Novel and Memoir – 2012

Farewell to Tovar


(My grandfather, 1960s – contemplating in his Denmark home)


She remembers when her grandfather used to find solitude in his workshop. He manufactured collections of coins with the grace of Aureliano and his little gold fishes. His most prized and rarest were displayed in a cabinet where the others were sold at Sunday markets. He restored and embellished pennies, farthings, florins, pence, shillings, eires, quarters, ponds, dimes, sovereigns, and crowns. The cabinet, which he made himself, sectioned the coins to their period, country, and size. She often stayed with her grandparents as a child, waiting for her grandmother to save her from his detailed sermons on the history of currency. Sometimes she tried to help him, but after a week in the workshop she would become restless and return to play in the garden until her parents arrived. She preferred to look at the brooches and jewellery. Her favourite coins had Springboks, which he painted gold in a sea of deep green. His sparrow hands would be magnified under his microscope, working with inconceivable patience as he colours lady Britannia’s spear, as he laboriously converts slips of metal into slouch hats. When she was older, he asked his granddaughter to market them on a website but they never sold. The money never concerned him. “Someone has to consider preservation,” he said, “always remember your heritage.”


Several centuries beforehand, Martin Tovar y Ponte made an agreement with Agostino Codazzi to found the province of Colonia Tovar. High in the mountains of Aragua, Venezuela, some distance from Caracas, a Germanic colony would live on an arbitrary map of their own sketching. The black forest villages held onto their solitude for one hundred and seventeen years before connecting to the highly developed outside in 1960. Her grandfather, a Coca-Cola campaigner at the time, visited the town in the early sixties with his wife. When their granddaughter told them she was planning to travel to Colombia, he dissented that she was too young but he asked her to find Tovar. He was enchanted by their loyal philosophy. She had already investigated Tovar’s fate. The Alemannic dialect of the Germans, AlemánColoniero, is almost extinct. Tovar’s mortality has befallen as a day-tripper. 


            He sits in the sunroom every day now; she hasn’t seen him at the workshop for years. But she doesn’t visit often. In the mornings he drinks English breakfast with a piece rye toast. He eats slowly. He is even thinner now; his clothes are loose and at times show his pacemaker. His wife and daughter worry about him. His granddaughter groans when she watches him butter his crackers. Her grandmother reads novels. He reads the newspaper but mostly he rests in the sun. It helps the arthritis. Those days, when they lived in Colombia and Venezuela, he would habitually drink black shots of the local coffee harvest with his wife and colleagues. There wasn’t a more aromatic bean than those in the markets of Salamina, nicknamed ciudad de la luz for its production of poets, musicians, writers, and actors. Some say the Colombian coffee seeds were given as gifts from Jesuits circa 1730 CE. But it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that Colombians achieved international expansion in exports, struggling ever since the Thousand Days War. Andrew hasn’t had a coffee since 1970. It was the year her mother was born in Johannesburg, “It can’t last forever.” He keeps a traditional gold Aztec statue on his wall above a Malaysian painting. The Aztec fascinated her as a child, reminiscent of her Tintin adventure comics. He asks his granddaughter if she has a record player but she doesn’t. He keeps his classical Venezuelan records in the attic and tells her there is nothing like it today. She argues that there is and she thinks he listens. But he warns her not to travel there.


Her grandparents left South Africa when their daughter was six. She had Scandinavian looks, like her father. They have photographs of her with ribbons and plaits in her school coats. She is holding her mother’s hand. Her mother is slim and attractive, wearing a button up dress and stockings with a red bandana, concealing her brown Ronettes hair. They are smiling. His granddaughter shakes her head in disgust when he tells her about the apartheid, “they weren’t allowed in the elevators. They would have to climb staircases and work on the unlisted level thirteen.” She accuses him for not protesting in streets and joining revolutions. “Most didn’t know it any other way,” he said. One of his colleagues, a Mexican, was almost refused entry into South Africa had Coca Cola not lightened his passport photo for customs.         A Japanese colleague was conditionally labelled “honorary white”. When she asks her grandfather his favourite places in his fifteen-year travels he always says Cape Town and Johannesburg. He enjoyed visiting Rhodesia and Swaziland too. She says she’ll find their old apartment one day. “It’ll be destroyed by now,” he says, “people are still angry”. She had read about Mandela, he said to forgive, not forget. He said it liberates the soul. She imagines the opposite is a bitter twisted creature like the ones in the fairy tales her grandmother used to read to her when she visited. Only strange fauna would survive in the dense parts of the black forests. The cleaning ladies were crying in their apartment on the day the Soweto uprising massacre. Her grandparents were scared and decided they didn’t want their daughter to remember that period. David Jones, native to South Africa and son of Coca-Cola executive, helped give their daughter British citizenship like her parents. He said she could have citizenship problems when she grew up. Jones was the yo-yo enthusiast who convinced his father of the campaign. He was the most recent of her grandfather’s colleagues to pass away. His favourite painting is a watercolour of three African ladies. They bought it from a roadside artist. He said he would never attempt to restore that painting himself and he keeps it in the sunroom.


Many years ago before his arthritis, he taught his granddaughter how to use yo-yos. He told her the toy most likely originated in China or Greece. She remembers him teaching her tricks like Two-Gun Pete, Rock-a-bye baby, Roller Coaster, Walk the Dog, In the Pocket, Invisible Man, and The Eiffel Tower. He said they would sometimes toss a yo-yo into the schoolyards for a child to find and begin the circulation. She would laugh at his seriousness, “That wouldn’t happen today.” He shows his granddaughter photos of himself, his wife, and teammates for the first time. They pose for the press with their signature trick; the paper lists their name and nationality. The photos are black and white but her grandparents said they wore red. They are immaculately dressed, “the rule was to never cover, tilt or obstruct the Coca Cola emblem,” he said. She finds a photo of her grandmother standing between a Filipino child and an extravagantly dressed Filipina woman. They were giving the yo-yos as gifts to the children in the villages. Her grandfather says the woman is Imelda R Marcos; she shrugs and flicks on. He keeps some Filipino coins in his cabinet. He says none of the coins he has would be worth much today, currency changes. There is no coat of arms on the Filipino coins.


She sits with her grandparents on a dining chair in their sunroom. She drinks a cup of instant coffee and they watch the afternoon news together. He sighs when he sees reports on Syria and Iraq, countries he never travelled. He laments his loss of contact with a Chilean friend, who left Coca-Cola to maintain his family shoe business in Santiago. He often writes to a colleague in Canada and wishes he could see him again. He tells his granddaughter she will never understand the yo-yo craze. The last of what he called the Golden Age of the Coca-Cola yo-yo trips ended in 1992, the year their granddaughter was born, “it can’t last forever”. He sold most of his Coca-Cola memorabilia years ago. His granddaughter bemoaned that she would have kept it all. They sell yo-yos in junk stores today but he still keeps one yo-yo with his albums. She never did learn how to play one. Later she looks at photos of the buildings in Colonia Tovar on the Internet. The roofs are tall and steep, like all German architecture, though it never snows in Venezuela. She promises to visit one day. 

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