So, I’ll go back to trying to explain the things I love about Portugal, or at least about the Portugal I grew up in.
Mind you, the things I love, the things that bring tears to my eyes, the things I remember so vividly that if I close my eyes, I can imagine myself back there, are not only highly personal (meaning I don’t think anyone else, even born in the same general time and place would share them) but also highly time/place bound (meaning Portugal nowadays would not be any more likely to bring these experiences to someone, than any other place in the world would. And probably less.)
I was reminded of what’s really important, what’s really part and parcel of who I am, the things I really miss, when someone posted a video of the area I was born and raised in on Facebook. It doesn’t appear to be on youtube, so I can’t link it here. The still shot before the video starts is of two rows of houses flanking the camera – tall houses, flat against the street. By coincidence, the house only half shown on the right was my grandmother’s house, where I was born and lived till I was six. In fact, the door – now a garage door, because the house has been sold to strangers and modernized and completely changed – on the lower right hand corner was the door to the part of the house where I was born.
The rest of the movie goes on to show mostly apartment buildings – btw, part of the interesting point in this is that the person narrating it, from outside the area and from a heavily populated part of Porto, considered this walk bucolic and relaxing, even though most of the area is high rises and there are now no green areas except the parks. (It also shows tons of palm trees, which didn’t exist when I was growing up. Oh, okay, maybe one specialized type of palms, but they didn’t look like any of the palm trees in tropical postcards, which a lot of the new imports do. The type of palms that grew in the area before was more straggly, less sightly and mostly viewed as a sort of binding material for sheaves or produce and such. Fiteiras – bind trees, roughly – is what we called them. Lest you get the idea I was born in a tropical resort, that area is subject to arctic fronts and has the charmingly drizzly, dismal weather England is famed for.)
But it was that still shot, before you click on play, that captured me. It felt as though I could somehow go into the frame, go around the right hand of the house, before it showed in the picture, enter the metal gates into the wash-tank area that was shared by my family’s household and the tenants, past the wooden gate my grandfather built, and around my grandfather’s workshop to the back door. In across the patio, and the kitchen door would be open – of course, it always was – and then I’d go into the kitchen, with its noisy clock on the wall, and call my grandmother – now gone nineteen years – and she’d come from somewhere within and bring out the good cookies (since now that I don’t live there, I’d qualify as company) and make tea.
The point is that this is the place I go when I dream. It’s the place my mind goes when I think of “home” – and it is always the place as it was when I was very young, with my grandmother and my grandfather still alive. (And my grandfather died when I was fourteen.) With the dogs and cats I knew when I was young too.
Was it such a special place, then? I don’t know. To me it was the whole world. At a very fundamental level, it still is.
First remove from your mind all ideas of the landscape as you would imagine it. There is a fundamental divide between Southern and Northern Europe, and the US gets its landscape traditions and imaginings from the North. At the most basic level, that means that what you think would be wooden fences are actually stone walls. Usually very tall – about eight feet tall – stone walls often topped by broken glass to discourage robbers. These were grey because the rock in the region is mostly granite. They were often covered in greyish green moss and in spring might grow with little scraggly flowers in every barely visible crack. After that, you have to give up the idea of open lawns, or open anything. Even in the village of my childhood, where you’d think there was plenty of room, (there was, but taken up with pastures, fields — some lying fallow a year or three — and woods) houses tended to be closer together and if they had a yard in front, it was like urban yards, in the US – handkerchief sized at best, the size you could mow with a weed whacker. Not that most people did have lawns. Usually they had a profusion of flowers.
But only the newest houses had these “gardens” up front, and shorter (about five feet) walls that allowed you to glimpse the gardens. The older houses, by and large, came right up to the street. The doors opened from the narrowest of sidewalks. Yards, as such, were in the back, and they were often mini farms.
My grandmother’s house was one of these, and it had two front doors, opening RIGHT into the main street of the village, at what I suppose was a prime location, across from the store which sold everything from tobacco to codfish to clogs to notebooks. I don’t know if it had two front doors all along, or if the second front door – with its different house number – was pierced through the wall when my parents got married and my grandmother converted what had been – from what I understand – some sort of storage rooms into a shotgun type apartment for them. This is the place I was born – it consisted of a long, narrow kitchen where my mother worked, most of the time, the kitchen table doubling as her work table, a hallway the same breadth as the kitchen, from which my parents’ bedroom had been carved out with interior walls. It didn’t have a door, just a yellow curtain with black checks. In the hallway, before the bedroom, was my brother’s bed – really just a cot, to which an improvised new end had been added as he grew taller than expected – and his bookcase. Mostly he did his homework in the kitchen, or the living room if he needed privacy. Then at the front was a living room where my mother saw clients. We had the dining room furniture crammed there, most of my conscious memories. My mind also wants to add a sofa bed to it, but I honestly can’t remember if that’s true or my memory just thinks there ought to be one there. Note that natural light came in at two ends of the “home” only, through the almost always open back door (unless it was very cold) and through the glass insets at the front door. My grandmother’s house, next door, had windows.
