Sunday, February 23, 2020

Linda Vista/One Last Picture - Chapter One

A massive black cloud showered the island in a gale of unforgiving wind and rain. It is an unseasonable
 wet morning in September, and the overcast sky is hanging ominously and heavy over the green Azorean countryside.  I am sitting in the backseat of a taxi cab as it forges ahead through the thick island fog, holding on to the hand strap dangling near my head.   My body rocks uncontrollably from side to side in unison with the box of rattling empty beer bottles at my feet. 

The taxi driver sits hunched over his seat, clenching to the steering wheel as if he was holding on to a lover, seemingly oblivious to the storm in front of him. He is singing along to the melodic Brazilian woman's voice on the radio:  

"Já saí do lugar (I've already left from that place)
Vem, vem me procurar (come, come find me) O que passou, passou (What has passed, has passed) O que passou, passou 
O que passou, passou..."  (Flavia Coelho)

Like the words in the song, I was on my way to leave this place, and under normal circumstances, I may have found myself enjoying the irony of the moment, but I have no reason to be feeling anything but nervous and frustrated.  The car is being driven erratically, by someone that I'm convinced is crazy and all I can do is helplessly sit here and I watch my life pass in front of my eyes.  

My flight is due for departure in less than an hour and we are still a good 15 minutes away from the airport.  The taxi driver is already driving like a lunatic, and there is really nothing I can do at this point.   If I had only left my aunt's house earlier this morning, like I had originally planned, or checked in to a hotel the night before, I wouldn't be in this mess, but again like the lady's words singing on the radio, "O que passou, passou"- what is done, is done and I have no other choice but endure this ride a little bit longer. 

The morning had started horribly from the very beginning.  I had been out most of the night with my cousin and her friends and was unable to fall to sleep, and I don't think I slept more than a few hours.  I woke up later than I had hoped and of course I couldn't find the outfit I had for my trip anywhere!  It wasn't hanging in the closet like I had remembered leaving it, thus a search for my clothes ensued.  I started in the closet, the bottom of the closet, inside every dresser drawer I had thought I had left empty, then on to my packed luggage, and lastly, under the bed; still nothing! The mystery of my lost outfit remained unsolved until I went to use the bathroom. As I walked down the hallway leading to the bathroom, I happened to peek inside the kitchen where I saw my tia Luisa, standing there near the window, ironing my blouse with only an old glass kerosene lamp and the glow of a full moon.  She had somehow managed to sneak into my bedroom earlier to retrieve my clothes from the closet for "proper ironing".  She looked up from the iron and seemed surprised to see me there, and by the look of her swollen eyes, it was obvious to me that she had been crying again with what I guessed little sleep if any.  

I soon discovered that my aunt wasn't the only one out of bed; close by in the living room, asleep on an easy chair, with the top buttons of her jeans wide open, slept my cousin, Tilly.  She was cradling a bottle of my favorite brandy, in a paper bag on her lap. I later saw her father, my tio Joao, outside in the backyard near the chicken coop cleaning the car windows of his old Volkswagon with window cleaner.  The three of them had anticipated driving me to the airport that morning, and they had no idea that I had already called for a cab.   

My plan of leaving secretly to avoid tears and drama had failed miserably.  Not only did everyone in the house plan to wake up early to say goodbye, but as time ticked on, more and more family members arrived at the house.  I had been dreading this moment for days now, and my aunt had been crying over it for the past week.  We all tried to ignore that the end of my trip was fastly approaching, and here we were.  The weeks I had spent on the island flew by much too quickly and I had grown already very close to my family here.  It was hard to see the disappointment in everyone's faces when I told them I had already called for a cab, knowing how everyone had managed to get to the house early in the morning for my send-off. I was feeling torn and overwhelmed with emotions at the sight of all of them being there. My uncles and aunts, most of my cousins, and even some of the neighbors were there to say goodbye.  To make matters worse, my taxi showed up an hour late, and when it finally did arrive, it announced itself rather obnoxiously by its constant honking of the horn. In between the taxi coming late, and everyone there to say goodbye, I was feeling already very emotional.  

Once I finally got myself and my luggage outside of my aunt's house, the honking stopped. I remember that it had just begun to rain when I peered over to my driver who was already looking very annoyed sitting in the cab with the window wide open.  Once he saw me step out into the front yard, he clumsily got out of his car, with the engine still running, and opened the trunk of the cab and the back passenger door.  He did all of this while holding a lit cigarette. Instead of offering to help me with my luggage, he went back to the front of the taxi, leaned against it, and proceeded to finish his cigarette.  My aunt made a comment to me saying that she didn't like the looks of him, and honestly, I didn't either.  Not only did he arrive late, but he was also coming across very rude and obnoxious. A cousin offered to call for another cab, but it was too late to call for another taxi, and there were just too many things happening at once to even bother. 

"Ah menina," the taxi cab driver called out angrily over the crowd, flinging his cigarette to the ground, "you are going to miss your plane!" 

He then got into his car and motioned for me to get inside.

The driver's erupt voice seemed to send a hush of silence over everyone and soon all eyes were diverted back on me.  It was time to leave. Tilly hurriedly stuffed the bottle of brandy into one of my bags, and Tio Joao loaded it inside the open trunk of the taxi and slammed it shut. There seemed no time for words, so many were left unsaid.  My nerves were out of control and  I felt my heart pound and I felt the temperature of my face rise, almost making me feel lightheaded and nauseous.  I struggled to get the right words out but they seemed literally stuck in the insides of my throat.  Words were replaced with tears followed with many hugs, some more held tightly than others.  The rain was coming down to a point where it was almost pouring, prompting me at the most opportune time to give one more last, tearful goodbye before rushing to the open door of the taxi cab. 

