428 Wood Street, New Bedford, Massachusetts
I started my blog seven years ago as a way to explore and hopefully come to an understanding of my place in the world as an Azorean-Torontonian. My first blog entry on January 11, 2016 was a tribute to both David Bowie, who had just died a few days earlier, and to my father, who had accompanied me and my cousins to Bowie’s Toronto concert in 1976. I would like to share a new reflection I wrote as another tribute to my father, using his voice in the telling of his journey of immigration 59 years ago this year.
When Antonio Cabral de Melo left the Azores in November of 1964 for North America, he stayed in New Bedford, Massachusetts for a short while before moving permanently to Canada. Several years ago, I visited the house where he lived with his mother’s sister, Aunt Penny, her husband Frank, and their little boy Chico. Seeing where he had gone to live while I was still a six-year-old back in São Miguel was an experience that moved me deeply; to be inside the house where my father had started out, before my mother and I joined him three years later to live in Toronto.
My memories of the time during my father’s absence are shaped by the letters and photographs he sent my mother and me about his life in New Bedford and later in Toronto. For most of my life, I never considered what my father must have felt about his journey of immigration. All I ever focused on, with the introspection and self-centeredness of a child, was my own grief over his absence. It was only after his death in 2005 that I began to imagine what might have gone through his mind and heart as he left my mother and me for a journey that promised a better future in a faraway land.
A Journey of Promise
I booked a flight as soon as the Non-immigrant visitor’s visa arrived, the Consulate of the United States of America stamp on my passport allowing me to stay only for a short time, but enough for me to venture out and take my chances that, once on American soil, I would be able to extend my visa easily. When the day of leaving arrived, I woke up with my stomach heavy as a stone, regretting my decision, but knowing that I had no choice. My wife, Berta, was already up, quietly packing last-minute socks and underwear in my suitcase by dim light. My little boy slept soundly. I caressed his head, wished him good dreams, and whispered into his ear, “Filho, não te esqueças do pai.”
We were silent, my wife and I, so that we would not wake up our son. My in-laws, who lived with us, would stay with him while she saw me off. I put on my sobretudo, the overcoat too warm but it would be cold in America, so I had been told.
I went back into the bedroom for one last look at my son. As I stood over the bed, my wife begged me to stop crying, to be quiet, and not to disturb the boy. “He’s too young to understand why you’re going away,” she said. She would tell him later, she promised. I reached down and picked him up, I held him in my arms and would not let him go. She pried my sleeping son out of my embrace as I kissed him over and over again.
It was still dark on that late-November morning when our shoes broke the silence with a loud echo along the cobblestoned road. We walked side-by-side, without saying a word, all the way down to the city centre where we sat in a quiet café, ignoring the coffee in front of us. The minutes hurried into the final hour. I looked at my watch and then at the sadness in her eyes.
We walked around the corner to the igreja da Matriz where we had agreed to have our final farewell. The church was a dark tomb, except for candlelight flickering at the altar. Only whispered ave marias broke the silence as we sat on a black-lacquered, stiff wooden pew, on the Blessed Sacrament Chapel side. I had never noticed how hard the seats felt before and now I would miss sitting there every Sunday morning with my wife and child.
The priest and an altar boy appeared. The first Missa of the day was about to start. We looked into each other’s eyes for the last time. I squeezed her hand and whispered “Adeus, Berta, coragem.” Her lips quivered like a little girl. She then looked toward the altar of São Sebastião, the patron saint’s statue full of arrows piercing his body, hurting him just like the pain I was feeling in mine, and she faintly whispered “Adeus, meu querido Antonio.” I walked toward the church doors as the priest started the Mass.
There was still a bit of time before I had to take a taxi to the airport, so I waited outside until Mass was over. I wanted to see my wife one more time. I hid in a doorway and watched her come out, her head kerchief accentuating her pretty face as she walked towards the urbana. She got on the bus, and sat by a window. I waved one last time, but she didn’t see me.
I wondered what my son would say when his mother arrived at the house to explain to him that “O pai foi pra América,” followed by an assurance that I would return. Would it break his heart the way it broke mine? I would write to him as soon as I arrived in America to tell him I loved him. I would tell him that I would be coming back as soon as I paid off our dividas. I would have to explain how so much debt had accumulated, faster than I could pay off, how I tried to make everything work but couldn’t.
