The Centenary of My Mother’s Birth
November 23, 2021 - Marisa Guerin, PhD
The number “100” is an important, meaningful, special number. Today is the day that my mother would have been 100 years old, had she not passed away at the age of 85… and since she died from complications of Alzheimer’s, we really began to lose her essential self and personality quite some years before that. But the passage of time restores memory, looks past the losses of the dementia years. Gradually, my mother has come more and more into view for me as a person in her own right; not just as my mom, but as a woman with an unusual life story who lived to the fullest and made a difference in her world.
My mother was born in Pamplona, in the province of Navarra, Spain; she was known to her family and friends as “Conchita,” although her baptismal and legal name was “Maria de la Concepcion.” Just to keep things complicated, her first four surnames as a Spaniard were “Guibert Amor Arsuaga Lago” until she married my American father and thenceforth simply went by “Guerin”. My own occasional troubles managing a legal name (Maria Luisa) and a nickname (Marisa) pale in comparison to the difficulties she had keeping her identity straight on her passports and marriage and citizenship documents!
One of the observations I can make now that I didn’t think much about earlier is that my mother always had the experience of being a bit on the outside of the culture around her – first in Pamplona, then in Madrid, then in Philadelphia. I think her sharp insight and self-awareness, and her combination of vulnerability and courage were the results of knowing herself to be different, and learning to embrace and appreciate her uniqueness.
Growing up in Pamplona, my mother and her brothers and sister were a bit exotic, mixed-race children in a traditional Basque town. There is much drama and mystery in the story of my grandparents. My grandmother, Mercedes, had been brought to Spain from the Philippines by her Spanish father at the age of nine along with a half-sister; both of the daughters were born out of wedlock to Philippina women. I don’t know how Mercedes met Joaquin Guibert, my Basque grandfather, but they married after my grandmother ran away from her wealthy Spanish father for dire reasons hinted but unspoken. She was subsequently disinherited and had no further connections with her family.
When my mother was fourteen years old, the Spanish Civil War broke out. Navarra was the only one of the four northern provinces that was loyal to the crown and to Franco, and my mother’s two oldest brothers – Ignacio and Javier -- went off to fight. Both of them survived the war, although the woman that Javier later married, my aunt Pili, lost three brothers to that conflict and was perhaps the most deeply traumatized of all of my relatives of the civil war generation. Even if it might feel easy to make a judgment today about the relative merits of each side in that war, there was no such dispassionate clarity at the time. Civil wars are terrible. There is ample evidence that both sides of that short, brutal war suffered from, and were guilty of, barbaric violence.
My mother did not speak of those war years, and it is too late now for me to ask her about them. I don’t know how much privation she experienced in Pamplona nor what it was like to live in a nation during civil war. I do know that a lasting regret she carried was that the war disrupted and curtailed her formal education. Years later, living in America, navigating the world with imperfect command of a second language and married to a university professor, my mother once again had the experience of feeling on the outside. Despite her intelligence and artistic talents, she felt the gap in her knowledge and it challenged her self-confidence. My mother was gracious, vivacious, generous, quick-tempered, loving, impatient, creative, and fascinated by the world and everything in it. I sometimes wonder what she might have become had she lived in another time.
By the time my mother was in her twenties, her family had relocated to Madrid, and her father died shortly thereafter. The older brothers had jobs and eventually married, and my mother and her sister worked with my grandmother to support themselves – teaching sewing and pattern-making, running a loom and weaving workshop, starting a magazine for homemakers, and I probably don’t know the half of it. I do know that those years were difficult and they worked hard.
When my mother met and fell in love with my father, the American on a religious pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in 1948, I think she had somewhat less ambivalence about leaving her life in Spain than her friends might have imagined. My parents’ romance is more unusual than most. The trip on which they met had them together for only a short fourteen days. Then, they wrote letters to each other for three years, until they decided to marry. My father flew out for the wedding, having not seen his bride since that pilgrimage trip ended three years before!
After the death of both of my parents, my siblings and I translated all of their letters, more than 200 of them. What totally surprised us was to discover that the letter proposing marriage was written almost two years after they had met, and after only about 50 letters had been exchanged. Then the last year was a flurry of intense communication – as if the reality of being willing to commit enabled them to really write what was in their hearts. Those letters were exceedingly important. My parents both maintained that, had they both lived in Philly and did the traditional dating thing, they would never have known each other deeply enough to build the successful, sacramental, lifelong marriage that they indeed had. So, in 1951 and newly married, once again my mother embarked on life in a different place and circumstance, this one hugely removed from the world she knew.
Mom put her dynamism and soul-force into her marriage and family, her church and her world. My parents had eight children, seven surviving to adulthood. I am the oldest of that big Catholic family, which was part of an even bigger Catholic tribe. Pretty much every week involved some visiting time with my American grandmother, or my aunts and uncles and cousins. They embraced my mother with open arms, and I’m sure her life in this country was much easier for having the solidarity of her in-laws to support her.
Family life didn’t require all of mom’s energy, though. We watched her develop her considerable artistic talents over the years, first tapping away at bas-relief wood carvings, then taking classes in oil painting, then spending many hours over the years in her painting studio. She painted several significant portraits on commission, two of which hang in the President’s Lounge at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.
There was always art happening in our home and not just the fine arts – also the mechanical arts! If something had to be invented, or repaired, or restored, or pretty much anything that involved being handy – we went to mom first. Dad was the one who helped us to figure out decision-making, who looked after the family finances, cars, and yardwork, but he’d just as soon leave the hammer and paintbrush to my mother who wielded them with gusto. She was also an accomplished seamstress, and a great many of our clothes were made by my mother. Where did she find the time?
Both of my parents were deeply devout Catholics; the church was a constant and meaningful part of their lives, especially after they got involved with the Cursillo movement in the 1970’s. Cursillo was a progressive and activist Catholic community that put my parents more deeply in touch with both the spirituality and the social justice teachings of their faith, which up until then had been based more on the inherited belief system of their families. The change in the way their faith was expressed was enormous. In my teens, I observed my parents becoming involved in the peace movement, in the campaign for justice for farmworkers, in hosting multiple Vietnamese refugee families in our home. Their witness of commitment to what they believed was powerful for me, and probably for others.
I feel happy when I see pictures of my parents in their older years, having raised their kids and finished their work-life duties. They had the opportunity to travel, to spend time together, to paint and read and continue their volunteerism on the terms they could handle. And as my mother gradually sank into the confusion of Alzheimer’s, I am grateful that there was never a moment when she didn’t recognize us, and in particular, my father. Their relationship had endured so many, many challenges as well as blessings, and they came through it all to a connection filled with tenderness, patience and affection.
A year after my mother’s passing, we gathered in my home for a memorial, and I remember my father simply saying, “She was the source of my joy.” What a wonderful thing to have said about a person.
For me, my mother Conchita was a testament to the power of a woman’s life and spirit; the power to survive, to forge ahead, to create beauty, to engage fully in the world, and to love passionately. She was never quite like the people around her, and I celebrate her uniqueness.
Happy 100th birthday, Conchita-Mom!