Abuelo, Marcellino, Jesus, Idols, 3-D and Me (circa 1949-1950)

by Carmen Mason

My tall, handsome Abuelo, my mother’s Catalan father, Jose Sala Corriols, had jackets smelling of faint cigar residue, although he had not smoked in twenty years. He was opposed to the chemicals in dry-cleaning, and I believe that’s why he lived so long. He was dignified, suited always with vest and high-top black leather shoes he laced through hooks, not holes. Everything in moderation, Cita, he would say to me, everything in moderation. I did not listen and was secretly excessive in most sensual matters for most of my life. But how I loved him – his serious solidness, his patience, his lack of bitterness. And most of all, his overlooking of many family assaults on his – I guarantee you – fine character. How could I hold him in contempt for all the things my mother said he’d done before I was born? After all, perhaps he had been as arrogant and stubborn as she herself had been, but he’d never been that way with me.

Almost every week-end starting when I was seven or eight, he would take my sister, Melisa, and me downtown to Manhattan, that is, whenever he was living with us in Parkchester in the Bronx.( His two daughters and one son would share him during the year.) We three would go to the movies at The Little Carnegie or the Fifth Avenue Cinema where I can only remember two films from all the many we saw. One was Marcellino, Pan y Vino, a thrilling Italian film about a little farm boy who discovers a bearded and scruffy vagrant (looking like a brooding rock star) in his father’s falling-down barn filled with straw and sun-lighted rays of dust. I loved the way Marcellino would slide bread and morsels of other foods down along the dinner table into the folds of his clothes and then ask to be excused. He would slip away to the cold barn and Jesus (Marcellino doesn’t know he is JC but in time we do) would look deep into his eyes and say very serious things to him, and Jesus was filled with thanks and concern.

I wanted always to be like that Marcellino, and for years after that I would filch food from the table, pocket it and wrap it in a napkin-lined basket I kept in my bedroom. I would eat it slowly and covetously, although no one ever interrupted me or seemed interested in what I did in there. I liked to be alone in my room, move the furniture around so that when I awoke the next day I’d be surprised by all the changes, and I liked to eat those smuggled bits of food and pretend I was very, very poor.

The other film was The Fallen Idol, based I discovered years later on a story called The Basement Room by Graham Greene. (At seventeen I let out a sigh of joyful recognition while reading it for a lit class at Hunter College, recognizing it as that childhood film I had adored.) In this movie, a young boy lives in a large house peopled only by servants, as his parents are seldom there. I remember two scenes: one, where he hides a snake behind a brick in his bedroom wall and the other, when he is sleeping and his mother ( I think it’s his mother) decides to come home and wants to see him although it’s so late. She bends over his bed and her black hairpin drops on the still white pillow next to his ear and he is startled awake. I can still feel the stunning terror of that scene. I begged Abuelo many times to take me back to see it again and he did finally, right before it closed.

These movies and yes, three others, The Red Shoes, Samson and Delilah, and Bill and Coo were the all-time film greats of my early life. They were shown at the Loew’s American in Parkchester, a local theatre where the ladies’ room had a separate rose-colored powder room circled in mirrors and was almost as big as the theatre itself. Abuelo might have taken me to these, too, but I know he took us to our first 3-D movie where they handed us each a pair of cardboard -framed plastic glasses to put on. Everything became three dimensional: the letters of the stars’ names zoomed out at us and then in this now nameless cowboy and Indian movie, every stampeding horse and long-horn cow charged right for us. When the avenging Indian let out a cacophonous battle chant and threw his tomahawk, Abuelo cried out something in Spanish and lurched to the side of his seat, almost dislocating his shoulder. I grabbed his arm, laughing with joy at the child who was such a friend to me, and whispered, Abuelo, it’s the glasses! The tomahawk’s not real. It’s the glasses! That afternoon, when he treated me to my usual Good Humor orange creamsicle, he had one, and then, to my shock, bought us each another. So much for moderation.

Abuelo never insinuated himself into our lives other than to be there for us. He didn’t criticize or censor the films we saw. He was content – or so it seemed – to just be with us, listen to our chatter and excited stories, allow our silliness, lame jokes, petty squabbles. He was a seasoned man: a man expelled from Spain for publishing an anti-Catholic book who eventually came to America to marry his adored but never adoring first cousin ( she had fled from Barcelona with a jilted heart two years earlier), taught languages at Duquesne University under the chairmanship of his wife, reared three children, and become the vice-consul to Spain from Pittsburgh. He was not extravagant, avaricious or boastful. After retirement, he loved to drink a single cup of coffee for hours, read numerous newspapers in English and Spanish, razor out articles about any new building or bridge going up in the city he was living in, and walk to and from these structures to witness their weekly (often daily) progress no matter how many miles it took.

His week-ends at the movies with us were perhaps his attempt to stay connected to a world that had lost all importance once his beloved Maria died. Every night when he stayed with us I would look in on him before I went to bed. There he was with his tiny gold-framed picture of the Grandma I never knew next to a small, half-filled glass of whiskey. He would toast her and then turn out the lights. Those were the only times I saw him drink in the thirty years he was in my life.


Carmen Mason: She has been writing poems since she was six, has won poetry prizes throughout the years, has been published in small magazines and enjoys sharing her poetry at open mikes. She writes short stories and memoir, but feels her most intrinsic ‘voice’ is a poetic one.