Get a grip, I thought. I was studying the angel's profile under an overcast sky threatening rain. Her marble face seemed alive - eyes closed, hands clasped in prayer. It was creepy, to be this close to death and its invisible world. I stepped closer, pushing myself to be certain she was not breathing. Nearby sat a cat, its tail twitching on the stone pavement. We were alone at the Bernini-like tomb of José Clemente Paz, the founder of a 19th-century newspaper in Buenos Aires. Life-size angels covered the monolithic granite like birds on a dovecote.
Recoleta Cemetery is Buenos Aires' legendary graveyard. It was April in Argentina - early fall, in terms of their seasons - and I had come to explore the land of my mother's birth.
Like a miniature city of temples, one flush to the next along small streets, Recoleta is the burial ground for the rich and famous, a can't-miss stop for sightseers. Within its brick walls, stretching across four city blocks, I discovered an architectural danse macabre.
The tombs of dignitaries and artists hold court in this miniature city of Renaissance chapels and Egyptian tombs. Eva Perón's tomb, surprisingly modest in light of her first lady glamour, draws a steady stream of visitors. And everywhere there are angels: holding children, beckoning from domes, and suspended in mid-air flight.
They're marble snapshots of another world.
My grandparents were Americans. Just before the stock market crash of 1929 they married in New York; the day after the crash my grandfather sailed for Argentina. He was an electrical engineer and would spend the next four years on a dam project in the Andes Mountains. Several weeks after the wedding, his young wife followed on the Southern Prince , a luxury British liner outfitted with paneled staterooms, a pool, and even a darkroom for amateur photographers.
Two years later my mother was born in Argentina. She would be their only child. By 1933 the dam was finished and they were sailing back to New York.
For years I studied their passports and black-page scrapbook, wondering about the people in the pictures - the parties and cars, an estate, the mountains, a rugged landscape. Captions in white ink connected the pages like a skeleton, giving names, dates and places. But I wanted more, I wanted the body.
What was it like to be in Argentina in the early 1930s when it was one of the richest countries in the world? To be in a city filled with European immigrants, dancing the tango, drinking malbec, and escaping the poverty and bad news back home in America during the Great Depression?
I decided to visit, beginning where the scrapbook began, in Buenos Aires.
The big, big city
From the air, it's the biggest city I've ever seen. From windows on both sides of the jet, Buenos Aires spread in every direction. It is Argentina's capital and its largest city; in Latin America, only Sao Paulo, Brazil, is larger.
Because I traveled alone and didn't speak Spanish, I opted to stay in an American hotel, the Marriott Plaza Hotel. Sparkling clean, it did not look its centennial age. My bedroom was huge, with high ceilings and windows that actually opened. Leaning across the wide ledge, I had an impressive view of a cathedral.
Located at San Martin Square - Gen. Jose de San Martin is Argentina's equivalent of George Washington - the Plaza opened in 1910 as the first luxury hotel in Argentina. Over the years its well-heeled guests have included Teddy Roosevelt and Luciano Pavarotti. Employees once climbed stairs to its rooftop garden to watch tourists disembarking from ships along the Rio de la Plata, the "River of Silver." They could calculate the visitors arrival at the front desk: It took 20 minutes to come up the hill from the port.
The Plaza Hotel took me back to the era when my grandparents went to Buenos Aires. Its front door faces San Martin Square, which is bordered by mansions and palaces that arose during the country's golden age, at the turn of the last century. Among them is the Versailles-like palace of newspaper founder José Clemente Paz, whose tomb I visited in Recoleta.
Beside the hotel is an Art Deco apartment building that is a national landmark. The woman who built it used her entire inheritance to finance the trendy skyscraper. Edificio Kavanagh was the tallest building in South America for many years; Corina Kavanagh designed the 14th floor for herself.
The neighborhood is also one of the city's finest shopping districts, anchored by an indoor shopping mall in a building that dates to the 1890s. Three stories high, Galerías Pacifico has soaring atriums and luxury stores. Outside on a street closed to traffic, tango dancers flirt with crowds and local craftsmen spread jewelry and leather purses on blankets down the center. I was there in autumn, so store windows were filled with luxurious leather coats and boots, belts, floral brooches, and bags.
Argentina is renowned for its beef, and the leather industry is a thriving byproduct. Steaks and sizzling meat dishes abound; Argentinians consume more beef per capita than almost any people in the world.
Across from the hotel, I walked the wide pavements of San Martin Square under a canopy of unfamiliar trees. My brother owns an arborist supply company, I notice trees. The limbs of a massive ombú tree - which is technically an herb - lay upon the ground. Rows of ceiba trees bore large flowers that looked like rubrum lilies.
Beauty at every turn
My days in Buenos Aires were filled with wonder. I visited the expansive botanical park, sculptures and gardens and historic buildings; enjoyed the main boulevard that is the widest in the world; watched stylish Argentineans walk their stylish dogs; listened to tango music; drank malbec and ate steak.
Late one afternoon I walked to Casa Rosada, the pink-hued presidential palace. You may recall seeing Madonna on its balcony in the 1996 movie "Evita" - she played the iconic Eva Perón, the actress who became the first lady of controversial 1940s president Juan Perón.
I wondered whether this was the palace in my grandparents' scrapbook. Captions dated December 1929 gave only the name of the hotel from where the pictures were taken.
As I approached the busy square, I began eyeing the palace's architectural features - yes, there was a central arch, and the balconies were the same, as were the rows of windows. There was the obelisk, the palm trees. As I stood in golden light that drenched the building in hues of pink and apricot, I stepped on a bridge to the past. My grandmother, whom I never knew, had been here, taking photographs of the palace.
And here I was, decades later, thinking of her. Standing close to her invisible world.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Info on visiting Buenos Aires: www.buenosairestourism.net.