Still Love in Strange Places: A Memoirby Beth Kephart
When Beth Kephart met and fell in love with the artist who would become her husband, she had little knowledge of the place he came from -- an exotic coffee farm high in the jungle hills of El Salvador, a place of terrifying myths and even more frightening realities, of civil war and devastating earthquakes. Yet, love, she finds, means taking in not only the stranger who is one's lover but also a stranger's history -- in this case, a country, language, people, and culture utterly foreign to a young American woman. Kephart's transcendently lyrical prose (often compared to the work of Annie Dillard) has already made her a National Book Award finalist. In each of her memoirs she has written about love, looking beyond her own life to seek out universal truths. In this new work, gorgeously illuminated with her own photographs, Kephart offers her testament to the ties that bind: the love -- by choice -- of a man, and the love -- by necessity -- of his homeland.
- Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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- 5.84(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.98(d)
Read an Excerpt
STILL LOVE IN STRANGE PLACES
By Beth Kephart
W. W. NORTON & COMPANY
Copyright © 2002 Beth Kephart.
All rights reserved.
The tear runs like a river through a map, hurtling down toward his right shoulder, veering threateningly at his neck, then diverting south only to again pivot east at the fifth brass button of his captain's uniform. Below the tear, two more brass buttons and the clasp of his hands and, below all that, the military saber; the loosening creases on his pants; the shoes with their reflections of the snap of camera light. He is one of three in a sepia-colored portrait, and someone had to think to save his face. Someone had to put the photo back togetherre-adhere the northeast quadrant of this map with three trapezoids of tape so that his left hand would fall again from his left elbow and he would still belong to us. We suppose he is the best man at a wedding. We suppose that it was eighty years ago, before the matanza, before he was jailed and then set free, before he saved the money to buy the land that became St. Anthony's Farm.
"Did I ever tell you what my grandfather did the year the farm first turned a profit?"
"He threw the money into the air, the bills, and they got caught up with a wind."
"And so he ran after those colones through the park. Chased his own money through the leafy streets of Santa Tecla. Imagine that."
I do. I am often imagining that. Imagining that I know himthis man whose likeness is my husband's face, whose features are now borne out by my son. His are the sepia eyes that passed through me. His is the broad nose, the high cheekbones, the determined mouth, the face not like an oval or a heart, but like a square. He died long before I'd ever meet him, but I carried him in my blood. Just as the land carries him still, remembers. Just as St. Anthony's Farm will someday, in part, belong to my son, requiring him to remember what he never really knew, to put a story with the past. Words are the weights that hold our histories in place. They are the stones that a family passes on, hand to hand, if the hands are open, if the hearts are.
"You look like your great-grandfather."
"Yes. Come here. See? That's him, in the photograph."
"Him? My great-grandfather?"
"But he looks so young."
"Well, he was young once. But that was a long time ago, in El Salvador."
We remember. We imagine. We pass it down. We step across and through a marriage, retrieve the legacies for a son.
St. Anthony's Farm rises above a town called El Limón, above a river you can hear but cannot see. It rises at an angle that would pitch any mortal down, were it not for the trees, standing so densely close, each limb like a hand to hold, a brace. The trees that yield the Coffea arabica need height and cool to grow. Sun for only hours at a time. Soil rich in potash, nitrogen, phosphoric acid; preferably disintegrated volcanic rock.
It's after the monsoon rains in May that white blossoms erupt from these stalwart treesstar-shaped, exuberant flowers that fill the air with a honeysuckle sweetness. And it's after the flowers dissipate that you find the nubs of cherriesemerald green at first, knuckled about the branches like so many determined fists as they slowly fatten, brighten with the sun. By December the fruit is ready and the pickers have come, taken up their places in the constricted alleys between the trees. You see their head scarves among the leavesbright yellow, orange, green. You see the plastic bags of purple juice and the stack of cold tortillas that wait beside their feet, beside their baskets and their burlap bags, worn burlap bags, noticeably mended. You see their children gambol down the narrow, beveled paths, their own baskets hanging from a length of rope or a strap of worn leather about their necks, their smiles like sudden crescent moons amid the shadows. Hummingbirds rustle in the shade trees overhead. Beetles bicker. Dragonflies buzz in and out of the shrapnel flecks of light.
I married all this when I married my husband. I married a foreign language and a national preoccupation with a witch named Siguanaba and butterflies large as kittens. El Salvador, the Savior. The size of Massachusetts. The politics of oppression. The peril of a swatch of earth that trembles still above its fault lines. When I was a kid ..., I've heard my husband say on the path ahead. Before the war.... When my grandfather was alive.... The past in the present. A man long gone who is still, by a kind of miracle, alive.
