Monday, July 4, 2011

An American Story - The Lost Letter

My great-grandparents, Maria & João Lima; Taunton Massachusetts 

The other day, I had family come over for a nice visit. My Aunt Cecilia, and two of my cousins, Susan and Kathleen and their children were able to visit with us for the day near the pool on a very beautiful summer afternoon. Between the distractions of the children, ages 2 to 8, and a drowned mouse, (please don't ask) we had some interesting conversations about my own family history. I know much more about my mother's side of the family than I do of my father's, so I particularly enjoyed listening to the stories my aunt had to tell. My Aunt Cecilia is my father's sister, and she had been to the east coast many times, and between her visits with her aunts and uncles, and my late grandmother's recollections, she had many stories to tell. The visit was a memorable one for me, and I had the need to write some of this history down so as not to forget it. It's part of my own American family history, and being that it is the 4th of July, I think it is a most appropriate day to share this with you.

First of all, I am an American. I was born in California, 45 years ago in a fairly small coastal town of Santa Cruz, California. Santa Cruz is primarily known for it's Redwood trees and beautiful beaches. Santa Cruz is a desirable place to live--not just because of the ocean, but it's known for it's lifestyle, and easy way of living.  (More about Santa Cruz: My grandparents liked Santa Cruz as well. They enjoyed visiting during their summer vacations, and spent their days at the beach, away from the hot valley weather of home. They eventually decided to retire and move there in the early 1950's. My grandfather had sold the ranch in Winton, California, and at the age of 50 decided it was time to rest ocean side, and live the American dream. Not too shabby of a feat for two immigrants from the Azores, traveling in the "steerage" area for weeks, bound for America.

My grandmother, Rosa Lima was the eldest girl of 12 children. She was born in the Azores, Terceira, in the village of Agualva. Her mother depended on her to help care for her younger siblings, and her days were always filled with a never ending list of chores, and as I lovingly remember her say, "endless changing and cleaning of diapers." During the precious moments she did have for to herself, she would retreat to the attic area of her rock walled home into a crawl space so she could read her "novelas" (romance novels)and magazines in peace and quiet. Her cousins thought of her as a quiet type, who was somewhat of a dreamer. Like many teenagers her age, she had visions of going to America one day. She heard stories and read magazine articles of life in America, and it all seemed so exciting and different.

Her older brother, Manuel, had traveled to America a few months earlier. He had left on a ship with his best friend, and second cousin, Francisco. Francisco de Melo Borges--who happened to be my mother's father, and my grandfather. Manuel and Francisco traveled together in a large ship to start a new life. Manuel was going to look for work on the east coast, and Francisco was on his way to California to meet up with his brother Gilberto and sister, Maria whom had taken the journey a year before. They spent their time in the ship under many unpleasant conditions for weeks. They shared food they had brought with them from  home, shared stories, and their dreams. To pass the time, Francisco, who was known as the entertainer, wrote poetic verses on the ship and practiced and sang them to Manuel and the other passengers in the steerage area.

Manuel and Francisco reached Ellis Island, with soot on their faces, and with weary but heavy hearts. Their month's journey together across the Atlantic was a long one, but their journey had just begun, and they were to part ways now. They said their tearful goodbyes never to see each other again. My grandfather,  Francisco left onto another ship bound to San Francisco by way of Argentina, and Manuel stayed in New England, to settle in Massachusetts to find work at a factory.

Rosa's father, my great-grandfather, Joao, (John) was to make the same trip with another older brother six months later. Manuel had written home to say that he had found a good job in a factory that made copper pans. Rosa's mother, my great-grandmother, Maria, urged her husband Joao to meet their son there.

My great-grandmother Maria was the driving force to take her family to America. She was known as a very strong-willed and courageous woman. My great-grandmother wanted a better life for her children, away from the hard life, and hardships of the time. The island was experiencing awful weather, and sickness was plaguing the island. By the great urgency of his wife, my great-grandfather half heartily took the trip with his other son, Joao. They crossed the Atlantic and reached the east coast during a cold winter. My great-grandmother, Maria immediately begun to make preparations to meet them there later. It was soon discovered that she was expecting another child, but that did not hinder her from planning her trip at the least, in fact it made her more determined to have this child born in America.

