We’re two weeks in the Chaco, Paraguay, where my husband grew up and his family still lives. We spend most of our time with relatives and friends. That’s why we came. But there’s one thing I want to do myself. Just the two of us, I mean. I want to go to Yalve Sanga, where we lived for two years in the early 1980s on a development assignment, set foot there again, walk about in anonymity, no one along to expound or explain. We no longer know anyone there; as the centre of indigenous programs (medical, educational, religious, agricultural) in the region, staff come and go; the community is fluid. H. has no pressing urge to return, but he’s willing to indulge me so we borrow a car and drive the half hour or so, dodging pot holes in the asphalt out of Filadelfia and along the TransChaco. It’s hot. As we turn off the highway onto the dirt road leading to Yalve Sanga, the car churns up dust and it hangs in the air behind us.
We park and walk. Past the bit of “pond” where I was for a while “the best mother ever” when I let the boys jump into the water in their shorts, alongside Enhlet boys they’d been watching longingly from our picnic blanket nearby. Past houses, trying to remember which was whose, and which have been redone or disappeared. Around the corner then: “our” place. Oh my! The house that rose from a patch of earth much the colour of its bricks (stripped of kamp grass when the house was built and new, because of snakes) is now encircled by a hedge flowering yellow, and the curve across the ploughed field where the bulldozer and other machines stood between jobs is lined with hedge too, almost romantic it seems, both hiding and revealing as we follow it in, and there it is, doors, windows, wash line, shutters, cistern. We don’t have to go closer, no one’s home anyway, which is good, this isn’t about meeting the current residents. I already know the rooms, the layout, I drew the plan and H. built it for the sponsors of the machine station project, and we lived in it. But look at it now, everything so tidy and green, even more green in garden and grass, and trees planted close to the house for shade.
Is it gladness I feel — on account of this evolution — or envy? Both, briefly, yes, but I’m staring it back to its original, thirty-five years ago. I see the bones of its beginning, and we the first, H. and me and the children, the girl crawling the path from Shattendach to shed, the dog’s attentive eye on her, oldest son back and forth to school in his white shirt and navy pants, younger son at play with his slingshot and kugels against the bird noise of the algorrobo tree, the only tree there is. Or the two of them chasing about. With their happy shouts.
It’s the fine dry sand like puddles between ridges of hard earth and the heavy heat that sets me back into those years when I was thirty-two and three and four, when I had children in my arms. We wander on, murmurs of memory between us. The mulberry bushes seem to be gone, the chapel too. The soccer field at the school is overgrown. It’s a day school now, no longer residential. Something large is being built across the street. Everything feels the same but completely different too. There’s construction sound, and motorcycles now and then, but I’m struck by an overwhelming sense of quiet, of peace like sleep. But it teemed, didn’t it — then?
H. takes a photo of me in front of flowers tumbling over a fence. The buzz of bee and butterfly among them is overwhelming, as if the past has concentrated here — all the former liveliness, energy, passion, complication, joy of our lives. Good times, busy times. Busier than they should have been, of course. They always are, when families are young. A very old Enhlet woman comes by, ragged, stick in hand, bag over her shoulder, and when we smile and gesture a greeting, she laughs, a clear tinkle of a laugh like pleasure, as if she’s Mother Yalve Sanga herself who knows you can’t live in the past but a bit of a visit now and then won’t hurt either.