Thursday, January 22, 2009

My Family Tree is a Wreath

Somewhere in between my bouts of grief and my sleepless stretches, I've been pondering this post. I think writing it is part of my healing. I hope so anyway.

How do I, through words, try to convey why the loss of my uncle is such a big deal? I've had people gently say to me that they wonder about it. They admit that while they love their uncles, if one of them died, it wouldn't crush them. I can appreciate that honesty. And I kind of get what they're saying for themselves, too.


But for me, it's different. And it's not that I'm particularly close to my uncle or to many of my extended family members in a way that some might imagine. It's not that we've bonded over shared outings or campouts or vacations. In fact, there's been very little, if any, of that. Nothing about the closeness I feel to my extended family has been forced or manufactured through special, one-on-one time and very little has come about because of regular, organized family get togethers.

What is it then? This is where I struggle. What words can I possibly use to describe what my extended family means to me and why it's emotionally battering me that that my parents' generation is dying. I worry that I don't have the ability to put it into words, but I will try. You see, it's a cultural thing.

My parents and grandparents legally immigrated to this country from the Azores:

Map/Still:Azores
(Source: http://student.britannica.com)

The Azores are a chain of Portuguese islands that lies just about halfway between the United States and Europe, right in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. My parents are from the Island of São Miguel. It's the largest island in the group and it's breath-takingly beautiful.


http://photos.igougo.com/images/p24254-Azores_Sao_Miguel-Furnas.jpg
(Source: http://photos.igougo.com)



Pictures don't ever capture the beauty of Sete Cidades. I've been to this very spot and have taken pictures of this myself and mine didn't come out well either. Part of the beauty of this spot is that one of those lakes is blue and the other is green. They are separated by a tiny land strip. Legend states that each lake was created when a princess and her lover, a young shepherd, had to part from each other. The tears that they shed at their farewell became these two lakes, the water colored like their eyes. It's a magnificent view.


Here was my attempt on a cloudy day in 1987


On a sunnier day of the same trip, however, I did capture the pristine clarity and beauty of the ocean around the island


http://photos.igougo.com/images/p24247-Azores_Sao_Miguel-Church.jpg
(Source: http://www.igougo.com)

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/telegraph/multimedia/archive/00433/travel-graphics-200_433844a.jpg
(Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk)


http://ondas2.blogs.sapo.pt/arquivo/LagoaFogoPedroCunha.jpg
(Source: http://ondas2.blogs.sapo.pt)


http://jackmaryetc.com/Travel/Europe/Azores/images/SanMigHydran.jpg
(Source: http://jackmaryetc.com)

These flowers are EVERYWHERE on the islands. We have a couple of bushes in our yard, too.


http://img112.imageshack.us/img112/3700/hotelfurnasdo9.jpg
(Source: http://img112.imageshack.us)

I've swam in this lake with my parents, my brother, my cousins. It's that color because it's rich in natural iron. It's believed to be very healthy to swim there. The water is bath-like hot and heavy.

http://www.azores.dk/Sao_m_furnas_1.jpg
(Source: http://www.azores.dk)

This is the area where your dinner cooks in the ground while you swim in the iron-rich pool. The food stays in the hot, volcanic ground for hours and when you pull it out . . . it's one of the most delicious tastes in the world.


My cousin Tony and my Dad (oh, he is so handsome!) pulling out our dinner in the summer of 1987


Our feast--it was delicious!


http://farm2.static.flickr.com/1260/842244296_ebed732ec3.jpg?v=0
(Source: http://www.flickr.com)


http://farm1.static.flickr.com/45/190167547_71b190fd46.jpg
(Source: http://www.flickr.com)

This is my mother's home town--Agua Retorta. It's one of the most amazing places I've ever visited. There is a feel about it, a smell of pure, unadulterated nature. Its lushness is a green beyond description and the blueness of the ocean defies the words that try to recount its beauty.


(Source: http://www.panoramio.com)

This is the Catholic Church where my mother and father married.

http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3068/2830238334_837c4a6d5b.jpg?v=0
(Source: http://www.flickr.com)

This is my father's home town--Faial da Terra. I've been here, too. This is where I'd visit my father's father and his wife. The feel of each of these villages is unique and earthy and simple and communal and old world. My step-grandmother washed me in a plastic basin, because that's how it's done there. She baked bread in a stone hearth, because that's how it's done there.


I'm lucky enough to have been to the Azores twice so far--once when I was 3 and then again when I was 13. I haven't been since but we would like to visit there as a family someday. I sometimes secretly worry about how much may have changed there. My visits have always been a throwback to a simpler time and I hope that's still how it is.


