Be away from family can be perhaps one of the toughest aspects of living abroad for an extended period of time. Brian and I missed bonding with our grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins on a regular basis. These are special relationships that we were better able to establish once we were older and able to communicate at a much deeper level. In a given year, there are approximately 52 weeks and generally 2 weeks a year were dedicated to visiting my father and mother's families. The remaining weeks were spent in our assigned country. International travel was significantly more expensive than it currently is (some argue prices are still very high) and the availability of credit was not as widespread as it is now, therefore air travel was an expensive venture. Our visits to our family were important as nobody seemed to have the ability to come to see us. There was however one great exception: my Mémé. She was my maternal grandmother and she had been widowed since 1984. She loved to travel, especially to see her foreign grandkids, Brian and I. She did not get to enjoy us as much as she wanted due to our 3 year rotations from one country to another. It was always a highlight when she came to stay with us, generally for a few months, yet it never seemed to be long enough. She was the kind of guest you never wanted to leave. She had spent some time with us during our Caracas posting, but I seem to remember more her Santiago trip. I must say having her in our lives was a great blessing.
We gave Mémé a grand tour of all the hotspots in the nation's capital and other points of interest we were familiar with such as Farrellones, Santa Teresa de los Andes, Valparaiso and the quiet paradise we knew as Reñaca. Most of her time with us was spent in the big smoke. We resumed our regular routines making some adjustments to ensure we maximized the enjoyment of our special guest. During our school hours, she was able to spend quality time with her daughter (my Maman) that she did not get to see regularly since she married my Dad, beginning the exciting life of a diplomat's wife. My mother's family had been very close and seeing her mom was a great way to reconnect. There is always something special when you have that connection with family, the kind that feels comforting just having that person close to you. It makes a great difference. In the evening, as soon as Brian and I would arrive home, we ran into the house racing to find Mémé and used any excuse to be next to her. We sat beside her to chat, brought our toys to play close to her or even did our homework in her company. She had been a great support and thanks to her, I learned my multiplication tables at the speed of light. All of a sudden I was able to multiply mentally without the aid of a calculator from the terrible 2s to 12 times 12. She helped me memorize poems for school and she was encouraging as she knew there was nothing impossible for her grandchildren. Something she continuously mentioned remained engraved in my memory: "Only dumb people have trouble." This became one of my many mottos until recently.
My father had bought a beautifully hand-crafted guitar with an artistic leather case in one of his many Paraguay trips and now was the perfect opportunity to give Mémé her present. My Pépé had his own classic guitar and mastered it, but since he passed away, my grandmother began to teach herself. She was a wonderful musician and I am sure if she would have had more time to spare during her youth, she would have invested more time in the hobby. As far as I was told by my mother and her sister, my Aunt Annie, she was busy taking care of her family and seemed to be able to perform almost any task. Both my Maman and Tati Annie have inherited this amazing quality and I like to think her grandchildren as well. We had a piano at home as Brian and I had taken up this hobby and Mémé liked to play a song on it I later learned was from Xavier Cugat. I believe the melody was called "Cocktail Para Dos". She had a great ear for music and my mom told me my grandmother had never taken music lessons. She had a good ear. My parents were supportive regarding her musical ambitions and hired a teacher to help her pursue her enjoyment of the Spanish guitar. She began to learn some notes (which she later taught me when I bought my own guitar as a teenager) and classic Chilean folk songs such as "El Chilote Marino" and "La Petaquita". Brian and I joined her during her lessons to watch her play and sing along to the new songs.
Las Condes, the neighbourhood used to be primarily made up of private homes. I have not returned since, but our area in Apoquindo appears to have been converted into apartment buildings (based on newer pictures). The area was safe and great for evenings strolls. There were great shopping destinations such as the Centro Comercial Caracol, Toyland and Apoquindo. In time, Mémé became very acquainted with our part of the world having accompanied us to all of them. She joined us on our Sunday mornings walks to our Church off a neat traffic circle called Ronda La Capitania. Sometimes, my brother and I would sneak out after we had communion to join some local kids at the nearby park to play soccer. We thought we were so clever, but we kept getting caught every weekend. On our walks with Mémé, we also claimed a small gelato and water-based desserts joint called Pavarotti as our favourite place, which she always remembered fondly. She also loved Parque Los Dominicos. Doing justice to its name, there was a small park in the shape of a half-moon and at the end of this park, a small handicraft village. Some stores stocked antiques but our point of interest was a store where collectors could purchase stamps and coins. This place had served in the past as a mission for priests and monks of the order of St. Dominic. Everywhere we went with her created new special memories that we would always cherish, even after our days in Chile.
Brian and I became accustomed to having our grandmother around. She was part of every day life: waking up, arriving home from school, going to the movies, dining out, everything. Life had taken a new turn after a few months of our family bubble when, before we knew it, we were all five of us in our Citroen returning to the Arturo Merino Benitez International Airport. She was heading home. This was never an easy moment every time it happened. As a child, it felt like an eternity until the next time I would see her. Weeks were like years. We would miss her animated laugh, her great company and her guitar. The regular routine was making its way back and our communication with our Mémé would once more remain limited to snail mail. We waited in the departures terminal - those days there was a lounge where people could sit to watch their loved-ones planes take off - to make sure her plane left without inconvenience and in the event there was any we were there. I remembered hoping her flight would be cancelled or delayed so we could get another few minutes with her. We saw her plane taxi and take off, with a tear in our eye and a certain emptiness as we stayed behind. Everyone returned to their respective duties as if her visit had only been a long wonderful dream. We had to face reality and continue living on as the Fab Four.