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Thursday, April 4, 2013

Having a Voice

My grandfather Avô Gilberto died a few months after I was born so I only know him from stories and photographs. I'm told he was a larger-than-life character, quick to joke and a well-known figure in the Portuguese community. He had worked as a journalist in Portugal and after coming to the U.S. he started his own newspaper, Voz de Portugal, the Voice of Portugal. I assumed that's how the family made a living. It wasn't until Vovó Flora's funeral that I learned how the newspaper was just a labor of love. It was never really profitable. Some of the family's income came from side printing jobs but mostly it was Vovó Flora's work at the Hunt's cannery that paid the bills. There was a fair bit of resentment over that. Flora worked her shift at the cannery, worked in the printing shop, and worked to keep up the home and raise the kids. That's enough to turn anyone bitter.

I love this fake publicity still. 
Still, having a newspaper brought a certain prestige. Gilberto and Flora were invited to society events and met dignitaries. I never had considered this aspect of the family business until I looked through the old photo albums and saw the many 8 x 10 glossy prints of Vovó all dressed up at a swank party, or standing alongside important-looking people. Working hard and providing for your family is honorable but hardly notable. The newspaper was a ticket to a different social circle, and that certainly had appeal.

All dressed up and posing with some guy. 
I'm reminded again how no story is simple. The newspaper was a burden, but also a dream. The tiny house on A Street with the print shop out back was the place Vovó Flora loved. After Avô Gilberto died, Tio Lourenço kept the newspaper going as long as he could but eventually it too died. In the 1980s Flora bought a bigger house in a quieter suburb, but after a year moved back to the house she loved best. By then the neighborhood had shifted mostly commercial and there were few houses left. She liked the busy street. It was her home. And all through the years, up until the fire, the big Voz de Portugal sign stood out front. It was more than a publication. For this family, for Vovó Flora, it was an identity.
Avô Gilberto, third from the left, with some official-type people and the iconic sign.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Life in the Sun

somewhere near paradise CC Image by flavijus on Flickr
Breathtaking beaches. Sunburnt tourists. Hard-partying backpackers. The first time I visited the Algarve region of Portugal it was hard to reconcile it with the sleepy fishing village where Vovó Flora was raised. Lagos is now a thriving tourist spot, one of the most popular in Europe. Her memories were of a poor economy and little opportunity. Her sister Isabel, on learning I would be visiting Lagos, sniffed and asked why I’d bother. “Nothing there, just fishermen,” she said. “Go to Lisbon.” I never saw a fisherman but I did see hordes of vacationers. Hardly anyone spoke Portuguese. The waiters were Aussies. The menus were in English or German. I couldn’t picture my Vovó there at all.

  
Lagos by Night CC Image by carlosoliveirareis on Flickr Lagos, Portugal CC Image by coda on Flickr
The region didn’t become a vacationing hotspot until the 1960s, long after Vovó Flora had moved away, first to Lisbon for work, then to America. When I visited I never strayed far from the beaches. Every tourist town has an area past the main drag where the real people live. The glitz and leisure along the coast belong to the visitors. I have no idea how the residents of Lagos actually live.

So many stories go untold. I searched for a history of the Algarve, some sense of how the region fared economically at the start of the 20th century. There is nothing, not in English anyway. You can learn how the are changed hands from the Carthaginians to the Romans to the Visigoths to the Byzantines to the Moors. You can read about the role this coast played in Portugal’s Age of Discovery, or how it’s now a thriving beach destination. But nowhere can you find out how the people there lived. The everyday lives of simple people go undocumented, unremembered. Their stories are lost beside the triumphs of conquerors past or the picture-perfect holiday snapshots posted on Flickr.

I can’t tell the story of a region. I can’t even really tell the story of a woman who left there and never looked back. I can only piece together what I’ve been told and what I know she became. The past is lost, and the present gives only a sun-drenched slice of the life that bears little resemblance to the place Vovó Flora knew.

Flora visiting Lagos in 1968.

First three photos used are copyright of their owners and are available under a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 license.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Jesus Loves Dancing

"Did I tell you? I met Jesus."

