My Mother, The Early Years

My mother at 6 monthsMy mother was born in San Pedro de Macorís, Dominican Republic, on October 20, 1926. San Pedro de Macorís, a city now known for producing baseball players, was, in 1926, the leading economic boom city of the island, and was going through what was called “The Dance of the Millions” era. The main export of the DR was sugar and 9 of the largest sugar cane mills in the island were in San Pedro. This city was also the cultural center of the island, boasting an opera house, theater, symphonic orchestra, movie theater, and shops with the latest European fashions money could buy. The international airport, main post office, and main shipping port were also there, as well as most of the Dominican government offices.

My grandfather, Alfredo Dalmau Rijo, (Fello), was a self-made millionaire. Losing his father at age 12, my grandfather became the head of the family, supporting his mother and most of the family until his death in 1973. At the time he met my grandmother, Diana Pichardo Martinez, he was the port director for San Pedro, owned a finance company, and a ferry boat that traveled between several cities on the southern coast of the DR, carrying passengers and goods. In those days, it was very dangerous to travel inland which was laden with robbers and very bad roads, so people traveled by water.

My grandmother, was a seamstress who was moving to San Pedro looking for opportunity, after a failed relationship with a baseball player that resulted in a child, Dedé. Four other children from a previous relationship lived with their grandmother in Baní. Diana took the ferry to San Pedro where she hoped to offer her seamstress services to the society ladies. Fello and Diana met on the ferry on the way to San Pedro and by the time the Ferry docked in San Pedro, my grandfather had decided this was going to be his wife. My grandfather bought a house for her where my uncle Mincho Dalmau Pichardo and my mother Ysabel Maria Irene Dalmau Pichardo were born. They never married. Not because of my grandfather, but my grandmother wouldn’t get married. She never married. She said, and rightly so, that a woman who got married deserved everything she got. Same reason Jane Austen never married: she wouldn’t have never been known as a writer.

My grandparents were together until my mother was 4, when they had an explosive falling out due to my grandfather’s philandering, which ended with my grandfather’s kidnapping of the children. My grandmother, being a woman and having no power, left for her hometown, Baní, where she lived for the next 46 years in a bohío (Dominican hut built in the style of the Taino Indians) on the edge of a river.  Known as Cucuza by the people of the region, she became a healer and midwife. My mother didn’t see her mother again until she was about 9 and would go once a year to visit.

My mother and her brother went to live with my great grandmother, Isabel, Rijo, her two daughters Caona and Lela, and Lela’s 5 children (Lela had recently widowed.) My grandfather owned and maintained the house they lived in, but didn’t live there. He had a house of his own a few blocks away, another one in Santo Domingo, and, something in Cotuí, places he used as bachelor lairs.

My uncle Mincho Alfredo Dalmau PichardoThe atmosphere in the household was a comedy. After the grandmother Isabel died, the aunts were extremely lenient with the all the children and allowed them to do just about anything they wanted–and they did just that. My mother tells the most fascinating stories of mayhem at dinner time with all the kids talking, laughing, fighting at the same time. Or the excesses of the Aunts who were hypochondriacs and would throw away furniture at the slightest sign of sickness displayed by any visitor. Most of the running of the house and care of the children was done by Caona, who never married, devoting her life fully to the task. Lela died at 96, after suffering from dementia or Alzheimer for years. Caona lived until she was 95.

By the time my mother was around 9, things in San Pedro were beginning to change. The dictator Trujillo had taken over the government, and had started moving all the important government offices, airport and ship port, back to the capital city of Santo Domingo. It wasn’t long before  the city was renamed Ciudad Trujillo after him, becoming the center of the country once more. San Pedro was on its way to becoming a ghost town with a decaying economy and grandiose structures suffering from neglect. So, my grandfather moved his business and the family to the capital city.

Soon after, my grandfather married a 23 year old, Cruz Amelia Isa, 20 years his younger, and not ready to be a parent to two very spoiled, dysfunctional children. So, my mother was sent to a boarding school run by Catholic nuns in Santiago (a city in the center of the island). My mother would spend the next 10 years in this school, coming home only on  some holidays. After a while, my mother refused to come home even then, since she knew she would just have the maids for company and she would never really spend time with her father. My grandfather and his young wife had an extensive social life full of parties, bridge games, and travel abroad. Not a suitable environment for a child. So, my mother and her brother were not part of it.

