In Memoriam: Fuensanta Arismendi Plaza 1950-2010
I wasn’t planning on writing this particular post (and in fact, most of it is revisited from a memorial post I wrote several years ago). I realized this morning though that tomorrow is the anniversary of my adopted mother’s death and I don’t think I’ll be posting tomorrow so I decided to share this again today. We are so disconnected from the Gods, from our ancestors, most of all from each other. It can destroy a soul. I carried the weight of that sickness for more than thirty years, until the Gods blessed me in a way I never, ever would have thought possible: They gave me a mom.
This woman was my heart, my gentleness, the witness to my life. She loved me with the ferocity of a mother lioness. She taught me to live and love and laugh and do something other than bitterly survive. She, for whom life was always such a terrible burden (she felt the weight of the world’s suffering deeply every day of her life) taught me to love and cherish life. She taught me to cherish connection. She rooted me in Midgard and she opened my heart to the Gods in ways I never, ever thought possible. She wove herself into my wyrd (or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the Gods did that) and we ate of each other’s hearts. For seven years she graced my world. For seven years she called me her miracle daughter. For seven years, I had a miracle mother.
People ask me how we met, because almost immediately our relationship became one of mother and daughter. I can’t think about this too much…it’s like a pretty toy with a surprising and unexpected sharp edge and it hurts to think about how easily this meeting might never have taken place (though I suppose in Their wisdom the Gods would have managed to get it done some other way). We met when she read a poem that I had published in an anthology titled “The Pagan’s Muse.” She was immensely moved by it and wrote a letter to the publisher that was later forwarded on to me. I had the opportunity over lunch, years later, to thank the editor of that volume but I don’t think she quite understood the tremendous gift and blessing that she had facilitated. Once I received the letter (which took awhile to wind its way through the publisher’s offices), I wrote back immediately and we began a fast friendship that within a year had turned into something else: we became family. She redeemed the word ‘mother’ for me. (Ironically, because of this, I later found myself able to enter into a relationship with my biological mother cleanly…a tangential blessing I also never expected). What terrifies me to the point of nausea is this: I almost didn’t submit anything to that anthology. Moreover, I nearly didn’t submit that particular poem.
My mother wouldn’t have considered herself a healer but she did bring healing to me. We made me a person and I grew up under her care. That’s the best way that I can describe it. There’s a German saying “Ich bin gut gebildet.” She did that for me. So let me tell you a little bit about her, just a few simple things, minimalist brush strokes by which to flesh out a life.
Her name was Fuensanta Arismendi Plaza. She was born in Paris, grew up in Venezuela, Italy and many other places. She considered herself Swiss by choice and nature (and indeed held Swiss citizenship of which she was tremendously proud). She spoke seven languages: English, German, Basel German, French, Italian, Spanish, and could read Latin. She had taught herself a smattering of Armenian and in her youth had studied ancient Greek. She called me “wombat” after a book that we read, that had a messy little wombat as the main character (I’m no house keeper!). I called her lemur, because she fell in love with the animal after watching “Madagascar” (and she said her eyes, with their inevitable rings from her nearly constant insomnia looked like lemur eyes). She loved to garden. She was passionate about protecting the earth and its animals. She was what in German is called a ‘putz-teufel:” a cleaning devil. Cleaning her home was her meditation and a devotional act to the Goddess Sigyn. You could eat (literally) off her bathroom floor. She was Heathen before we ever met (indeed, that was why she picked up the anthology that led to our meeting). She claimed kinship to Andvari and opened my eyes to His wisdom. She belonged to Loki and Sigyn and loved Them dearly and through her devotion she inspired me and many others toward greater love for their Gods. I taught her how to keep an altar. She was a holy woman.
She always said that she wasn’t an intellectual, that her gifts and joys lay with housekeeping, cooking, and gardening but she was better read than anyone else I ever met. She attended the Basel Conservatory of Music and was, for many years, a piano teacher. She loved medieval music especially, though it was not her area of study. Her singing voice was so bad (though she had a phenomenal ear) that she was one of only two students in her class excused from singing classes. Music was another language to her, a very sacred way of engaging with the world. She loved the operas of Benjamin Britten, the works of Dufay, Buxtehude, and Schütz. She loved Bach, particularly when played by S. Richter. She introduced me to the singer Fisher-Dieskau and also honed my love of counter-tenors. One of her favorite pieces was the ‘libera me” from Verdi’s requiem. I learned not only to listen but to hear through her tutelage.
