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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.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Family Portraits

My laptop died this week and took my motivation along with it. Since I'm writing this on my husband's old PC which is not in a room that has heat, I'll do a short picture post.

Here are the Aguiars throughout the years: Gilberto, Flora, Lourenço and my mother Ana.

Portugal, around 1948
Portugal, in the late 1950s
Hayward, CA in the early 1960s
Hayward, CA, Christmas 1970

Looking at these pictures I realize I haven't written about my grandfather at all. If I know little about Vovó Flora, I know even less about Avô Gilberto. He died the year I was born so I know him only through stories and photographs. I know he was very gregarious and well-liked in the community. 

Also for those who are not Portuguese, the words for grandma and grandpa are nearly identical except for the accent. Vovó is grandma, pronounced vo-vaw (like saw), with Avó being the more formal grandmother. Vovô is grandpa and Avô is grandfather, with the last sound pronounced vow (like bow) though not really. There isn't a really great English equivalent sound. Not having grown up saying Vovô I still trip over this. 

Hopefully net week I will have a laptop again which I can use to type in a warmer location and write something about my Avós.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Fighting Words

"You're just like Vovó."

Four simple words that could bring any family argument to a swift halt. It meant more than just being stubborn or crabby. You were fighting on purpose, keeping the argument going on long after it should have ended, just to win. It was a skill Vovó Flora had perfected, so well that if she were bored and looking for attention she would start a fight over anything. You could see it coming, see her complain or toss out a mild insult, waiting to hook someone and draw them in. She was terrific at fighting. She seemed to enjoy it just for sport. When she was fighting, she was in control.

In my family I was most often the target of those four little words. I did not want to be like Vovó. And yet I can't deny how quick I am to argue, how comfortable I am when a conversation turns heated. I'm not like that with most people, not with friends or coworkers. But when it comes to family I find myself tapping into anger as a tactic. I don't do it consciously. It's certainly not productive. It is familiar, and too often it works. Being enraged means holding the floor. I aspire to better methods of expression, but I can see the appeal of dominating through anger.

For a matriarch like Vovó Flora, fighting is simply how she managed her family. It's the old way, a tough strict mom who kept you in line with a yell, and the occasional smack. As she aged her world grew smaller. She retired and spent her days at home. She drove less, then not at all. Her children were gone, busy with families of their own. The only way she knew to control what little she had left was through anger. Though I wonder if it was about more than just control. Ours is not a family who talks about our feelings. Through her fighting she was able to see how much her children remained devoted to her. Words cannot wound someone who doesn't care, but if she could hurt than she knew she was loved. It's a broken way, but it was how she grounded herself in the world.

This softened some as she drifted into extreme old age. She still picked fights, still tossed out casual insults at family dinners, like the Easter when she was introduced to the fiance of a family friend. She took one look at him and said, loudly, "Why would you marry this fat bald old man?" Ah, Vovó. But other times, when conversations swirled all around her and very much without her, she would suddenly start signing. Her hoarse voice would loudly belt out a folk song, clapping in time. She wanted attention, no doubt, but she this wasn't the scheming of a woman used to getting her way. She was a child again, signing the songs of her youth, looking for attention, for love. We all want to feel loved. And somehow we're reluctant to express it. Too fearful of rejection. Too afraid to give up control to another. When Vovó Flora sang, we listened and smiled. And she felt loved.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Under Fire

My car caught on fire last week. Everyone is fine, and I won't go into the details again here, but as I looked the smoldering wreck I was reminded of being inside Vovó Flora's house after the fire. People are familiar with smoke from a wood fire as we curl up in front of a fireplace or gather around a campfire. It is nothing like the particular acrid smell that comes from the burning of items we live with everyday. It's plastic, so much plastic, and paints, chemicals, glass and metal and fabric. It's distinctly toxic, strong and unpleasant. It gets into everything so that even what can be salvaged is ruined. It's not an odor you want on you or near you. As I peered into what used to be my car, I was back in Vovó's living room. The tragedy, the loss, of so much more than the contents of a home. I'm not ready to talk about the end of Vovó Flora's life. This blog is the discovery of a woman I never understood. I'm more interested in her life than her death. I want the burning smell to go away.