By 1946, my grandfather’s marriage was falling apart. He decided that the kids didn’t need to be in the middle of that. And he felt they needed an American education to round them off. My mother also needed some society polish, so he enrolled her in the Gardner School in New York City, a “finishing” school for young society ladies. My uncle went to Wentworth Academy in Missouri.

Gardener School prepared ladies to play the part of the society wife, teaching them how to dress properly for every occasion, the arts of writing letters, trips to the opera, tennis, golf,  equestrian arts, and everything a young society lady would need to land the perfect high society husband. It was a life-changing experience for my mother and one that would be a catalyst in my life. Because my mother was in NY, she was able to go about on her own, ride public transportation on her own, shop, explore, and even date, all things  a woman of  her social stature was not allowed to do without the presence of a chaperone in the DR. So, she experienced a certain amount of liberty that was very difficult to give up on her return home.  Realizing this and being very tall with a perfect figure, specially for a Dominican, my mother enrolled in modeling school and was due to start in the fall on her return to school after summer vacation. These plans changed as soon as she met my father. She never went back to school and was married a year later. This was always one of her biggest regrets and something I heard most of my life: “I could have been a famous model if I had not met your father and had you guys”.

My mother met my father at a very popular nightclub in the Hotel Jaragua in Santo Domingo. They were introduced by a mutual friend, Papito Padilla who remained a close friend until his death. At the time my father was already a sea captain for the Dominican Navy and commander of the Frigate Juan Pablo Duarte. My mother was most impressed by this tall, elegant, impeccably dressed in uniform! They spent a wonderful evening talking and dancing and fell for each other.

My parent's wedding day

My Mother On Her Wedding Day 1948 with Maids of honor. (FROM LEFT: Josefina Santos Dalmau, Anamelia Figueroa Faxas, Srita. Pimentel, My Dad and Mom, Rocio Margarita (Princesa) Nadal Dalmau, Gloria (Monin) Alonzo Ortiz, Ileana Nadal Dalmau, Wendolina Barros Miniño)

After a year of courting, they married at the Catedral Primada de América, the oldest cathedral of the new world. The reception was at the Santo Domingo Country Club, the most prestigious club in the island at the time, where 800 guests were entertained most of the evening with food, drinks and one of the best orchestras in the country. My grandfather was one of the founding member and owned a country home which was located across the street from the club, which he used on the weekends to get away from the city and play golf. He gave my parents the house as a wedding present. It was a beautiful home built in the style of the sugar cane mill homes of the time with a very large enclosed veranda which surrounded most of the house and a very large terrace with a pool, one of the few pools in the city at the time.

In August of 1949, my brother Pico was born. My mother traveled to San Pedro to give birth because her doctor and her aunts were still there. She wanted to have her aunts around her at this most important time. She would do the same at my birth on November 25, 1951.

At this time, my parents were the “Barbie and Ken” of the DR: perfect couple, perfect children, perfect home, etc. My father was promoted to sub-secretary of state. He was now traveling all over the world representing the DR at presidential inaugurations and other celebrations of state and captain of the frigate Juan Pablo Duarte. But, their world was about to crumble. Things would never be the same again. Soon after, my father was arrested, became a political prisoner, my mother was harassed, and our lives went through chaos, persecution, attempted kidnapping, escaping the island, political asylum, and much more.

My father was the prisoner and the one that fled the island, but it was my mother that was left holding down the fort and facing the dictatorship, society, and life as a single parent with two children the first time around, and 4 children the second. So hers is a story of survival, strength, frustration, and perseverance, plagued by pain, deception, humiliation, anxiety, and later depression. A life of constant, abrupt changes and catastrophic events, which defined my life and that of my siblings, as we grew up around chaos and continued to dwell in it for most of our lives. It has been my life’s quest to leave chaos behind and live a peaceful days without drama. If you don’t let drama in, it keeps going to find the person that will.