Boomeresque:Definition
1. Adj.: Describing a person born between 1 Jan. 1946 and 31 Dec. 1964
2. Adj.: Description of a person, place or thing possessing Baby Boomer je ne sais quoi
3. See also, Boomer, Esq.: A Baby Boomer who is also a licensed attorney (See, e.g., About).

Mexico (San Miguel de Allende) 1963

by Suzanne Fluhr on March 25, 2012 · 19 comments

This post is now part of a blog link up sponsored by Mary Jo Manzanares on her blog, Traveling with MJ. The theme is “Thankful” and she requested that we submit blog posts that explain why we are thankful to be able travel. This post explains the genesis of my wanderlust. My father no longer walks this earth, but I am thankful that he always took us with him on his travels.

1963 San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

I was nine in 1963 and it never occurred to me that my parents did not have much of a plan.   My father, a Philadelphia public high school ceramics teacher, decided to take a sabbatical year off at half pay which came to $3,000 in those days.  My parents rented out our house, piled my sisters and me (all under the age of ten) into a 1957 Chevy, and drove to Mexico.  Neither of my parents spoke any Spanish and neither had ever set foot outside the United States— not even in Canada.

We set out looking like a family from The Grapes of Wrath with most of our worldly possessions filling the trunk, back seat and lashed to the roof of the car.  My grandfather clasped my mother tightly to say “good-bye”, whispering in her ear to beware of the banditos in the hills.  Completing the picture was my father with the full black beard he grew every summer.  At the border, laughing American border guards suggested  that perhaps they better scrutinize his identification  papers. I didn’t get what was so funny.  My parents explained that Dad sort of looked like Fidel Castro.

American automakers were not yet competing with the Japanese and cars broke down on a fairly regular basis — certainly over-loaded six year old Chevys did.  One day as our car chugged ever more slowly up a winding  mountain road in The-Middle-Of-Nowhere, Mexico, my father began intoning in a crescendo, “It’s going over, it’s going over!”  His eyes glued to the engine temperature gauge, he was referring to the car radiator.  My seven year old sister thought we were about to plummet off the mountain to certain death.  By the time he finally pulled over to the side of the road at the top of the mountain with my sister crying hysterically, an impressive geyser of steam had erupted from the front of the car.

We had not seen any other vehicles for quite a while.  The only people we had passed were men with large machetes chopping vegetation at the side of the road.  All my mother could remember was her father’s parting warning about the banditos.

After what seemed like a disturbing amount of time, a large old truck carrying cows lumbered up the mountain and pulled off the road in front of us.  The driver and his companion took a look under our car hood, shook their heads and made the universal clucking sound for “Hmm. That looks bad.” They  pantomimed  that my father and I should get into the truck with the driver.  The other guy steered our car, containing  my mother and sisters, in a roll down the mountain.

We ended up in a one-gas-station town at the bottom of the mountain. There, the mechanic managed to communicate that he did not have the part we needed and would have to get it from another town.  This involved a bus ride and an overnight stay to catch the return bus the next day. Fortunately, this town also had one hotel. One bare, dim light bulb illuminated the five of us trying to sleep in two twin beds.

We finally made it to Guadalajara, a bustling city with traffic that spewed pollution from cars far older than our own. We visited a number of pottery factories, but my father did not find whatever it was he looking for. We reluctantly climbed back into our cramped, unair-conditioned conveyance.

La Parroquia, San Miguel de Allende

La Parroquia, San Miguel de Allende

About two hundred  miles later, we arrived in San Miguel de Allende, a hill town that seemed the quintessential Mexico — cobble stone streets, burros delivering  milk, and a central square in front of an unlikely, pink gothic cathedral.  The first night, we stayed in a hotel converted from a convent. I slept next to a cool stone wall that was so damp, water was actually trickling down.

The next day, we moved to a guest house. The bathroom was down the hall – except there was no hall, this being a typical colonial style Mexican house with all the rooms opening onto a central open courtyard.  Consequently, “down the hall” required a walk outside.  This was not a problem until I developed what is commonly known to Mexicans as “turista”.  North of the border, it is referred to as “Montezuma’s Revenge” and of course, he had plenty to avenge. I recall many trips “outside”; fitful, bizarre dreams and a visit from a Mexican doctor who prescribed chalky, chocolate flavored tablets. In family lore, my fever was not consistent with life, but I survived and do not recall being sick for the rest of the year even though I routinely ignored my mother’s admonitions not to eat street food.

Despite the fact that we were Jewish, my parents enrolled us in a Catholic school for girls.  We were the only Americans at the school, and most certainly, the only Jews. The nuns were quite committed to saving us. One day I wore an enamel pin to school,  handcrafted by my father. My teacher attempted to trade for a crucifix. I don’t know if she was trying to get me right with Jesus or she just liked my pin.

