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BURIAL OF MICKEY MOUSE:
The first five years of my life were spent in Paris with occasional trips to the French seaside or mountains but I have no memory of anything that could be called home. My family lived in various comfortable apartments in pleasant neighbourhoods of the city. There was a grand piano. That's about all I registered of my environment at the time. Then, suddenly, it all changed.
My parents, my sister and I - kitted out in what was presumed to be proper jungle gear: jodhpurs, boots, explorer hats of the Stanley-meet-Livingstone kind - making our way through grass taller than I was towards a semi-derelict house by a wild river outside a small village called San Antonio in the tiny country of Paraguay, in the middle of the continent of South America.
All the posh Paris furniture came along, including the grand piano, on the ship which brought us from Europe to Buenos Aires and then by river boat to Asuncion. The piano didn't survive being unloaded at the port and the furniture stayed in storage because there was nowhere to put it until the new long house was built on the 120 acres of tall grass, orange trees and palms which my father had acquired and which, to me, was the Garden of Eden - the only place where I have ever experienced a sense of fully belonging. I was about six when we landed there but it was love at first sight. Here I am on horseback with my father.After about three or maybe four years in Paraguay the family moved again, to the U.S. this time, but the image of paradise was deeply engraved in my brain and I resolved to return when I grew up.
The grown-up me riding bareback is from that time of returning, when it wasn't Eden anymore. But that's for later in the story.
The photo below shows the long house at the time my father had it built and the lower one is how it looked many years later when my husband and I replaced with tiles the original corrugated zinc roof which sounded like apocalypse every time it rained.
Back in paradise days, the family moved out of the primitive small house by the river into the big new house . Uninterrupted vistas towards the river from the front and, at the back, a shady grove of orange trees. We watched the house being built - the thrill of it - brick upon brick then ochre-pink stucco plastered over the top. My hands remember its exact roughness when I stroked it.
There were dogs - thirteen dogs, we kept accumulating dogs. My favourite was Minnie, a silly pink-nosed creature.
My beautiful young mother restrains me as I restrain the dogs on the terrace. By then her initial indignation at being uprooted from sophisticated city comfort to this wild place has melted in the sun and she is the happy lady of the manor.
Inside the house, oriental carpets from the Paris apartment lie incongruously on the cool tile floors and there are brand new bathrooms with running water from rain-collecting tanks on the roof. No electricity but kerosene lamps have an intriguing smell and a cozy, protective halo.
My room is in the left wing of the house (if you're standing on the terrace), right at the end where the wall is curved. I love this room more than any room I've had or ever will have. All my toys and books are there, the books I cherished in Paris with their wonderful pictures - Les Petits Enfants Bleus, Sans Famille, Michel Strogoff, Heidi, Les Contes de Perrault, Hans Christian Andersen. So many others, lost now. I don't remember being taught to read - I didn't go to school in Paris or Paraguay - but I always read a great deal. And now I can climb trees and run around in my underpants or wear my explorer boots and jodhpurs. I am in heaven.
We have become a community: my father's brother, his wife, their two little boys and two sets of grandparents have arrived from Europe. There is bickering among the adults of course and between us four children too but we have wonderful times.
We put on plays, usually directed by my older sister who is the imaginative one - she goes to school in the capital, Asunciòn, and regales the children with wholly fictitious tales of her royal past.
Some of these performances are held in the orange grove and we sell tickets to our family audience who also help to make the costumes - adorned pyjamas mainly. Below, my best-buddy cousin and I are blinking in the dazzling sunlight and, on the right, my sister is wearing a babushka scarf and a Russian dance is taking place.