I am sitting on a wooden chair, a straight-backed simple one like those the Chamula Indians of southern Mexico build. I am floating sitting on a chair high above the Atlantic Ocean and all alone.
That is the image I have of myself as I lived my first six years in the New World. Whenever I got homesick, I would travel back to Germany, but after a few trips, I discovered that I no longer felt at home there. When I returned to Mexico I was so happy to be reunited with my husband and children, but Mexico did not yet come to feel like home either. I felt adrift and alone.
Two Jewish ladies from New York City, who had arrived in San Cristobal twenty-five years before me, came to my rescue. Janet Marren was a painter and Marcey Jacobson was a photographer. They were 40 years older than me, but I never felt an age difference. I could open my heart to them, and they did the same with me. Whenever I became so depressed that I wanted to vanish from the face of the earth, they cooked me meals and enchanted me with the most beautiful orchids in their garden,
“We are your Jewish mothers!” they would laugh. They had, in fact, become my mother ~ and my sisters and my friends.
They were a lesbian couple without children. During the ’30s, while they still lived in the States, their circle included European intellectuals who had sought refuge in America from the Nazis.
Janet’s first love was a woman, Dorey, whom she met when she was 17. However, Janet very much wanted children and so married; her husband had been a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War. Her husband was aware of her bisexuality and had no objections. Indeed, she told me, he was completely okay with the three of them living together.
Dorey was the first to meet Marcey. She introduced her to Janet and her husband. The two women fell so much in love that Dorey was pushed aside. But the the new lovers had a show down over Janet’s husband. Marcey gave her an ultimatum: him or me.
That created a terrible inner struggle for Janet. Her husband had been so loyal. He, too, was devastated. Janet told me he pleaded to continue as a household of three. Marcey, however, would not give in, yet the three of them, joined by Dorey, travelled to Mexico. All of them fell in love with the country. I do not know if it was then or later that Dorey changed channels. At some point she began an affair with the famous Mexican writer Cabeza de Vaca. For a time, they lived together.
Janet finally decided to leave her husband. He was heartbroken. Decades later, when I met Janet and she shared her life story, Janet still grieved that she had hurt him. I was with her when she learnt of his death. He had been happily remarried to a very rich woman. In his will, he left Janet a pension for life. This generosity was most welcome as she and Marcey lived on very little.
Marcey and Janet’s home in San Cristóbal was a meeting place for adventurers, archeologists and anthropologists. I met a ton of tremendously interesting people there. Janet cooked delicious meals every Friday night for the guests who first listened to selections from their collection of classical records. I felt honored to be invited everysingle week.
We had deep philosophical and ardent political discussions. Marcey had been a communist for a while. Now they used a Ouija board regularly and communicated with a spirit. I tried out the board, but it was not for me. Janet taught me t’ai chi to prepare my body for my second childbirth. That was a huge success. My son was delivered in half an hour, nearly in the taxi!
When Janet and Marcey got older, they fought a lot. Those days were preceded by the arguments Marcey had with Dorey, who had rejoined their household. I can just imagine the jealousies which weighed in all their hearts. Dorey finally decided to return to New York City, where she died blind and senile, sad and lonely after years living in an asylum . This was such a dismal end for the woman who had once translated Cuban writer José Martí into English. Marcey, to her credit, visited Dorey on every trip she made to New York.
Janet slowed down a lot, much before Marcey.. Marcey could not stand watching Janet get old; she just couldn’t take it. Later I learnt that older couples often fight a lot because deep down, subconsciously, they believe that as long as they argue, the other will not die. This is not true, of course. It is fanciful thinking, but it happened to them. Often it broke my heart to find them furious at each other, their complaints bounced off me.
Where had their huge love gone? I am sure the love was there under all the yelling, but the fear of losing this love had taken the upper hand.
Four of their friends were present when Janet died. Afterwards, we washed her and dressed her and combed her hair. It is only time in my life that I have done this.
Marcey lived another fifteen years. She never stopped missing Janet, even though she was surrounded by friends. She felt guilty, because the more fragile Janet had gotten, the more angry Marcey had been with her, the more impatient and complaining. Marcey always wondered if she would meet Janet at the moment of her death which she feared. Just as I do. That terror was another connection between us. We talked a lot about death.
Marcey lived until she was 98; she had hoped to make 100. In her last couple of years she forgot many things. She would ask the same questions of me every three minutes. Shortly before she died, I asked her if she thought a lot about death. She shook her head. No, never. She had forgotten that once she had so strongly feared it. Good.
She could, however, remember many details from her childhood. The poverty. Her mother dying from an abortion when Marcey was just six. The loneliness. Her father’s physical violence.
I visited Marcey each Saturday morning during her last months. She sat in front of her fireplace, the table beside her full of books which she could no longer read. Marcey tried, but when she got to a new paragraph, she had already forgotten the one before. Old letters also rested on the table. We tried to help her learn the ways of the Internet, but she resisted.
She hated my photography because it was digital. She never regarded my art as art. But, she always took me for me.
One Saturday I noticed that her breathing was different, faster and shallower. After ten minutes she asked me to go; she was too tired to talk. The following day our mutual friend Helga visited and Marcey asked for help getting into bed. While Helga was assisting her, Marcey coughed and was dead.
Helga inherited Marcey and Janet’s house. In the attic she found a box of books, all belonging to Dorey. Dorey Malcolm. The last remnants, it seemed, of Dorey, of the trio. Thirty years before I had met Dorey and she had been an active member of our community. Now, no one even knew her name.
We can lead the most exciting, interesting lives, yet we are still bound for the huge Vanishing of it all…. Some day, I suspect, I will be back in my chair, high above earth, alone again….waiting for my Jewish mothers to appear…..
If you want to see some of Marcey´s stunning photographs of The Highlands Of Chiapas 50 years ago, please, click here: Marcey´s Historic Photographs
Photography by Larry LaBonté