I started learning the catechism in Spanish because once a week the portly priest would arrive to test us, reeking of aftershave and holding out a chubby finger for us to kiss his ring.  I had friends in the United States who attended parochial school and they had regaled me with stories of monster nuns.  Therefore, I was not all that surprised when as punishment for some girls giggling in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary, the entire school was made to stand in the burning mid-day Mexican sun for what seemed an eternity. I was finally given dispensation to get some water. The Mother Superior did not want any dead gringitas (little gringas) on her watch.

Around this time, two adorable identical twins in my youngest sister’s class, showed up at school with their heads shaved. This draconian measure did not reflect a conversion to Buddhism, but rather, a “shock and awe” treatment for head lice.

The next week, my parents transferred us to the public school for girls — the school for girls whose parents could not afford to send them to the Catholic school.  It seemed we were the only Americans in the history of the school and we were trotted out to impress visiting dignitaries. To this day, I can sing the opening chorus of the Mexican national anthem.

The Catholic school did not have a monopoly on corporal punishment for elementary school students. Transgressions were punished by ruler smacking on an open palm. My teacher generally was a jovial sort, but he could do some fairly effective ruler smacking. I was petrified when he caught me reading an unauthorized book in English . I was spared the rod, but my book was confiscated. The school was orderly and well run, but bare bones. Physical education consisted of us marching around the courtyard. Our teacher stood in the middle with a hand full of largish pebbles and zinged anyone who got out of step.

My parents finally found a house to rent. It was a quite amazing departure from our Philadelphia row home. From the street, there was a nondescript stucco wall with a weathered door, but beyond the door was a beautiful garden, leading to an impressive house. The property even had a small guesthouse for my father’s pottery studio.  My sisters and I were fascinated by the grapefruit, orange and avocado trees. We had never been closer to the genesis of a piece of fruit than the supermarket.

Most other-worldly to us was that the house came with a maid and a gardener. My parents were decidedly uncomfortable with the idea of live-in servants. They told the landlord they did not need household help, but the landlord persuaded them to keep Antonia and Cruz or they would have been jobless and homeless.

Antonia and Cruz lived in two windowless rooms next to the street door. They slept in one room. The other, which was more of a lean-to with a fire ring on the dirt floor, was their “kitchen”. My sisters and I were enthralled, sitting on the ground watching Antonia prepare tortillas on the open fire. Instead of Barbies, we played “indigenous”, grinding up corn kernels on a toy metate to try to make miniature tortillas.

We also liked to “help” Antonia with the laundry which she did in cold water at an outdoor sink with a built in, stone washboard. (There was no gentle cycle).  At least she did not have to take the clothes to the communal wash tubs next to the playground and the women there were happy not to be washing clothes on rocks in the river, a not uncommon sight.

Most Baby Boomers can remember where they were the day Kennedy was assassinated. I was in Mexico. I learned the news from weeping Mexicans in the center of town on my way home from school. For days, crowds gathered around television sets in storefronts and  townspeople conveyed their condolences to Americans. Antonia and Cruz added a portrait of JFK next to the pictures of Jesus and the Virgin of Guadalupe in their room.

Our house had a sprawling mesquite tree with branches low enough to be irresistible for climbing. My sisters and I spent a fair amount of time in the tree until we realized we were sharing it with black spiders with a red hour glass shape on their thoraxes. I had already been through my “interest in insects phase” and was quite certain they were black widows.

That was not our only close up and personal experience with the phylum arthropoda. During the rainy season, voracious mosquitoes were omnipresent.  They were particularly fond of my mother, whose  sweetness apparently was not only a personality trait.  As an offensive measure, my parents set off insecticide smoke bombs inside the house. This did little to stem the mosquito assault, but it did cause scorpions to start falling out of the rafters. Fortunately, they were stuporous from the smoke and were therefore fairly easy to dispatch.

A young man came to stay with Antonia and Cruz because he was ill and they were the most well off members of the extended family. He would rest in our garden and play Old Maid with us. My parents saw he was not getting better and took him to a doctor who did not need an x-ray and sputum culture to diagnosis tuberculosis. The doctor also made the harsh assessment that he was too far gone for treatment and that he positively could not continue to stay at our house. We never knew what became of him. Upon our return to the States, my middle sister had a positive tuberculin test and scar tissue on her lungs, necessitating year long treatment.

We also did not know what became of Antonia and Cruz’ little goat. My sisters and I treated this creature (el chivito) like our puppy. He disappeared around Easter time. My parents assured us he had gone back to his family on the farm. In retrospect  —  I think not.

My sisters were afraid of loud noises.  They scurried into my parents’ bed during thunderstorms and they hated the intense fireworks that were part of fiestas in San Miguel. Their phonophobia had the fortunate result of leaving me as my father’s sole fiesta buddy. There were all manner of excuses for fiestas — national holidays and a plethora of Saint’s days.  My father would put me on his shoulders so I could see the castillos (castles) of fireworks over the crowd. When lit at the bottom, the castillos would erupt into frenetic, flaming pinwheels, throwing off sparks of all colors, while hissing, whistling and making whirling dervish sounds. The light show and cacophony would end in a crowd pleasing, ear shattering bang.

