It was late at night when my mother and I finally found my grandmother's place. Darkness, and fading memory, had obscured almost every landmark on the way to that bitten-off cliff on Puerto Rico's west coast, where my grandparents had lived in an open, airy house set just back from the sheer drop to the water.
My grandmother was dying when she built that house, and she lived there for less time than she had hoped. Her death, and the subsequent tangle of remarriage and inheritance, had left me with a stinging bitterness toward her land, which I had loved so much and suddenly lost. I had snapped a lid shut on my memories of blissful childhood vacations spent in those fragrant breezes, digging Hot Wheels tracks in the cinnamon-colored earth.
Closed them off, that is, until I went back a little over a year ago, lured by memory in spite of myself. I saw my grandfather for the first time in more than 20 years, and I saw what was left of the house.
In the dark, I listened to the rasp of the waves and even then, just as when I was a child, I heard a warning: Stay away, get back, we'll swallow you up. But a house, no matter how sad, how polluted by circumstance, can exert an inexorable pull.
My mother's mother and stepfather bought the land above the town of Aguadilla in 1960. They had moved from Omaha to Puerto Rico when my grandfather (technically my step-grandfather, but we never called him that), who had retired from the Army and was working in a civilian job for the Strategic Air Command, was transferred to Ramey Air Force Base. Theirs had always struck me as a gloriously romantic union: Breedlove Smith was 15 years younger than my grandmother, and despite the fact that she was recently divorced and had two children -- an especially prickly situation in the 1950s -- he had pursued her like a hound until she consented to marry him. Breedlove had a poetic name but a tough demeanor; he was a powerful, towering Texan, nearly 61/2 feet tall, with a booming voice that compensated for his loss of hearing in one ear, suffered during an infantry battle in World War II. He thrived on manual labor, could saw, split or hammer anything. I always picture him bare-chested, splattered with paint, the back of his neck as red-brown as the island soil and raked with creases from years in the sun.
Inhabiting quite the other side of the human spectrum was my grandmother, Lloyde. She was soft-spoken, willowy and delicately built, and Botticelli-beautiful. She was the most elegant woman I have ever known, with cool, creamy skin and ash-brown hair. Family legend has it that she was named after the first person who walked by the house after her birth in a small Kansas town, who happened to be one of the local bankers. The "e" was added to feminize the name; still, my grandmother could not have been more unsuited to it. She dressed in eggshell colors, and when she moved, seemed utterly weightless -- but then, my memory of her is drawn from the later years of her life, when cancer had made her even paler and softer.
My grandfather discovered the scrabbly wedge of land while scrambling up the hillside overlooking Crash Boat Beach, a fisherman's haunt. It was hard to get to the cliff through the untamed vegetation. But he instantly knew he'd found his spot: three flat acres, good drainage, sand and turquoise water below. Look left and right to see more craggy coastline, look out to the horizon and glimpse the distant hump of Desecheo Island.
This, he knew, was the spot that he and his wife, with her keen eye for natural beauty, had been searching for -- a cliff to build a dream on.
They bought the plot for less than $2,000. Few people were in the market for oceanfront property back then, when the barrio roads that led to them were still rutted dirt. The more desirable sites lay close to the inland highways.
Puerto Rico's iron-rich soil is so fertile, it is said, that even a fence post will sprout in it. A jungle of vines covered the cliff, and it took three years of clearing before a house could be built. Breedlove traveled along a narrow cow path to haul buckets of water on his shoulders up from the ocean. My grandmother wore her hand-tooled pointy-toed cowboy boots as the two hacked away at the overgrowth.
They had help: Meco, an 11-year-old boy from the barrio, who would work on the property for as long as Breedlove owned it. First he helped to machete the land free from the vegetation, and once it was clear, he brought in new plants for landscaping: lime, banana and avocado trees, and a mango tree from El Yunque rain forest, as well as hibiscus from the Air Force base.
