n another place and time, late summer was when Vincienta and Gabby took me to the manmade lake where I boarded a rental rowboat and splashed its oars while the nannies giggled with their boyfriends, both dressed in khaki uniforms. They saluted me and made me laugh, calling me “little man” in Spanish. They were duty-bound conscripts, and I saluted back while pretending to hold a machine gun, as boys of a certain age can do to honor the chaotic onslaught of testosterone. I was 10.
This happened in the Spain of Francisco Franco who was called the generalissmo — the general with the most — by my father’s work friends when they dropped in for cocktails, which was often. They liked the way my mother smelled (I overheard them) and most of them already had families of 11 or 15 children. My father explained this to me in a single word, “Catholics,” then shrugging as if some kind of intuition linked the word and gesture. It took me years to fathom the connection between Catholicism and family abundance.
Madrid in early September was an ideal place, or seems like it now in retrospect, but not so much because of Vincienta and Gabby and the lake and the soldiers and the laughing Catholics but because of the holes, which I miss decades later in an age so dense with visual and verbal information that the whole of life can feel like a terrible garble of saddening things, and filtration a relief.
My father was a journalist employed by the Spanish foreign affairs ministry and among the things he did first in the morning was hike to the nearby kiosk and pick up the previous day’s foreign newspapers (they arrived a day late) as well as that day’s Spanish dailies. Political life in Franco’s Spain was lazily but consistently censored, explaining the delay (that and the fact that planes and flights were fewer and slower).
The scissoring censors apparently received most of the British and European press in late afternoon, and with it the American New York Herald Tribune published in Paris. They would then set to work excising articles critical of Spain or the Franco regime, but often in a haphazard if not whimsical way. One article that talked about “spam” and not Spain was misunderstood by the censors and made into a hole, annoying my mother who wanted the whole of the cooking recipe printed nearby.
In any event, when I came home from my American school every late summer afternoon (after my daily ritual of catching lizards in the nearby dust-field, now a vast housing complex), I would find my father with lying back on the sofa reading. He had two shifts at the ministry, one in the morning, the second in the late afternoon, after siesta. I usually came home from school toward the middle of the second break. Often, one of our several Siamese kittens sat on his chest, making it look like he was clad in a colorfully animated coat that squeaked and moved at will.
He was not like most fathers in that he rarely asked about my day or how I was or what I’d learned. He instead waited for me to ask him something.
He knew I would because I could see him wink at me through the holes. Each paper had its own group of strategic holes, the work of the diligent censors, which gave many of the pages rectangular vents. He didn’t even need to put the paper down. He could signal through Spain’s (or spam’s) deletions.
We would then sit, the two of us, and speculate just a little about just what had been cut out, with my contribution usually consisting of something about a rocket or a frog that Franco surely found disagreeable. My father usually took his time explaining that neither rockets nor frogs were likely involved, but in doing this he’d put aside the paper and the news and the world to fill the time, our time, that the holes had incidentally caused.
And the reason I write this is to remember that stoppage, as well as the gently authoritarian holes, and wish that at least some of that useful void be restored so that the world might relent for a minute — not necessarily to exclude intelligence or information but to permit those whimsical pauses through which rockets and frogs can fly, the memories of long-gone fathers and mothers with them.