With Mother’s Day – my fifth since my mom’s death in 2015 – getting farther and farther away in the rearview mirror of life, I still find myself with no shortage of things to write about her. A remarkable woman, Mom was, and she led an interesting, even adventurous life.
Born and raised in the rigidly conservative high-class environment of Colombia in the years before World War II, Mom was an energetic and precociously intelligent young woman. The youngest of my maternal grandparents’ three children, my mom was a vivacious redhead who – despite my grandmother’s efforts to turn her into a proper society girl in Bogota – loved dogs, was curious about the world outside Colombia, and read voraciously. My grandfather, who my grandmother (or Tata) called “Henry,” doted on her, in part because of the three kids she was the one who was most like him in temperament and worldview, but mostly because Tata favored the oldest child, my aunt Martha. (Grandfather also devoted much of his time to my uncle Octavio, the middle kid; as the only boy of the trio, “Tayo” was being groomed as the presumptive heir of my grandfather’s Parker Pen franchise, which encompassed all of Colombia.)
Grandpa Henry was highly intelligent (so was my grandmother) and went to school both in the United States and in Europe. Somewhere along the way he befriended George Parker, the founder of the Parker Pen Company. How and when they met, I do not know. Mom told me some of the stories, but not in such detail that I could tell you my grandparents’ life stories. The upshot is, though, that my grandfather and Mr. Parker got along well, so much so that the Parker Pen Company granted him the exclusive rights to sell its products in Colombia. My grandfather, like most paisas (the nickname from my family’s home state of Antioquia) was industrious and business-minded, so he not only inherited quite a bit of my great-grandfather Ramon’s fortune (Papa Ramon, as he was known to all, was the owner of Medellin’s Cerveceria Union, one of the biggest beer breweries in Colombia, so he had amassed quite a huge fortune before he passed), but he was a hard worker, too.
In short, my mother was my grandfather’s favorite, so much so that he pulled my mother out of school when she was in her early teens and took her under his wing. He hired a tutor from Great Britain to teach my mother English, and in late 1945, shortly after the end of World War II, Grandpa Henry took my Mom, who was 16 or 17 at the time, on her first trip to New York City. After that, before my mother met and married her first husband, Grandpa treated her to a trip to Europe, which at the time was still recovering from the ravages of World War II.
Don’t worry, Dear Reader, I’m not going to write my mother’s entire life story in this post. I don’t think I could tell that account and do it justice. I do want to give you some idea about how Mom became the refined-yet-adventurous woman that she was, though. Because even though for the longest of times Mom lived in what one might call the highest circles of Colombian society, she was a down-to-earth and forward-thinking woman who was never quite content with leading the sort of life that my grandmother and other older relatives (grand-uncles and grand-aunts, especially) expected her to.
My mother led a relatively carefree life until she married her first husband, M. M. was a brilliant young surgeon who had graduated at the top of his class from Colombia’s most prestigious medical school. He was only a few years older than Mom – she was 19 in 1947 – at the time of their wedding, and he was handsome, charming, and talented. Mom later confessed that although at the time she loved him, she accepted his proposal more to avoid being pressured into marrying another of her beaus.
However, M.’s good looks and apparent bonhomie hid a darker, more menacing side to his personality: he drank excessively, having inherited a propensity for alcoholism from his grandfather and father. Worse, he had a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde duality: sober, he was fun-loving, generous, and considerate. But when he was drunk, M. was a violent, cynical, and abusive man. Mom used to tell stories of how M. would go to a bar, take out a revolver, and fire shots at the bottles of liquor behind the bar. M. got away with it, of course, because like Mom, he was from a wealthy and influential family. His father would simply go to the bar the next day, take out his billfold, and ask the terrified owners how much money was needed to repair the damage to the bar and replace the lost liquor.
There were other darker and most unpleasant tales, but I’ll not tell then here. Suffice it to say that my mom tried her best to make the marriage work, even going to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where M. had been appointed as the medical officer of the diplomatic mission at the Colombian Embassy. Because of this, Mom thus met Juan and Eva de Peron – Evita – at diplomatic functions. More importantly, my half-sister Vicky was born in Buenos Aires in 1950.
A few years later, seeing that the marriage was not working, Mom first got legally separated, and in those last years before Colombia – a highly Catholic country – legalized divorce – my grandfather pulled a few strings with the local Church leaders and helped get the marriage annulled.
Here is where my mom’s adventurous spirit comes into play. She refused to follow the script that Bogota society of that time expected her to follow, which entailed a move back to my grandparents’ house and there live a semi-cloistered lifestyle. Mom was too young and spirited for that. So she defied convention and set out to become a flight attendant for Avianca, Colombia’s national airline.
Mom wanted to see the world and raise Vicky as best she could in the Colombia of the mid-1950s. Her parents, aunts and uncles, including one who sat on Avianca’s Board of Directors, were opposed, but my fiercely independent mother was determined. She applied for a flight attendant position, endured merciless training (my granduncle Bernardo gave orders to the instructors to be extra hard on Mom to make her drop out), but she passed all the tests with, as the old cliché goes, flying colors and earned her wings. (She was helped not only by her true grit, but by her ability to speak English and Spanish, as well as her model-like looks.)
Mom was assigned to Avianca’s international routes, which in the 1950s meant that she flew long flights on Lockheed Constellations and Super Constellations. First on the Bogota-New York City route, then on various transatlantic routes and even overseas assignments to hubs in Spain and West Germany.
If you flew on Avianca in the late 20th Century (say, the mid- to late Fifties to the 1990s), you probably noticed that flight attendants used to wear red wool ponchos that are known in Colombia as “ruanas.” La Ruana Roja is (or, rather, was) the airline’s traditional uniform accessory, and it was in use since the 1950s until the late 20th Century. (Apparently, flight attendants don’t wear them anymore; they’ve been replaced with chic red uniforms that are a tip of the hat to the iconic Ruanas Rojas.)
Do you want to know who came up with La Ruana Roja?
When she was a flight attendant – the term in Spanish was “cabinera” and the old-school English word then in vogue was “stewardess” – Mom and her co-workers wore uniforms that resembled those used by Pan American World Airways. There were some variances, of course, but Pan Am owned quite a large part of Avianca, so its corporate influence was visible even in the flight crew uniforms.
Mom didn’t invent the Red Poncho on purpose. The way she told the story, the flight from Bogota to New York arrived at its destination on a cold and wintry night. Mom hated chilly weather, so she borrowed a white ruana from someone before deplaning at Idlewild (today’s John F. Kennedy International) Airport. An Avianca exec either saw this on the spot or was told of it afterward, and because he believed that Avianca personnel represented Colombia, he requested that my mom design an official version of the ruana.
I don’t remember if the idea to make the poncho red was my mom’s or someone else’s, but she designed the original version.
I have other stories of Mom during her days as a flight attendant. But I’ll save those for another day.