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Carmen García Villayandre (March 1946-March 2020): A Vital Memoir

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One year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic cast a pall over sunny Spain, plunging the country into a brutal, lingering night which, even now, refuses to cede fully to day.

One year and four days ago, a quiet street in Barrio de Salamanca, Madrid, went dim. That was the day Carmen died.

A feisty, sharp, proud daughter of Extremadura, born in Cáceres, Cáceres, and raised in Montánchez, Cáceres, the place known for its jamón serrano, Carmen was a fixture of her highly sought-after neighborhood in Madrid.

She watched everyone come and go from her balcony, and she pitched every one a witty phrase to brighten up their world.

Every morning and evening, she ascended and descended the hilly roads to and from Salamanca’s stores with a regularity by which some could set their clocks.

Extremeña to the core, Carmen also had an aspect of Sevilla, Andalucía, from which some of her family hailed. She wore her coal-black hair in a retro swollen bun that framed her oval face. She had been a model in her youth and was still stunning in her sixties and seventies, if a little rounder. She expertly paired eyeliner as black as her hair with pale pink matte lipstick to complete her signature look. She loved black and adored red.

In 2010, I moved to Spain from the United States. I had originally set my sights on Sevilla, where I planned to teach English and learn Spanish, but Carmen’s son convinced me to choose Madrid instead. And in choosing that city, I chose their loving, quirky family of three as my Spanish host family and was ushered in.

Immediately, I was immersed in Carmen’s world of red—of fierce passion and mirth piercing every aspect of life.

One day, she came home gushing about the gorgeous red fur coat that a Spanish lady at El Corte Inglés (a department store) had dressed her African baby in. “Le quedó tan preciosa, tan maja!” she kept saying, eyes wide and face aglow.

I can still see the slow-motion curl of her slender ruby-tipped fingers as she mouthed “Mangan,” when she warned me about gypsies on the Metro.

She brooked little nonsense, including from her son and only child, and yet she was sensitive to others’ hurts. Whenever we had a disagreement and I withdrew, she would yank me back, saying, “Pero, te queremos mucho! Qué te inventas?

And yet when she was suffering, including from the back pain that plagued her, and we asked how she was, she would retort, “Estoy estupendamente!”, waving us off and claiming she was more than fine.

Carmen was the matriarch not only of her family, but seemingly also of the immediate neighborhood. When anyone needed anything, they would ask Carmen. When her friend from Asturias, whom she affectionately called “La Luisa” died, it was Carmen who found her alone in her apartment. When I deigned to rush off to work or school dressed like spring, Carmen would accost me from the balcony insisting I return for a coat, as she had seen the forecast: “Cherrry!!! A dónde vas así vestida? Hará un frío que no vea!

She was as insistent at mealtimes, which always began with a colorful, crisp tossed salad that all four of us ate together from one giant bowl, as Carmen believed a family should do.

She derived such pleasure from watching us eat her delicious berenjenas (battered and fried sliced eggplant), tortillas españolas (thick pancakes made with potatoes, called “Spanish omelettes”), steaks, paella, fideuá (a paella substituting noodles for rice) or whatever else she had prepared and spread before us. No food could be refused. She would decide when we were full.

She made sure we continued grazing as we indulged in spirited late-afternoon and late-night sobremesas (post-mealtime conversations continued at table), diving into linguistics (in which her son was the resident expert), art (to which her husband was devoted), Africa, religion and global politics. Our arguing, gesturing, shouting, laughter and tears were punctuated by sweet sips of sangría and cool globs of yogurt.

On at least one morning every week, we would stroll arm-in-arm to her favorite breakfast bar, El Brillante, for a cortado and tostada (coffee with a dash of milk and toast). Occasionally, in the afternoon, we would meet at Bar Los Torreznos for boquerones (pickled anchovies) and crispy pork rinds to rival the best you might find anywhere else.

When my younger sister and her boyfriend surprised us with a visit from the United States, they were not spared Carmen’s consuming hospitality. When my older sister and her husband visited us from the United Kingdom, they experienced Carmen’s warmth too.

Last year, on a quiet street in Barrio de Salamanca—a neighborhood in Madrid that normally bustled with its vast department stores; copious coffee shops, restaurants and bars; as well as quaint and pricey boutiques—las Navidades (Christmas celebrations) were eerily quiet.

At Carmen’s table, there were no polvorones (round shortbread cookies) or turrón (nougat), no langostinos (prawns) or angulas (a delicacy of little eels) or any of her other special handpicked treats.

Her laughter had been extinguished by a virus that none of us had seen coming. In a brief-but-intense battle, she had fought valiantly and lost.

Carmen may not have had the famed fortunes of some of her siblings, but she had an empire all her own—in which all those who called her "Carmen" or "Señora" did so with an affection afforded to few. Her generosity is legendary.

Toward the end of my sojourn in Spain, I disappointed my Spanish family by choosing a French business school over a Spanish one. Even after I graduated and returned to my US permanent residence, whenever I called Carmen, she would urge me to visit, reminding me that I always had a home in Spain.

In my current home, thousands of miles away, I have shed more tears for Carmen than I knew I had. Though this tribute paints a meager picture of her vibrant life, may she be known and may her story inspire far beyond Salamanca, far beyond Madrid and far beyond Spain, where, for me, it will now always rain.

Carmen García Villayandre (March 1946-March 2020)

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