We’re somewhere in Pennsylvania. My Godmother drives. I’m sitting on the floor of the RV, writing, my legs pretzeled up under me. Trees flash by, a river, rockscape, sky. A stuffed likeness of kitty Perlita watches out the front window. Pepe hides.
An excerpt from Carmen playing on the radio reminds Madrina* how she and my Godfather Raul met in a New York rehearsal studio during the winter of 1950, when she was hired as the “swing girl” for a Latin Quarter production of Carmen. As such, she alternately replaced each female dancer in the cast, allowing them to take nights off. But replacing a different girl every evening also meant she danced with different partners, including Raul.
Later in this run of Carmen, when my Godmother played a gypsy fortune teller, she’d spread the cards face down on a table near the rear of the stage, always sure to deal Raul the ace of hearts, hers a love that would, literally, recast his fortune. But when Raul came into my Madrina’s life, he rewrote her destiny, as well. Or perhaps it was Lou Walters, owner of the Latin Quarter and father of Barbara Walters, who set that course in action.
On one evening that my Godparents were partnered with one another, Walters called Raul into his office after the show. On that snowy night in February, with boots dripping near the door and the smell of damp wool in the hallway, Walters, tapped the ash from his cigar and predicted more than suggested, “Raul, you know that little girl you danced with tonight? You should always dance with her. You look good together.” Raul took Walters seriously, very seriously, for from then on my Godparents did dance together, on and off the stage. It was a slow dance, one that lasted six and a half decades.
But these Godparents changed my future, as well. In fact, Walters’ suggestion cast ripples across a lifetime of loves and all sorts of relationships.
After a summer of traveling with Madrina, I understand that I’ve shared a place of importance with all kinds of people: everyone from the dancers who worked in their company, to the patients they’ve treated, from former neighbors they’ve kept dear (if not near), to their colleagues in the massage therapy profession. In fact, all summer long, my Godmother and I have breakfasted, lunched and dinnered with people whose lives they, and Raul in particular, have impacted. And nowhere was this more apparent than at the annual meeting of the American Massage Therapy Association (in Pittsburgh this year).
During most of their lives, my Godparents may have danced in the theater together, but during our week in western Pennsylvania, my Madrina took to the stage, alone, on two occasions, not to accept applause for herself (the “little star”),** but to accept them for the man, who was, to her, me, and so many others I met in Pittsburgh, a superstar.
My Godfather began his career as an actual movie star in Venezuela, and he ended his working years, one month shy of his 97th birthday, a champion of the profession he began when most folks his age were retiring.
In August, the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) formally recognized this contribution (as had the World Massage Festival, by creating a scholarship in his name).
During the AMTA conference, organizers of the opening ceremony asked Madrina to sit near the front, in a section of reserved seats. A blonde with a chic, shoulder-length cut and perfect, French manicure attached a special sticker to the bottom of my Godmother’s conference credentials. The room buzzed; attendees chattered; chairs squeaked; programs folded and unfolded; music played. All the while Madrina fingered a lifetime’s worth of professional pins—and wept.
Hers was a tsunami of grief. It dragged ashore, during that brief meeting, pain as brutal as their love had been long and enduring, elegant, enchanted, sweet. Madrina cried quietly. I held her hand.
After former Olympic skater Scott Hamilton gave the keynote address, those in the reserved seats were called on stage, one at a time, for special recognition. The AMTA’s Florida chapter gave Raul a postumous “Meritorious Award,” honoring his decades-long dedication to the profession, a plaque passed to my Godmother by the organization’s national president.
The actual presentation remains a blur for both of us, the pictures I took no more than fuzzy efforts to record in a single flash a life well-lived, decades upon decades of individual moments, each at once ordinary and epic.
(Stay tuned. More awards and stories to come.)
Update: We are STILL in West Virginia. However, RV repairs are finished!! We head south on Sunday, September 13th. Keep your fingers crossed!
*”Madrina” is the Spanish word for “Godmother.”
**My Godmother’s name is Estrellita. In Spanish, it means “little star.”
To read part 1 of this series, click here. To check out part 2, click here. To read part 3, click here; and to see part 4, click here.
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