I don't think that I will ever forget the sight of my newfound family standing in the rain this morning; the twin Tias with their matching sorrowful faces, waving their black shawls at me or of my Tio Joao waving his hand, alongside my cousin Tilly with her arms around her mother's waist.    My Tia Luisa looked so frail, and Tilly looked as if she was almost holding her up to stand.  I couldn't help but think how much my aunt looked like my mother at that very moment. I waved goodbye to them and everyone else from the back window of the cab until they all eventually disappeared from sight.  

I pretended that I didn't care when I caught sight of my cab driver glaring at me from his rearview mirror.  He had a weird look in his eyes and a taunting smirk on his face.  I was wiping the mascara off of my cheeks at the time, and I honestly didn't notice his stare until I looked up from my compact.  He was obviously watching me and when our eyes met, he quickly looked away and mumbled something to himself.  I'm sure he already thought of me as another stereotypical, emotional, spoiled American.  I had already made up my mind that contact with my driver would be as minimal as possible. His cold and unsympathetic behavior from the moment he drove up to the house gave me no reason to want to know the guy any better, nor did I feel as though I owed him an exchange of words. He had arrived late, and still had the audacity to be angry with me?  Seriously?  Fortunately for me, he proved not to be any sort of conversationalist and eventually turned on the car radio.  The radio did help things seem a little less awkward, but I still felt uncomfortable. At this point, I was already regretting not letting my uncle take me to the airport.

The taxi smells like stale beer and cigarettes, and I'm not quite positive if it's coming from my driver or the crate of empty beer bottles sitting on the car floor.  On display underneath tattered plastic clipped to the cab's dashboard is the driver's license certificate, which reveals the name of my driver to be: Manuel de Silva Borges. His picture on the license shows a clean-shaven, young man who bears little resemblance to the thick grey-haired, bushy mustached driver of today.  I'm guessing the picture was taken decades ago because the only thing remotely similar between the driver and this photo is the non-existent smile.  A small Benfica soccer banner hangs from the cab's rear window, and a long gold necklace holding a crucifix hangs on the rearview mirror.  I've been watching the crucifix slam against the front windshield each time we run over a pothole.  

We eventually leave the cobblestone paved city, past the last roundabout, and once we got on the highway, the car accelerated in speed, sending the whole vehicle to shake like the empty beer bottles.  The sudden jolt of speed took me by surprise, and I know I heard a hint of laughter when I struggled to find the hand strap. I tried to pay no attention to Manuel when I tugged at my seatbelt, but I did throw a nasty look at his direction, but of course, I doubt if he saw it, or the small picture that slipped out his driver's visor when it flung open.  

The small picture had managed to fly it's way all the way to the backseat and land on the car floor near my feet, and I couldn't help but look at it. It was a picture of an attractive woman holding a small child.  I automatically assumed it was a picture of Manuel's family, and by the style of the clothing they were wearing, I guessed it was taken sometime in the 1980s. The woman's eyes in the photo were heavily outlined in black eyeliner and mascara, and the cherub looking baby on her lap wore some sort of nautical looking outfit compleete with a sailor's cap.  Under normal circumstances, I would have picked up the picture and handed it over to him, but I decided to just leave it there and let him find it himself.  I figured that he would eventually find it on his own.  After a few minutes, he just flipped the visor back up and turned up the volume of the radio.  

Maybe it wasn't fair of me to think of Manuel as such a terrible person.  Although his behavior so far leads me to believe he isn't the nicest person, I'm sure there was something admirable and endearing about the man.  Senhora Borges, who I assume is the pretty woman in the photograph, may think the world of him, but then again, Manuel is not in the photo with her, so perhaps that is the only reason why she is smiling.  Yes, that must be the reason.  I smile to myself as I pick up the photo from the ground, and place it on the seat next to me.  Meanwhile, it's pouring outside, and the warped sounding window wipers of Manuel's car can still be heard over the radio.  The rain doesn't seem to hinder the speed of Manuel's driving, and I've felt the tires of the car hydroplane at least a few times.  The combination of Manuel's driving, the loud music, and the smells inside the cab are making me feel nauseous.  I open my window a few inches in hopes to get some fresh air, and I'm not disappointed; it smells like rain, and its clearing the smell of alcohol. 

Looking out my rain-stained window, I notice that there seems to be no one else on the road going in our direction.  The only other traffic I see are cars going back up north to the city.  The sun is trying to peek its way through the clouds, but the morning is still overcast and the clouds look heavy with more rain.  Out in the distance, I can see a small corral of black and white spotted cows grazing above in the mountains.  The cattle are standing there seemingly unaffected by the weather and motionless as if they were suspended in mid-air.    Time seems to be standing still there with them, as they are surrounded by endless blue and purple bushes of hydrangea that is clinging alongside in what seems to be endless miles of ancient rock walls.  The whole scene reminds me of a beautiful watercolored painting. I find myself wishing to be there now, away from this smelly cab, standing there with the cows, immersed in their picturesque surroundings. Of course, nothing seen from a distance is what we imagine it to be, and If I were there with them I'd surely miss my plane.  I'd also be soaking wet, with mud up to my knees with a bunch of cows, but it sure seemed a whole lot better than where I was at that moment. 

