An Unfinished Room in Montevideo

By Charla Cooper

Charla Cooper is a 54 year old single mother and US citizen currently living in Montevideo, Uruguay, where she teaches yoga.

She graduated from Swarthmore College in the U.S.

While her Father and Grandfather were accomplished writers, this is her first published piece.

I like white walls.  Whitewashed walls with nothing on them.  Like in Greece and the pueblos blancos in Spain.   White walls remind me of Nothing.

*    *    *

I moved to Montevideo, Uruguay with Christina, my beautiful one-and-one-half year old half-Fijian daughter, on Decemeber 1, 2008.

“Why Uruguay?”  everyone asks.

I was living a life I loved in Sevilla, Spain, on Calle Betis.   But after ChristIna arrived I found that I could no longer run my business —which requires calling the US during US business hours -(night time in Spain), and still take care of Christy.

I tried and tried, but either my work or Christina, or I suffered, and it usually wasn’t Christina.  Or me.

We had to live in the same time zone as the United States for me to both have a livlihood and be present as I wanted for Christina.

I’d read about Montevideo and its low cost of living, good climate and beaches etc., but I’d never been there.

As we drove into the city on the Rambla I had one thousand dollars in cash and  no other options for money.  I looked left, at little Christy’s legs which stuck straight out about two inches past the edge of the taxi seat, and then the slivers of light dancing on the Rio Plata, and marveled at the instant of entering our new unknown life.

Montevideo intrigued me, disappointed me and inspired me.  I missed the night life and flamenco beat of Sevilla.  Montevideo was very soft, pleasant, and “tranquilo.”

During the next nine months Christina and I lived in seven different places in Montevideo. It was a time of sheer survival. All I could think about was where our next diapers, food or place to stay would come from. There is a certain freedom in this kind of poverty.   When all you have to do is make sure you survive, you are stripped of the extraneous.  No time for depression, resentments, or lists of things to buy.  No choices.  One foot in front of the other, grounded in the moment.

On several days I had to ask bakers for day old bread to feed Christina, still in her stroller.  We were lent apartments, and ended up squatting in one.  We got kicked out of a hotel once for not paying the bill on time.

The worst day was a sweltering, humid day we both had lice, but no money for the treatment, or for diapers.  It was sticky and the lice were unbearable.

She would poop, and it would land on the floor, and I had to clean it up.

However despite all this, Christy was always her joyful, exuberant, and very outgoing self and I can honestly say that all of her needs, emotional and otherwise were always met.

At one and a half she was an extremely active child, running around constantly, touching everything and talking to everyone. Since her vocabulary consisted of “Mama,” and “Hola,” sometimes she would say “Hola,” to one person twenty or thirty times, poking them when they did not respond.  However even when she bothered people, she always, without fail, made them smile.

Finally after nine months we were able to get our own place. It was “perfect”:  A ground floor apartment directly facing the park in Villa Biarritz, just a few blocks from the Rambla and the beach.

The main room, the “living,”  faced the park and had a large window’s view full of green foliage and children playing, and the “feria,” or farmer’s market on Saturdays and Tuesdays.

The apartment had two bedrooms and two bathrooms and, best of all, a huge tiled terrace in the back, which was as large as an apartment, and was really a backyard, with a “casita,” for our nanny Suzanna . Christina and her friends played in the backyard and in the park and everything we needed was  within walking distance.

The apartment needed some cosmetic work.  The fixtures were old and it needed painting.  The walls were dingy and yellowed, with nails and faded rectangles where pictures had hung, and the paint was flaking in places.

We couldn’t afford to buy furniture or have our furniture from San Francisco shipped, so we lived in this virtually empty space with dingy walls and some white plastic lawn chairs and a fushia bean bag chair————Christina and me, and Suzanna and her 10-year -old-daughter, Camilla, their dog Lara, and usually Suzanna’s mother, “Abuela.”

My business began functioning again, Christina started her new school, Snoopy, and our lives began developing with the slow and comfortable pace of Montevideo.

But Christina was on fast forward. A photo of her each day, would show a different little person.

And there was nothing I could do to stop it.

There are times in our lives that we look back on and realize that they were charmed, because of love or unity.  They become ‘the best times of our lives.’

This was the case with the three  months I spent with my Grandmother and her primary care keeper, in her house on the water in Saint Augustine, at the end of her life.  Nothing  exceptional happened, but after she died, I realized that it was one of the best times of my life, and also for her.

But this time in our apartment in Montevideo was different because I realized as it was actually happening that it was special, recognizing it as a memory even as I was living it.

