Many years ago, when I was a child, I sometimes heard my mother utter an expression I didn’t understand: Entre Pinto y Valdemoro (Between Pinto and Valdemoro).
“What does it mean?” I asked.
“Pinto and Valdemoro were two little towns in the province of Madrid,” she said. “They were separated by a very narrow stream. Legend says that one day a drunkard, walking along the stream with tentative steps, wandered on either side of it. “Now, I’m in Pinto and now, in Valdemoro,” he chanted until he fell in the water. “Now, I’m between Pinto and Valdemoro,” he then exclaimed.
The way my mother had applied the expression to specific situations made sense to me after I knew its meaning, even as a child. As I grew up, left home and went to college and on with my life, I neither heard the expression again nor did I use it, and I forgot about it.
A few summers ago, Deborah, my wife, and I traveled to Spain from California, where we lived, to visit my mother who was ninety one years old and a widow. We had visited her every year since we got married. This time, she invited us, along with her niece and a friend, a lady two years younger, to lunch: roast chicken, fries, salad, fruit, cakes, and coffee.
Deborah and I enjoyed these reunions around my mother’s dining table because they were full of contrast and amusement. All five of us made up a two-generational, bicultural and bilingual group. When we bumped onto some idiosyncratic use of the language, such as the telling of a joke, I became the designated interpreter, either in Spanish or English so that everybody would catch it.
“I plan to retire next year, and we are thinking to move here, to Spain,” I said in the course of the conversation.
My mother, her nice and friend, all three, perked up hearing the prospect of soon having us close by; they loved us.
“But we are not sure yet,” Deborah added.
“So, you’re between Pinto and Valdemoro,” my mother said.
“Excuse me?” These words were new to Deborah, and she looked at me as if implying that I should translate for her.
“She means we’re undecided,” I said.
“How so?” Deborah asked.
“What does Deborah say?” my mother asked now.
“She doesn’t see your point,” I said. So my mother told the story again for Deb’s benefit.
Deborah understood the story but commented, “That’s not indecision.”
“How isn’t?” I asked.
“The man was drunk, not undecided. His balance was off because the alcohol.”
“What’s that?” My mother asked.
“Deb says the story of Pinto y Valdemoro does not reflect indecision,” I explained.
“It has always meant so since the very beginning. Nobody has ever doubted its meaning. Why does she think it doesn’t?”
I explained Deb’s rationale.
“But that is as if someone described an object as red when in fact was blue. The saying has never meant a problem with balance but a problem with decision-making.”
“Oh,” Deborah intervened, “but I believe some things are not what they appear to be.”
“Is that so? Give us an example if you can,” my mother challenged her.
“Sure. Just a few days ago, before coming to Spain, I visited a museum in California that has a beautiful garden. It was, as usual there, a sunny day. I stopped for a moment in front of a bunch of daffodils, some of them white and others yellow. I also saw a few flowers of a different color and shape. I focused on them until I realized those were not flowers, but they looked at first sight as if they were. I couldn’t help but murmur, ‘But in this most bright day, who on earth would take you, immobile dragonflies, for the sweet daffodils?’
I translated Deb’s story into Spanish; everybody understood it, but nobody added another word to the issue.