Galo de Barcelos
Part of not understanding Vovó is not being very aware of Portuguese culture. I was born in the U.S. to parents who had been here for decades. Were my family's behaviors a product of ethnic identity or just who they happened to be? Maybe that's why I've drawn to the more generalized icons of my heritage, like the Rooster of Barcelos. Every Portuguese person I know has this ceramic bird in their kitchen. It's usually black with a large red comb, its wings and tail dotted with intertwining hearts and flowers. The heart has always fascinated me, with its curled tail.  Like love, it's not perfect.

I knew the rooster was a national symbol but never thought about why until I read a postcard at a souvenir shop in Portugal. Like so many of the old tales our great aunt Tia Teresa had been telling us on that trip, the story didn't make a lot of sense. A criminal who was sentenced to death was brought before a judge. The criminal said that if a nearby rooster crowed it proved he was innocent. It crowed and he was set free. In addition to providing a very hazy picture of the Portuguese justice system, this tale seemed to indicate that crowing roosters were a rare and miraculous occurrence in Portugal. Of course the full story has a few more of the elements one would expect from a national legend. The accused man was in fact innocent, and the rooster he claimed would crow was the roasted bird on the judge's feast table. I'm not sure how the iconic figure came to be decorated with hearts and flowers, but the black color makes sense. A rooster can be burned and still rise to crow again.

It's a fitting symbol for Vovó Flora. So many times she faced tragedy, pain, setbacks, and never would she be counted out. She always came back crowing loudly as ever. She never backed down, not even from the fire that ended her life. That first day in the burn unit the doctor said that at her age she wasn't likely to survive the night. My mother looked at him and said, "You don't know my mother."  She survived ten more days, against all odds. In the end there was no hope, no chance of recovery. We knew she would not rise again. But in her typical fashion she did not go down without a fight. Now she's gone and I can only write about her life. Here, though, she still crows.

The small house on A Street.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Forget Me Not

Vovó Flora was forgetful and confused the way a lot of elderly people are. Senile dementia makes you hazy on time frames, unsure about who people are, and prone to agitation and disturbed planning. I'm not certain how that that last symptom is defined clinically, but I'll bet it looks a lot like her living room walls. They were covered with tiny scraps of paper, notes to herself intended to help keep her thoughts organized but resulting in a jumbled mess of outdated reminders and inscrutable details. The show is on channel 7. Your granddaughter is Rosanne. Tomorrow is Sunday. 

With constant confusion comes paranoia. Even at her best, Vovó Flora was very distrustful. When the facts didn't add up she was wary and suspicious. Recognizing people was a problem. She had a hard time believing her grandchildren were old enough to have children. Once argued that that the adult standing before her could not possibly be her little granddaughter Lilly. She finally accepted it was true, but not before telling my mother, "You should be ashamed to have a daughter so old!"

There's no fooling Vovó Flora.
Vovó Flora especially had trouble keeping track of new family members. She asked again and again who our spouses were and what they were doing at family dinners. One Thanksgiving she asked who my brother-in-law was, and being told it was her granddaughter's husband, suddenly lit up with determination and pointed to the words on his 80s throwback T-shirt. "I know you're all lying to me, because it says right here he's the Karate Kid!" There is no arguing with that.

This paranoid thinking could lead to some bad choices, like the time she decided banks could not be trusted and insisted her money be withdrawn and hidden in her house. While her fear of bank failure might be considered prescient given the state of our economy, there is no way a life savings would be safer under the mattress of an elderly woman in a neighborhood with one of the highest crimes rates in the Bay Area. She would not be moved by logic, and insisted again and again to be given her money. Then, one day, she told my mother that she had changed her mind. Mr. Norte, the Portuguese banker who had served the family for years, had called and personally assured her that her money was safe. My mom was glad for the change of heart, but puzzled by the fact that Mr. Norte had been dead for decades.