Christina developed an imaginary friend:  “Senora Pluma.”  Senora Pluma came at night and frequented Christina’s bedroom.

Sometimes she appeared during the day, but only Christina could see her, and Christina would hold long, extremely elaborate and emotional conversations with her.

Christina said her hair was violeta, but I imagined it long and glossy black.

When we asked Christina about something she was not supposed to do, like move the DVDs, or use Mommy’s make-up, she would say that she didn’t do it,

“Senora Pluma hizo.”

Senora Pluma became a household joke, with each of us adding our own associations. We would ask guests whether they knew Senora Pluma.  One lady, touching her forefinger to her chin and thinking said ‘Oh yes.  I recognize the name. ‘She is from Punta del Este, no?’

Sometimes Senora Pluma would leave behind wine bottles we found the next day, or messes in the kitchen. She wore several layers of sometimes diaphanous, long, flowing white, or off-white night things.  Elegant Victorian things with eyelets and embroidery, although they were sometimes yellowed or tattered at the hems. She wrote at night with an old quill pen with a feather, which she dipped in ink and sometimes there were ink stains or purple wine stains on her gowns.

She travelled silently in the apartment because she could, standing, levitate about a foot and a half off the floor, and then with a movement of her right wrist backward, like a motorcycle driver giving gas, she would travel wherever she wanted through the apartment.

She had large triangular pointed teeth and nails, like “los monstros,” in “Where The Wild Things Are,”  and her nails had chipped magenta polish on them.

I do not know about her toenails.

One day I decided to paint the “living” before my friend Debbie, who is Christina’s  Godmother, came from the States. I bought the white paint, the brushes and the paint roller and started one Saturday. As I applied the bright white paint with the roller, covering the past, a swell of satisfaction rose inside me. It felt good and was exciting to create something new and clean and bright white.

*    *    *

We seek perfection with our painted white walls.  The kind of perfection that maybe we can only attain in deep meditational states, nirvana, or in death.

*    *    *

Finishing the first wall I stood back, satisfied, but also realizing that this wall would never be perfect.  There would always be an uneven edge, or a drop of paint splatter, or some unevenness in the paint.

I once told a spiritual advisor at Grace Cathedral that I liked things black and white, right and wrong, with crisp, sharp edges.  She said “as you grow spiritually you will learn to love the rough and fuzzy edges, and embrace them.’”

After I finished the painting first section of the room, Suzanna did two walls very quickly.

On the following Sunday I was working on the last section of the room, watching the yellow wall slowly disappear, and I realized that in a sense I was creating a new room.

The old room, with the yellowed walls, would no longer exist.

Everything that had happened in that old room, was past and as such it did not exist.

That was the room In which Christina learned to count to ten, first in Spanish, and then in English.  Where she learned the ABC’s in Spanish and in then English. Where they danced and played hide and seek.

Where we endured endless episodes of “Dora, Dora” and soundtracks of Christy and her friends from Snoopy singing….

This was the room in which Camilla celebrated her tenth birthday, with twenty one children stayed up till dawn with sleeping bags on the floor.

It was the room we shared dinners in, and Christy learned to use a fork.

Christy quit wearing diapers here, and  renounced her blue pallela.

It was the room I taught yoga in weekly, cleansing our bodies and minds, and changing the very vibration and aura of the room.

It was the room where Suzanna’s sixteen year old half sister, who had seemingly unconsciously become pregnant, slept overnight on the couch, nursing her baby and leaving a slight sour milk smell in the room because of the the cloth she used to wipe the milk.

Abuela clipped her toenails here.  Sitting on the sofa, crossing one bare foot on top of the other knee and letting the hard yellow pieces fall to the floor and then sweeping them up.

Abuela beat Lara with a rolled towel here, for sitting on the sofa.  “No Lara,” slap;

“Lara No!” whack.

Christina’s white rabbit Hobbit left innumerous piles of CaCa pellets several times an hour in this room, until I realized that Abuela was literally living with the broom in her hand, sitting with it between her legs as she watched T.V. so she would be able to quickly sweep up Hobbit’s shit every few minutes.  This wasn’t fair for Abuela, so Hobbit ‘found another home.’

This was the room that Paco the parrot stayed in his antique white wire cage with plaster roses, when my friend Iris needed to leave him with us.

As I was painting and approached the very last corner of the room, I hesitated.

I almost wanted to leave the last corner unfinished…

A part of me did not want to create a new room, and move on to a new time.

Would Senora Pluma still come to the new room I wondered?

Maybe she preferred the old yellowed walls.

If she did come, how much longer would she keep coming for?

…Senora Pluma with her long flowing gowns and frayed edges…

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