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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.