Most of the time I slept at my grandmother’s or in my mother’s room – my dad worked out of town all week, which means I could sleep in their bed. And I always did if I was ill. I had asthma and bronchitis and –briefly, apparently – TB, so I guess my mom found it vital to monitor my breathing.
If you’re imagining a childhood of hard privation, well… sort of? I mean, my mother was very careful with expenses, and yeah, they had one more child – me – than fit into the house. On the other hand, this was largely self-inflicted. You see, my parents have a horror of debt and being in debt. So while they wanted to build their own house, they didn’t want to have a mortgage, so they were saving everything to build the house. This house was under construction for most of my early childhood (building in stone takes time) and we moved into it when I was six. I still returned to my grandmother’s house every day, usually to hang out and do homework. (It was just ten minutes walk up the main road.) So my grandmother’s house remained “home”. And it still is, even though it doesn’t exist in any real way anymore.
At some point – I suspect when my great grandmother was widowed early? Though my uncle seemed to imply at least once that this happened in his life time, i.e. when my grandparents inherited the house – rental houses were built next to the main house and attached to it. Well, one rental house, with each floor rented to a different family. It must have been at this time that their part of the yard – which comprised the water pump, as well as their two washing tanks and our large one (very large. Stone, and probably six by six and three feet deep) – were partitioned off. The tenants’ kids were supposed to stay in that area (it included a cement patio) unless specifically invited. But other than that, the area got used by us as well (we had one of the wheel water pumps. Great arm exercise for most of us, grandkids, as teens.)
It filled the “Water cistern” on the roof of the bathroom. And the tenants were allowed to hang their clothes in the depths of the backyard. And most people came in through those gates.
The backyard… in my mind it’s huge. Very deep. I’m not sure how much of this is true, and how much it’s a three-year old’s view. My play area started outside my grandmother’s (and ours) back doors. There was a broad flagstoned patio. From it, straight down, was a garden path right to the back. To the other side was a path around my grandfather’s workshop (he was a cabinet maker) into the little area from which the tenants area was subdivided. There was another path there, to the depth of the yard, and a path across. (Actually two.) You could circumnavigate the entire yard on those paths and I often did, either running or on my little red tricycle. I used to dream of doors opening in those areas that led to other worlds, which just tells you I was born to write spec fic.
The center of the yard had fruit trees and vegetables. The edges were ringed with grapevines, which in the manner of the region were trained up columns and across wires, so that they grew overhead, as a sort of roof. Under the grapevines (which were really only in full foliage summer and fall) we grew more vegetables, cabbage and I suspect potatoes. I don’t remember very clearly.
The back wall looked out onto what was to me then a complete wilderness. Fields belonging to the neighbors, and at the back of that a forest called Coriscos (lightning bolts) which I thought was untouched and virginal. Mostly pine trees, with some oaks, the occasional creek and small lake. The funny thing – my dad took me for walks in the forest most Saturdays, weather permitting, mostly to get me out from under mom’s feet, so she could clean house – is that though I remember clear as day us coming across toppled stones (some of them with inscriptions in Latin) and bits of wall (birds and lizards nested there) and even what was clearly bits of houses, until about a year ago I still thought of this as “the forest” and assumed it had never been anything but. This was dispelled last year by one of the earth view programs. From the air, you can see the entire area still covered in trees (about half what it was in my childhood. Perhaps less) is crisscrossed in the scars of vanished foundations and roads. Makes sense, of course, since the area was populated since before the Romans, so the idea that no one ever built there is a little nuts. But from the look of the ruins, from the foot print, I got the impression that the village extended there (or another village was there) more recently than the Romans, though not all that recently. Gut feeling I’d say that those areas were abandoned shortly after the Great Plague dramatically reduced the population of the area. I could be wrong, of course. It might have got burned and abandoned in the Napoleonic wars, which was not only time enough for the forest to grow over it, but time enough for enough people who didn’t remember it to immigrate to the area and for local memory of it to be forgotten.
To me, when you say “forest” that’s the area I think of – the dark green shadows, birdsong and running water. Curiously, in my mind, it’s always fall. The wild blackberry bushes that grow anywhere left untended in that area are always heavy with fruit (which, yes, we picked and ate, sometimes after rubbing it on our sleeve to…. I don’t know, add more germs? It seemed like a nod to appease the demons of dirt, though.)
