ven before we left for Spain, murmurings about this “thing” known as Catholicism had taken up residence in our Washington house. Less than a fixed presence, it seemed more like a repeatedly invited guest. At cocktail parties organized by my mother, my father made increased mention of the coming Second Vatican Council and rumors that the pope would issue an encyclical called Pacem in Terris, which to me sounded more like a spacecraft with an overly long name. In the basement, where my Siamese cats roamed, my father spoke of it looking like a catacomb from a medieval Christian church, waving his hands at the cats as they wandered over and across wooden beams. It seemed at times that my father was telling me the cats were Christian or Catholic, though they never spoke to me about this, nor about their catacombs.
My mother carried it further with whispers about the rites of confirmation and communion, which, since they both began with the letter “c” I associated with another frequently mentioned word, communism — inducing untoward ire from my mother, who insisted I never mix up the words, lest I end up in hell — not such a bad fate, since my father had anointed the cat catacombs without too much fuss. Hell couldn’t be much worse, though perhaps it might contain more wooden beams or cats. Or both. I did learn that communion should not be confused with communism and repeated this to my Christian Siamese, who probably already knew it.
But all this talk of Pacem in Terris and the pope and his spacecraft paled when I met Paco in Madrid.
Paco lived on the floor below, and the floor below that, since his family was, to put it mildly, large. I mentioned its largeness to my father who said, cryptically as always, “Welcome to Spain of the 1960s,” as if somehow a country was manufacturing large families and settling them on many floors in the middle of apartment houses in its posh capital, Madrid.
Paco was my first true Spanish friend. He helped me learn the language. We invented planets and named them after wild animals. We’d run around playing cowboys and Indians or cowboys and communists, depending on the prevailing mood. And for the first few days of our friendship it was just the two of us.
Then one day came the first of Paco’s fateful announcements. “Meet my brother Juan,” he said, and I did. He was a slightly miniature version of Paco. All this was fine until, over the course of two days, Paco repeated that same line, changing only the name, sixteen times. I remember Juan, Francisco, Martin, Alfonso, after which I lost track.
Paco’s very confirmed and communioned family numbered twenty-three souls plus three maids. Sisters hardly got a mention since they, of course, were girls, and off on their own spacecraft.
At night, when only-child thoughts nagged at my brain, I wondered just how it was possible for a family of more than 20 to come to pass. I, of course, knew nothing of procreation, let alone sex, a word I’d never heard. Nor did I fully pick up on my father’s long speech on the subject, which in retrospect was quite wise.
As Spain launched itself into the postwar middle-class era, it sought to minimize the massively visible power of the Catholic Church, present in all aspects of life. Lay Catholic orders grew like mushrooms, part of the church and government effort to create an illusion of separation between church and state. Opus Dei and others cropped up, half-secular religious orders intended to create a teeming middle class that dressed like the rest of the world but was nonetheless a giant Catholic brigade. Opus Dei means “works of God,” and Paco’s family represented one of those works. A marriage required a woman to bake a child every year or so until she ran out of heat or was retired to play with and raise her progeny. All these little Pacos, my father said, would represent the future of Spain, and he was not wrong, even after Franco’s death and the country’s royal turn toward Western democracy.
What did all this have to do with Paco and me? Nothing, really, aside from my inability to remember his brothers’ names or play with more than three at a time without confusing them. When seven of them filed in through the door that led to the living room it seemed to me like a phalanx of clones, though the word meant nothing to me at the time.
The family devoutly attended Mass, some of its members daily, and Paco’s mother occasionally scowled at me when I said I hated church. Though my parents discussed spirituality and religion and considered themselves Catholic (despite my father’s Brooklyn Jewish roots), I was raised mostly in secular style.
My mother’s one effort to get me to join Paco’s church in pre-confirmation classes turned out to be a disaster when, for whatever reason, I told the priest I was a communist (I was nine), and this statement nearly provoked a diplomatic incident between Spain and the United States. I had really just wanted to joke with the priest and win him over to my side. I simply chose the wrong word in the wrong era. No more confirmation classes; no communion.
Instead, I parked myself in front of my comic books and, when allowed, played with Paco — but only after his parents and mine held a summit in which my father announced I was not a communist, just a child. This seemed to make matters even worse for a time, since a child communist in Franco’s Spain was to be avoided at all costs, lest that child eventually (somehow) spawn another dozen or so communists to go with two communist maids. Unthinkable.
My father was right. The pope did announce his proclamation about peace, and the Second Vatican Council produced reforms that enraged any number of upper class Madrid households, who considered the pope a sudden traitor, though this they could not say aloud. Opus Dei began redoubling its efforts, and those efforts created ripple effects within Roman Catholicism so wide and powerful even Dan Brown had to write them into a best-seller. But all that came later, after I’d started it all by insulting the priest.
On days when I couldn’t get Paco or anyone else to play with me, I dreamed of becoming a matador (my father took me to many bullfights, corrida). These days, to speak of bullfighting is tantamount to belonging to a genocidal organization, but I adored the brutal and colorful fanfare of it all, and remember vividly the Spanish crowds toward the end of the fight, with the bull crippled, screaming to the toreador, Matalo! Matalo! Kill it! Kill it! Again, my father would turn to me and repeat, “Welcome to Spain.” He introduced me to the word fatalism and to Goya’s dark period. As I now endure darkness of my own, I am grateful for his willingness to speak to his child as he would to an adult. No other father around did that.
Yet the time spent alone was at times seemingly endless. I had to invent my own hobby, something to honor the alien planet of my birth.
So I learned to hunt lizards.
— This is one in a loosely linked series of autobiographical essays in which the author recollects his childhood years, spent largely in Washington, D.C., and Madrid, Spain. Some names and details have been altered for reasons of privacy.