Berta wanted the new house, the new car, she encouraged me to open up my own grocery store; but I was a lousy businessman. I gave too much credit to everyone, and I was lousy at collecting what they owed me. After a year of trying, I was forced to shut down the mercearia, across from the Convento de Santo André. To pay my creditors, I started borrowing: at first, small amounts of cash from one friend; then another; and then having to borrow larger amounts from someone else to pay the first friend back; until I owed money to everyone I knew, without the means to pay any of them back.
That’s when the idea of leaving the island for America came to me. My parents, too, agreed that this was the only way out, but they feared that my wife would never let me go. She was too attached to me. We had been together since she was thirteen and I was the only man she had ever known.
To my surprise, she eventually, but reluctantly, agreed to let me go. Everyone knew that the only way to fix an impossible financial situation was to immigrate to the land of money. Berta knew that, too. She had to swallow her pride and submit to the truth that this was the only possible solution that would save our lives. She agreed only on the condition that I return as soon as our debts were paid off.
How could I say all this to my little boy?
How would he understand?
It was a long day of travel from Ponta Delgada but I finally arrived in America. Luckily, without knowing a word of English, I managed to get through customs. The Boston airport was bigger than anything I had seen on our island. I tried to find my way toward the exit doors. I held on to my small suitcase with the address of my tios in my hand to show the taxi driver.
“Ó, senhor Antonio!” I turned around and was surprised to see someone I knew from back home. “O que é que o senhor Antonio está a fazer aqui?” my compatriot asked what I was doing there. “Ó Senhor José, como é que isto é possível? How is this possible, to meet you here, so far away from our island home?” I replied, overjoyed. I showed him the piece of paper with the address of where I was going. He recognized the address in New Bedford, and said that it was outside of Boston, very far from the airport. Massachusetts was a big place, he said, but luckily, he lived in Fall River, and he would drive me all the way there and then I could take a taxi from his house to my final destination. I smiled with relief. O Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres always had a way of taking care of me.
Senhor José kept an eye for the relative he had come to pick up and when he spotted him he waved and soon there were embraces of reunion before we headed out to his car. Senhor José drove for a long time. There were lights along the highway that kept on going forever. I think we could have circled the entire island of São Miguel more than once by the time he stopped the car. His wife welcomed me and their relative with a big smile. I hoped I would get the same happy reception when my tios saw me at their door. I waited by the warmth of their front hall until the taxi arrived. Senhor José said something I could not understand to the driver, wished me boa sorte with a firm handshake and promised that we would see other again.
The ride to New Bedford felt like a long way to go and I worried about having enough cash on me to pay the driver. I was very tired after a long day of travel. Two flights, the first from São Miguel to Santa Maria on the small SATA, and from there, to the biggest airplane I had ever seen.
It would be about three o’clock in the morning back home. My wife and son – my family – would be asleep. I wondered what os tios would say when they saw me. Now that I was almost at their house, I regretted that I hadn’t written to ask permission to come stay with them first. But what if they had said no? It would be much harder for them to send me away once they saw me at their front door. I prayed an ave maria that they would take me in.
The taxi cab slowed down and stopped. The driver pointed to the corner house. I paid him with my new American dollars and waved for him to go. I didn’t want him to be there in case my relatives told me that I could not stay. If I was without a ride, they were more likely to let me in. Once the car drove off, the silence of the night was unbearable and I trembled in the cold air as I walked up the front steps and reached for the doorbell of the house all in darkness.
A startling loud ring announced my presence but it also determined my future.
There was silence again, and it felt like I had been waiting for hours before I heard any sound. Finally, a light went on, the door opened and a tall man, groggy with sleep, wearing pyjamas, looked out into the darkness with surprise. It had to be Uncle Frank. I gave him the biggest smile. I hoped he would not see how nervous I felt. “Sou o Antonio, o filho da Maria.” I said to reassure him who I was.
“Antonio? Como é que você chegou aqui?”
Before I could explain how I got there, Aunt Penny appeared, timidly standing behind her husband, clutching her bathrobe around her chest. She, too, peered out to see me with unexpected disbelief. The couple stood still as if guarding the entrance to their home, perhaps hoping that they were only dreaming and that I would soon vanish.
I begged them for forgiveness for this late-night intrusion and also for not warning them of my visit. I asked them to, at least, allow me to stay for the night. I would be happy to leave in the morning, I said, immediately regretting saying it just in case they took me up on my word.