Me, at 3 years old, getting a bath by my step grandmother, Senhora Beatrice (I didn't ever get to meet my Dad's mom who died when he was 15. His father later remarried to this woman--I loved her). Notice the toilet in the background--they eventually got indoor plumbing but that is not something my parents had when they were children.


Here is my Dad's mom, my Vavó Artemisia (sister to my other Vavó who is my Mom's mom). People say I look like her. She died of Tuberculosis. My Dad has always been very germ conscious ever since and has passed that on to me as well.


Swimming at Furnas with my brother in 1977


Swimming at Furnas with my cousin Lucy and My Dad and Mom in 1987


A cousin in the Azores. There are loads of Marias. This is one of them.


There are certain smells that take me back to my visits--the cheese that my cousin made in his factory, the warm, soothing chickory drink we'd drink with cheese and fresh bread every night before bed, the horse and cow manure mixing sweetly from the streets, farm animals, delicious meats, potatoes, and breads, the super-sweet smell of the nectar from the flowers, and the smell of the island itself. It has something all its own and it's indescribably nostalgic and delicious.


One of the big vats from Lucy and Tony's cheese factory


Shelves and shelves of "Queijo de Melinda" named for my cousin


My Dad in 1987, inside the church where he and my mother were married


Me and my big brother visiting the Azores in July 1977


So, why did they leave this amazing place? "For a better life" is the party line we hear. Though when our relatives get together and talk about the "old country" and you see the look in their eyes, you wonder if they believe it was wise to ever leave. An argument inevitably ensues about what it was like to be poor, some saying they'd never go back to being poor, most saying, "but we were happy." All agreeing they loved it there.

The stories they tell are of a simpler time. The fun they had was creative and childlike and genuine. They had no toys and worked to create their own play experiences. They sang songs, worked outside with the gardening and the animals, chased each other through the towns, and, in my Dad's case, caused endless mischief. Together. As a community of extended family.


And that brings me to my family wreath. Most everyone from the island was related one way or another. And thus, it was both common and perfectly acceptable (and legal) for cousins to marry. My mother and father are first cousins. My grandmothers are sisters. Family tree. Wreath.

While I know that by our American cultural standards, a revelation like this one would evoke mockery or scorn, this has been "my normal" growing up. Now, let me clarify by saying that while I love my cousins, NEVER in a million years would I marry one of them. But see, I have thankfully had that option. My parents did not. My parents are first cousins AND their marriage was arranged.

But not only has this been my normal, it has also added a richness to my family and cultural experiences. It hasn't really ever been an issue on which we've focused much. It simply is the way it is. I don't have an extra arm (though I used to tease friends that I did in response to their looks of utter shock when they'd learn of my parents' relation to each other--I told them I tucked it into my pants). I don't have any limitations or extra appendages. I am, for all intents and purposes, fairly normal. And, like I said, it simply just IS.


My mother immigrated to this country when she was 9. My Dad came when they married--she at 18, he at 24. She hadn't seen him since they were children and he was well known as the terror of the town. They called him "Roberto do diabo" (or Robert of the Devil). He was mischief personified. And my mother's mother informed my mother that she would go back to the Azores and marry him or never date in this country.

Again, Americans might say indignantly, "But she was 18! She was an adult! She could do whatever she wanted!" Not in the Portuguese culture. There is a respect inherent in the culture that would not allow an 18-year-old to go against her mother's wishes like that. And so my mother became a human passport. She was pleasantly surprised to see him when she got there--my Dad was a looker. And though it wasn't without great difficulty at times, they made their arranged marriage a success and even, I know without a doubt, loved each other fiercely.



My Mom and Dad on their wedding day
May 30, 1959
(50 years this year)

So when my Dad's brother died this past week, my mother lost not only a brother-in-law, but also a cousin. As did her siblings. My mom, my Dad, my aunts and uncles . . . they shared their mothers, who were sisters. When my maternal grandmother died, my father not only lost a mother-in-law, but also an aunt, his mother's sister. Can you begin to see the overlap? The togetherness? The richness?


My Dad and his brother Baltasar (my uncle who just died over a week ago) at a family Christmas party in our basement, 1989 (my sophomore year of high school)


I was raised, not only by my parents, but by my grandparents, my tias (aunts), my tios (uncles). Growing up, most of my extended family lived in about a 2-mile radius (if that). If you've ever seen an Italian or Greek movie about families, you have an idea of what it's like to grow up Portuguese. There was incredible overlap and when family got together, EVERYONE was family. Truly.