I reach into my handbag to retrieve my cellphone so I can take one last picture.  It wouldn't be the first time I've taken pictures of grazing cows.  I have taken dozens of them, as well as many other beautiful photos of the countryside, rocky coastlines of dark blue oceans, and cobblestone towns, as well as the many (mostly) smiling faces of newfound family and friends.  Of course, my attempts at freezing the moment in time would ever capture the true meaning or feeling of the place.  I remember first arriving here and not recognizing where I was because everything looked so different from the pictures I had seen before.  My father always used to say, "One picture is not enough," and now I'm beginning to understand what he was saying. There were just far too many memories that needed to be remembered, and pictures were all I was leaving this place with.  

I was headed to the airport, bound for home and no matter how much I was looking forward to being back, I could not help but think of what I was leaving behind.  I did not plan for this vacation to end this way.  Sure, I had anticipated coming here to connect with my parent's family, but I did not plan on falling so hard with this place or the people.  I could have easily stayed for another week, a month, or possibly a year, but there were far too many commitments at home.  My home was miles away, clear across the ocean in California, and there were classes to register for the fall semester, and a market to run. 

Before I first arrived on the island, I wasn't quite sure of what to expect.  Of course, I imagined I would be received warmly; I was the only child of recently deceased parents traveling to their birthplace for the first time.  I was expecting a handful of my parent's siblings; aunts, and uncles who I've never met or seen before other than in pictures.  I had heard of them and I was told of their stories, but for the most part, they were strangers to me, as I was to them. I would be staying at their home, and I couldn't help but feel a little nervous wondering to myself whether or not they would truly want to know me, even recognize me or understand my broken Portuguese. 

I hesitated once I got on the plane the morning I left for the Azores.  The trip I had planned with my mother for so many months had become real; but, instead of boarding this plane together I was alone.  Thinking I couldn't make this trip alone, I originally canceled soon after my mother's death.  Soon after, however, I decided to rebook the trip, buying the only seat that was available.  My mother had so much wanted to take this trip, and I felt that I owed it to her, and I couldn't break my promise.  Although she wouldn't be with me physically, I knew her spirit would at least be.  Once I got on the plane, of course, I regretted canceling my original ticket in first-class. Passing the comfy seats in first-class, I was kicking myself all the way to the economy seats which looked very cramp and uncomfortable.  From the looks of the number of people stuffed in the plane, It was apparent that it was indeed a sold-out flight.    

It seemed like forever to reach my seat, which was found clear near the back of the plane.  Instead of being seated near a handsome stranger in coach, like I had hoped, I found myself in one of the middle seats of the plane in between two very grandmotherly types dressed entirely in black.  They introduced themselves quickly as Senhora Machado and Senhora Oliveira and smiled at me as though they knew who I was.  They were quick to tell me that that they, in fact, knew who I was, and how they both did volunteer work at the church with my mother.  Oddly enough, they also seemed to know a whole lot about me, including my "disappointing love life".  

"Oh querida, I know you may think it is too soon, but I have a feeling that you will meet someone very special on this trip." confided Senhora Machado.  

Was it too soon?  It had been nearly three years since my broken engagement with David, but I couldn't help thinking to myself how it was possible this old woman that I never met before, would know about this.  My mother was a very private person who would have never divulged that sort of information to just anyone; especially if it was anything to do with me or my canceled wedding.  Still, there I was, sitting in between Senhora Machado and Senhora Oliveira, listening to them reassure me that my "luck would surely change" once I arrived on the island.  According to them both, true love was waiting for me there, and all my troubles were about to be swept away as if I was about to land in a magical kingdom of happily ever after.  

So I sat there in between the two old women, and politely smiled and humored them. Despite their somewhat good intentions, the last thing I wanted was to enlist these women as possible matchmakers.  I assumed that what they knew of my broken engagement was only from gossip and possible word of mouth, because I did not know these women, and I doubted that they had really known my mother.  Unfortunately, for what I assume was hearing loss, their voices were loud and seemed to carry across to the others sitting near us in the back of the plane.  This was proven later when one strange woman came up to me during mid-flight with a note.  On the note was the name and number of who she explained was her single nephew:

"He works at a bank and owns a lot of land on the island," whispered the woman, as she extended the note to me across Senhora Oliveira's large bosom.  

I was stunned.  Without knowing what to do, I just smiled, said thank you and quickly took the piece of paper from her hand. 

"You see?  Your luck is changing already and you haven't even stepped off the plane yet!"  chuckled Senhora Oliveira.

"Graças a deus," retorted Senhora Machado, "God is good." 

The two obviously had accomplished to somehow inform at least one lady behind us that I was in search of "a man" and I couldn't have been more embarrassed.  I shrugged as I opened the note.  The name "Nordberto Domingos" was written on the note with what I guessed to be his telephone number.  I crumbled the note in my hand and later slipped Nordberto's contact information inside the seat pocket in front of me when no one was looking. 

After what seemed to be forever, my direct flight from Oakland, California had finally landed at my destination: the island of Terçeira. Terçeira island is just one of the islands found in the Azores, Portugal.  The island was the birthplace of my parents as well as many other generations of grandparents.  It is one of the little islands of nine located in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, that could easily be mistaken as a speck of dust on the Earth's atlas. I caught only a small glimpse of the island out of one of the plane's windows.  At first, all I saw was a patch of green in the sea, and as we approached closer, I saw the ocean waves hitting the rocky coast, followed quickly by the green pastures, and finally the cattle grazing on the other side of the airport.  Before landing, a small hush of silence engulfed the plane with what I can only describe as an accumulation of both excitement and anticipation.  Senhora Oliveira had taken out her compact and applied powder to her face.  Senhora Machado closed her eyes while smiling, clenching one hand to her armrest, and the other onto her rosary beads.  A noticed a tear fall on to her cheek, and I quickly began to regret all the terrible things I had thought of the two old ladies, feeling a sense of relief that I had left all those words gone unsaid.  Once the tires hit the runway, the silence broke into a thunderous round of applause.  

