Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Maria Llabres

When I met her three decades ago, she was short, tough, and wiry. She lived alone, or rather I should say, she lived with her dogs in a small house in Butler County, and tended her garden daily. Her grey hair grew about her head in the fashion of the 1920’s. She never sat down in my presence, a practice no doubt she learned waiting on customers in the family hotel in Mallorca. Her sentences were short and clipped. A no nonsense woman who had had a hard life.

Her name was Maria Llabres. She was born in 1895 on the island of Mallorca, and, by stages in her life, traveled and lived in French Algeria, and then Kansas.

Images trigger memories, some random, some not.

Someone sent me a picture of the Casa Fina plate from the Ibiza collection. The plates come in a sand grey and iridescent blue. Now, you may know that Ibiza is the smallest of the three main Balearic Islands. In Roman times, it was a hangout for pirates, today it is known for its night life. From Ibiza it is a short hop to the largest of the three islands, Mallorca. Mallorca is where my wife’s family took up residence for a period. Not my wife mind you, but her grandmother Maria Llabres.

The birth year 1895 makes her a contemporary of the poet Robert Graves, who like Maria was born in Mallorca, but unlike her decided to remain there.

In Mallorca, Maria’s family ran a small hotel and restaurant. The family left Mallorca for Algeria for a chance to farm, but the Algerian struggle for independence ended that. Maria married shortly after the end of the First World War and came to Kansas, leaving behind a sister Catherine, who married and became Catherine Guerrier. She came to Kansas once to visit. The visit was brief. The years are not always kind to relations and hard times make things more difficult. They grew corn which they called Kafir corn and held parties celebrating the Queen of the Kafir Corn. But the corn did not always grow and that which did grow was meant for cattle and chickens. And chickens would eat most anything and cattle could be fattened up on the blue stem grass of the Flint Hills without the expense of the corn. The apple and pear trees shriveled and died. The flowers in the fields failed to bloom and the bees sought nectar elsewhere.

Drought cost Maria and Frank their farm. Then, the oil fields around El Dorado, which once provided work for Frank began, to disappear.

Life in Kansas could not be easy for a girl from Mallorca.

Maria must have looked a lot like this

Maria enjoyed her garden, her wine, her dogs, and cooking a dish that was a combination of chicken, olives, and wine. It was a dish she passed down to her daughter Mary and one of my favorite foods.

Most of Maria’s life is forgotten. She would be 122 this year. She is, for most of us, beyond living memory. For that reason, I will quote one of Robert Graves’s poem as a memorial to Maria.

She came and asked: Are the apples ripe?
The hay put up?
The wheat stored?
Didn't you know, I stammered,
The sun couldn't wait
The fields weren't Ploughed
The rain was dry.
But you promised
Corn, plums, Pears and honey
On my bread.
Didn't you see
The dog, rat and cat
Digging in the garden dust?
The clover didn't bloom.
Find me a basket, she said
Bring a hoe
The corn is ripe
This pear tastes good.

Earlier post on Maria Llabres.

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