The house my grandparents finally built was like nothing else in the area, and perhaps even on the whole island. My grandmother was an admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright, and working with a young American architecture student she drafted designs in the spare Wright style. It was a single-story, two-bedroom structure, a low, driftwood-colored concrete hexagon supported by sturdy redwood beams, so organic in concept that it almost disappeared into the landscape. You entered just off the living room, with its built-in cantilevered banquettes; the dining area had a cantilevered table projecting from the kitchen counter. Where the walls met the ceiling there was a row of glass blocks all around, so the strong Caribbean sun filtered in like gauze. Floor-to-ceiling windows looked out onto a broad patio facing the ocean. In later years, when my family would make our twice-annual visits, the adults would always have cocktails out there before dinner, with the sunset tinting everything rose and lavender, and my grandfather stirring his rum with a long, scarred finger.
The windows that wrapped around the house were fitted with screens and louvers, custom-made in San Juan from California redwood, so the soft ocean breezes flowed through. The floors were sienna-colored brick made from the same red soil on which the house was built. For the grout, Breedlove filled his Volkswagen Beetle with buckets of crushed rock from the local quarry, and my grandmother meticulously mixed the rubble with just enough dirt to match the color of the brick. That way, you wouldn't see any soil that was tracked into the house. Wearing her boots and long-sleeved linen, my grandmother was out with the foreman every day during the construction.
She had an orchid bower built off the back bedroom, a cool, trellised spot where she would coax jewel-toned blooms from a clump of moss suspended in a basket. A twisty path led away from the orchid house through bromeliads and dracaenas to the far edge of the property, where a shelf jutted out over the water. Breedlove rimmed the edge with a low stone wall, and set up a folding garden chair there. When she wasn't working on the house, my grandmother would read paperback mysteries on this rocky ledge, the waves so forceful that you could feel their spray.
At that time, my grandmother existed on a metaphoric cliff of her own. Before the house was finished in 1963, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and underwent a radical mastectomy at the hospital on the base. This, my mother tells me, is how I came to be. When my parents, who already had a 6-year-old son, learned of the gravity of Lloyde's illness, they decided they needed to have a daughter to name in my grandmother's honor. Lloyde is my middle name.
Did my grandmother know that her time on that Elysian land would be so short? Though her disease progressed, she forged ahead with the life she had dreamed of, a life of her own design. A life of clean lines and order, open to the ocean breezes, exquisitely simplified.
In the end, my grandmother had nine years in the house. My family often visited for the whole month of August, and returned for a couple of weeks at Christmastime. My grandparents rented out a guesthouse that was up by the road and, closer to what we called "the big house," transformed a toolshed into "the bunkhouse," a two-room cottage with a palm-shaded front patio, especially for us. A rooster from the neighboring property woke us in the morning, while the waves and chirping coquis -- the island's tiny tree frogs -- lulled us to sleep.
It was, I realize now, a quasi-colonial existence: We had a private beach for body-surfing and sand-castle building, cocktails and croquet at sunset on our own little plantation, and the occasional night out at the officers club on the base. But what did my brother, David, and I know of how privileged we were? The place simply fed our careening imaginations. We'd fashion hobbyhorses from fringy palm fronds, build huts in the tall grass from Breedlove's wood scraps, toss horseshoes and suck sugar cane. We'd scoot under the barbed wire at the edge of the property to pick our way down the jagged cliff face to the small crescent of beach, washed by waves that always seemed angry, always high, rough and stinging with salt, threatening to thrash the unguarded against the sharp volcanic rocks that rimmed the cove.
It is hard to describe how much we loved it there, what a perfect paradise it was to play in, teeming with what seemed to us suburban kids like intensely exotic wildlife. Lizards often visited us in the shower. Tarantulas skittered in the rusty dust, as well as toads the size of dinner plates. Once a snake slid into my grandmother's house; she cut its head off with a shovel and scooped up its wriggling body, tossing it over the cliff.
