The house I was born in was built by my great-great-great grandparents and generation after generation had lived there. I wonder if it was the perfect house for a would-be writer, or if any house a would-be writer grows up in is perfect, each place, each corner, invested with significance and meaning by becoming elsewhen and elsewhere.
I’m fairly sure that poor house wouldn’t pass US codes, though it was a well built stone house, with enough room for everyone. When my parents had to marry for the usual reason – nine years before my birth – my grandparents changed the storage rooms on the lower southern side into a shotgun apartment, long kitchen running into long – and broad – hallway, running into living room. They cut the “hallway” into a bedroom, with interior walls, leaving a narrow pass-through to the living room, and an odd shaped piece by the kitchen door, which, while not a bedroom, could accommodate a single bed and a dresser for a child’s needs. They figured the young people would get on their feet and then find a place of their own.
They figured without the peculiarities of these particular young people. You see, my parents have many admirable qualities, a few of which are carried to the point of oddity. One of these is my father’s dislike of being in debt. He can’t sleep if he owes anyone money. Yes, even in mortgage. (For the rest we try to live without debt also.) This meant instead of buying a house and acquiring a mortgage, they lived in this shotgun apartment without running water (water was brought from the well in buckets and bottles depending on the use. Even grandma’s house only had one faucet – cold water – in the kitchen. The bathroom, a late addition, was outside the door to the kitchen, opening to the patio, and the fact that it had a shower, a real toilet, and a sink made us unusual and ‘rich’ in the village. Our laundress loved washing our clothes because “they smell good even when I get them.”) and without a window. There were glass insets at the front and back gave the only light, and the bedroom, where I spent a lot of my time when I was a sickly child and my dad worked out of town, got a little bit of residual light through a “window” to the living room. Not enough to see without electrical light. They lived in that apartment for sixteen years (and paid rent to my grandparents, so as not to feel beholden) until they could build a house of their own and pay for it outright. The price kept going up because Portugal (like most of the PIIGs) kept its economy pseudo-stable by inflating.
I grew up with jokes I didn’t know were jokes. At the time, rice in Portugal was stone milled, and periodically we got a stone in it. When this happened, dad would set it on the side of the plate and say, “There, Carmen, another stone closer to the house.” Of course, I started doing it too.
It’s hard to resent my parents’ peculiarities, though, because I really had a very good childhood, even the 3/4 of it that were spent in bed, sick.
You see, when I was well, mostly I lived outside or in grandma’s side of the house. For one, there really was no room for me in that little shotgun apartment. We were joking about that the other day, Dan and I. We wanted eleven kids, even though sending two to college is breaking us. We wanted eleven kids in total disregard of financial realities. But this doesn’t beat my parents’ cheerful working around physical-space realities. Heck, my mom grew up in a similar apartment (only rented from strangers) and there were five surviving children. Compared to that we lived in luxury. One way to handle this was used on me part-time: you send the child to sleep at a relatives house. This is how I shared my cousin Natalia’s bed for much of my childhood (though all the cousins were raised together, she was closer and to a large extent raised as a sister. My brother and I both call her cousin-sister, and refer to her son as our nephew) read her romance books (she’s fourteen years older than I) and – because she memorizes stuff by reading aloud – memorized vast portions of high school biology and physics by the time I was four.
The rest of the time… well, for about four years my dad worked out of town and only came home on weekends. So I stayed with mom in my parents’ bed. Particularly when I was having respiratory issues, it helped to have someone there monitoring my breathing, in case we needed to go to hospital. Sometimes when dad came home for his two nights a week, I was too sick to be moved, and he would make himself a bed on the floor of the hallway, with pillows and blankets – and more often than not spend half the night carrying me in his arms, singing old Portuguese ballads to me. Then go back to work on Monday. (Yes, I paid for that when Marshall had heart issues as a toddler. I spent more nights awake, hovering over his bed, than I care to count. But these things aren’t paid, of course, they’re freely given and out of love. I think without dad’s love I wouldn’t be here.)
When I was well and the weather not too disastrously bad (I think mom invented “dressing in layers) I had a degree of freedom we don’t give our kids. By the age of two I was dressing myself (from clothes mom left laid out) and sometimes mom managed to catch me on my trot through the kitchen, headed for that back door. Or at least she detained me long enough to get a cup of something warm and a slice of buttered bread into me, before bowing to the inevitable.
My favorite entertainment system was grandma. For those of you who read Pratchett’s Wee Free Men series, picture Tiffany Aching’s grandma, but from a non-sheep raising region.
Grandma could do anything and most of it was magic. All animals came to her. The only creatures she willfully harmed were snails, against whom she had a to-the-death war. She could make anything grow, too. She would put bought, florist roses in rooting mix, then plant them. And they grew. She was never still: she cooked, she cleaned, she grew, she tended, she looked after man and beast. And if I could catch her before she headed out the door, I – the youngest kid – could trail on her rounds. As you can imagine this was fascinating stuff. At the time there was a radio serial (there were only two TVs in the village, and we didn’t have one) about two detectives, Rock and Friend. The family nicknamed grandma and I Rock and Friend, because I followed wherever she went.
