“Let’s see if I can find a little gift for you.” During my childhood visits to Puerto Rico those words always sparked excitement in my heart because they meant a visit to what I called “Anatia’s Store.” It started out as an armoire in a back room that my great Aunt filled with things she picked up in her travels to Europe, or bargains that she encountered while shopping in her Bayamón neighborhood.
I remember my first visit to the “store” when I was five years old. After Anatia uttered those magic words, she started walking towards the room, motioning for me to follow. I skipped joyously behind her, listening to the swish, swish of her nylon stockings and then mimicking her determined footfalls. What did she have in that closet? I thought I would burst with curiosity when, as she turned the handle on the armoire door, she looked back at me with a mischievous smile and lifted eyebrows behind her horn-rimmed glasses, intentionally prolonging my agony. I remember feeling privileged to be able to view her worldly treasures. When she finally spread wide the doors I gasped at what appeared to my young eyes as a pirate’s chest brimming with retail booty. Dolls with eyes that opened and closed looking out at me from behind plastic. White table cloths with colorful and intricate designs. Religious figurines and paraphernalia galore. And suitcases. Tons of suitcases. I was never sure why she needed so many, but I assumed they were for “restocking” and that each time she traveled she had to buy another one to hold her purchases. But I would always walk out with some trinket that I would clutch to my chest as if it were the Holy Grail, playing with it continually until I got home and the lure of the more modern Barbie townhouse proved irresistible.
Eventually her trips abroad slowed with the coming of old age, but by then the “store” had taken over the surrounding dressers, eventually covering the bed and making the room unusable as a guest room. But that made it even more exciting to visit, like digging for buried treasure.
Looking back on these trips to La Tienda de Anatia I’ve realized that nothing in her vast collection had much monetary value. She was a fierce bargain hunter with a wartime frugality and all of her possessions reflected this. But I remember so clearly the feeling that she had everything one needed in life in that room, and I would arrive on my mother’s island every summer brimming with anticipation of my adventure with Anatia and her treasure. The value of each and every item was immeasurable to me, not because of whatever it happened to be that year, but because of the visit with her, spending hours sometimes, sifting through every item. Feeling the textures, admiring the shine, absorbing the colors. Hearing the story behind every purchase (and there was always a story). How she had bought the statue of San Martin in a small shop near the park of pigeons in Spain and had successfully bargained with the storekeeper. How she purchased the doll from an old student of hers who has a stand in the main square downtown. “I paid too much, but you know, she needs the money.” This was what gave her gifts their worth.
I’m sure it was a nightmare for my cousins to deal with after her death, but this collection said so much about the lady who put it together. She was always thinking about other people and wanted to help them. These knick-knacks were her way of showing affection and generosity. They were diverse, like her interests, and carefully chosen as she did everything with much thought. Yes, the store was Anatia. So much to give. So appealing. So colorful.
The other day I had a revelation. The image of the closet in my home office came to mind, filled to the brim with dolls and toys that I purchased when there was a sale or when the local department store went out of business. And the chest filled with miles and miles of yarns with which to knit baby shower gifts or Christmas scarves. I thought of how my friends come to me when they need last minute birthday party gifts for a 5-year old boy or a baby’s gift basket. We go to the closet and sift through the superhero figures and baby rattles, coming up with just the right item for the occasion. It always seems to fill up again when it starts to get depleted and I’ve hit it more than once this holiday season already.
The contents of my closet are more reflective of my time than hers, but I realize that I have unconsciously recreated Anatia’s store. My mother always said that I seemed to possess much of Anatia’s qualities: an obsessive concern with etiquette, a generosity of spirit, and an unfailing belief that I am always right. I am proud to share these traits with that remarkable and uncommon woman. And I will carry on with my own tienda in her honor.
Oh, I’m sure my son is going to curse me when I’m gone and he has to deal with a room full of Xena dolls and boxes and boxes of chenille yarn, but I find great comfort in carrying on the tradition started by my Great Aunt Ana. Or maybe it began even earlier and she was the recipient of an earlier generation’s treasure trove. But either way, you never know when you’ll need a little something to make a young girl’s visit complete.