They looked at each other and said something in English. They then looked at me. To my relief, Uncle Frank waved for me to enter but warned me that I had a few days to find another place to stay. They had been severely let down before by other relatives and family friends, he said, who knowing that Uncle Frank had already made a success of it in America, descended upon their home with the hope of tapping into their good fortune. All of these relatives had proven to be ungrateful for the assistance given to them and Uncle Frank and Aunt Penny had sworn that they would no longer try and help any of the increasing number of arrivals from the homeland who knocked on their door, announced or not.
I assured them that they would not regret taking me in. I would not let them down. I had come for work, any kind of work I could find. Aunt Penny nodded as she looked me in the eye, but I could sense that she was doubtful of my sincerity when she looked away.
She showed me to their kitchen, spotlessly clean, full of modern appliances Berta could not even dream of. “Luckily we just finished Thanksgiving dinner and there’s plenty of leftovers in the refrigerator. I’ll put a plate out for you.” I sat down at the kitchen table and never ate with so much pleasure in my life. When I finished, she took me to a small room next to the kitchen and said that I could sleep there for the night, and that we would talk further in the morning. I thanked her for everything. The worst was over. I was now safe and warm, at least for that first night, and I tried to sleep, dreaming of my wife and son, missing them terribly and wondering how their first day went without me.
30 de Novembro de 1964, New Bedford, Massachusetts,
Querida esposa e filho,
É com muita saudade que escrevo esta carta para dizer que, graças a Deus, cheguei a New Bedford e tudo correu muito bem. Os tios ficaram surpreendidos quando me viram à porta, mas depois, no outro dia, disseram-me que podia ficar por algum tempo. Tenho andado a trabalhar no armezem do tio, arrumando as coisas, limpando tudo, que ficou como uma maravilha. Tenho brincado muito com o Chico, o filho deles. Às vezes estou cansado e preferia dormir mas tenho que lhes agradar para ver se me deixam ficar aqui até eu poder arranjar algum emprego. Como está o meu querido filho, que tantas saudades tenho dele. Um grande beijo e abraço para ti, minha querida, e para o nosso filho. Adeus. Antonio
My darling wife and son,
It is with much longing that I write to tell you that, thanks to God, I arrived in New Bedford and everything turned out well. My aunt and uncle were very surprised when they saw me at their doorstep but, on the following day, they said that I could stay for a little while. I’ve been working in Uncle Frank’s warehouse, organizing the cluttered shelves, cleaning everything, making it all look good. I play with Chico, their son. Sometimes, I am tired and would prefer to sleep but I have to please them while I live in their house and until I can find some other work. How is my dear son? I miss him very much. A big kiss and hug for you and our son. Goodbye for now, Antonio.
14 de Dezembro de 1964, Ponta Delgada
Meu querido e saudoso marido,
Foi com lagrimas nos olhos que li a tua carta, que fiquei tão contente em saber que tudo te correu bem. Eu vou indo muito triste como podes calcular mas, paciência, teve de ser assim. Espero que voltes mais cedo do que mais tarde. O nosso filho está bom, continua a gostar da escola mas tem muitas saudades tuas. Não te demores a escrever-me o mais breve possível com notíçias tuas. A tua esposa que te ama até a morte, Berta.
My darling and missed husband,
It was with tears in my eyes that I read your letter. I was very happy to learn that everything went well upon your arrival. I am very sad without you, as you can imagine but, I have to be patient, it had to be this way. I hope that you will return to us sooner than later. Our son is well. He continues to enjoy school but misses you terribly. Please write back as soon as you can.
Your wife, who loves you until death, Berta.
3 de Abril de 1965, Ponta Delgada
Ofereço esta fotografia de mim e do nosso querido fillho ao meu sempre querido e saudoso marido como prova do grande amôr que te dedico. Aceita o coração cheio de saudades da tua espôsa muito amiga e filho, Berta e Emanuel.