A hard, wild beauty was everywhere: the scarlet shock of the flamboyan trees against the green hillsides; the graceful, curving gray limbs of the sea-grape trees my grandmother planted, which reached over the cliff's edge, tempting a child to climb aboard and dangle her feet above the crashing surf far below.
Fondest of all my memories, though, are those of cool, quiet afternoons in the house, where we ladies would retire after lunch to escape the tropical heat. My grandmother needed the rest, and my mother and I willingly followed suit, stretching out on the built-in banquettes with our paperbacks. My grandmother would always have a few new books that she'd bought just for me, and sometimes other treasures to bestow, family heirlooms she had set aside for her namesake: Once, it was a strand of pearls and matching earrings that I wear still.
We came to my grandmother's house for the last time when I was 9. It was Christmas, and, in lieu of an evergreen, my grandmother had strung tiny balls and diminutive birdhouses on a delicate white claw of driftwood. In the barrio just beyond the hibiscus hedge, we watched the Three Kings Day parade, a mosaic of color and noise and light from candles carried in milk-carton lanterns. At the head of the parade, a couple of men carried a tall, thick, stylized sculpture of the Mother of God, carved from a tree that had succumbed to a recent hurricane. It was black, smooth and frightening, with penetrating round eyes. Bare-bottomed toddlers played in their baked-dirt yards, stopping their games to stare at us with the same dark, piercing eyes as we rumbled home, all six of us squeezed into the VW. Outside one house, we saw a whole pig being roasted over an oil drum; a long pipe fed through its mouth and out its anus, with a steering wheel fitted at the head end for easy turning.
Shortly after we left that year, my grandmother left, too. The cancer, which had subsided following her surgery, had metastasized to her spine. Breedlove had been driving her to San Juan to see specialists; it was a long, bumpy ride on rough roads. After one particularly harrowing journey, with the persistent jolts to her back causing excruciating pain, her doctors told her: You want us to continue treating you, you move to the city. She and Breedlove bought a narrow Spanish townhouse on one of Old San Juan's quiet, sun-bleached cobblestone streets; there was a tiny patio out back for cocktails, and as long as she was able, my grandmother could take walks along the nearby sea wall. Until she died, when I was 17, we continued our visits, though they were shorter, and of a much different, urban nature:
little streets, galleries, cafes. My grandmother never returned to the cliff, and neither did we, until long after her death.
Breedlove remarried -- too soon for my taste -- and with his new wife moved back to the cliff for a while. They didn't live there long, preferring to move to her much larger house in the nearby town of Isabela. My mother's brother, Tim, and his wife, Millie, who had been renting Lloyde's house since shortly before her death, stayed there for about five years. Their daughter took her first steps on the floor my grandmother had so meticulously tinted. But when Tim and Millie moved to the States, the house was leased out long-term. Breedlove and his wife let the new tenants fence in the oceanfront with tall chain link; I couldn't bear to even picture it.
My grandmother had willed a share of the property to both of her children. But Breedlove pressed them to sell their parcels to him, so the whole thing would transfer to his new wife should he predecease her. Reluctantly, they agreed to sell; both of them had kids to put through college, and I guess Breedlove was pretty persuasive. Nevertheless, I quietly held it against him, and thus began my efforts to push him, and Puerto Rico, from my mind. He had seemed so crushed by my grandmother's death, yet how could his feelings have been genuine when he was able to put them aside and start a new marriage barely a year later? Not only had I lost my angelic grandmother, not only had her memory and her wishes been dishonored, but the doors of the house we had all cherished were locked against us forever.
I let Breedlove drop out of my life, and he let me drop out of his. From what I heard, he and his new wife lived with several members of her large extended family and taught bridge lessons on cruise ships. My mother still saw him on occasion -- she even went to his wedding -- but we didn't speak of him much.
Three years ago, Breedlove decided to sell the property. He was in declining health, suffering from heart disease and arthritis, and he was tired. He had it appraised at half a million dollars, and since no one in my family could afford to buy it from him, he sold it to a wealthy Aguadilla couple with three children.
