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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.

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