "And revolutionaries make bad husbands."
They don't make great mothers, either, I want to answer. But I don't.CHAPTER 2
Revolutionaries make bad husbands. That's what I tell my granddaughter, my beautiful Mariana. She doesn't like it when I say that, she thinks I'm criticizing her papi, her mysterious, martyred papi. But to me Manuel was just a greasy-haired, black-eyed boy who charmed a stubborn girl and married above himself. My advice has nothing to do with her papi. Or, at least, not quite as much as she thinks.
Like all my advice, that warning comes from the knowledge I've gained over the course of my life. And my Mariana's the only one who wants to hear my hard-won wisdom, such as it is. Ignacio, God rest his soul, he never wanted to hear it, perhaps for good reason. And even if he had, it's too late now. It's thanks to him that I'm sitting here in the backseat while Don Pedro circles the airport, waiting for Mariana to appear like a vision, like the angel to the shepherds keeping watch over their flock in Bethlehem.
An angel in blue jeans — that's funny. I wouldn't have thought of angels, perhaps, if the nacimientos had been taken down already, if there weren't angels and camels and wise men of all races lining the highway that leads to the airport. I'd like to take a closer look at the nacimientos, but these popular neighborhoods, they're not always safe, not like when I was a girl. The side of the highway is not a place for someone like me, with bad knees and expensive jewelry. Still, part of me envies the too-young mothers in too-short skirts holding their babies up for a closer look at the Nativity. I'd love to see for myself how each artist depicts the Virgen, staring at her Child. It reminds me of when my girls were young. Not that I am comparing myself to Her, of course not. It's just that no mother can look at the Nativity and not remember the intensity of her feelings, what it is to love an infant, a being who depends on you for everything, who gazes at you as if you were the stars in the sky. Even Ninexin, with her camouflage fatigues, and, later, her expensive pantsuits, even Ninexin softens each time she sees the nacimiento I have the housekeeper place below the tree. I know because I saw the same expression on her face when she looked at Mariana when she was a baby, when she looks at her still, although both of them would deny it.
Excerpted from The Ladies of Managua by Eleni N. Gage. Copyright © 2015 Eleni N. Gage. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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