I’ll explain when you’re old enough to understand

In memory of my mother who left so much unsaid

Close to five decades later, I still recall the long table with a white linen tablecloth, polished silverware, massive chandeliers, the waiters dressed in white, cloths hanging from their folded left arms. In my child’s mind, the image of that table became the benchmark of elegance.

It must have been around 1970. I was five years old and Laura, my sister, was seven. It was a special day for us. The president of Colombia, Misael Pastrana Borrero, was inaugurating the country’s first satellite antenna in Chocontá, a municipality a few hours’ drive from Bogotá. My father, who served as the president’s chief of staff, had been invited to bring his family to the inauguration and the official luncheon following the ceremony. The governor of the state of Cundinamarca, the mayor of Chocontá, and a few high-ranking military officials would also attend.

“We will witness the arrival of modernity,” my father said as we left the house.

We were the only children attending and were told to behave appropriately. My mother was a Spaniard of noble descent. Her beauty never went unnoticed. That day, she stood out from the crowd like an antelope in a herd of cattle. She wore her chestnut hair in a chignon, held back with a flamenco-style comb, a pleated midi skirt, and a silk shirt with bell sleeves, and her legendary cape. The cape I remember vividly; the rest of her outfit, I was recently reminded of when I came across a box of old family photos. My sister and I were dressed up like two Spanish infantas from a Velázquez painting.

Laura and I behaved well during the long speeches. After a short drive in a line of black Mercedes cars through the Bogotá countryside, we arrived at Hacienda Hatogrande, the president’s country estate, for lunch. By then, the large crowd had narrowed down to roughly thirty select guests.

Before the guests took their seats at the table, my sister and I went to the restrooms. As I was drying my hands, I spotted, next to the folded towels on the marble washbasin, something I had never seen before.

“What are these?” I asked my sister, pointing to the pile of soft, white cotton, small, thick cushions that looked like miniature rectangular pillows.

My sister came close, took one in her hand, and scrutinized it; she brought it to her nose, to her lips, she turned it around.

“They are presidential napkins,” she said with the authority that has always been hers. She always knows everything.

“I think they are Barbie mattresses,” I said.

My father had recently brought us two Barbie dolls from a trip to the US, much to my mother’s disgust. She couldn’t understand why children should play with women with breasts.

“You idiot, they are napkins for the president and his wife,” my sister said. “Here, take one, look how velvety, how smooth. Smell them. They have a delicious fragrance, and they are full of the best cotton, probably brought all the way from Africa. Caress your lips with them. See?”

As always, I did as she commanded. I took one of the mysterious objects, holding it with one hand on each end. I smelled it. I brought it to my lips and moved it softly right and left, polishing my lips with its smooth material.

“They are so delicate; they smell of roses,” I said. And then, pointing to the adhesive strip on the rear side of the little cushion, I asked, “What is this for?”

My sister stared at it for a second and then softly pulled the strip off, noticing it was sticky, adhesive.

“It’s to stick the napkin to the tablecloth so that it doesn’t fall to the floor all the time. Very clever, very chic. A president shouldn’t be bending down to the floor, searching for his napkin under the table, right?”

“Aha,” I said. “But then, why are they here and not on the table?”

“They must have forgotten them,” my sister said. “Hurry, we need to hand them out.”

She handed me a pile of 10 or 12 napkins and took another pile herself. Before leaving the restroom, we checked ourselves in the mirror. We were delighted with what we saw, identical patent black leather shoes, white stockings, matching pale blue dresses, pink organza ribbons. Laura’s hair was long, and she had it neatly tied at mid-height with a red ribbon; mine was short, I had bangs. We were fit for our mission.

“Let’s go,” she said, holding the door open for me. “Hold your head high, like this,” she put her chin up. “No! are you dumb or what? If you look at the ceiling, you’ll trip over! Just slightly up, like this, and don’t run. And don’t speak, waiters don’t speak.”

We stopped about ten meters away from the table. All the guests were seated now. Laura explained further: “Look, the president and his wife are sitting next to each other, at the centre of the table. We will start with them, and then we’ll move down to the ends of the table in opposite directions. Got it? You move in one direction, and I go in the other. Follow me and stop behind the president’s wife. I will put the president’s napkin on his right. You place the napkin to the right of the president’s wife, and then you move to the next person on her right …”

“Which is the right hand?” I asked in a whisper, anticipating my sister’s anger at my question.

“When will you ever learn!? The one you use to pick your nose, silly!”

“You don’t need to shout,” I said.

My mother had spotted us. She sprang from the table like a Jack-in-the-box. She pushed back her chair and crossed the distance that separated us with a mix of determination, urgency, and elegance. She wrapped us and the napkins in her cape, and she ushered us back to the restroom.

“But Mom!” we complained. “We need to…”

There was no arguing with my mother. Once in the restroom, she said,

“Put the menstrual pads back where you found them.” We did as we were told.

“But what are they for?” Laura asked.

“I’ll explain when you are old enough to understand,” my mother said.

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