I send this photograph of me and of our dear son to my always dear and missed husband as proof of my love. Accept this heart full of longing from your wife and your son, Berta and Emanuel
19 de Junho de 1965, Toronto, Canadá
Quero que saibas que estou agora em Toronto vivendo na casa da minha irmã Ilda. O tio levou-me até á fronteira e atravessei para o Canadá perto de Niagra Falls. Que grande país é este. Estou a trabalhar na construção, tenho que me levantar pelas quatro horas da manhã e o trabalho é duro mas, graças a Deus que já te posse enviar algum dinheiro para começar a pagar as nossas dividas. Não sei quando poderei voltar. Talvez que eu fique aqui mais um ano para ver se endireitamos a nossa vida. Dá um grande beijo e abraço no meu querido filho, que tantas saudades tenho dele e de ti também, minha querida. Teu esposo, Antonio
I want to let you know that I am now living with my sister Ilda in Toronto. Uncle Frank drove me to the border and I entered Canada at Niagara Falls. What a big country this is. I’m working in construction now. I have to get up at four in the morning; the work is hard but, thanks to God, I can already send you some money so that we can start paying off our debts. I have no idea when I’ll be able to return. Perhaps I’ll stay here one more year and let’s see if that will allow us to straighten out our life. Give a big kiss and a hug to my dear son, I miss him so much and you, too, my darling. Your husband, Antonio.
27 de Junho de 1965, Toronto, Canadá
Desejo ao meu querido filho uns anos felizes na companhia da mãe e avós, deste teu pai que te ama tanto. Estou muito contente que vais passar de classe, recebe um beijo e abraço deste teu pai, Antonio.
I wish my dear son a very happy birthday in the company of your mother and grandparents, from your father who loves you very much. I am glad to know that you will are doing well in school. A kiss and hug. Your father, Antonio
21 de Maio de 1966, Toronto, Canadá
Meu querido filho,
Parabéns pela tua primeira comunhão. Envio-te esta fotografia para veres como celebramos aqui no Canadá o teu dia tão feliz. Um grande abraço para o meu filho com muitas saudades. Teu pai, Antonio.
My dear son,
Congratulations on your First Communion Day. I am sending you this photograph so that you can see how we celebrated your happy day here, in Canada. A big hug for you, my son. Missing you very much. Your father, Antonio.
18 de Agosto de 1967, Ponta Delgada
Como se passa o tempo tão lentamente e eu sempre com tantas saudades tuas. Envio-te esta fotografia que tirei juntamento com o nosso querido filho em frente da forte de São Braz para veres come ele está a crescer, ele com nove anos e eu com trinta e quatro. Um grande beijo e abraço desta tua esposa, Berta.
How slow time is going by and me always with such longing for you. I am sending you this photograph of me and our son, taken in front of forte São Braz so that you can see how he’s growing, he at nine and me at thirty-four years of age. A big kiss and hug from your wife, Berta.
1 de Dezembro de 1968, Toronto, Canadá
É com muita alegria que te mando dizer que estou proximo a regressar à nossa querida ilha de São Miguel. Espera por mim no dia 20 de Dezembro. Até aquele dia feliz. Um beijo e abraço cheio de saudade, Antonio.
It’s with great joy that I am letting you know that I will be returning very soon to our dear island of São Miguel. I will arrive on December 20. Until that happy day, I send you a kiss and a hug full of longing, Antonio.
I walked down the stairs of the same SATA airplane that had taken me away, and touched the soil of my native land again eager to be reunited with my wife and son. And there they were, she looking beautiful and smiling and he so tall, already a young man. I rushed to embrace her and she hugged me tight but when I reached out my arms to my son, he stood stiffly, not even looking at me. I imagined he was just shy but that he would soon warm up to me again.
It felt good to be back after three Christmas away. I watched my son arrange the presépio, the Nativity with the old clay figurines of the shepherds and their little sheep, the Three Kings with their gifts, the tiny houses and animals, all made of barro, and the village scenes of a matança and a procession. I had missed the sweet fragrance of pine branches and cedar boughs with golden bells, tied with red ribbon, covered with silver tinsel; the plates of trigo on top of the bedroom dresser; coconut balls with Rum and other sweets she and her mother made; and a bottle of sweet licor de Maracujá on the dining room table.
When the New Year came, I told my wife that there was a good life waiting for us in Canada and that we should start it as soon as possible. “Vens comigo, mas vais ter de trabalhar.” She would have to work in our new country. Everyone worked in Canada. She worried about taking our son out of school in the middle of the year but I assured her that he could start school once we arrived in Toronto.
It was hard for my wife to leave her parents but she would not let me go back alone either, and on February 4 of 1968 we left for Canada. I assured my in-laws that we would come back one day, but I already knew that we most likely would never return. A life of opportunity was before us and so we ventured out to start a new home.
My father’s venture into a new country turned out well. He enjoyed a good life in Canada, surrounded by his parents, sisters, nieces and nephews. Luckily, we always remained a close-knit family and could rely on each other to remind us of our origins in the Azores. I am full of gratitude for my father’s journey of promise.