Under my Tia Artemisia's Grapevine for a family food fest--My Mom, Dad, and my Mom's Sisters (my Dad's sisters-in-law and cousins)

Under my Tia's vinha (grapevine), you can see the neighbor's vinha as well. Tenement houses and grapevines . . . images of my childhood


And growing up, every time we'd run into a Portuguese person to whom my mother would introduce me, she'd say, "You know her! She's your cousin!" And so it goes. We're all cousins. Everyone is related to everyone at least two times over. And the love of family and culture runs deep. Both sides of the family (my mother's side and my father's side) are essentially the same side. I can't say that one side cooks better than the other or one side is more Portuguese than the other or that one side has better genes than the other. It's all the same!


This is my mother's brother Ramiro (Raymond). He is also my Dad's cousin. He died before I was born, so he's an uncle I haven't met. I understand he had musical talent and an infectious personality that everyone loved. He was very quietly generous, a trait common among many of my relatives, especially the men in the family.

Update: My mother has informed me that that is not her brother Raymond (despite the fact that I have a scrapbook that has said as much for over 10 years). Apparently, this is my Dad! I don't think it really looks like him, but my mother swears it's him nonetheless. This is the picture of himself that he sent to her when they were betrothed to be married. She said she wasn't sure what to think when she saw the picture (it's not the best likeness of him) but that when she saw him in person, she was quite pleased. :)


My Vavó and Vavô (grandmother and grandfather)
That is their tenement house behind them--I was raised there by them as much as I was raised by my parents when I was very little. My
Vavó died when I was 6 and I don't remember her as well, but I have many fond memories of my dear Vavô. To the right of my grandfather is his grapevine. We'd sit there together for hours on end when I was a child. I loved it.


This is a much earlier picture of them. Aren't they classy? This is when they attended my oldest cousin Lucy's wedding, so this is before I was born.


But oh, the get togethers. The loud talking, arms waving about, the intense (but yet somehow loving) arguing, the incessant teasing, the food, the quirky mannerisms, the homemade wine, the chourico, the language, the cobblestone streets, the bread, the cheeses, the money as gifts, the women in aprons in the kitchen, the handiness of the men, the smell of sawdust, the Catholic parades and feasts, the food, the endless food, the smells of cooking fish and roasted potatoes, the sweet breads, the wonder at American ways and foods . . . this was my upbringing.


My Dad holding me and looking at the progress on the house he designed and built himself for our family--I grew up in that home and miss that house and yard to this day


Gathered together for the slaughter of the goat. I grew up on a small farm and we raised most of our meat and eggs and vegetables ourselves. This is how my parents had been raised and how they raised us, too.


Every year, we'd raise an animal or two. Here I am as a little girl in my backyard with one of our cows. Though you're not supposed to name farm animals that you will eventually eat (unless you call them "lunch" or "dinner"), I named this one Bootsie. Didn't matter what we called them (or what color they were), my Dad always called them "Blackie."



My Dad's old, orange Chevy pick-up truck. I used to play in the back of that thing for hours. That's our grapevine. And that's our garden and berry bushes between seasons. This must be in the fall or winter. That big water tank back there is the water tank for the small New England town where I grew up. There's a big lake back there. I could walk to it through a path in the woods behind our house.


My Dad in our side yard. I love this picture because it has so much in it that reminds me of my childhood and my Dad--my Dad built my childhood home with his own two hands and he also created this beautiful yard and made the land work for us. His gardens are meticulous. This picture is taken from the back porch--to the left is the Strawberry Patch and to the right is just a teensy part of his big, beautiful, perfectly-rowed garden. People used to visit just to witness the beauty of his gardens. In the corner, you can see his pick-up truck. I used to love to run errands with my Dad. His driving wasn't the greatest (he's a lane straddler), but yet I'd always feel so safe with him because he's so confident and protective, always putting his arm in front of me at every stop sign or stop light (he was always very protective of me anyway and used to worry about me because I was so short and small). There's my Dad, hard at work and very much in his element. That white cat is mittens, one of our outside cats since I'm allergic. That big barrel is one of the ones used to make homemade Portuguese wine from grapes harvested from our grapevines. Those are right there behind my Dad, too. My Dad also set up a swingset for me under the grapevine. And I used to love to climb those fences. And check out the old-fashioned sled that's out of the garage, too. I loved that thing. It was so fast! And behind the sled are more berry bushes. I grew up in a magical place.



This is the road to our house. We called it "the quarter mile" since it was a long stretch of road without houses. At the end of this road, it turns right and you go a ways and get to my childhood home. There were hardly any neighbors around us. Eventually it built up and kids moved into the neighborhood (and that was fun), but for most of my childhood, it was all mine to explore.

