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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tiny scraps of paper, notes to herself intended to help keep her thoughts organized but resulting in a jumbled mess of outdated reminders and inscrutable details.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thinking could lead to some bad choices, like the time she decided banks could not be trusted and insisted her money be withdrawn and hidden in her house.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.