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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.


4 comments:

Unknown said...

That pic of you look like a slightly older Lucas in a wig. :)

I wish I knew more about my family. The closest I really get is old photos, of which we have a ton.

Unknown said...

wat fck "unknown"? Heh. That was Cristina. Dude, make it so anyone can comment. :)

clickie said...

I was going to comment on that too! You look just like Lucas in a wig :)

Angela said...

It should be prompting you for a name/email or some kind of Google account or OpenID. You are slipping in somehow.

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