My parents took us to visit Mexico City. We saw the murals of Diego Rivera, the Floating Gardens at Xochimilco, the Museum of Anthropology, Chapultepec Park and the pre-Aztec pyramids at Teotihuacán.  I had my “Toto, we’re not in Philadelphia anymore,” moment when I climbed the Pyramid of the Sun and gazed down on the Pyramid of the Moon and the ruins along the Avenue of the Dead.

In the United States, my parents watched us like hawks and would grab our hands crossing even little streets. In Mexico, it seemed they let us wander pretty much at will. With some other American friends, we explored all over town. I remember being petrified as I followed some daredevils across a pipe spanning a stream that seemed an awfully long way down.

When I had children of my own, I would sometimes think back on my parents’ Mexican adventure and uncharitably wonder “What were they thinking?”  But now, I see my parents as having been more daring than foolhardy. Our trip left me with a wanderlust that has taken me around the globe. The life lessons were an abiding faith that I can find my way anywhere, that anywhere is worth the trip, and that the trip is a “there” unto itself.

There’s a post-script to this blog post. You can read it here.

Do you remember your first real trip? How old were you and where did you go?

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Beth May 3, 2012 at 11:30 pm

Wow, Suzanne. What an incredible memoir. While I chuckled at many of your anecdotes, I am left in awe of your life’s experiences as well as amazingness of your wonderful family.

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avatar Margaret June 4, 2012 at 12:09 am

I love this story, Suzanne 🙂 What an adventure! I can really picture this all so well. Your father was a really unforgettable kind of guy 🙂

But alas, Poor El Chivito 🙁

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Suzanne Fluhr Just One Boomer June 4, 2012 at 8:44 am

Si. Pobrecito.

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avatar Nancy June 27, 2012 at 10:52 pm

Hi Beth, What a lovely childhood memory and what a gift your parents gave you. I’m so glad to have found your blog. I just started blogging myself as my husband and I are in the process of selling everything and preparing to “become citizens of the world” in retirement. My husband kept saying “all we need is a backpack and a rollie – if it doesn’t fit, then we don’t need it.” Although I’ve never written anything beyond business letters and reports, I felt the sudden urge to blog about our upcoming adventures, what this new stage of life is all about and ways to live and travel inexpensively. I look forward to reading your posts. Oh, and I visited in San Miguel twice, the last time for 6 weeks and loved it. I think 1963 would have been more interesting and less Americanized which is hard to find these days.

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Suzanne Fluhr Just One Boomer June 28, 2012 at 2:08 am

Hi Nancy-
I’m actually Suzanne. (Beth, is a friend who commented on this post.). What did you during your 6 week stay in San Miguel? I’d love to try staying somewhere for that long? I’m trying to convince my husband that he can run a lab virtually. Vamos a ver.

BTW, I checked out your blog. Nice.

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avatar Eva Gold November 29, 2013 at 4:17 am

wow – this is a real “adventure” what a nice story and how brave your parents were! thanks for sharing your experiences!

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avatar Glynis Ellens December 24, 2014 at 9:35 am

What a marvellous, evocative vignette, Suzanne! You put me right into the middle of your adventures and helped me remember some of my early travels in Mexico. Thank you.

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Suzanne Fluhr Suzanne Fluhr December 24, 2014 at 4:26 pm

Thank you, Glynis. I hope you will post some photos of your upcoming San Miguel sojourn.

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avatar Afrah March 27, 2015 at 11:53 am

I loved the story, in fact now you are inspiring me to write my own and start my own blog perhaps. do you have any recommendations yet for a name for my blog?

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Suzanne Fluhr Just One Boomer May 4, 2012 at 1:21 am

Thanks for reading, Beth. I definitely feel Boomeresque when I think all the way back to my nine year old life. It was a really long time ago. When I write about it now, it sounds hard to believe. But, you knew my father so you know how it happened.

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Suzanne Fluhr Just One Boomer August 19, 2012 at 5:53 am

Thanks for the correction. Personally, I wish we would change our national anthem to “America the Beautiful” which starts “Oh Beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountains’ majesty above the fruited plain.” It’s not as bellicose as the Star Spangled Banner and it’s not as difficult to sing. In fact, President Obama is using a video of Mitt Romney actually singing it (America the Beautiful) in a negative campaign ad. Oh well, that probably means it has no chance to become our national anthem. Then there’s the drought on the Great Plains this year which is playing havoc with the amber waves of grain and the fruited plain. Oh well, maybe we’re better off sticking with an anthem that is not climate dependent.

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