Only weeks later did my mother learn that the call was not from beyond the grave nor was it the product of advanced senility.  My uncle, knowing that Vovó Flora would trust a Portuguese-speaking authority figure, asked a cousin to phone her as Mr. Norte. The plan worked so completely that it's hard to fault him for the deception. Her worries about money and her constant pestering stopped instantly. She felt special for having received a personal call from a banker and had the satisfaction of making her own decision. When you can't trust your own mind, it must feel wonderful to be sure of something. What's so crazy about that?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Sunday Driver

Vovó Flora loved going for a drive. Most Sundays the family would load into the car and go on a day trip, to San Francisco or Santa Cruz or the Central Valley. She loved getting out and seeing new things. Later in life my mother would take her on a weekly Sunday drive. They wouldn't stop anywhere. Being out for a ride was the thing. By then Flora no longer had a car, though if it were up to her she'd still be behind the wheel.

As she aged, Flora was no longer safe on the road. In her early 80s the family was relieved when she was required to take a test to renew her driver's license. No way would an elderly nearsighted woman be allowed to remain a driver. Against all odds she passed, and continued to take her Presidential Blue 1972 Ford Maverick for trips to the hairdresser and the grocery store.  Until the day of the accident.

There is a bit of common wisdom that says most accidents happen within a mile of your home. In Flora's case it happened at her home. While backing up on her driveway she mistook the brake for the gas and shot into the street where she was clipped by a Sears van. A minor accident as far as things go, but in a panic she drove forward through the concrete wall that surrounded her property. Then she backed up, hitting the wall again. We aren't sure how many times she did this but the front and back of the car were destroyed. When my mother first saw the crushed vehicle she couldn't speak, stunned that anyone could have left that wreck unharmed. Flora was cited with reckless driving - in her own driveway - and her driving days were over. I remember her showing me the destroyed car. She opened the trunk and exclaimed in shock, "Someone stole the engine!" Which leads to a less common bit of common wisdom: If you can't tell the front of a car from the back, you should not be driving.

A few Christmases before she died, I gave Vovó Flora a framed picture of herself behind the wheel of a white car. She stared at it wordlessly, then touched the car with a shaky finger and, making a slight "vroom" sound, traced a path that would back her up out of the driveway and onto the road. It was a quick gesture, just a brief moment's dream of freedom. In those few seconds she wasn't an old woman trapped inside her house, dependent on her family for everything. She was taking the car out for a spin on a sunny day, maybe down to the store, maybe out for a Sunday drive. Anything possible.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Tale Of Two Sisters

Vovó Flora & Tia Isabel, on opposite ends of the family.
Highway 92 is a California State Route that runs east-west 28 miles between Hayward and Half Moon Bay. It starts near Vovó Flora's house in Hayward's gritty downtown and spans across San Francisco Bay on a 7-mile bridge. It winds up and over the Pacific Coast Range and ends at the ocean side, where Tia Isabel lives in a small green house covered in abalone shells. Two sisters, born a year apart in rural Portugal, living at opposite ends of a highway in California. So close, but separated by a distance much longer than a 28-mile strip of road.

When I reflect on the non-grandmotherly ways of my vovó, it is in direct contrast to Tia Isabel, who embodies the traits of an ideal grandma. She lights up around children, loves to laugh and hug, and has a knack for finding the perfect dollar-store trinket that kids can't stop playing with. She has no children of her own, but delighted in her grand-nieces and grand-nephews and now dotes on our children. Naturally this made Vovó Flora fume with jealousy. She wasn't about to let her sister show her up, and if particularly incensed would reminder Isabel, in front of the family, that she had no children of her own. My father remembers a Christmas morning when Vovó saw my brother playing with a little toy from Tia Isabel and, unaware she was being watched, grabbed it away and placed a toy she had bought into his hands. That's Vovó Flora.