The humidity of the island had struck me as soon as I got off the plane.  We were disembarked from the plane and corraled slowly down to the aircraft's stairs, only to be stuffed again into two little trolley type looking buses that soon whisked us away to the arrival terminal where we stood in line in customs with no air conditioning.  I guess you could say we were a tired, loud and smelly bunch.  After going through customs, and watching them stamp my newly issued passport, we were lead finally to the baggage claim.  I waited at the baggage carousel, feeling both sweaty and exhausted, nervously contemplating about what was waiting for me beyond the other side of the arrival gate. Honestly, all I wanted to do was to get out of that place and find a nice hot shower.  I took a look around at the people I had just shared the last 12 plus hours with.  They were now all spread out near the baggage carousel, waiting and retrieving their luggage. There were families, young and older, and a few others like myself who looked as though they were traveling alone.  Senhora Oliviera and Senhora Machado were sitting in wheelchairs accompanied by young women dressed in airport uniforms, who were retrieving their luggage.  It all felt like a dream; I couldn't believe that I had finally arrived.  This place always seemed so far away and distant, and it felt so surreal to know that in a matter of only hours, I had finally arrived.  I had made this trip with many others, and although I was still surrounded by so so many, I couldn't help but feeling still very much alone.   

I eventually found and retrieved my one piece of luggage, threw my handbag over my shoulder, and proceeded my way towards the arrival gate.  I had never traveled alone before, but I did my best to pretend that this was just another normal vacation.  Of course, I never really went on a true vacation, so I had no idea what I was doing, nor did I know what to expect at the arrival gate.  After taking a deep breath, I swallow, and force a smile on my face, thinking to myself, "This is for you, mae e pai."  I proceeded my way through the electric doors to an open terminal of an audience of people, searching the crowd of faces in hopes to catch a familiar-looking one.  

At first, I'm only greeted with only stares until I hear my name being shouted out.  

"Linda!  Linda!" 

A homecoming party of what seemed to be the population of a small village was standing there at the side of the gate awaiting my arrival.  They included my mother's three sisters, my father's two brothers, and their children and grandchildren. I was soon encircled by all of them, bombarded one by one with kisses, embraces, and introductions.  At that point, there were just too many different emotions running through me, hitting me all at the same time, most of them leaving me speechless.  The tear I had swallowed earlier, had surprisingly multiplied to tears that were now running down my cheeks.  Words at this point again proved to be meaningless, for in a matter of minutes I would be whisked away in the back seat of my uncle's car, sitting between my mother's two twin sisters, through the narrow streets of the island, passing the quaint bedtime story village homes and rock walls from my father's stories.  

I had promised my mother the year that she died that I would fulfill her dream of returning to the island for her. It was something both of my parents had hoped to do for many years, but unfortunately, they were never able to do.  My father and mother ran a small market that could "not run by itself" and there were always bills to pay, orders and repairs to be done, and, of course, a child to raise.  There were plenty of long-distance phone calls from distant relatives, letters and pictures that were sent and treasured Christmas cards my mom would hang on our tree each year, but hopes of returning to the island and to the people of her birthplace were soon forgotten by the beginning of each new busy year.  The aunts and uncles and cousins whom I had recognized only in photographs lived in the photo albums my father would fill.  Instead of books, there were stacks of these albums near his Lazy Boy chair, and that is where my father would tell me of their stories.  

"Olha aqui," my father would begin, smiling and pointing to one of his favorite photos, "This picture was taken on the day of the "mantança" at your grandparent's house." 

The black and white photo frightened me as a child because it had a dead pig in it.  It was lying on a large wooden table surrounded by my father's family. The barefoot children kneeling in front of the table were my father and his siblings, Antonio, Fernando and Manuel, and standing behind them, stood my father's three uncles, Jose, Carlos, and Luis. The uncles are smiling and holding small glasses raised up as if they were in the middle of toasting.  My plump and smiling grandmother is also in the photo, standing alongside her brothers, in a flowered printed apron, holding what looks to be a large white jug of wine.  

I'm not exaggerating when I tell you how a cold chill would come over me each time my father reminisced over that particular photograph.  I found the smiling happy faces around the lifeless pig lying stiffly there with its tongue sticking out its the mouth, just a little too disturbing. I would purposely cover my eyes each time my father spoke of this picture, but I can remember quite vividly how he described the bloody details of how his uncle Luis skillfully killed the pig with his large knife, and how everyone in the neighborhood knew of the killing because of the constant squeals which could be heard throughout the village streets.  My father described the whole process as "the execution".  I tried hard not to look at the pig in the picture, finding myself always staring at my grandmother's blood-stained looking flowered apron. 

As a child, this particular photo would sometimes continue to haunt me into the evening; coming to life in my dreams.  I'd wake up from nightmares of a dead pig staring down at me and squealing in my face, pleading to me with a deep man's voice saying,  "Help me!"  The worst dreams were the ones where I am being chased by the pig.  It would jump on my bed, or chase me around it, squealing loudly while holding a knife between its lips!  Undoubtedly the pig was seeking revenge on me from it's killing from so long ago!  Thankfully, the nightmare would end by the next morning with the "squeal" of an alarm clock, or my mother's angelic face waking me up for school. You would think that a daughter of a butcher could have handled all of this much better, but obviously, that was not the case for me.  