It was cold, and it was a bitter winter in Massachusetts. It was the first time my great-grandfather had seen snow! Being older, my grandfather felt out of place in this new country. He was an island person, who had land and cattle in the Azores. He had grown his own food on the land. There in Massachusetts there were only factories, no land to work on, life was busy and was confusing!  It was not what he was accustomed to. His son, Joao, had an easier time adjusting.  He found a job working side by side with his brother Manuel.  However, my great-grandfather was frustrated.  After months of searching, he was unable to find a job.   Out of desperation, he wrote a letter to his wife, that went something like this:

"Our son Joao has found a job working with his brother Manuel, and they are working hard and making good money. I however, do not like it here. I cannot find a job. I miss my land, my wife and my children. The weather here is miserable. It is cold, and I think it best that you not come as we had planned. I will make arrangements to come back home at the end of winter......"

The letter arrived to my grandmother's house one winter's day. Rosa and her siblings all rushed around her as she excitedly opened the letter. Everyone was happy, and excited, but not more than my great-grandmother. She happily read the letter out loud to her children. As the words of her husband were read, the smile on her lips quickly faded. Upon finishing reading the letter, she immediately held it over her head, and ripped it into pieces in front of her children, and sternly told them all:

"We NEVER received this letter!"

She told her children that they would never speak of this letter, and they were to leave for America as planned at the end of the month. They were bound to America--no matter what the circumstances were. The letter, as far as she was concerned got "lost" in the mail, and that was that.  End of story!

Yes, my great-grandfather was a bit surprised to see his pregnant wife and children there waiting at the dock the day of their arrival. The letter he wrote had apparently never arrived.

My great-grandparents, with much work, and sacrifice eventually settled in a nice little town in Massachusetts called Taunton. My grandmother found a factory job at a thread factory, and at a social gathering, eventually reconnected with a friend of one of her brothers,  her one and only true love, Joao Costa, aka "John", my blue eyed grandfather.  My grandfather had traveled over the Atlantic from his native Terceira that same year, and with him he brought visions of life in California.  At that time there were many opportunities there primarily in the farm and diary industry.  My grandparents were soon married and made their life there, working hard, digging ditches, and doing any farm work they could find.  They pinched pennies, and made necessary sacrifices, often living without many simple luxuries, to eventually owning a ranch, and raising their four children: my Uncle John, my dad, Joe, and my two Aunts, Cecilia and Addie.

It's hard to think that a letter could have changed it all. Thank you great-grandmother Maria for ripping that letter. I owe you, as well as my children, and their children.  I'm proud to be an American, but most importantly I'm proud of my Portuguese American heritage. God bless America--may this country always be known as a place that welcomes all who have a dream of greatness!


Joann said...

Wow!! What a treasure to know so much of your family history!! And it's people like your great grandparents that make this country great!! They worked hard and made a good life for their children and did not expect to be handed royalties on a silver platter like so many do today when they bring their families to America to live!!! What a fantastic family history you have!!!

Jimmy's Journal said...

Great story! People don't understand the trials and tribulations of the past and your story is an excellent reminder. I'm currently researching my Irish-French roots and it's very interesting.


LYN said...

That's a great story..enjoyed reading it..what a different life you could have had or even not had..

Coelha :B said...

Thanks for the comments! Very true Lyn...I wonder sometimes myself. Jimmy-it's always good to know where you come from--I think it's great. My Aunt Addie married a Sullivan--may be we are related..ha ha ha. Joann---yes, I've always considered myself lucky--my parents always made sure we knew what our history was--I'm very proud of it. :) Thanks again for your comments!

Anonymous said...

We just read this beautifully written account of our family history to my kids on our trip to the river. They really enjoyed learning about our grandparents American experience. We'll have to plan another get together! Happy Fourth of July! Thanks for posting the story!

Coelha :B said...

Thank you, cousin :) I hope to see you all soon too!! Have fun at the river and HAPPY 4th!! :)