I had never done this, I guess I didn’t have any “dead” before
Being bilingual allows me to write about a few things that otherwise I would never be able to share. At times, English is a refuge that allows me to express things that in Portuguese would be too overwhelming. This is one of those things.
In Portugal, I grew up with the tradition of All Soul’s Day, the day after All Saint’s Day, when people visit the graves of their ancestors, clean them, put new flowers and light candles. I had never done this, I guess I didn’t have any “dead” before. I mean, I had had people in my extended family pass away, but they were far enough not to be “my” dead. This year, I turned out to be in the country in the first week of November and things were different. I went with my mother and my sister to clean my father’s grave. There was a woman selling flowers and candles at what we decided were abusive prices. My mother and my sister had already bought the plastic flowers that will decorate the grave until next year. As we walked through the cemetery, families were gathered around tombstones honoring their loved ones.
When we got to my father’s grave, his picture looked right back at us. I leaned against the wall and relived in my mind the last three days of his life, when we knew what we didn’t really want to know, but we knew. I am reminded of all the reasons why I hated and I loved him, in the sort of complicated relationship that just doesn’t seem that important anymore. Death might be final for the departed, but stuff will keep wandering in your mind, unless you let it go. It is important to get to a space where you realize that things might not have been perfect, but they sure are over.
My mother says she wants to be buried in that same plot. My sister and I don’t want to think about that. As my sister washes the grave, we remark on the quality of the stones, we talk about the beauty of the flowers… anything to change the subject. I see a lady hiding behind large dark glasses, sitting in a grave, looking like she can barely keep it together. I imagine she lost her loved one not long ago. As I walk about, I stop at Filipe’s grave, who passed away a few years ago, when I was already in the United States, in a horrendous fire accident in a factory. Filipe, Dagoberto and I were the three musketeers in high school, and I am the last one alive. Dagoberto passed away from severe complications of diabetes when he was around 19 years old. I miss them.
This is not over. We have to drive to another cemetery. It’s an interesting ride through a road I know like the scars on my knees from when I climbed trees when I was younger. We drive by the little village where I went to primary school, but I can’t see the building from the road. I remember the many car accidents I witnessed in those tight curves and counter-curves. We drive by Rui and Isabel’s yellow house, my primary school friends, but only the walls are up, the roof has collapsed and I can see the sky through the windows. I wonder what happened to them and if they are doing well. I hope so. Further up on the left, there are two twin houses, Sandra lived on the left one and Elsa and Luis lived on the one on the right. They were cousins, and they were also in primary school with me. Luis cried easily, and everyone in the class called him the “crying baby”. I don’t know whatever happened to Elsa and Sandra, but a few years ago I heard Luis committed suicide. I take a mental note to remind myself to ask my primary school best friend Helga if she knows anything about them.
Further up, we drive by the church where my parents got married. It always seems to be closed. There was a time when its bell marked the rhythms of several villages around. We keep driving and the brutal reality of the fires that have plagued Portugal this late in the Fall turns to a clear reality. The smell of burned wood is so strong… miles and miles of burned trees and ashes… all the trees I grew up with are gone, everything is burned. Hundred-year-old olive trees burned from the inside until the large branches collapsed. Soon, we get to the other cemetery. My grandparents are buried here and I helped clean the grave, but that is not why I am here. In seventeen years, I have never had the courage to visit my great-aunt Lucinda’s grave. I went this year but I was not ready for the pain I felt and how I still miss her so much. She was my best friend and made sure I had the most wonderful childhood. From when I was five until I was fifteen, she was my guiding light. She still is. She didn’t have a formal education, but she was the wisest woman I have ever known, that’s why I am so informal with everyone, even though I know I irritate some people but I know, I really know, that a person’s value doesn’t reside on academic titles. She was the most loving person and I observed many times in admiration how people would come to her and always left her side calmer and happier… I try to follow her example, but I confess that it is not as easy as she made it look… I also remember when gypsies would come to the village to sell things, and many people would not even speak to them; I remember one gypsy woman saying the people in the village seemed like bush animals running away, but my great-aunt never had a problem with difference and I remember them talking and laughing out loud, while my great-aunt shared the water from the large clay jug she carried on her head every morning from a local spring. She believed that water tasted better than tap water, and she was right.
Her grave is made of white marble and is towards the sunny top of the hill. Her picture shows her when she was around thirty years old and without glasses. That’s not how I remember her at all. To me, she will always be a smiling very short old lady, with round glasses and a traditional kerchief, wrapping her arms around my waist and saying that it was great to see me again. I hope she knows I celebrate her and everything she was every time I call my daughter’s name. May her light fall upon Lucinda too.
Before, it felt like a strange thing to do, but now I get why we celebrate All Souls’ Day.