Her favorite poets were Wendell Barry, O. Sitwell, Oscar Wilde, and Edith Sitwell. With all my warrior medicine, I surprised the hell out of her by loving the poetry of Wilfred Owen. She taught me to treasure children’s books and fairy tales, telling me as I got older, I’d turn to them more and more leaving the more serious stories behind; that there was wisdom in those tales that should not be overlooked. She loved my god-daughter as her own and they played often. She taught me about wine, developing my palate to the point that I considered becoming a sommelier and good food and wine were things that we enjoyed throughout our travels; and oh, we traveled. Once, as I was delayed at the airport while I was heading off to a major shamanic ordeal, and it looked like I wouldn’t be able take the flight, I called her and as we were talking, I said in frustration “I never get to go anywhere.” The cry of a child, I’ll admit and someone who spent most of her adult life very, very poor. She told me later it broke her heart and then and there she determined to take me to Europe. She did too, telling me that if I was going to teach ancient history, I needed to see the places about which I was teaching. I saw Paris through her eyes and fell in love with the Seine. She was proud of me until the day she died and inspired me to be a better human being.
She wrote with the grace of a medieval scribe. Her every-day handwriting was a thing of exquisite beauty. She told me when she was about twelve, she decided she didn’t like her handwriting and so she taught herself to write all over again, developing a hand that put most calligraphy to shame. She loved to cook. She had tremendous grace and graciousness. She was also the single most disciplined (and stubborn, oh my GODS, stubborn) human being I have ever met.
She taught me that grace and service happened by attention to little things, not in large, overwhelming epiphanies. She taught me that love was about the day to day choices. She taught me to pay attention to, cherish, and respect the small things in life and to do them exceedingly well. After her death, she continues to inspire many Heathens and Pagans of my acquaintance and we all look to her when our work becomes difficult. She mastered the grace of loving well.
There are places in the world that I shall never go again if I can help it—they would be barren places without her there. Her presence, the memory of our time together is too deeply imprinted on my consciousness to allow me to go there without pain. Carmel, CA, where she lived for over a decade (throughout the time she was in my life) is one of those places. Paris—which I saw first through her eyes and likely will never see again; parts of Italy. Going to Zurich, where she and I spent a great deal of time, a few months after her death (inevitable due to business demands) was it’s own special agony. I stayed at the same hotel she always visited and the entire staff lined up as I was having breakfast and came to pay their respects to Frau Plaza’s daughter. She was our memory keeper. She *saw* people, truly saw them and gave me something of the knack for it too. But there are places that I can now go only because of her. She encouraged me to go back to school and in fact, paid for my schooling. I broke down and cried like a baby when she offered. I could never have afforded to go on my own and I was deeply ashamed of my lack of a degree. I have my degree because of her. I have a life.
Her presence has been tremendously strong the past day or so. It’s been so immensely comforting to feel her so very close again, as though I could almost pick up the phone and call her. I miss her voice, high, with its elegant Basel accent. (Amusingly enough, despite the elegance oh, she could cuss like a sailor—a delightful thing to hear, even with the cognitive disconnect it initially caused!). A friend sent me two photos that she only recently found of a bunch of us having dinner together and in it my mom and I are laughing over something, a moment of shared delight. Those photos were such an unexpected gift, a treasure. In the two years after she died, I have found myself wanting desperately to collect every possible fragment of her life, every fragment that might remind me of her, carry a bit of her energy…it’s only recently that I’ve been able to put that painful desire aside, to realize that she is there, bound to me by something greater than blood: by a connection forged in fierce love. What are things in the face of that? They do not hold anything of her.
She has her own ancestral altar in my home, in addition to being represented on my primary ancestral shrine. In life, she dressed very plainly. It was part of her devotion to Loki. He called her his quiet pool (her name literally means ‘sacred pool’-in fact, there’s a bottled water company in Spain called “Fuensanta” which was very amusingly odd to see when we were there) and requested that she dress in calming colors: browns, dark greens, dark blues, blacks, grays, whites, and beiges. But she loved pink (a color we both associated with Sigyn) and craved that color with an almost painful intensity. She never wore it though, in obedience to Loki’s request. So now I festoon her altar with pinks: flowers, offering bowls, altar cloth…all a glorious panoply of pink. I give her all the things she loved but was too disciplined to eat overmuch in life: pizza, gourmet breads, gourmet cheeses and fine wines (the wine she did allow herself). I light candles and offered incense. I sit with her and talked of many things, and of how my life has unfolded since she died (not that she doesn’t know…I talk to her all the time and her shrine is never, ever inactive). I tell her not to fret—she always fretted about me so. I told her how I missed her, every moment of every day. Most of all, I gave thanks to the Gods for forging this connection, for bringing us into each other’s lives.
Connection is a lifeline. It’s a very sacred, blessed thing. When you truly connect with another human being, when you are truly known and seen (and know and see in return), when someone shares their life with you in whatever authentic way, it has the potential to transform Midgard. It is something to treasure. It is something to value. It is something to remember, always. I remember Fuensanta. I remember my adopted mom. Sancta.