Ours weren't the only hearts broken over the transaction. I later learned that my grandparents' beloved workman Meco, who still did odd jobs for Breedlove now that he was a middle-aged man, had been playing the lottery, hoping to win the money to buy Grandmother's land himself.
I never thought I would return to the island. What was there for me but bitterness and regret? My mother, though, having inherited much more of my grandmother's gentleness than I, had gone back a few times to look in on Breedlove. So I was only half-listening when she told me about her plans to visit him yet again. Until she added that Tim, Millie, their daughter, Tracy, and their son, James, were going to be there, too, and would be staying at the guesthouse on my grandmother's old property.
Now I was paying attention.
The new owners of the house had been in touch with Millie (who is from Ponce, on the south coast of Puerto Rico; irrepressibly outgoing, she seems to know half the people on the island). They were building expansive new quarters complete with a swimming pool, and were renovating the guesthouse and the bunkhouse for other family members. But their architect had balked at the idea of tearing down Lloyde's little bungalow. It was too well built to be easily demolished, he had told his clients, and besides, it had historical significance as an excellent example of mid-20th-century American architecture. So the family was interested in preserving it as a third guesthouse, and they wanted to meet the family of the woman who designed it.
I understood the perils of returning to a childhood haunt and inevitably finding it altered. I could decline, and keep my memories -- and my grudge -- intact. But it all proved too irresistible: a quick trip to the tropics, seeing family members I hadn't seen in years, keeping my mother company on what would undoubtedly be a much more trying visit for her. And the more I thought about it, the more I decided I really didn't have anything to lose by seeing Breedlove again. I might well have unfairly demonized him all those years ago. And, besides, he was the only grandparent I had left.
As for the house -- well, just a quick look wouldn't corrupt the image in my mind, would it?
Puerto Rico had sped up since I was there as a teenager. A coastal highway linked San Juan with the western edge. Apart from the heavy heat and the palms, much of it looked like most any mainland route, lined with KFCs and Popeyes and Blockbusters. Still, there was plenty of stunning countryside to see on our journey: the spiky mountain ridges that looked like an electrocardiogram printout, the thick greenery with splashes of fuchsia bougainvilleas. A horse and her foal rode nonchalantly in the bed of a pickup truck; chickens, goats and cattle roamed the hillsides. We stopped at a roadside stand where a woman was selling wind chimes, and I bought one strung with tiny terra-cotta houses, painted in bright Caribbean colors. It reminded me of the Lilliputian birdhouses Lloyde had hung on the driftwood for our last Christmas on the cliff.
Operating on memory alone, my mother found our way to what had been Ramey Air Force Base. The military had moved out in 1973, and now it had become a charming neighborhood of cottages and duplexes; we were renting rooms in one of the houses.
The officers club, occupying a prime oceanfront overlook, was shuttered, abandoned long ago, the vegetation eating away at its walls and swamping the terrace where my mother remembered dancing under the stars. The hospital where my grandmother had had her mastectomy was also vacant. We wandered through the litter-strewn hallways, stumbling upon the X-ray room with its rusting, antiquated equipment: Had some of it been used on her?
Driving along the winding roads to my grandmother's cliff, we passed the tree-trunk Madonna from that long-ago Christmas, standing sentry in front of one of the houses. Her face had been painted pale yellow, while the shroud that draped over her body was blue. I saw a man across the street, and hopped out of our rental car to ask him -- in my out-of-shape Spanish -- about the sculpture. Yes, he knew the artist: She was his mother, who still lived in the house it was guarding, and yes, she had carved it about 30 years ago. I tried to convey to him the staggering importance of the fact that I remembered it from my childhood. He wasn't terribly interested. We drove on.
And my grandmother's house? Just driving onto the property was weird enough. It seemed so small. Where I remembered an endless expanse, you could easily gaze from one property line to the other. The guesthouse was largely the same, with that patch of concrete still intact near the front steps where my grandmother had written "David + Sarah, Aug. 7, 1966." There we were, immortalized in stone -- at least until the renovations got started.