I have long wondered how two sisters so close in age could be so different, Isabel sweet and kind, and Flora so bitter and difficult. They had both grown up poor with an abusive father, so why should one turn hard and the other remain loving?  There is no single truth to uncover, no explanation that can be proven. I can only guess. Tia Isabel has always been a beauty. Today she looks decades younger than her 95 years.
Isabel: 90s never looked so good.
As a child she would receive compliments from strangers. A poor dirty child is ignored, but people will dote on a cute little girl no matter what her circumstance. I have no idea what Vovó Flora looked like in her youth but it's clear she considered herself ugly. In a time when women were largely dependent on men, being attractive was an advantage. Isabel likely had no worries that she would find someone to care for her. Flora she was deeply ashamed of being from a poor and disgraced family and didn't feel she could rely on her looks to make things better.  The only advantages she could count on were those she made for herself. She got tough and stayed that way. And she never quite got over her jealousy of Isabel's "easy" way of moving through life.

Into their 90s they each lived alone at the opposite ends of highway. They were sisters who hardly spoke apart from holiday gatherings. They had each other but couldn't find a way to bridge the distance between them, a distance measure not in miles of road but in years of pain and resentment. One day after the next, until one is gone and all that remain are memories.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Poor Thing

Summer vacations in our family followed a basic template: Rent a cabin in South Lake Tahoe and stay there for a week. There would be trips to the beach, visits to souvenir stands, and long stints at the video arcade while the adults gambled. The adults were my parents and, always, Vovó Flora. I cannot distinguish one trip from another except by the rental cabin. One year we rented a smaller cabin near the Tahoe Keys and the plan was for us kids to sleep in our sleeping bags. Vovó Flora would not have it. I was accustomed to seeing her mad - it seemed to be her default state - but this was different. She wasn’t so much angry as deeply upset. No one would be sleeping on the floor, she insisted. I was baffled. Our family never went camping so we were thrilled to finally use our Mickey Mouse sleeping bags. What was the big deal?

The little I know of Vovó’s early life is largely rumor and embellishment, stories retold and misremembered. Vovó Flora grew up poor. That much is certain. She was poor and deeply ashamed of it. When times were especially tough she was sent to beg off of relatives who gave charity along with an earful about the shameful and wretched state of their family. She started working at 15 as a housekeeper for a family at the church. I can imagine the bitterness of witnessing the inner lives of “better” people, seeing they are no different from anyone except in how they are treated and how badly they are allowed to treat the people beneath them. I see a resolve growing inside of Vovó Flora, that she would not remain poor, that she would rise above it and never look back. It’s exactly what she did. She moved to Lisbon, worked and married, came to America and continued working until the family had a house and a respectable middle class life.

A lifetime later, our little cartoon-print sleeping bags were enough to trigger her old fears. It didn’t matter that we were on vacation at a cabin in Tahoe, which in California in the 1980s was almost shorthand for being well-off. It didn’t matter that no one would see us or know that we were sleeping on the floor. She knew, and could not allow it. I didn’t understand. I was a sheltered kid with no notions of struggle and hardship. Only now do I see how her whole life was a fight against the shame of being poor. She could not have overcome her past without an intense vigilance against any association with poverty. And she remained on guard even in her comfortable modern American life. What I take for granted she feared could be lost at any moment. That her vigilance seemed so absurd to her grandchildren is a testament to how far she had come from her poor childhood. To me she just seemed like a fussy old killjoy. But from nothing, she built and protected the very foundation for our lives. Those trips to Lake Tahoe, the sleeping bags we owned but never used, our spoiled whining about being stuck in the stupid arcade while she sat trying her luck at the slot machines, all part of her legacy.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Atypical Granny

Beach attire will never tip off your age,
as long as you've covered the gray. 
Here are several grandmotherly things my Vovó did not do:

       Bake cookies. 
       Let her hair go gray ever. 
       Babysit us.
       Tell stories. 