Although I never spoke to my father about these nightmares and my distaste for that particular photograph, he must have had some sort of idea of how disturbing it was for me.  No matter how much I would cover my eyes away from the photograph, he would just couldn't stop talking about it!  I even had a name for the picture, it was called the "dead pig story", and the more I demonstrated my resistant to it, the more it seemed my father would just go on and on about it, insisting that it was "very important" that I know the cultural significance of "my Portuguese traditions and heritage."  My mother would overhear my dad's explanations, roll her eyes and him, and sometimes would intervene suggesting that he "go on to the next photograph", but my father would insist talking about the dead pig always longer than I cared for.  

"This picture from the mantança was taken the year before my Tio Luis left for America to work at the store.  You do remember him, don't you querida?" my father would ask. 

I nodded back to my father because I remembered Tio Luis well.  

Tio Luis was my father's oldest uncle and the first of his family to leave the island and come to America.  He left the island when he was 24 years old in the early 1950s with no more than fifty dollars and what my father described as "pockets full of dreams."  He took a Greyhound bus from the east coast to California and found a job at a small neighborhood market in the city of Sausalito where he rented a room from a nice Portuguese family who was a neighbor of his grandmother's from the islands.  

After working at the market for a few years, Tio Luis became the head butcher.  When the owner of the store retired, Tio Luis took over the store's lease, and soon afterward sent for my father to work at the store with him.  My parents left for California soon after they were married, and it wasn't long until my dad was working as his brother's apprentice. 

Tio was the older man who lived with us over the store.  He was what I remember to be a  man who always seemed to have a smile on his face, and a Hershey's candy bar for me hidden in his coat pocket.  He had a thunderous laugh, and never missed a Portuguese national soccer game or an episode of General Hospital which he would watch every weekday devoutly with my mother.  Although Tio Luis never married, he made us his priority and was there for every early childhood milestone in my life.  He was more like a grandfather to me than a great uncle, and my dad adored him like a father.  He died the year I turned 10. 

"On the day of the mantança," my father would continue, "we had a great celebration.  It started early in the morning and well into the night, but none of us would tire or complain because we were among family and friends.  We had everyone at our house, including all the neighbors on our street and they were working hard!  While the men cut up the meat, the women prepared the morçela, the linguiça, and the choriço!  We had so much fresh pork and sausage, it was enough to last us all for the whole winter!  And then there was so much celebration, dancing, and music, Linda, so much music!"  

My dad would then put the photo album on his knee, and tap on it like a drum while humming or singing one of the songs of is childhood.  When I was younger, I would get off of his knee and dance to his singing, but as I got older, I'd only close my eyes, and imagine Tio Luis, and his brother Tio Antonio play the guitar alongside my barefoot father around the dead pig on the table, with my grandmother dancing around in her flowered apron with that white jug.  

"We were poor, Linda, but on that day we were the richest people in the world!" 

My dad always said this with a half-smile and a distant look in his eyes as if he was searching for something faraway through the walls of our apartment to take him to another place in time.  He would then look at me as if he forgot I was sitting there, shake his head, and sadly say:

 "If only there were more pictures, Linda!  Why are there never enough pictures?" 

"Ah homen!" my mother would call out from the kitchen, "Time to get on to the next picture!"

Thank God my mother would be close by listening!  I could always count on her to save me from the "dead pig chronicles".  Of course, when I was younger, I truly didn't appreciate my father's animated stories of his childhood.  I was only grateful when he eventually succumbed to my mother's wishes and get to the next photograph. My dad would usually let out a long and loud sigh before he turned the pages of the photo album until he found another picture that sparked his memory to a story he felt was important to tell me about.   

"Olha aqui, Linda," pointing to a different picture.  Letting out another loud sigh he continued to say, "It's the woman who robbed my heart, your mother!  Linda, just see how beautiful she is here?"

My father was pointing to one of my favorite photos in the whole album.  It was a picture of my mother dressed as Santa Filomena, the patron saint of fisherman.  She was dressed for a religious procession for her village and she looked young and beautiful like a statue you would see at church.  She wore a white gown, with a long pink shawl that hung from her shoulders down to her two sandaled feet. Her white gown was gathered at the waist with a coarse-looking rope, and her long dark hair fell past her shoulders, secured with a crown of flowers.  On one hand, she held a long-stemmed lily while the other rested on a large ship anchor sitting atop the flatbed truck that she was standing on.  The truck was decorated with waves of white and blue tissue paper.  

My father would go on to explain how he had met my mother as a young girl in school, and how he always had a suspicion that they would marry one day.  

"Your mother is about twelve years old in this picture," my dad would say.  

"I was 15!" my mom yelled out, correcting him from the kitchen. 

"Fifteen?  Não pode ser!  How can you be 15 in this picture, when your brother is driving the truck?  Wasn't he in the military when you were 15?" my father would shout back.

"Ah, Jose, sim, but that's not Pedro driving the car, that's my other brother Manuel," my mother would explain.  

"Ok, ok," my dad would say, turning to me, to whisper, "Your mother is mistaken.  That's not Manuel." 

My father would always repeat the same "mistakes", and insist my mother was 12 and that the person driving the truck was not her brother, but I never tried to correct him, because I knew my mother would.  It almost seemed to be a game between the three of us, and it was always fun to listen to my mother correcting my dad about our conversations from the kitchen.  Of course, my father spoke loudly on purpose for my mother to hear him.  

"Yes, Linda, your mother is dressed as Santa Filomena, the saint of carpenters," my father would go on to say. 

"But daddy," I would say, confused, "Saint Joseph wouldn't be wearing a dress!" 