My childhood house, built by my Dad


Everyone is at the christenings, the weddings, the holidays, the funerals. I spent many nights by my Dad's bedside as he died, surrounded by relatives--8, 10 people at a time easily. I was reminded of how much I love these crazy people who are my relatives. I've said it before but it merits repeating--it’s like a mix of “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” on speed. And Dope. And lots of alcohol. It’s a total riot. But even among the occasional insult and yelling, it’s filled to the brim and overflowing with love. Functional or dysfunctional is up for debate, but it’s love, love, love. So many of us standing together in the solidarity of love and family and concern for my Dad around his bed. Literally hundreds of Portuguese "cousins" and relatives streaming in to pay their respects at my Dad's wake.

Everyone welcomes one another with strong hugs and kisses on each cheek. You enter someone's home and are immediately greeted with the smell of crushed pepper, wine, and garlic. Right away you are offered both food and drink. I, as the youngest by far in my generation (I'm turning 35 in a few weeks and my brother and next closest cousins are all approaching their 50s and 60s--I was a surprise) would spend time with the adults. There really weren't kids my age to play with. But I loved these adults very much and I knew they loved me.



These pictures always crack me up--my mother's sisters, angry with her for leaving the Catholic church, bought me a first communion dress, put me in a Portuguese, Catholic Holy Ghost Parade, and had formal communion pictures taken without my mother's knowledge while my mother was out of the country. She was not amused when she got back.

I'm not sure where the rosary beads are for this picture--they're usually draped over hands in prayer


I used to love to sit in my Vavô's (my mother's father) lap and kiss his bald head. I hated when he'd wear his dentures because I was more used to his adorable, toothless grin. Oh, how I miss him. He helped raise me. I spent every summer and every school break and many afternoons after school (when my Dad would sneak out of work to pick me up so I wouldn't have to stay in after-school care) at his house. My Vavô didn't speak English, so we'd speak Portuguese and we'd sit under his grapevine, walk through his garden, walk down to the corner where he'd stand and talk with all the other older, Portuguese men. We'd walk down the street and up the next one to visit his wife's sister, my great aunt Tia Lourdes, and she'd always give me ginger ale and a snack. My Vavô and I would hang out and his house and watch Lassie together. That was a show that didn't require him to understand English--the basic plot was the same (Bark! Timmy: "What's that girl? Someone's in trouble?" Bark!). And cop shows. My Vavô loved cop shows.

My oldest cousin in Lucy. She and I are the female bookends to a library of male cousins. Lucy is approaching 60 and is closer to my mother's age than to mine. I am closer in age to Lucy's children than to Lucy. Lucy is the daughter of my mother's oldest sister, Noemia. I am the youngest (by far) of my mother's children and my mom is the 2nd youngest in her family. Thus the HUGE span. My cousin Lucy lived in the Azores for most of her life (her mother, my aunt and my mother's oldest sister had moved to the states, but then her oldest daughter Lucy married a Portuguese man who owned a cheese factory in Agua Retorta, so she spent most of her married life there even though everyone else was here).

When Lucy and her husband Tony and their kids (oh how I loved when they would come) would visit the States for several weeks in the summertime, the entire family would roll out the red carpet for them. It was a never-ending feast--backyard barbecues (and you have to know that this isn't your typical burgers and hot dogs kind of shindig)--this is roasted meat and potatoes, saffron rice with clams, grilled fish, various finger foods, Portuguese-marinated chicken, chourico, Portuguese rice pudding . . . oh, the food is divine.



A spread of food from one of my Uncle Joe's parties--this one for our daughter's birthday


This picture is from one of the times my cousins from the Azores visited us in the states. Here is my Mom and her 2 sisters cutting cake for everyone to eat. We had all gathered to celebrate my Vavô's 83rd birthday. See those smocks they're wearing? Very Portuguese! They always wear those when they cook and clean. It's traditional.

And it was fun to have cousins my age around, too. We all spent so much time together as much as possible. I loved it when they'd visit and we always enjoyed staying with them when we'd visit the Azores, too.

Years later, Lucy's daughter Melinda came to the States to go to school and she got to live with us--it was fun to have a roomie and girl cousin my age around! These pictures are goofy and don't do us justice but while it was fun, it was also an adjustment to have an annoyingly attractive cousin around all the time--guys were constantly asking me for her number. I remember having a brief bout of jealousy.


Oh, these big family get togethers were a wonderful and fun part of my cultural childhood. Our hobbies growing up had little to do with shopping or playing games. Sure, there was some of that, but mostly it was family. Extended family. But you see, that IS family. There is almost no distinction between "extended" and your own nuclear family.


