Like a lot of people in my generation, I had an Aunt Harriet. Actually, as the sister of my maternal grandmother, she was my great-aunt, but that slight attenuation of the blood tie did not diminish her impact on our lives.
Aunt Harriet was the classiest lady I knew in my childhood. Admittedly, the bar may have been kind of low, since I grew up in deep East Texas, where one of the major events of my childhood was the opening of a McDonald’s. But it was clear that Harriet Smith was special. She lived in San Antonio, which sounded exotic, was married to a bank president, which sounded important, and had traveled to Europe, which sounded adventurous. She corresponded with my mother on monogrammed blue stationery and signed all of her letters “Devotedly, Aunt Harriet.” Most importantly, though, Aunt Harriet was a visitor. She came to see us.
When Aunt Harriet announced a visit, things got done at our house. We cleaned like crazy, waxing furniture and pulling out the sofa to dust behind it and pick up all of the small items our cats had scooted under it and failed to retrieve. (Did someone expect Aunt Harriet to get down hands and knees when we left the living room and peek underneath to make sure we weren’t living in squalor? This never occurred to me as a child, and my mom has passed away, so I can’t ask her.) We even got crazy once and bought a new tablecloth. Woohoo! But mostly, my mother and grandmother prepared for Operation Harriet by fretting. Would the food be okay? Would the Holiday Inn have scratchy towels? Would she notice the fact that my grandmother’s pier-and-beam listed to port like a slightly inebriated sailor? Worrying was an important part of our pre-visit ritual.
And then it would be the day of The Arrival. Aunt Harriet would drive up in her washed and waxed car, which sported tinted windows and a radio. These miracles would have been enough to impress me, but the figure of A.H. also left an indelible mark. Harriet Smith was tall, dressed in smart suits, and smelled of Chanel Number 9. (Chanel Number 5 was common.) Her handbag (don’t say purse, that’s vulgar) matched her pumps, and her hair didn’t dare move, no matter how much the wind blew. This was class on the hoof.
Ah, and she brought gifts! Once she brought me a small version of a train case she’d gotten on a cruise. I still have it. It would be a decade or so before I’d step on a train, and more than that before I boarded a cruise ship, but here was a taste of glamorous travel. Once she brought our family a Harry and David selection of Gala apples, which got my mother hooked on them for the rest of her life. Her best gift of all was a compendium of Ogden Nash’s poetry. I don’t know if you know Ogden Nash, but he wrote divinely silly poetry that amuses me to this day. Mom wasn’t much of a reader and therefore didn’t get a lot out of the book, but I pounced on it and laughed till I cried over Nash’s wit. Here’s an example I still remember: “The song of canaries never varies/And when they’re molting, they’re pretty revolting.” Magnifique!
Alas, our visitors these days are treated with a bit less pomp than Aunt Harriet enjoyed. In fact, we’ve had several visitors here in Spain- two sets last Spring, our daughter and son-in-law this Summer, and four sets this Fall – and a more delightful group of people you couldn’t meet. Our preparations look rather meager in comparison to Mom’s, though. The sheets are fresh, and everyone gets a fresh set of towels. The End. If I’m feeling particularly energetic, we might all troop to the grocery store to buy food that the visitors like. Otherwise, we talk, eat, hang out, and sightsee. We should hang a sign outside our apartment, I guess. “Darwin’s Nest,” it would read. “Only the strong survive.”
Our visitor/survivors come from a long line of folks who come to stay. Spanish has a couple of words that we would translate as “visitor.” A visitante is a friendly, familiar person whom you welcome into your home. This word shares its Latin roots with our words visit and vista; in other words, it’s all about coming to see. The other Spanish word, huésped, is used for paying guests. Interestingly, its roots lie in words meaning strangers (possibly even threatening ones) to whom a duty of care is owed. This root gives us huésped in Spanish and, in English, hospital, hospice, hospitality, and the like.
We’ve definitely been having visitantes, and it’s been a ball having folks from the USA, Ireland, New Zealand, and Canada with us. And remarkably, just like Aunt Harriet, they bring us gifts! Some are tangible, like the Mountie thermos and Guinness coffee mug pictured here. Our kids brought us a fabulous coffee pot. (Perhaps we look dehydrated, as people keep bringing us items facilitating the intake of liquids.) But far greater are the gifts of fun and laughter and deepening of friendships. Being with our kids, of course, is always joyous. With one of our non-family guests, it was the revelation that she and I both collect souvenir spoons when we travel . She’s the only other person I know who does that. We now address each other as “Spoon Sister.” One couple arranged an amazing hotel stay in Granada, where we were huéspedes, and we all toured the Alhambra together. Another guest cooked for us and left me easy recipes; she also showed me how to clip my bangs. Yet another visitante shared her adventures walking the Camino de Santiago; her husband shared his love of the ancient world as we toured archaeological sites in Cartagena. And our Texas visitors brought us news of our home state and beloved Austin, the kind of news you can only get from someone who lives there. What glorious gifts these all are!
So the ghost of Aunt Harriet, my paradigmatic visitor from childhood, may or may not approve of our rather casual handling of those who come to us. But Mark and I feel warmed by each of our visitors and are grateful for their presence and their presents. So here’s the question: who’s next? As long as you don’t intend to look under the sofa, you’re all more than welcome here.