Jeff Rosenthal (IES Abroad Madrid, Spring 1982 | Whitman College), had an unforgettable experience studying abroad in Madrid, thanks in part to his warmhearted homestay mom, Señora Carmen. Although he was living in a foreign city for the first time, he always felt at home. Read on to as Jeff shares, in his own words, how he returned to Madrid to find it still was the home he cherished and remembered.
As the plane descended through the clouds over the outskirts of Madrid, I thought about why I was really coming here. Yes, I had to teach two classes for my client Hewlett Packard, and, yes, I wanted to see Spain again. But the real reason, I had to admit, was to come back to the place where I basically grew up. And specifically, to find out what had happened to the family, and the woman who made that experience as treasured and powerful as it is to me even to this day.
Carmen Cano had been my “señora” when I came to school here with the IES Abroad Madrid program from Whitman College. As a 62-year-old widow, she had hosted students in her home for many years to provide a means of living, as well as companionship. But our relationship had been so much more than boarder/landlord. She had been a motherly friend and source of strong support at a time when I was finding my own wings.
When I came to Madrid as a 20-year-old student, I came knowing no one, having to truly learn a new language and build a new home for myself on the other side of the world. It had been an extraordinary experience for me that I still consider one of the key formational experiences of my life.
So, because of this experience, I felt a debt of gratitude and caring for Carmen long after I left Spain in 1982. I continued to write her, visited her once in 1986, and talked to her by phone last in 1988. As the years passed, I continued to send her holiday cards, but gradually my letters weren’t returned. As the years passed, my one-way correspondence turned into concern. Was Carmen still alive? Did she remember me? Was her family important to me, but I not important to them? What has happened to them?
I resigned myself to the probability that Carmen was no longer alive. But for some reason I still felt compelled to send her cards once a year, dutifully writing out the details of my life with my wife Linda and our three growing sons. But Carmen’s fate, and that of her family, nagged at me. It had become a question mark for a time and experience that I felt was core to my being. I had a compelling desire to know what had happened to her.
After arriving in Madrid and getting several hours of restless sleep, I felt a strong force to get answers.
My hotel was about three miles away from Carmen’s old apartment. As a serious runner, I had tread this route many times before, returning from friends’ houses at all hours of the day and night during my semester there. I set off from the hotel up Principe de Vergara Boulevard to her apartment, and quickly felt familiar with the surroundings as I proceeded to the north of the city.
When I got close to her old building, I started to pass by, not knowing some of the newer stores and landscaping. But sure enough, I stopped as I noted several of the same cafes that had been there before. I had a funny thought strike me as I passed the bar where my IES Abroad roommate Homero and I frequented – someone born where I lived here would now be old enough to be in that bar drinking. It had been a long time.
I slowly approached Carmen’s building entrance, nervous and anxious, wondering what I’d find. Would the old building be torn down? If not, would a new family name be next to the calling button for apartment 6D?
At first, I couldn’t find the button and surmised that everything had changed, but then I turned around and noticed another set of call buttons behind me, and there it was. I pushed the button and waited with a long silence. Just as I was about to turn and leave, I heard something.
“Si?” a muted voice asked. I knew it was Carmen’s.
“Carmen, this is Jeff Rosenthal downstairs. I’ve come to see you. Can I come up?”
“Of course!” she said, and I heard the buzzer behind me.
I climbed the six flights of dark stairs, noting that the building looked and smelled the same. I arrived at the door and knocked. I heard the slow shuffling footsteps approaching, the door opened, and there she was.
Carmen, now 83 years old, looked surprisingly good. She had lost significant weight due to a recent diagnosis of diabetes. But her eyes burned bright, and that radiant smile I had remembered appeared on her face. We embraced, and she invited me in.
Her apartment looked the same as it had when I left. After she served tea and cookies we sat down. “I still have all of your letters,” she said, “and I’m sorry I haven’t written back, but I get a lot of letters from my students. Your wife is beautiful, and your sons look wonderful.”
She proceeded to show me the letters I’d sent and some others from the students who lived with her around the same time as me. My friend and roommate Homero had just written Carmen only two weeks ago.
We talked for almost two hours before she decided to phone her youngest son, Jose Manuel. He, too, had lived here when I had. Although at the time he had a life of his own, he had become a friend and accepted me as a part of their family. Carmen called Jose Manuel on his cell phone. “Jose Manuel, this is mama. Jeff is here. Can you come over?”
Jeff is here? Not Jeff Rosenthal? No explanation needed? She said it as if I were visiting once a week, like an everyday friend of relative. I got no better compliment or affirmation of my place in this family than this one moment.
Jose Manuel came over from work, and the three of us talked through the afternoon, catching up on the many years and experiences that we’d each had. It was getting dark before I realized how late it was getting, and my sense of exhaustion from jet lag was setting in. We agreed to spend more time together later in the week, and I wound up returning twice that week to spend more time with them.
“It makes me so happy to see you Jeff," she said. “What contentment to see you.”
I, too, tried to express my great happiness in seeing her – although the emotion tended to get in the way of my Spanish. I gave her a strong hug, and she gave me a long kiss on the cheek.
I went back down to the street, and began to run back to my hotel in a light rain. I somehow felt something I had never felt before. A return to a home from so long ago, a coming back to a meaningful chapter of my life. And yet it was so easy, once I was there, as if time had taken nothing away from this.
I am so thankful for my Madrid experience, and for the chance to come to this home again. It’s so satisfying to have reestablished these important relationships and have returned to the place I had left to start my life as an adult.
My run back to the hotel was a gradual downhill. I don’t remember a step of it.
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