There was already a lot of work being done on the house. Right on top of it, in fact. The skeleton of a grandiose, multilevel colonnaded structure stretched over my grandmother's house and out to the very edge of the cliff. We stared at it a long time. My mother, rather generously, opined that it would be quite impressive when it was completed, like one of those Spanish seaside villas you see in Architectural Digest.
I had been prepared to hate it, and I did. "It doesn't fit in with the land!" I protested. "They just don't get it."
Out back sat pallet upon pallet of ceramic roof tiles in a brilliant lapis blue, and huge terra-cotta urns and planters that would be used for landscaping. We walked toward the bunkhouse, the cozy little structure Breedlove had built for us; it was covered in scaffolding for a planned second-story addition. The path was all broken up; this was where the pool was going to go. Making our way down the nearly obscured trail through the bromeliads, my mother and I ventured to the rocky shelf where my grandmother had so loved to sit. Her wood-trimmed aluminum folding chair was still there, after some 30 years. It looked as if no one since had discovered the serenity of this spot. And in fact, it was serene no more: The chain link fence started its assault on the view at that point, the south corner of the property. Vines clambered up the mesh so thickly you could hardly see the sea.
Summoning our courage, my mother and I returned to Lloyde's house, and knocked on the door.
The husband answered, guessed who we were immediately, and welcomed us inside. Did he mind if we just had a quick look around? Not at all, he said. His family was living there now until their main house was finished. Then this would become a cabana for guests, and if we ever wanted to stay here . . .
He was unbelievably warm and gracious. I liked him instantly.
Millie had told us about his wife's struggle with her health, a battle that curiously mirrored my grandmother's. She has lupus, a disease that has already claimed several members of her family. She had just left, suddenly, for treatment in the States, and so we did not meet her. We saw, however, plenty of evidence of her suffering. The illness made her unable to tolerate bright sun or damp ocean air, so the house was air-conditioned and completely shuttered, those redwood louvers tightened against the sun. Despite an abundance of electric lights, it was cavelike inside.
It was also cluttered with the stuff five people can accumulate. The walls were stacked with videos. The open shelving was laden with suitcases. Books and every kind of thing filled every niche, every surface. The bedrooms, which we just glanced at, were packed with dark, heavy Spanish antiques.
Throughout the house, the brick flooring was cracked and chipped in places, as was the wood trim and tile work in the kitchen -- years of renters had battered the edges. Someone had finger-painted in bright colors on the hallway walls.
The house was there, but it was choked, its character destroyed. What had made it so lovely was its connection to the land, to the living things just outside its walls, and to the faraway horizon. Cut off from that, it was a claustrophobic box that I was in a hurry to escape.
Clearly, the house wasn't all we had loved. It was the perfect symbiosis of my grandmother and her surroundings. Her design was flawless when her sensibility was a part of it. Now, that was lost forever. That open space -- both inside the house and out -- was being devoured.
My mother and I thanked our host, and left in silence. We met up with Millie, Tim, Tracy and James at the guesthouse, and commiserated over what had happened to the house. We were all feeling pretty crummy about the whole thing. If only we had all chipped in and bought the place together! Formed a corporation so we, our children and our children's children could enjoy Lloyde's legacy! The more we stewed over it, the more it seemed that all the joy in the world had been sucked out to sea.
"Vamanos," Millie said, abruptly. "Let's get some mangos." We followed her to the center of the property where there loomed a large, spreading mango tree -- the one Meco had brought in at my grandmother's request from El Yunque. The ground was littered with fallen fruit, smelling sickly sweet in the hot sun. Millie commanded James to pick us all some good ones from the tree, and he climbed up and began hurling them down; they were heavy, soft and warm-skinned.