Sometimes, though – about half the time – she wasn’t doing something she wanted me following her around for. So, I was left to my own devices. The kitchen door – and grandma’s kitchen door – opened to a broad patio covered in cement squares and covered by a grape vine trellis. In the summer the leaves were thick enough to cast a green, drowned shadow upon the ground. Grandad’s workshop (he was a cabinet maker) and the bathroom took up the North side of the patio, leaving a narrow bridge like path to the rest of the backyard. On the other side we had hen houses and rabbit hutches and past that the dog house (though most dogs, except the flight risk) were only confined to it when they were in trouble (the flight risk was a rescued greyhound. If he wasn’t behind closed doors, you had to tie him down, or he’d disappear for days. I think he just liked to run.) Then there was the path to the back yard on that side.
The path encircled the garden, past flower garden, vegetable plot, fruit trees, clothes-bleaching lawn patches, potato plot. On the other side of the path was a shady area, covered by the same grape vine trellis, where cabbagy type of stuff grew, because it thrives even in shade. Then there was, in the corner, the “hut” where broken things tended to end up to either be mended or made into fire wood. Mama cat tended to hide her new litters there. Then an area where the trellis was thin, so it was actually sunny, and where the firewood was piled.
That backyard was remote unexplored country, and fairyland, and all the places of imagination. that hut was often a palace, and the wooden pile an inapproachable mountain range. My little red tricycle was Jeep and train and occasionally airplane, as I traveled the world seeing fresh wonders. The patio itself, or a small portion of it, covered with a rag rug (I was not allowed to play “on that cold cement.”) with all my boxes of toys dumped on it (it helps to be the youngest of a large family) could be arranged into a futuristic house, where not only hot water, but hot chocolate milk came from the faucets.
When it was raining, or I wasn’t well enough to go out, grandma’s vast kitchen could become a lecture hall or classroom – she had a lot of chairs that could be so arranged – and if I was sick and in bed, I could build fantastic lego cities for imaginary beings.
There might be better training for a writer, but I don’t know what. Beyond having to create my own playfriends and games, I got a lot of access to adults in varying walks of life. People tended to forget I was there, provided I hid in a corner of the room (It gave me a bad habit of sitting on the floor and feeling more comfortable UNDER tables. When I go back to my parents’ it’s almost impossible NOT to sit in my corner under the family room table. Yes, they laugh.) and had a book I pretended to read. I got to hear of people’s health troubles, of how various professions were run, of things that happened at college and in other people’s kitchens and in factories and–
I didn’t know it then, but I was doing research. The reason I listened to these things was because I could use them as plots in my imaginary people’s lives. These bits of village gossip tumbled into a hopper, in my mind, with the books I read – Dumas and Sir Walter Scott, and the adventures of Captain Morgan – and came out later in the stories I made up. I suspect it still does.
The house doesn’t exist anymore. Not as such. It is a good thing in a way – it means people are wealthy enough they don’t have to live in their ancestors’ houses forever. When grandma died, no one wanted the house. (Okay, I did, but we could barely afford the house WE lived in.) So it got sold to people outside the family, who modernized. It now looks sort of like an ersatz Tuscan villa, with a balcony running across the back of the first floor. The backyard has lost all utilitarian aspects, and is JUST a garden. The vines have been uprooted, because they were too much work. The house has running water and bathrooms. In fact, the bedroom in what was once the shotgun apartment – the room I was born in – is now a pink-and-white bathroom. It is probably infinitely better. But it is not the house I was born in.
The village too is not the village I was born in. Roads have been cut willy nilly – paved roads if you can believe it! – and the main road has been made obsolete by being cut in two by the highway. The other road, the back road where, as a nicely brought up young woman I wasn’t allowed to go because it was shady and dangerous, is now the main road into the village. And everywhere you look there are stack-a-prolle cement box apartments. I was amused the other day because someone from the city posted a video of walking through the village and talking about rural solitude. … given all the skyscrapers all about this was almost unbearably funny. I mean, what rural? There are maybe three fields still being worked. What solitude? The place is a dormitory for the city of Porto.
Now, like the house, it is probably better this way. The village was so poor that we, with our cold water shower outside the kitchen door were considered rich. The village was so poor most people were raising a dozen kids in two rooms. The village was so poor that 90% of the kids were taken out of school in fourth grade and sent to work in the textile factories.
But it no longer exists as the place I grew up in. (I proved this by going for a walk with my younger son, last year, and getting hopelessly lost – that was funny because here we are, surrounded by poeple and carrying a cell phone, and the kid starts panicking “We’re lost in a foreign country. We’re going to die of starvation. They’ll find our bleached bones.”)
The woods my dad used to take me walking in, (with the dog: Lord) as a special treat on weekends, the place where we went to get tadpoles, the places we picked wild blackberries, the lake where dad taught me to make a pan flute our of reeds – all of those are gone.
Like the house, I no longer have any rights in them. They are now foreign places, and I, too long away and too starkly aware of how they changed, a stranger to them.
But I suspect in my heart, I carry that home and that village around, just like the snails grandma fought, carried their shelter and hideout.
I can close my eyes and smell the herb garden, and see the greeny-drowned shade of the vines overhead. I think these days the tricycle is most often a spaceship.
And sometimes I wonder if anywhere or anywhen else are real at all.