Portrait of an abuelo under lockdown

Author: Raquel Benito

If you ask my abuelo how he’s doing under lockdown, he’ll say…

¡Estoy bien!

Though not a religious man, he always adds “de que nos vamos a quejar, si Dios es bueno y nos mantiene”. At 94, Abuelo’s physical health is enviable to many who are decades younger. These days, his biggest health worry is not coronavirus-related, but that “estas piernas se me están resistiendo“.

He’s always bragged about the many kilometres he used to walk before, during and after work. Nowadays, his mobility is limited, but pre-lockdown, you could still see him venturing outside – cane in hand – to his local no-frills bar for what he likes to call a chupi chupi. His short-term memory isn’t as sharp lately, and each day when I call to check in on him, he asks me when I’m coming over to join him up at the bar. He forgets about the lockdown, but not about the chupi chupis.

Abuelo was a keen Madrid photographer

Abuelo took on photography as a side hustle in younger years and has a vast collection all over the house, mostly family portraits and snapshots of Madrid through the ages…

Life during the war

Abuelo remembers a lot of things and loves to walk down memory lane. Over the phone to him, he recounts many anecdotes about his childhood years, the Spanish Civil War, and the years following when he met my Abuela and had a family.

He tells me that he was 10 years old and living in his birth town of Valdemoro when war broke out. His father decided to join the war efforts on the Republicanos side as a volunteer. Abuelo always explains that his father wasn’t obligated to join the war efforts, but that he joined because he believed in what he was fighting for.

His mom brought him and his sister to Madrid to be closer to his father, and they spent the war years in Chamberí. He tells me,

Mi madre no tenía miedo, mi madre nos cogía a mi hermana y a mí y nos poníamos a ver las bombas desde el balcón y decía, “si nos matan, que nos maten a los tres juntitos”

You can hear in Abuelo’s voice how proud he is of his parents for what they did during those years.

As he tells the story, I interrupt to ask him if there are any similarities between the current lockdown and the war, but he doesn’t remember ever being quarantined or sheltered. What he remembers is that when people saw or heard bombs going off everyone took cover, and as soon as the planes disappeared, they’d all go back to living their lives.

Life under lockdown

I pry further and ask more broadly if he sees any similarities between the war and the coronavirus crisis, and there he very sternly responds “no”. He explains that the danger was visible during the war, and that people experienced a lot of hunger during that time. He doesn’t feel like it compares at all.

However, at some point he mentions that there was “buena convivencia entre vecinos y cada uno ayudaba con lo que podía“, and I found that to be a pretty strong similarity. I think that if our current situation has any likeness to war, I’m glad to know it’s the kindness of the human spirit.

I showed him the War on Coronavirus posters by Mr. Zé to see if they would further stir any memories. When he saw them his voice sounded surprised. He said that it’d been a long time since he’d seen posters in that style…

Buenooooo, de ahora es la fecha.

He didn’t even realise that they were about coronavirus until I pointed it out, and as soon as he heard “coronavirus”, he became less interested.

Abuelo remembers that life was hard after the Spanish Civil War. He tells me that his sister passed away during the war of a tooth infection at age eight, and that his father was imprisoned for three long years for nothing other than being on the losing side.

I’ve always remembered Abuelo telling stories about going to the prison to bring his father food and clean clothes regularly. When his father was released, they relocated to Vallecas and he remembers going to get food with his ration card. He says that some cards were punched using a nail and that he and his mother would craftily reseal the punched hole on the back of the paper with a little bit of glue.

Así cogíamos dos veces pan. Había que buscárselas, ¡había hambre!

How he met Abuela

Abuelo recalls some of his fondest memories a few years after the war when he met my grandma. He tells great stories of dancing in las barcas de Legazpi, sitting at the four fountains by the entrance of the botanical gardens waiting for her to get out of work, and beating off the stiff competition who were also after her affection. He always says that if he had to do it all over again, he wouldn’t change a thing – she was spectacular!

A proud madrileño

During our walks down memory lane, Abuelo never fails to mention his good fortune when he landed a job at the Madrid city council. His first job was to hose down the streets, and moved up the ranks until he retired fifty years later as a district manager responsible for keeping Madrid’s streets clean. Serving his beloved city has always been source of pride and honour for Abuelo. To this day, he proudly wears a pin with Madrid’s seal on his lapel.

When it’s all over, we’ll go to the bar

I don’t think he fully realises the craziness of the world right now. I have to remind him daily that we are under lockdown, that we can’t leave our houses, and that the chupi chupi is going to have to wait a little longer.

My aunt lives with him and she says that on these quiet days, she catches him staring at the pictures and whispering things to photos of my grandma. I suppose that’s what’s helping him get on until we can get back to the bar.

This article was written by Raquel Benito, whose love of Madrid is rooted in Abuelo’s stories. She loves cocido, aimless walks around the barrios and chupi chupis nearly as much as Abuelo. All photos are by Abuelo Eusebio.

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