All my trips to São Miguel include several days in Ponta Delgada. It’s not only the city where I was born and lived in for the first nine years of my life; it’s been a place to reconnect or get acquainted with family and friends on my mother’s side.
I still remember the long list of names she gave me the first time I went back for a visit. That was in 1984. Although she was not the one going back, the thought of me visiting her friends and family brought her happiness by proxy: her son, seeing all the people she missed and had not seen since she immigrated to Canada in 1968.
I was still a shy, young man at twenty-six, that first year back, but I made the effort to connect with everyone on her list. They all remembered me and my parents and I would sit in someone’s kitchen or living room for a while and listen to their stories or their reminiscence of those good old days when my family was living on the island and their lives intersected. “When will your parents come back to see us?” they would ask, and later, after my father had died, “When will your mother come visit?”
I didn’t visit the Azores again until the year 2000, and the people I had met before were now much older or, in some cases, already dead. During the last twenty years I have returned often, each time with a smaller list of names, but I always look forward to planning my Ponta Delgada days around these social visits. Without them, I would be simply a tourist walking around the old streets taking photographs of buildings and houses, including the house I grew up in which my parents sold. I never had the courage to knock on the door and ask the new owners if they’d let me have a look inside, for old times’ sake. Perhaps it’s been best this way, to let my memories of the house remain intact.
But it’s been a gift to be able to step inside the houses of these old relatives and friends and for a while feel like I am one of them again and not the outsider that I really am, coming all the way from Canada.
The list of people include mostly women. Beautiful women who are excited to see me, who wait in expectation of my punctual visit, for my mother got into the habit of calling them ahead and booking my timed visits. When I am in Ponta Delgada, I just show up at the agreed upon time. This schedule of visitations means that I have less time to explore the city on my own, but a stay in the city without these human connections would only be a cold and impersonal touristic experience.
The women smile for my camera as I always take a photograph of each one, “Uma lembrança para a minha mãe,” a souvenir for my mother, I tell them, but in reality, I take their picture for me, for my own remembrance of them. It’s now close to four years since my last trip to the Azores and I hope that I will have another chance to see the same women before they’re eventually gone. But, if I am not given this chance, I will be content with my memory of people who always greeted me with a warmth and love I have rarely experienced elsewhere.
They are Ponta Delgada to me. The city’s cobblestone streets, the architecture, the churches, the market, the gardens, everything, will be nothing more than a geographical space of interest to me and no longer a living memory without the delight of hearing “Olá, querido Emanuel!” as a door opens and I am greeted with a smiling face and extended arms.
These are photos taken during my 1984 visit of people who, with the exception of two, are now gone but who I still remember fondly.