Happy Birthday, Vavô! Look at that adorable grin. L-R my godfather Manny, my cousin Tony, my cousin Little Johnny (not to be confused with his father, Lucy's brother, Johnny), Vavô, my eccentric and fun Uncle Joe (my Mom's brother), my oldest cousin Lucy and her kids (my first cousins once removed) Melinda and Keith (who are closer to my age than their mother)


And my Uncle Joe's Christmas Parties! Joe is my mom's youngest brother. He has always been the one in the family to throw the big parties and cook the most amazing food. He's like a big kid himself and is, by far, the biggest tease to all the kids in the family. He never married and always lived with my Vavô. When I was a little girl, he always told me about classic literature and musicals. We even stayed up in the night, got all dressed up, and watched Princess Di and Prince Charles get married while having tea and tasty treats. Here he is at one of his parties trying to lead everyone in a game--to his left are his sisters, L-R Artemisia, Noemia, Zelia (my mom).


And my aunts and uncles would insist, ten times over, that I eat. "You're too skinny!" they'd yell as they pulled me by the arm and made me a plate of food and sat me down to eat yelling, "Come! Come, querida!" (Eat, Eat, dear girl!). They'd pinch my cheeks so hard, that it smarted for the rest of the day.

I'd sit and hear the stories recounted (same ones, over and over again) about the old country, their acclimating to this country, the prejudice they sometimes faced, the things they missed about the Azores, the things they loved about being here. I often wonder what it must be like for them to be born and raised in one place only to move to another in which to raise their families. Is it hard for them to die on different land than their native one?

I witness their hard work, their determination. The men inspire confidence and the women, no less strong, are passionate. I see their talents--craftsmen, fishermen, gardeners, seamstresses, cooks. Most of my extended relatives can't read this post because they don't own computers. But TV is big in Portuguese homes. They are always on, especially their precious Portuguese soap operas--a tie to their former home. All of my extended relatives are fluent in both Portuguese and English and when we're together, we interchangeably go back and forth. Most of my relatives have thick accents and many of the older ones are still nervous to speak in English to others.


These adults always seemed so strong and hard-working and opinionated and strong-willed and alive to me. They always made me feel safe and secure in this foreign land and I always felt deeply, deeply loved. It's so hard to see them age and slip away. It's so hard. It's so hard.


My mother and her sisters Zelia, Artemisia, Noemia


Me and Mark in 1999 with my mom and her sisters


Kate with Lucilia (my Uncle Baltasar's wife) -- Lucilia and Baltasar came to sit by my Dad's bed every single night


Images flash to my mind. Smells come to my memory. Catholic Rosaries, the virgin Mary, Rolaids from my grandmother's nightstand drawer (that'd I'd eat as candy), the "bah-ba-cue" that my Vavô would pick up at the corner store for us to eat, chourico sandwiches from Billy's cafe, Portuguese soap operas, my godparents (oh, how I love that I have godparents--it's something that I feel our kids miss out on in our non-Catholic religion) who are also my aunt and uncle (and as godparents, my "madrinha" and "padrinho"), love shown through food and affection, soft cow's milk cheeses and hard, sharp cheese from the islands, tenement housing, simple living, the beautiful, Portuguese language, love and closeness of family, cobblestone streets, sewing factories, the Portuguese shops and restaurants . . . you see, I grew up in Massachusetts in an area called "Little Portugal." There were Portuguese people and food markets and restaurants everywhere.


The Priest, my Dad with my godparents--my Tia Artemisia (my mother's sister) and uncle--at my christening


Most of the students in my high school were Portuguese or of Portuguese descent. I remember the valedictorian of my class, a friend of mine, was a daughter of Portuguese immigrants. They worked hard at their hourly jobs, saved like mad, and eventually bought a house. When their oldest daughter (my friend) graduated high school, they remortgaged their home to put her through school at Brown University and later MIT. This was a cultural norm. It's circular. Parents provide for children, regardless of age or circumstance and children, when they are able, care for their parents and grandparents. When I was a little girl, my grandfather (my Vavô, my mother's father) lived with us for a while when he could no longer live by himself. There was no question otherwise. And I loved having him with us. I was surrounded by all of this . . . this rich, deep, strong, delicious, loving heritage.


My sweet Vavô has always been one of my biggest fans. He'd sit and listen to me play piano over and over and over again.