"Well in those days, men wore long dresses," my dad would try to explain.  

"Ah Jose, you are wrong!" my mother would interrupt my father, "Your daughter knows more than you do! The saint of carpenters is São Jose!  I'm dressed as Santa Filomena, santa dos pescadores, that is why I'm on a boat!" 

"A mulher, then why are you are standing on a truck?!" my dad would joke back.  

My mother would then say something inaudible from the kitchen that we both couldn't understand but it was a good guess it had something to do of how crazy my father was.  My father would continue to tease my mother, and then there were more interactions, which was then followed by either a wooden spoon or a slipper thrown clumsily in our direction, and then the laughter would ensue between all three of us.  

Of course, all of this was done in fun, and my mother was in on my father's joke, and she was just playing along with him, but of course, I never caught on to this until I was much older.  I would explain to my father how the last time he told me the truck was really supposed to be a boat, and the tissue paper covering the front of the truck was supposed to be the waves of the ocean.  He would then look at me very seriously, nod his head, and suddenly "remember" his mistake, and then comment to my mother how smart their daughter was for remembering all the details of his story.   He would then whisper in my ear to confess that he was pretending not to remember on purpose just to test my mother to see how well she was listening to him tell the story.  

No matter how many times I had heard the story about my mother's Santa Filomena photo it never ceased to fascinate me.  There was something about the expression on my mother's face in the photo that always impressed me.  She looked so solemn and serious, and her eyes seemed to be transfixed on something or something out in the distance.  I often wondered who or what that someone or something was. Was she pretending to be Santa Filomena, looking out to find a fisherman lost at sea, or was she daydreaming of the day she would take another ship far away in America?  

I asked her one day about this particular photograph and she responded by laughing out loud, saying that leaving her island was the furthest thing on her mind at that age. 

"I was probably thinking about lunch," my mom confessed, "I was hungry, it was a hot day and a very long parade, and it was very hard to keep my balance on that truck."

She further explained that although she felt honored to be representing Santa Filomena, it was not the most pleasant experience. Her brother, Manuel had just started driving and he was having a lot of trouble changing the gears.  The clutch was bad and he often sent my mother forwards and backward on the small pedestal she was standing upon. When I asked if she really wanted to be there, she went on to explain that she had been chosen from a number of other girls to be in the parade, and she was very happy to be in it.  

"My white long dress was made of the softest satin," my mom said smiling, "and wearing it made me feel like a queen."  

When I asked her why she wasn't posing for the camera, she told me that she did not know that a picture was being taken.  A photographer from a camera store in the city had taken the photo, and it was later displayed in their window.  A relative of her mothers saw the photo and bought a copy for her.  My mother's answers and simple explanations were just too lackluster for my taste, and I couldn't help but feel disappointed.  My father's rendition to the event, however, was much more exciting. 

"When I saw your mother that day, dressed that way, my heart sank to my stomach," my father would say, "I thought she looked like a movie star from a magazine!" 

On the day my mother passed away, I immediately went searching for that particular photograph.  Although it had been years since I had last seen it, I knew it was there in one of the pages of the albums that were kept stored away in my bedroom closet.  After going through all of the albums, I finally found the photo, and I slept with it that night.  I had an urgent need to remember the 15-year-old, Santa Filomena wearing the pink shawl over the white satin gown, and the crown of flowers on her head, not the frail lifeless woman I said goodbye to lying on the hospital bed.  I yearned for the pretty, young woman who was full of life, that was hungry for lunch. 

I put the Santa Filomena picture under my pillow that night and cried for my mother.  I don't remember falling asleep, but somehow I must have managed to because I woke up the next morning to a wet, mascara stained pillow and a mess of photo albums strewn all over my bedroom floor.  Lying near the jumbled pile of albums, I caught sight of another photo lying face down on my bedroom carpet. I figured that the photo must have slipped out somehow while I was ravaging through the albums the night before.  Upon picking the photo, I turned it around only to see the infamous dead pig photo that had terrified me so much as a child.  I let out a small scream before falling back on to my bed where I laughed to myself until I cried.  

"Já saí do lugar (I've already left from that place)
Vem, vem me procurar (come, come find me) O que passou, passou (What has passed, has passed) O que passou, passou 

O que passou, passou..." 

The volume of the car radio has seemed to go up, or is it just my driver's loud singing?  For a moment I wonder if I had just nodded off asleep or stuck in a daydream.  I admit that I haven't had much sleep since last night.  The inside of the car has gotten very wet since I let the window open, and I notice that my jacket is wet.  I close the window and notice that the rain is coming down in buckets and pounding the car.  I try to make out where we are on the road, but it is so dark outside, I can hardly make out the lamp posts outside.  I do see the large white and black sign ahead for the turn to the airport, so it's good to know that in a few moments we will be off the way highway, and soon at the airport. 

I hear the loud spitting engine of a motorcycle, and I turn around and notice that it's following very close behind us, inches away from the cab's bumper.  Why anyone would be riding a motorcycle in this weather so close to another vehicle is beyond comprehension.  The rider on the bike is dressed in dark clothing, and I'm wondering at this point if he is actually a policeman who wants to stop us because of Manuel's erratic driving.  Manuel at this point has stopped his singing, and now is cursing, at him in the rearview mirror.  

What comes next happens so fast I can't even explain.  Without warning our car takes a sharp turn and starts spinning, the tires are squealing, and the car is swerving violently, sending my carryon into the crate of beer bottles!   We watch the motorcycle pass us far to the left.  I'm screaming my lungs out, and Manuel is loudly cursing again, desperately taking the wheel in attempts to control the car again.  

