Penitent processions and the women’s social club

“Mummy, can we follow the procession?” my son asked me.

We were walking down the street in the seaside town of Nerja in southern Spain, more specifically the sun-baked lands of Andalucia. It’s an area I know well. My family had a house there and we’d gone there for Easter. Easter is a serious business there, a source of great devotion and processions through the streets. It was Easter Sunday, Christ had risen and the black mourning robes of the Good Friday penitents had given way to red. There were women with high mantillas, children in their Sunday best. Bedspreads and eiderdowns were hung from balconies and windows, streets adorned with flowers and rosemary to perfume the air. We proceeded slowly along the cobbled streets to the intermittent outbursts of the town’s brass bands. I was overwhelmed by the sense of belonging that binds and draws this town together.

Several weeks later and I was sitting in the park on the hill with my children, who were playing with the other children that were there. We were all there on that day: children, mothers, grandmothers and the handful of older women whose grandchildren have grown or simply not arrived, both never and yet. I live in a small village that is split into various frazioni or hamlets and without any real centre. Village life centres around the church, and in the warmer months around the park. It has a wonderful view of the mountains, as far as Mount Grigna above Lecco and Monte Rosa in Piedmont. 

We talked about the usual: who is pregnant, another who has given birth, we’re sorry another has died. Now it’s about religion, brought on by talk of the village priests, for religion is alive in the towns and the villages of the countryside. On the women spoke, and I was transported to a place without time, a place of communal washing troughs, of times past and smallholdings with their dark kitchens and dark secrets. Places where an elderly woman stirs a pot of polenta and another nurses a child. Nowadays it’s still the women who are holding the family together, the mother-grandmothers who bring up their own children and then bring up a second generation because it’s the only way they make it work.

The children continued to play opposite the dead that lie in the tombs of the cemetery across the road. One day all this too will be lost memory, yet there we were in the years of the women’s social club and besides, it was such a sunny day.

Photo: Il Vicolo delle Lavandaie or the old washing troughs, Naviglio Grande, Milan, photo credit: Rachael Martin

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