She visited the hairdresser weekly, which is a grandma sort of thing to do. Only she didn't stop with the old-lady curlers. She dyed her hair jet black. So no one would think was old. At 70. Or 80. Or 90.

She was a terrible cook - some day I will tell the tale of The Thanksgiving Turkey We Could Not Eat, alternatively titled The Last Time Vovó Flora Hosted Thanksgiving - but she made a Portuguese flan that was pure heaven. It set thick and firm like a cheesecake, soaked with a dark red caramel that put the usual thin golden syrup to shame. The closest I've tasted is my great-aunt Tia Alzira's flan, and it turns out she uses Vovó Flora's recipe.
Vovó Flora's Flan

Maybe Vovó would have told me stories about walking uphill both ways in the rain if I spoke Portuguese. As it was, we barely communicated beyond greetings and basic phrases. Given her tendency to pick fights and reduce people to tears with scathing comments, this language barrier was not entirely without benefits. It's far more likely she would have delivered instructive insults than charming old world tales, but who knows?

I am so accustomed to thinking of her as un-grandmotherly that I forget the ways she acted just like a typical grandma. She kept hard candies in her purse and placed them on our eager palms as if they were jewels. At church she pressed dollar bills into our hands so we could toss them into the collection basket that quickly darted in and out of the pews. She poured 7-up from half-sized cocktail cans into tiny jelly glasses until they nearly overflowed, urging us to "Kiss the bubbles! Beijinhos!" Soda was strictly forbidden by my mother, but at Vovó's house parental rules never applied. She exercised that delicious grandmotherly privilege: Grandma Knows Best.

Vovó Flora may not have been the gray-haired granny from a Norman Rockwell painting, but what grandmother is? I never bought into the myth of a perfect June Cleaver housewife, yet somehow I believed everyone else had an archetypal grandma. I judged my vovó based on a fairy tale, and unsurprisingly she did not measure up. She was flawed and difficult, a mere mortal. If she was short on the kinds of skills that produce lace doilies it was because she never thought of herself as a grandmother, or an old woman. She was true to herself, a trait I could use a lot more of. Her legacy includes tales of serial nurse-slapping, conversation with dead bankers, inviting herself on honeymoons and a reckless driving ticket in her own driveway. That's far more exciting than a plate of fresh-baked cookies.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Cracking the Cliche

Long before she died I've been wanting to capture the story of my grandmother. Recently I started making the daydream a reality: shaping a story, attending writing workshops, researching a culture I know so little about. It all lacked direction until I came a across a bit of writing advice that, in a causal offhand manner, shattered my blissful memoir dreams:  Stories about dead grandmothers don't usually make for a compelling tale. Just like that, my passion and ambition was reduced to a cliche. It's just a story about a dead grandmother.

That crushing moment was quickly followed by a bright idea. I had been struggling with how to reveal this remarkable woman who suffered and thrived, who loved so fiercely that she often seemed more cruel than kind. My attempts at a reverent memoir rang false. It was the notion of a writing cliche opened my eyes to what was wrong. This is no weepy heroic tale, no Angela's Ashes. My Vovó Flora's crazy antics are legendary. Her attempts to control the family more often ended in a comedy of errors than a heart-wrenching scene. If a story about Vovó Flora does not make you laugh, it hasn't been told right. She was no cliche. She was a vibrant, enigmatic woman who could not ever be counted out.

Rather than reduce her life to a heartwarming family history I've decided to chronicle her best, craziest, saddest and most triumphant moments, one post at a time. It's the opposite of liveblogging. It's deadblogging. This is a challenge that frightens me more than anything I've written, because her life looms larger than her tiny 4 foot 11 inch frame ever did. I'm the sort who dances around sensitive topics. The very title of this blog is not my style. Vovó Flora never cared much if she offended someone. She said what what was on her mind.  I'm determined to honor her not with the glowing praise of a eulogy but in the way that she lived - direct and unflinching, and always ready for a good laugh.