"Not a good day to be traveling, menina," Manuel is stuttering under his breath.  

My heart is pounding, as I try to catch my breath, I'm sitting in the backseat of this taxi, frozen with my eyes transfixed on the swinging gold necklace hanging on the rearview mirror.  I watch as the crucifix at the end of the necklace steadily swinging back and forth, almost in perfect unison with the noisy window wipers.  Despite my contempt with my driver, what he says is true.  Perhaps I should go back home and forget about leaving today.  But what am I saying?  Home is not here; home is across the ocean, overlooking the San Francisco Bay, above the store I was born in and named after.  My home is at Linda Vista.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

A Call From Jesus

February, 1999
It had been a horrible week. Money was tight, my ex-husband was threatening to leave the state and pay “what he wanted” for child support, and bills were not getting paid. To make matters worse, my phone was not working! Calls were coming in, but the ringer was not working, and I wasn’t able to make calls either.
I had been dealing with a broken phone since that Monday, and according to the phone company, my phone line could not be repaired until the following week. I had been checking my messages each morning at work. I don’t know exactly why I even bothered checking my messages because most of them were left from creditors inquiring when I would be submitting payment on my late bills. The calls only reminded me of my money troubles and by the end of the workday, it all left me feeling just more depressed and overwhelmed.
By Wednesday night, I was feeling completely defeated. It already was feeling like a long week, and I just needed to escape! A nice, long hot bath seemed like the perfect refuge. The kids had just finished dinner and were watching one of their favorite TV shows, so I headed to the bathroom for some much needed alone time.
Once in the tub, I found myself just sitting there, watching the running hot water fill up around me. I felt both exhausted and numb, hoping that a bath would make me feel better. My bathtub was always a place where I could unwind away from the kids; where I could think clearly and even cry if I needed to.
As I sat there, the worries of the day and all my money woes and stress from my recent divorce seemed to engulf me, and it wasn’t long until the tears came pouring down. The events from the past few months left me feeling completely hopeless, and I wondered how I let things get that bad. I wasn’t still in control of my life, and it bothered me. I remembered how hard it was to build the courage within myself to leave an abusive and unhealthy marriage and to start a new life for myself and my two children, but I still had not found the stability I had desperately needed.
I found myself praying to God in that tub. I prayed out loud to him. I needed some answers because I felt powerless. I needed help because I doubted myself. “Take it, take all of it!” I heard myself saying out loud. I was done! I found myself offering all my worries and doubts to God, and by the time I got out of that tub, I felt a usual feeling resolve that things would get better. I wasn’t sure if the good cry in that tub was enough for me to clear my mind, or whether it was the feeling that my prayers were being heard, I only know that by the time I left the bathroom, I felt accomplished.
The water was getting cold, and my son had been knocking on my door. I looked at the digital clock in my bedroom and it was only 6:50 pm. I decided to make it an early night and got into my pajamas. I spent the rest of my evening with the kids on the couch, laughing and watching T.V. until we all fell asleep. I woke up on the couch later with my son and daughter’s legs and arms strewn around and on top of me. I helped them both to bed and kissed them goodnight.
The morning came, and soon enough, I was back at my desk at work the next day. I turned to my phone and dialed my home number to check for my messages. I was a little surprised to find only one message on my voicemail. I listened to it, and then replayed it over and over again, not believing what I was hearing.
The caller did not say who he was. If it was a telemarketer or a bill collector, he didn’t say. At 6:45 pm, this stranger left this message on my phone:
“Good evening Julie. God bless you, and remember Jesus loves you.”
I did not recognize the man’s voice. He didn’t have an accent of any kind. I heard a muffled, background noise, but again no name or affiliation to any company. I only knew that I had never received a call like this from any telemarketer or bill collector before. I played the message over again in disbelief until I suddenly realized the time of the call. 6:45 pm would have been the same time I had finished my bath! As soon as I made that connection, I burst out laughing until I was in tears!
It wasn’t long until some of my co-workers circled around wondering what was going on with me. I was normally a very quiet person, who usually kept to herself. I explained to a few of them what had happened, and although they thought it was unbelievably strange, nice and even a little funny, most were a little skeptical of it being some sort of “divine intervention”. It didn’t matter to me if it was just some crazy coincidence, but to this day I refer the incident as my call from “Jesus”.
Of course, it could have been ANYONE who could have left that message on my phone. It could have been a guy named Joe trying to sell me a newspaper subscription or someone asking why my credit card bill was late. It really didn’t matter to me what he was selling or what his real name was. His call still meant the world to me. As I look back on that day, I still feel grateful. That message left on my phone was truly a message of hope that I desperately needed to hear during that time of my life.
The next day I got another call. My coworker, Glenda called me up and left another message. I heard, a pretend, deep sultry voice that said: “Hi Julie baby, this is Elvis, and I love you too.”
Jesus and Elvis in one week?! Wow, was I a lucky girl!

Not An Ordinary Day At the Mall.