It’s always fall in the house, too, and my grandmother is splitting wood to feed the Franklin stove, in her kitchen. There are cats around that stove, of course: Tareco (rags) patriarch of all he surveyed; Black, my first cat (yes, I was imaginative. Yes, he was black.); Vadia, (stray) the mother of the large and incestuous cat tribe; Moshe Dayan, the grey tabby who had lost an eye as a kitten and who, for reasons known only to my mom was her favorite. I’m told before these there was Matateu, the tom (I don’t remember him, though I’m told I lamented him for days) and Vadia the dog (I also don’t remember her.) I do remember Lord, the dog, who looked like an oversized cocker spaniel, mostly white with brown spots. He was my dad’s dog when he was single, and he’s what’s in my mind when you say “dog”. I remember sharing my bread with him – he licked off the butter, and I ate the bread. Until my mom caught us, that is.
Up till we moved away, the youngest and often solitary child (my brother is almost ten years older and my cousin, who was raised by my grandparents is fourteen years older than I) I played mostly with the cats (I must have tried their patience horribly) and though I was a cat, or perhaps that they were my siblings and would grow up to be children.
I spent most of my day reading comics (first by looking at the pictures, and remembering what people had read to me) or building cities out of several large boxes of inherited legos. If bored, I attached myself to my grandmother, who was always doing something interesting. I remember going with her to one of the nearby fields that led to the woods (my dad and I jumped the back wall, but grandma insisted on going in the land route. I vaguely remember the neighbors hated us jumping the back wall onto their cabbage patch, en route to the woods.) to “gather grass for the rabbits.” I had my own little apron and scythe.
Actually if there’s one thing in which these reminiscences are in any way relevant, those few of you still awake, might note two things. The first is that I was left largely to my own devices, unless I attached myself to an adult. There were no play dates and no one really put themselves out for my entertainment. The adults were mostly around (except my dad who worked outside the village) but they had their own work, and their own business. I was presumed, being a kid, to know my own business which was playing and learning. If I attached myself to an adult too long or too intrusively, the adult felt perfectly free to tell me to find something else to do. (When this failed, if it was warm, they filled the old hip bath, threw a pair of my brother’s old bathing trunks on me, and flung me into it with all my toys. This was guaranteed to keep me quiet for several hours.) There were no play dates, no extra lessons, no feeling that life was rushed or scheduled. Once I was up and had been fed breakfast, it was presumed I could amuse myself. By and large I did, though it sometimes involved annoying the living daylights out of my brother and (female) cousin. Not that this was difficult, since they were teens. We had no TV and though I sometimes listened to radio programs (mom favored shows on mythology or history) it was usually while doing other things. I’m not saying the adult graced with my presence (snort) didn’t often try to include me in whatever he or she was doing to an extent – I had the apron and scythe when I went out with grandma. My grandfather gave me a small hammer, brads and scraps of wood and would, if he had time, provide instruction on building doll furniture. My mom tried – with varying degrees of lack of success – to teach me to sew. I remember an ill-fated attempt at painting the hen house, though it’s QUITE likely I came up with that on my very own, with no adult encouragement. I remember it ended badly.
I believe this is now called “quantity time” as opposed to quality time. It’s also known as benign neglect and people with phd after their names say it’s the best way to raise a child. I don’t know. I have some pretty wonderful childhood memories. It taught me to amuse myself and develop my imagination. And I have, of necessity, brought up my kids in a similar manner.
The other thing you might note is that provided I wasn’t destroying something or running around the street (this was more a class thing than anything else. The street was not that busy. My mom was of course afraid I’d get run over – lack of clue about reality and luck being what they are, I might have been – but mostly they didn’t want me associating with the children of the very poor, who roamed the street in a large band. There were reasons for this other than snobbery. The first time I was brought in contact with them, in school, I caught lice, which had to be gotten rid of without ruining my hip-length hair. Not an easy feat) I wasn’t watched over that closely. I remember as young as four and five spending entire days playing at my friends’ houses or their coming over to play. And I was allowed to have implements no one NOW would give their three year old: scythes, knives, chisels, hammers. Note that other than the incident with my brother’s transistor radio and the mallet (I’m sorry. OTOH he HAD painted fangs on my favorite pull toy — a smiling sheep) I never broke anything nor stabbed anyone.
Anyway, I suspect most of these reminiscences aren’t interesting to anyone but me. I will (hey, saving it for Halloween) speak later of more specific cultural things, many of them (as such things are) surrounding death and dying (all primeval stories are ultimately about either sex or death.)
You see what I mean about what I remember of Portugal and what I really love back there being so intensely personal as to be almost universal? There is a house back there in time that will always be home. And if there really is anything after death, and if there’s fairness in the universe, outside the minds of those who dreamed up the concept, I’ll eventually find my way back to that primeval garden filled with cats and dogs, with a conveniently circular path that a small kid can traverse on her tricycle, but with neither apple nor serpent. And this time, growing up will not expel me.