My Vavô and his sister (my great aunt)


Here I am with him again, years later. I adored my Vavô. He died when I was a junior in high school. It was my first very difficult funeral. It was gut wrenching to leave his graveside. It's been over 17 years and I still miss him so much. I cried as I looked through these pictures of him for this post. He is a dear, gentle, kind man.


I was raised straddled between two cultures--Portuguese and American. I was a Portuguese girl raised in a Portuguese home by a Portuguese family but attending American school and wearing American clothing. I spoke Portuguese at home, English as school. There was so much I didn't know when I was in high school about extra curricular activities, because my parents couldn't tell me--they'd both had to drop out of school to help support their families. They couldn't help me with my homework, neither one of them knowing what algebra was. They encouraged me, though, and always talked about "when" I'd go to college, not "if." Somehow, I made it to the top of my grade and graduated 5th in my high school class.

All of their sacrificing . . . their hard work . . . their departure from their home country . . . I now reap those benefits of "a better life."
The education I've received, the languages I speak, the opportunity I've had to live in Lisbon for about a year (oh, how I love that city!) and visit places my Dad had lived when he was in the Portuguese Army, the home in which I live, the amazing husband I'm so blessed to have, the life lessons I've learned . . . so much because of my parents' great sacrifice. I always want to honor, and never take for granted, that which I have. My husband is essentially Portuguese--he speaks it, he understands it, he knows the beauty and richness of the culture, he's one of the best cooks in the family. He loves the culture and the family and they adore him.


Mark and Tia Noemia


These are the things I desperately want to share with our children. The culture seems to get more and more diluted with every passing generation and I'm trying to hang on to it. But it feels like it's slipping away. I'm the first generation born in this country. Being one generation removed from the homeland itself, I've been able to straddle them both. How do we hang on for our children?


Our kids with Baltasar's grandkids


These pictures are from various trips to MA. They are all from my Uncle Baltasar's (my Dad's brother) backyard.

Baltasar has been my closest link to my Dad in this way--his backyard, though less meticulous than my Dad's, reminds me of the yard my Daddy gave me growing up.

See, when my Dad got sick, my parents moved into a condo and sold my childhood home. The closest thing I've had to show our children what my growing up was like has been visiting Baltasar's backyard.

The vinha, the gardens, the swings,

the chickens, the rabbits,

playing with the bunnies,

the Portuguese wife coming out with popsicles and ice cream and drinks and food while the Portuguese husband says to have more, have more

and go ahead pick up the bunnies . . . magical.


My parents' generation, I think their hearts are there. Our generation? Well, I can't speak for my brother and my cousins, but mine is sort of in both places. I have an image in my mind of myself, one foot straddling each land--America and the Azores. And I feel like the Portuguese land underfoot is drifting away. And my foot, though desperately trying to hang on, is losing its grasp while I try to maintain balance between the two. And in my mind's eye, watching that land slip away is scary and isolating and a bit lonesome.

When the image becomes me standing on one foot while the Portuguese piece of land drifts away from underfoot with all my relatives who were born there standing on it, I suddenly feel very naked and exposed and a little scared. I feel left and abandoned in this land that is part foreign to me. They, those relatives, understand the old country. They understand what it's like to be a Portuguese-American. They understand what it's like to grow up in a foreign culture while in America. They can't leave me!



The pall bearers at my Dad's funeral--on the left is Jim (he's not Portuguese nor is he blood related, but as far as I'm concerned, he's very much part of the family), two over from him is "Bobby de Baltasar" (Baltasar's son Bobby--we call him that to distinguish between him and my brother Bobby--lots of Roberts in the family: my Dad, my brother, my Dad's nephew), next to Bobby is Stevie and two down from Stevie is Johnny (sound mafioso to you, too?). Yep, those are just some of my cousins--there's also Davey, Little Johnny, etc. You get the idea.

At the restaurant, after my Dad's funeral--my Dad's sister Alda, Lucilia, Bobby de Baltasar, Baltasar. I never would've guessed that Baltasar would be gone a year later.

After the restaurant, more than 20 of us gathered at my parents' condo just to be together. My cousin Davey, his mom (and my aunt and godmother) Artemisia, and my mother's other sister Noemia


This is just a taste of why my uncle's death, on the heels of my father's death is crushing me emotionally. It's not just an uncle. It's a cousin-once-removed. It's my father's brother. It's my mother's brother-in-law. It's my mother's cousin. It's my grandmother's son and my other grandmother's nephew.

It's one more from that generation who left there to come here. It's another person on that piece of land that is slowly slipping away from me. It's one more from that generation that can begin to understand that very big part of me that is a Portuguese girl living in America. It's one more from that generation that has made us (me and those of my generation) feel safe and protected and helped us know our way here, in this somewhat foreign land. It is one more who is a link to my heritage, my culture, my identity. It is one more that has sacrificed so we can reap the benefits of that "better life."