True story, as told by a friend:
Sarah was headed for the mall in search of some peace of mind. Things were just getting too much, and she had to get out of the rut she felt she was in, and the loneliness was driving her insane. She grabbed her keys and threw them in her purse. The book she had promised herself that she was going to finish reading was sitting there on her nightstand and she impulsively threw it in her purse along with her keys. Taking a book to a shopping mall sounded a little crazy, but it didn’t matter to her at this point. Sarah had spent most of her week alone at home near the phone, and her apartment just was too empty! Sarah had the need to be around other people. She applied another coat of black cherry lipstick before heading out the door, slamming the door recklessly behind her.
It was a busy day at the mall for a Thursday, but Sarah surprisingly found a great parking spot in front of her favorite store. She exited her car and made a mad dash across the parking lot to the department store door, where a bearded man oddly seemed to be waiting for her, holding the door open. She thanked the kind man and went immediately towards the women’s shoes.
“Hello, Miss, can I help you find that shoe in your size?”
The young woman’s question startled Sarah so much that she almost dropped the beautiful leopard 3-inch pump she was holding. She had been eyeing the pair of open-toe sandals for a while now, but they were still not on sale. She still couldn’t justify paying $150 for a pair. Sarah turned to the salesgirl , and shook her head.
“Not today, but thank you.”
After a stroll through the sale rack of shoes, she didn’t find anything that held her interest, so she ventured off until she found herself in the women’s wear department going through the sale rack of dresses.
“Hello, can I help you anything today?” called out an older sales lady from her register.
“Just looking,” Sarah responded.
Sarah went on looking at each dress hanging there on the rack, searching for something appealing to the eye with little success, thinking to herself how odd it was to have already been asked by two completely different salespeople if she had needed help. Normally she would be in and out of the store, with little notice, almost feeling invisible, but today it seemed that all eyes were on her from the moment the man had stopped to hold the door for her into the store. She questioned herself and wondered what was different. Was it what she was wearing? Certainly, her blue jeans and red sweater didn’t scream out, a lady with incredible amounts of money to spend, but more like, single mom looking for a good sale.
Sarah moved from one rack of clothes to yet to another, leaving her just less impressed. Every piece of clothing seemed to look just as mediocre as the next, and the whole experience was proving to be fruitless. Perhaps going to the mall today wasn’t the best idea, she said to herself. Retail therapy seemed to always help her get out of a rut when she felt blue, but today she just wasn’t feeling it. She just wasn’t finding what she was looking for and doubted if she really knew what she trying to find in the first place. Her eyes soon were diverted to the exit of the store. The large glass windows that spilled into a busy food court seemed welcoming enough and the thought of a pretzel and a diet Coke sounded much more appealing than anything else around her.
Thank God I brought my book, Sarah said to herself as she juggled her pretzel and Coke from the pretzel shop. She spied a nice, empty couch near the center of the mall. At last, she could sit down somewhere, eat her pretzel and finally finish that book!
Despite the noise, she still managed to read a few chapters and finish her pretzel peacefully without interruption. Sarah looked up from her book to take a good look around her. She saw the children shouting from the play area, and the people at the tables in the food court, conversing and laughing amongst themselves. It was then that she noticed three individuals standing there near the burger place. Their backs were turned, and they were talking to each other, but seemed quite out of place. It was an older black gentleman in what looked like a very outdated dark suit, with two middle-aged looking white women standing near the burger place, empty-handed without a shopping bag or purse on their arms, looking seemingly lost or in search of someone.
Sarah then went back to her book, realizing minutes later that she had been reading the same paragraph at least three times. Her concentration was lost, and her eyes were beginning to feel tired. Feeling annoyed, Sarah put down her book to put it away in her purse, when she sensed someone standing near her. Looking up from her purse, she found the very same three odd-looking people she had noticed before standing now directly in front of her.
“Hello, good afternoon ma’m,” the older man said, looking down at Sarah, “Can I have a hug?”
The first thing Sarah noticed was the older man’s very old brown polyester suit, and the man’s toothy smile. The two women standing on either side of him were also smiling, both wearing flowered printed dresses. One woman had reading glasses sitting on the end of her nose, with her hair in a braid, and the other woman had curly hair, and with long bangs that fell white above her eyes.
Normally, Sarah would have felt compelled to immediately say no to man, or even get up and get away from these people altogether, but today Sarah felt strangely different. An unexplainable rush of warmth of compassion from these three people, and this man in particular, as she felt herself get up from the couch to give the stranger in the brown suit a hug.
“May I also have a hug?”
One of the other women, the one with curly hair standing next to the old man, extended her arms to Sarah. Sarah turned to the woman and embraced her as well.
Immediately afterward, the older man spoke to Sarah saying:
“I want you to know that everything is going to be alright.”
Sarah at that moment felt as though she had been in the middle of a dream. Of course, nothing about what had just happened seemed normal. She had never been asked for an embrace from strangers before in such a manner, nor had she ever experienced a feeling quite like this from anyone. Their embraces felt warm, deliberate, and sincere. For a moment this very odd meeting felt as though she had just been reunited with loved ones, rather than strangers.
Feeling somewhat embarrassed and confused, Sarah nodded at the old man, and quietly said thank you. She then quickly turned her back to the three as she nervously gathered her belongings to leave. She really didn’t know what to say more to the three, or what she should do, but remembered to turn back to at least say goodbye, but when she did they were no longer there standing in front of her. She proceeded to look all around to see where they had vanished. Had they sat down at a table at the food court or had they headed to another store? Sarah wondered to herself how they had walked away so quickly. They seemed to have left as quickly as they had appeared to her; almost as if they had disappeared in thin air.
Feeling still stunned from her strange encounter, Sarah quickly got herself away from the food court, making a mad dash to the nearest exit. She made her way through the department store that she had been in earlier, rushing past the racks of clothing, and shoes to the entrance door. There was no one holding the door for her this time, nor did anyone seem to notice Sarah. She was suddenly back being invisible, sprinting through the exit, rushing across the street, and into the parking lot. Sarah pulled out the keys and quickly got inside of her car where she spent the next 10 minutes behind the steering wheel sobbing.
Sarah finally found what she had been shopping for.