Mar 1, 2014

Swimming with Grandma Chichi

The dry season in Panama usually begins in mid November and can stretch all the way to mid or late April. The days are hot and not so humid, the chance of heavy rains, slim.   Grandma Arosemena loved the dry season especially during full moons at Linda Vista, the shiny silver glow of the night sky, a perfect setting for her late evening swims.

Every summer when I was on vacation from elementary school, I would stay at the finca with my paternal grandparents for a week or two.  Throughout the year our family also visited every Sunday after church for family luncheons. In Panama, the finca was known to everyone as "Linda Vista"; two big white pillars marked and guarded the entrance of the property.  You knew you had arrived at Linda Vista in Arraijan when you passed the tall white pillars with decorative large tiles that captured the name of my grandparents property.  Linda on the left side pillar and Vista on the right, the translation, Beautiful View.  It was fitting that to reach the residence, you drove up a narrow winding road, if you were new to the finca, the slight incline invited anticipation, you knew you were visiting somewhere special.  At the top of the hill, everyone was greeted by a large circular driveway beautifully landscaped complementing the main house and terrace.

My Grandparents moved to Arraijan in the early 1950's, back then a tiny, sleepy, rural pueblo, 10 miles outside of Panama City.  Grandpa Rogelio wanted to be away from Panama City, he wanted a place where he could rest and have total peace, where he could have his caballos de paso, his specialty crops and the wide-open spaces with beautiful views of the countryside. Linda Vista had a little bit of everything, fountains, large trees, fenced fields for the cows and horses, a tack room for his collection of saddles, a large barn, a walk in bird house for pigeons, goat pens, dog houses, a small creek, it was a child's dream. My Grandma loved flowers, all of the landscape near the main house manicured, the tropical colors vibrant, something always in bloom.

The hallmark of Linda Vista, a large covered terrace overlooking the countryside.   On one side of the terrace, the views panoramic, you could see gently rolling hills stretching the distance all the way to the Pacific Ocean.  Close up, there was a small lake on the property below where the invisible alligator lived and also the house where Pablo Santana, the finca foreman and his family resided. On the opposite side of the terrace, a large walk in wooden bar area with the word DESPREOCUPATE at the top. The terrace at Linda Vista, home to many famous parties hosted by my grandparents over the years.  

The literal translation for Despreocupate, Stop Worrying. My Grandpa's version, when you visit Linda Vista you are among family and friends and all your troubles and worries for that afternoon or evening visit, absolutely had to stay behind. My Grandpa Rogelio lived his life large, he wanted everyone around him to know they were welcomed, loved, appreciated, especially when they visited his home in Arraijan.

For the nine Arosemena grandchildren the finca was an adventure. We saddled up and rode horses, fed chickens, milked goats, chased the geese and ducks, all while wearing the coolest black industrial heavy rubber boots, a must when roaming around with Grandpa Rogelio, especially in the rainy season. And the dirtier the boots got the better.  In the afternoons, the terrace or terraza was setup with beautiful hammocks where siestas with Grandpa were ritual. He always napped in a large heavy cloth hammock hanging across the full length of the terrace, the grandchildren got the smaller hammocks in the corners which where perfect for our size.  And we really did take naps. Grandpa Rogelio would fall asleep quickly, I remember loving the temporary silence knowing that it would soon be interrupted by Grandpa's snoring. I also always took notice at the tiny exchange of airflow created by the back and forth swing of the hammock. My focus on this tiny personal breeze always gently galloped my brain to eventually falling asleep.  

My favorite all time activity at Linda Vista, swimming late at night with Grandma Chichi in her large oval shaped pool.  I imagined then and still do now that this was a "secret" activity that no else in the world was aware of and I got to share this with her.  I imagined the two of us having a secret pact. Of course Grandpa Rogelio knew about the swims, but he was always asleep by the time we went swimming. Grandma Chichi always waited until about 11pm, the night air mostly still, the roof of the world scattered with a million stars.  Always so many stars in the country sky I would ask from time to time if anyone could count them all. She always said, “No, mijita, no se pueden contar”.  In this sense Grandma was very practical, things like accurately counting stars, she knew were not possible.

During these late summer nights, Grandma Chichi and I always walked slowly and quietly to the pool, we would go out the main entrance of the house, through two large iron doors with the initials A and V in delicately woven into the ironwork: A for Arosemena and V for Varon, my Grandmother’s maiden name. We then walked around half of the circular driveway, down the cement steps to the area of the finca designated for the pools, there were two. Grandma's pool, perfect for swimming laps and Grandpa's pool, a smaller rectangle pool, perfect for the grandchildren to enjoy during the Sunday family visits.

Grandma Chichi was always covered with a large terry cloth towel, always pastel colors, green, blue, pink. She wore her "chinelas', what we call slippers and her bathing cap. I walked beside her in my swimsuit and chinelas, sometimes we would hold hands. I am sure she never knew how excited I was that I got to share this time with her.  It was awesome, I was  9 and 10 and 11 years old with Grandma Chichi swimming late at night in her pool and indeed she swam in the nude.  She loved swimming, she loved the quiet, she loved the water, she loved having this time for herself under the warm night sky and I was there right with her.  

Thinking back on this memory, I imagine that she cherished all that encompassed the swimming activity.  The calm of the late evening hours, the quiet, the privacy, it was her time, her joy, all of her in a familiar pool, safe and enjoying an exercise that did not tax her body.  She swam free style and the breaststroke and always took time to enjoy moments of floating as still and quiet as possible. I knew to also be very still and quiet. Usually once she was in the water, we didn't say much. Most of the time I would sit holding onto the blue metal steps that led into the pool. I would listen to the song of the splashes as my Grandma swam slowly back and forth, back and forth.  We were in a wide-open theatre under the night sky, the rhythm of her strokes and kicks soothing and magical. I loved being at her side.  

Grandpa Rogelio built the pool especially for her and especially for swimming. It was a large pool, deep enough to swim but as an adult you could always touch the bottom. The length, 20 yards or so, perfect for laps. On one of the sides of the pool, right in the mid section, Grandpa had beautiful blue tiles set in spelling her name, CHICHI in capital letters.  Her full name, Gertrudis Maria Varon de Arosemena, everyone who knew my Grandma called her Dona Chichi, Sra. Chichi and all the grandchildren, Mama Chichi or Abuela Chichi.

I remember vividly when the water in the pool was perfectly still, the level would come right to the bottom edge the blue tiles and not get them wet. If someone splashed or swam and got the tiles wet, the cobalt blue shine was extra bright. Under the hot sun, the letters would glisten and tease the shades of light blue color coming from the water’s reflection. I am not sure where Grandpa Rogelio got the tiles, not sure what material they were made of, but they were perfect.   Over the many years that the CHICHI tiles held court in the large oval pool, their shine, like the memories of those late night swims, never, ever faded.  I don’t think my Grandfather ever knew that in his whimsical nature of naming the pool or the bar or even the finca,  that he would be creating such a powerful visual and emotional impact on the Linda Vista memories that resonate in my heart everyday. 

Whenever I am in a pool, a river, a lake, or even the ocean, the joy in my heart is always connected to those late night swims with Grandma Chichi. My love of all things water, of swimming, of floating, all because of her willingness to include me in a simple activity that was so special to her.  

Not a day goes by that I don’t think of my Grandmother Arosemena. 

I love you Abuela Chichi.

This is the first of many memories from my Grandmother Arosemena that I will be writing about, the goal to to one day include in a collection or memoir about her and the impact and influence she had and has on my life E V E R Y D A Y.  If you have feedback or comments, I would appreciate. You can send to