And reap we do. Yes, the opportunities. Yes, the greater financial stability. But also, the rich, beautiful culture that has been instilled in us as part of a deep and loving heritage. It is a "better life" indeed. And I find myself whispering, pleading to them . . . please, please don't leave.

19 comments:

Stacy said...

Wow! I don't know what more I can say. What a beautiful post and a great tribute to your family. Thanks for sharing and I hope that you are doing well.

Super Nova said...

I feel like I can relate on a small level, in almost an opposite way. My uncle, the man I was closest too after my father, died two years ago..very suddenly. He left behind 8 children, many of them near my age. He left behind my father...his closest friend and companion. He left behind so much and with his death, something has changed in me the past two years. I live in this slightly panicked state that my dad is going to die. That because it happened to my uncle, it's going to happen to my dad. My dad is now the exact age of my uncle when he died.

I don't like looking at my dad or spending time with my dad with this constant worry surrounding our time.

My cousins have had to deal with the loss of their father in a very real and painful way. One of the ways that they have dealt with it is to seek the comfort and company of my dad. My dad and uncle look so much alike, sound alike, tell the same stories, and could in all likelihood pass for twins.

I remember about a month after the funeral one of my cousins just knocked on the door in tears, crying about how much he missed his dad and he just grabbed my dad in a huge hug and sobbed.

Ok, i'm crying now, and I'm at work.

I better stop.

But, I understand, a little, what this loss of your uncle can mean and should mean and does mean for you friend.



But wow, what a tribute. I just love you.

emily said...

I was going to ask why they left after looking at all those beautiful pictures, but the next sentence was "So why did they leave?" You already answered it! It's amazing there, I would love to see it sometime. When I'm rich and do a lot of traveling, I mean.

That's so nice to have so much family and support. It's always hard when generations get older. I know my dad is struggling with that. His mom died last year, and his oldest brother is currently battling pancreatic cancer, and he had prostate cancer last year...it's so hard when the people you know and love start passing away. I loved reading this post Stacy, it was so neat to get a glimpse into your childhood and your parents lives.

By the way, the wedding picture of your parents? coolest picture EVER.

J Fo said...

It's interesting that even through your mourning the loss of the cultural links that you are keeping them alive - through your writing! What a beautiful look into to your beautifully unique cultural background and history.

I love the pictures of you as a child. It seems like I can see both of your sweet kids in your face.

Thanks for sharing this emotional jourey and struggle with us. I definiately sympathize with your pain and loss, but through your sharing I'm gaining so much more understanding.

**Please call sometime if you need another sister talk. I'm game anytime you feel like it!

Lindsay said...

That was so neat to see what you have been able to experience. What a beautiful place your parents grew up in. I almost teared up reading some of your posts, because it made me realize how truly important families are. I have had three uncles pass away, the latest was my dad's oldest brother. That was two days before Christmas this year. And then I think, my dad is only two years younger than my uncle. There are no guarantees in this life.
You come from a wonderful family. I love the closeness of it all. You and I have talked about that before :). Thanks for sharing.

Lindsay said...

I just re-read what I posted. What I meant to say as far as "experienced" is the cultures. Not the passing of your uncle! I just wanted to clarify. That's what I get for not proofreading!

Jimmy said...

Awesome. Unique. And awesome. That you get it, that you realize what a blessing all that is, that you have a husband who gets it and celebrates it with you. I have so much admiration for you both.

Swawaeve said...

Wow! You have a big family! And I couldn't help but think when you said your family has a lot of Bobby's "My big fat greak wedding". Well I'm glad that you are doing better and I'm still praying for you.

Lola Goetz said...

wow, it is so great that you have such a connection to your roots. i, too, worry about losing the generation before us. their knowledge. i really enjoyed reading about your family. thanks for sharing.

April (Thorup) Oaks said...

This is fascinating. I have only been able to read a third, but I'll be back.

I'm offically in love with the Azores now. I have got to get there one day.

Chelle said...

I've observed this same sense of family with my sister-in-law who is Portuguese. Family is family...there's really no classification of extended family verses immediate family. What a wonderful environment to be a part of--security, love, sense of belonging, knowing your roots. Your children are being raised in a different culture, but I'm certain your love of your heritage will not get lost with them.

What a blessing to feel so connected!

You DO look a lot like your dad's mom.

bythelbs said...

This was a beautiful post. Such wonderful pictures and such a priceless family history. You have been truly blessed.