Carlos Alberto Bondanza was Bill's grandfather's name. He remains a legend among those who yearly come to free the coffee cherries from the trees. They remember the priest he'd bring to the hills. The fruit trees he invented. The parcels of land he rented for free to those he trusted with his coffee. They remember the silence he brought on with his siesta, and the hen-like chacha that he coaxed into mating with the pheasant, playing like God in the hills. His feat, they say, was living well. His feat was not living at the expense of others.
He died of cancer, and Bill's lasting regret is that he did not die among the coffee trees. "I should have kidnapped him from that sick room and taken him up the road to the hills. But you know how that road is," he now says, and I do; this part I understand.
Today the trip from the city house in Santa Tecla to the farm above El Limón is its own indigenous form of torturenot just the traffic but all that's inclined toward erosion. To get above the city, one must first go straight through it, into and out of the mess of the marketplace. It's everything you imagine a city ringed by mountains is. The narrowed-to-nothing Pan-American Highway jammed with thin tin cars and huffy tractor-trailers and psychedelic buses that wear passengers on their roofs and on their running boards, on hemp ladders tied to the back where the exhaust pipes spew rubble with their smoke. The only relief is the parkone high-curbed, block-sized square of beaten grass, a few shade trees, a scattering of towering palms. There stands a makeshift wooden stage, where sometimes the mayor will preach or a marimba band will play or, in Decembers past, they would hold a beauty pageant for the Santa Tecla girls, allowing anyone who could afford to vote to buy their vote and crowning, consistently, the ugliest girl in town. It is in this park that Don Alberto once tossed his money to the sky. It is across its bordering tumultuous roadway where he maintained his city residencea grand stucco edifice with a lush fruit-tree garden that I saw but once from a distance, some thirteen years ago, before bulldozers knocked it to the ground.
The marketplace is what the people have made it. It is the shabby, precarious architecture of hot metal lean-tos and cardboard roofs and blankets and milk crates and goods. Time and again the bureaucrats have tried to contain it, building block-long warehouses into which to stuff the merchants. Always the commerce has spilled back onto the streets, everything defiantly elbow to elbow. The charred pig on a stick beside the splitting sacks of coffee, the stalks of flowers keeping company with the fish, the shopkeepers fast asleep in their folding chairs, live chickens peeking out from haphazard shadows, and, of course: the corn-husk dolls, the rush-woven mats, the palm-leaf hats, the decorated gourds, the goose-feather powder puffs, the lidded baskets and the baskets made of vine. Coatepeque crabs have been known to get loose from merchant baskets and to scramble in among the hairy husks of corn or the hard white crusts of cheese, and all day long, on blackened dirty grills, on comales, with the help of smoothened metates, little girls make pupusas and tortillas. At one point the market depletes itself, and there are no stalls at all, nothing propped up overhead to ward off the relentless sun. Then there is only the sprawl of blankets, torn paper bags, faded newsprint that separates the women and the children from the direct heat of the earth. They come from miles away to sell whatever they have. They sit and they sleep in the streets.
You can see all that from your car or your jeep, as you sit in the stranglehold of traffic, the air so dense with gasoline that you finally swallow it down. You can hear its history in the tales that Bill will tell about the house where he was bornjust over there, a barbershop now where his mother's sitting room once wasor about that bit of open space, now wreckage, where he would come and spin tops with his friends. You can hear the resonance in the stories he doesn't tell, in the secrets you know he's keeping, in the Spanish he preserves for himself, and you can be made to feel lonely, or you can be made to feel alive, alert, privileged, even, to be here beside him, to take this journey which is his, to be forced up against a place you'd hardly know of otherwise. You are forced, in El Salvador, to make decisions.
It can take five minutes or more to advance a single Santa Tecla block, and then another five minutes and you break free, turning left off the Pan-American Highway, then right and left again, snaking through the streets between hovels and merchants and pedestrians and drunks, the leathery old men pissing their guaro onto the many-fissured sidewalks. Today it's Bill's mother, Nora, at the wheel of our jeep, and nothing cows her; she fights the traffic and the serpent streets with everybody else until the asphalt turns to dirt and we hit the base of the coffee mountain, where it is poverty again, just a different color. But back then it would have been Bill at the wheel, his grandfather in the throes of the cancer beside him.
There would have been no wayno possible wayfor Bill's grandfather to take this journey one last time. And still Bill dreams of what might have been. He dreams of settling a mat outside amid the aroma of the trees and giving Don Alberto a view of the land that became his. Giving him more time among the peasants who were the keepers of his farm, his friends. Giving him more time with Bill, who struggles to remember what he can in fact remember, to hold on to it and to give particles away, so that it can become somebody else's. His wife's: received, assimilated, and sometimes stolen. And, of course, his son's.
Excerpted from STILL LOVE IN STRANGE PLACES by Beth Kephart. Copyright © 2002 by Beth Kephart. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of a memoir trilogy. She has written about writing and the imagination for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and Parenting. She lives in Devon, Pennsylvania.
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