Vovó Flora's connection with reality grew ever more flimsy as she she aged. Dreams were related as if they had really happened. She often told people she had seen them on TV. It was so common that the family sometimes used this confusion to their advantage, like the time she received sound financial advice from a dead banker. So when Vovó Flora mentioned that she met Jesus, my mother didn't pay much attention. At first.

Unlike the fleeting mentions of events that were clearly the product of dreams, Flora brought up Jesus several times. She mentioned it as if she had spotted a celebrity while on vacation in Hollywood. "Oh, did I tell you who I saw the other day?" The story grew more detailed with each retelling. She had seen Jesus, she said. He smiled and waved to her from across the room. Later she mentioned that Jesus didn't really dress the way he was drawn in all the pictures. "He doesn't wear white robes, you know," she informed my mother. "He wears a gray suit and his beard is long but neatly trimmed."  Eventually the tale grew from a mere celebrity sighting into a real interaction.  "Jesus told me it was OK to dance, because dancing makes me feel good."

Like many Vovó stories, this one made the rounds among family and friends. My mother's friend Cida was the one who uncovered the origin of her Jesus-spotting. At my wedding a few weeks earlier she had sat with Vovó Flora. Directly across from her at the next table sat Philip's father Stephen, a long-bearded gentleman in a gray suit. He was in Vovó's line of sight through the meal. He doesn't remember ever talking to Flora about dancing, but dance she did, several times throughout the night all the way until the final dance. I seem to recall her on the dance floor during "Baby Got Back." And why not? Jesus himself approves.

Stephen impressing the children at our wedding.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Doctor Beware

When you live into your nineties you're going to rack up of plenty of visits to the hospital. Though Vovó Flora didn't need to go often she was infamous at Hayward Kaiser. She would not take pills. She howled at the sight of a needle. She slapped nurses. (Not surprisingly  nurses did not find this amusing.) When Vovó's pacemaker battery needed replacing she kept her purse clutched at her waist and refused to remove her pants before the surgery. Arguments were doing no good, so finally the nurse suggested that they just proceed with the anesthesia and finish undressing her after she was knocked out. Somehow that never happened, so Vovó won in the end. She kept her pants on during heart surgery.

Count her out at 86? Not when you see her at 90.
Because didn't speak much English and pretended to understand even less it put a burden on my uncle and mother stay near and serve as translator. When any hospital staff entered the room Vovó Flora complained in Portuguese that they were trying to steal her purse. She might throw in a few disparaging remarks about their ethnicity for good measure. Some people think that a language barrier allows freedom of conversation, but let me assure you that even if a person can't understand a single word it's pretty obvious when you're talking smack.

She learned this lesson well after making a stink about getting an IV. Flora's children could not always be around so there were times when the staff had to handle her on their own. When she saw the nurse planned to stick her with a needle she fought back, screaming in Portuguese and slapping at anyone who came near her.  My uncle Lourenço was called, and in the meantime they called up a Brazilian orderly from a different floor to translate. Lourenço arrived first and firmly explained that she needed the medicine, that the staff was here to help her and she needed to do what they told her. The Brazilian orderly walked in just as Vovó Flora snapped back, "So if they want to have sex with me, I should just let them?" He immediately busted up laughing and all the staff clamored to know what she'd said. Vovó cast an accusing eye around the room, demanding to know who else secretly spoke Portuguese.

It's precisely this type of irrational logic, this distrust of just about everyone, that lead to her continued survival. Had she seen herself as old or frail she would have to acknowledge her dim odds for recovery. In her mind she didn't need these doctors and their treatments. She was going to be fine. And she always was.  Just weeks before she died she had been admitted for pneumonia. At 92 it wasn't likely that she would survive but this was Vovó Flora. She was released and on her way to a full recovery at home when the fire struck. It was such a shocking tragedy, but I take an odd comfort that she defied all prognosis and continued living for ten more days when she wasn't expected to last a single night. To the end, she proved 'em all wrong.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Happy Days


My laptop is still out of commission, so I'll just share this picture, which is the only one I've seen of a younger Flora looking happy. I know that smiling for pictures wasn't common at the time so it makes sense that she typically looks so serious. It makes this one really stand out.