HappyWifeHappyLife said...

First of all, I want to thank you for writing such a lovely, beautiful post and sharing it with all of us! It was truly very intimate and touching. As you know, I lived for 3 years in the Azores as well - I am not Portuguese, but my family was stationed there when my father was in the military. I lived in the Azores (near Lajes Field) from when I was 6 months old until when I was almost 4 years old. I have beautiful (yet blurry) memories. My parents totally fell in love with the Azores, and Azorean culture (in fact - earlier this week, Anthony Bourdain had a special on the Travel Channel on Azorean food and the Azores and I got no LESS than 4 calls from my parents telling me to watch!)

I look forward to one day going back and visiting this incredibly beautiful part of the world.

And Stacy, I can totally see how the overlap and interwoven nature of the Azorean family/culture has had such a profound impact on you. It's almost like an intricate tapestry that simply cannot be "un-woven" (nor should it be!).

I am so sorry about the losses you have experienced.

However, the FLIP side is look at the amazing family life you have experienced! I, for one, am very envious! Out of my 4 grandparents, I only knew 1.... and he lived, literally, thousands of miles away. My experience was almost a polar opposite of yours as my Dad was in the military and we moved every few years...

Also, remember, we are on this planet for just a "drop" of time. I truly believe we will spend all Eternity with our loved ones (and our loving Father), and whatever difficulties we face in this life will absolutely pale compared to the joy we'll experience.

Robynne said...

What a beautiful post Stacy! You have an amazing heritage, it's so awesome to read about it all!!!

Boquinha said...

Stacy, thank you! I so appreciate the comment.

D'Arcy, you and I have chatted so much recently. Thank you for being so understanding. And thank you for sharing. You're a good friend--I'm looking forward to visiting with you.

Emily, it's so beautiful, eh? Wow, your Dad has a lot going on. Thanks for the comment. I'm glad you liked it. And I love that picture, too!!

Jessica, thank you! I am glad to know that my sharing through writing is helping. It's healing for me so the fact that it's helpful to others is great extra bonus! I love talking with you--thank you!!

Lindsay, thank you. Yes, we've talked a lot about this. And I enjoy talking with you. We're looking forward to our visit with you guys. (Oh, and I knew what you meant!)

Jimmy! Thank you so much! I love to hear your comments. I so appreciate your kind thoughts. Thank you.

Sierra, thanks. You are such a sweetheart.

Lola, thank you so much. And welcome to our blog!

April, thank you. I hope you enjoy the rest when you get to it! I knew you'd want to visit! It's just gorgeous!

My best peasant friend, I'd forgotten about your SIL! That's right! Thank you for your comment. I think you're right--I do look like her. And thank you for being such a wonderful friend. I hope you got my email thanking you for your kindness--that email account has been a bit screwy. Did you get it? Thanks so much, Rachelle. It means a lot.

Lbs, thank you so much. I really have been. It's so nice to write about it.

HWHL, thank you for your sweet comment. Yes! I've heard from my mom and brother about that special!! Thank you for your comment. It's amazing how different (and alike) we all are. Thank you for sharing.

Robynne, thank you. And thanks for the email, too.

terahreu said...

Fabulous! What a great tribute to your rich history. I knew a little about your heritage but it was so fun to see pictures and read the stories. It is amazing how much you and your brother resemble various family members. I suppose that is a result of being part of the wreath. It is fantastic that you and your family members can be so completely interwoven.

I LOVED this post. Thanks so much for sharing.

Boquinha said...

Thanks, Terah. I'm so glad you read it. I had a sneaking suspicion you'd appreciate it. :)

FoXy said...

Hi! I am shocked and amazed to learn from this post over a year old that we apparently are somewhat cousins!
A few minutes ago I googled Queijo Melinda and guess who I found? My uncle Tony, aunt Lucy and cousins Melinda and Keith on the image page! Awesome! I cannot believe that you have pictures from the factory... I used to play there when I was a kid. Every summer we would go to Tio Tony and Tia Lucy's place and stay about 3 or 4 weeks. Of course that ended when Tio Tony and Tio Mario stopped getting along.
Maybe your parents know my mom and knew my Vavó. I'm daughter to Tio Tony's sister Leonor and their mother was Vavó Maria. Do you remember any of it? Do your parents?
I'd love to get in touch and maybe ask you for any other photos you might have from the factory and Água Retorta! Send me an email if you like!

Boquinha said...

OH MY GOODNESS! PRIMA!! I'll email you right now . . . how exciting!! (I actually think I've been to your --or maybe your parents'-- house in Cascais!). Emailing now . . .