"Come," said Millie, biting into one and spitting out the plug. "This is how to eat a mango. This is how you enjoy your life." She began peeling back the skin and gnawing the flesh off the thick seed. I did the same, and no fruit ever tasted so fine. Flavors were always more intense in Puerto Rico: The coffee is richer, the oranges sweeter, the bananas creamier, the avocados more buttery than anywhere else on earth -- at least, you believe that once you taste them fresh off the tree. But this mango had a magic all its own, a transporting warmth, like congealed sun.
The air was heavy with the scent of flowers and fruit. Leaves danced and thrashed in the breeze. We gorged ourselves, and laughed.
Then came the visit with Breedlove. From the minute I saw him, I warmed to him. He looked remarkably the same despite losing part of one ear to skin cancer and having traded his customary tan for more of a pallor.
He was obviously delighted to see us, and that helped melt away any lingering bitterness I was feeling. In fact, as we sat in his living room in Isabela and chatted for a long time, I thought perhaps I had been wrong to harbor such harsh thoughts about this sick and elderly man. But then, he had not thought enough of my family to safeguard our inheritance, and look what had happened to it. Can a person forgive, and still be hurt? What matters more, the past and its ramifications on the present, or the present and its obliteration of the past?
I peppered him with questions about the cliff and the house, and he answered at length. Now in his early eighties, he seemed eager to revisit his memories, as if he, too, had been guarding them gingerly, and was happy to return at last.
"I figured it was the prettiest place in Puerto Rico, to be perfectly frank," he said, explaining how he settled on buying the land. "As we cleared it off, I thought, by golly, it is the prettiest place in Puerto Rico."
"I guess what I liked best," he added, after a pause, "was the fact that Lloyde was so happy with that damn thing. She liked to build a nest, like a bird. She was quite a gal -- she really liked construction, and with each phase of the building you could see how happy she was."
We told Breedlove how the place looked now, how the big new house had overtaken the patio and was built right to the edge of the cliff, and how the architect had decided Lloyde's house was too strong to tear down. Breedlove howled at that part.
"I always said, if that house ever slid down the cliff, it'd go in one piece," he said with a laugh. "We put in steel bars like that" -- his fingers described a circle about the size of a half-dollar -- "in the roof and foundation."
We left him with promises to return, and to be in touch. He asked about my work and my family -- he knew both my sons' names, from my mother -- and I told him I'd send pictures.
"I sure hated to sell that land, but it got too big for me," he told us as we were getting into our car. "You know, a man goes through a period when he's like a horse, but it don't last."
It took a long, long time to get my thoughts organized about Puerto Rico; they raced in all directions after I left the island. Consequently, I never did send Breedlove the photos of my sons, nor did I write the affectionate note I had composed in my head. The start of the school year, a busy season at work, the queasiness and fatigue of early pregnancy -- all got in the way of my best intentions. Or maybe they just helped stave off any kind of conclusion.
My husband and I learned that we were expecting a girl. A new recipient for my grandmother's pearls.
Late in the fall came the news that Breedlove was dead.
I don't know which was worse, my searing remorse at not writing to him, not letting him know how dearly I enjoyed seeing him again and hearing his reminiscences about Lloyde and their land, or the painful realization that my husband and children would never get to meet him, never get to know the man who had been such a large part of my childhood.
With time, however, I have grown philosophical about the whole business. It seems to me that a kind of justice was served, however harsh it feels. The white family from the mainland ceded the property to the locals from Aguadilla. Who may also have but a short while in which to enjoy it.
Maybe every dream built on that cliff is destined to have only a brief, bright arc. Certainly, in the long view, a house, even one built of cement and rebar, is as ephemeral as a sand castle, and can be just as quickly washed into memory.
And while I still can't shake a feeling of regret, I feel fortunate that I was able to see my grandfather again, to pass a pleasant hour with him, to be reminded of how funny and spirited and larger-than-life he was.
I am lucky, too, in having been able to return one last time to the land my grandmother coaxed into paradise, to sit with my family under the mango tree she planted and slurp one of its fat yellow fruits as the juice ran down my chin.
Sarah Kaufman is The Post's dance critic.