A quest for knowledge shapes a family history

December 21, 2017
family photo of mom, dad, two young children next to a body of water

by Alan Piñon

For the family of Professor Monroe Hafter, books were an extension of the family in a way. And the professor’s pursuit of new additions to his collection shaped the future of the entire family as they journeyed far from their home in Ann Arbor in order to find important literature to feed his research.

“Dad’s books were in some respects so much a part of the house and environment we may have hardly noticed them on a regular basis. They were, though, a living presence,” said his daughter Naomi. Their son Matt recalls his father taking over the dining room table to hand-rub lanolin on the books’ covers.

Monroe Hafter, a professor of Spanish at the University of Michigan for more than 30 years, spent much of his career in pursuit of the earliest editions of works in Spanish, and finding these rare books meant traveling to Spain to explore the many small bookstores that dotted the country.

His travels were frequent and often prolonged, and because of this his wife, Daryl Hafter, insisted that she and their two children go with him.

“Our parents were horrified,” Daryl said. “But if he was going over, I was not going to stay home. Instead of taking the kids to a playground in the United States, I’ll take the kids to a playground in Madrid.”

Daryl concedes now that her parents had reason to be a little worried. Spain at the time was under a dictatorship. It was a place that strictly limited the roles and opportunities for women—they were not, for example, allowed to open bank accounts—and women were sometimes imprisoned for violating stringent and patriarchal standards of conduct.

But these strictures weighed little on the young family. Monroe and Daryl had taken a trip together in 1958 before they had children, so they had some understanding of the country. Just a few years later, on their first visit to Spain as a family, Matt was 3 years old and Naomi only 7 months.

That first trip had a few hiccups, most notably when Naomi got very ill from the food. “Ringing in our ears when she was sick was our parents asking, ‘What? You’re taking children that young? What? You’re doing what?,’” Daryl said.

But both Daryl and Monroe have nothing but fond memories from that trip, which lasted three months. And just three years later, the family would spend almost a year in Madrid. “We put them right in school, they didn’t know the language but they both learned Spanish, and we did a lot of outings together. So that was a really splendid time, and of course Monroe bought a lot of books,” Daryl said.

Matt remembers that trip vividly, especially the smells—the hot, dry dust blown up from Morocco, frying garlic, pine forests—and the deep red clay, the swords and suits of armor, and the oddly shaped hats of the Spanish paramilitary police. Naomi’s early memories include bike riding on a dirt field at the Retiro, the old Madrid zoo and its monkey pit, and “that huge, huge cross rising up from the highway, high up on a mountain.”

Later trips to Spain included adventures, like shooing the chickens and goats out of the road while driving to an out-of-the-way village in search of a castle involved in an obscure medieval battle, going to the tavern in the central square to ask the bartender, who was also the mayor, for the key to the castle, and then running around the ramparts and peering through the arrowslits.

But not all their outings were so adventurous. Matt recalls thinking as a six-year old, “Do we have to go to the Prado again?  I don’t want to see anymore El Grecos or Goyas!”

And always there was Monroe’s eyes on his next acquisition. The selling of books in Madrid in the `70s was not a cottage industry, Monroe said; it was a big business. “Booksellers were all over Madrid, and they were all over every other town in Spain as well. I think that a lot of times they had gotten collections from monasteries.” Monroe collected Spanish literature on philosophy, and was especially interested in the ideas and publications of the Enlightenment. He also became interested in spiritism, which is not to be confused with spiritualism.

“Spiritism is about contacting the dead. Apparently in Spain, it was really hot stuff because it was in between Catholicism, Catholic doctrine, and science. They were having a big problem with Enlightenment science, which was anti-religion. But the spiritism of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries seemed to reconcile religion and science. So, there was a big controversy over that. And when there’s a big controversy, there’s a lot of publications,” Daryl said.

The collection that Monroe put together is priceless and highly esteemed. But to the family, the experience of building that collection resonates even more deeply.

They took more than a dozen trips to Spain together. These experiences, all driven by the pursuit of books, built the family lore. Both Naomi and her parents tell the tale of Naomi at three years old, in Madrid, sneaking into a neighbor’s apartment to watch T.V. “Mira, un elefante*!” she had exclaimed.

“It was a bullfight, of course,” said Daryl; but this mistake charmed the neighbors to no end, and the families would remain friends for years to come.

Now Naomi says the experience seems a little surreal, even though it was just what their family did. “Not until decades later, as an adult, did it occur to me that we’d had a front row seat to a piece of history through our experience living under the Franco dictatorship.” Matt remembers driving through the countryside past ruined buildings scorched with bullet marks from the Spanish Civil War, and amputees from that conflict selling lottery tickets on street corners.

Naomi sees the ongoing relevance of that time in Spain in today’s news from that country—especially in the Basque resistance and the Catalan independence movement. But it’s her memories of the places she experienced, from a child’s perspective, that persist. She distinctly remembers the sunshine, the wide long streets, the tall concrete buildings, and how different than Ann Arbor it all was, even though it still felt like home.


* “Look, an elephant!”

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Last modified: 12/21/2017