The First Communion

The taxi had finally arrived. The driver watched Eulália Dias as she descended from her front porch one heavy step at a time. He got out of the cab to open the back door for her, smiled an apology for being late, and asked where she was headed.

“I go to St. Helen’s Church on Dundas, you know where it is? But I need to sit in the front seat because of my legs. Please, you have to hurry. I’m going to be late for my granddaughter’s First Communion.”

Read the full short story at Cleaver.

Read review by Susan Riggs

 

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Thread of Tenderness

drawing-by-jamey-mcdonaldDrawing by Jamey McDonald

Today marks my 49th anniversary of emigrating from the Azores to Canada. This past week I have spent time in Montreal, the first place I set foot on North American soil on a cold February day in 1968. The memory of this date came to me in the middle of doing an interview for a radio community program, Palavras Partilhadas, at Radio Centre-Ville 102.3 FM., on yet another February cold Montreal day.

I took delight in the significance of the coincidence of time and place, as I was in Montreal to attend the reception at the Centre d’histoire de Montréal for the new exhibit, Fil de tendresse/Fio de ternura/Thread of tenderness.

Joaquina Pires, the curator of the exhibit, explains how hearing a reading of my short story, Avó lives alone, inspired her to discover her community’s experience of grandparents-grandchildren. The result is a well thought-out, important document that, although rooted in Luso-Montreal families and their stories, speaks truthfully of the experiences of other communities. The themes of loneliness and isolation, inclusion and participation in family life, transcend specific cultural groups.

Regardless of the name given to our parents’ parents, avó, avô, abuela, abuelo, nonna, nonno, grand-mère, grand-père, grandma, grandpa, all cultures share one essential thing: no matter how small or tentative the connection and depending on health, ability, temperament, physical distance, among other factors that are usually beyond their control, most grandparents want to have a relationship with their grandchildren.

The exhibit invites us to pause and consider the value and place of grandparents in the lives of their grandchildren and to find ways to integrate them into the fabric of the family. Often, for shut-ins, living alone, a simple telephone call is enough to sustain them for days. These are threadbare relationships that are completely at the mercy of time-running-out, either because grandchildren grow up too fast or because grandparents almost always die first and, indeed, for most human-beings it is the loss of a grandparent which introduces them to grief.

The families who participated in the project through photographs, interviews, videos and texts, reveal a vast array of experiences, many of them positive and giving us reason to celebrate the fact that so many grandchildren value their grandparents and make them an integral part of their lives. The memory of a special relationship between grandparent and grandchild can live on forever. I have come across many young adults who tell me, often with a “thread of tenderness”, about the place their grandparents have in their lives; and how, when the grandparent is gone, they cling to the memory of a story told, or a simple embrace, a smile, or a kiss given, as threads that bind their memories forever. Indeed, a “thread of tenderness” as the title of this exhibit shows, is often all we have to cling to.

Photos of exhibit

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Crashing into waves of existence

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It seems to me that in our lives we only experience a few moments of clarity, lucid glimpses of events, emotions, and feelings that impregnate our consciousness and surface in-between moments of distraction or absentmindedness; when we are lost in a sunset, observing bright light dappling through foliage, walking in deep woods, or watching ocean waves galloping madly to shore. It is in these rare moments that we become fully alive and then, tired of the exhilaration of awareness, we collapse back into our dormant dreamlike state of existence.

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Christmas Mourning

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I came across this discarded tree with wreath on my walk the day after Christmas.

This year, we did not get a Christmas tree. In fact, last year we didn’t get one, either. But I do love a Christmas tree, a real tree. In years past, we normally get the tree on the first week of Advent and decorate it with ornaments collected over the years, so full of memories and meaning, each bringing back a moment of joy, and then we wait until the Feast of Kings before undressing the tree. I always feel saddened as we carry it out our front door into the cold, after so many weeks of receiving pleasure from the scent and presence of the Spruce next to the warmth and glow of the fireplace in our living room.

The day after Christmas, early in the morning, I went for a walk and was shocked to see our neighbour’s still healthy green tree already tossed out into the sidewalk. There was something sad and forlorn about it: Christmas cast away, ended, disposed of, no longer wanted or needed, after the stroke of midnight; the celebration over with one of its ubiquitous symbol thrown out in a hurry. But why the rush to get rid of it? On that same walk, I came across other trees that, equally loved until Christmas Night, were now lying naked, cut, abandoned, and already waiting for Pick-Up day. No doubt they will be shredded to provide good mulch for the soil, but the thought of these trees, grown explicitly for one night of glory, unsettles my conscious.

Perhaps I am too sensitive to the plight of Christmas trees, but maybe my unease comes from seeing something much deeper and disturbing about human behaviour: our ease and ability to proclaim undying love one day, to praise with a sense of wonder, and then to quickly cast off, or even destroy, the very person or thing we no longer need or want the next day because we are fickle and tire easily of sameness.

My mother tells me the story of an old neighbour, a Senhora Conceição, who in those old days, would knock at the door and remind my grandmother to save the Christmas tree trunk for her. “A vizinha há-de me dar o tronco.” She asked for the trunk so that she could make little vases out of the wood, which she would then paint and give to friends as decorations. It was a kind of artesanato, my mother reminds me – folk art. And I felt glad to know that my family’s Christmas tree had been, so long ago, transformed into something new, something of whimsical beauty to last beyond Christmas day. I admired Senhora Conceição, even though I don’t know who she was. If she was my neighbour, I would surely save my tree for her transformational magic.

I am thinking that maybe, despite my ecological leanings, I might just feel enough nostalgia next year to get another tree, but I know that I will never be able to toss it out unceremoniously, not without a feeling of regret that I am discarding something beautiful. Perhaps this is the lesson the Christmas tree exhorts me with: to hold on to the good things of life and the beauty therein, until the end, the very end.

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Visiting the Azores now

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I went to the Azores in late September for seventeen glorious days. As with all my previous visits, I go to the island of São Miguel. It’s not that I don’t want to see the other eight islands that make up this mid-Atlantic archipelago, it’s just that I still haven’t had enough of São Miguel to explore Pico, Corvo, São Jorge, Faial, Flores, Santa Maria, Graciosa, Terceira. One day I will, but for now I keep returning to my island, and especially to my city, Ponta Delgada.

I always start my visit with the city. It’s a duty and a sign of respect for the place where I was born. How could I arrive at the airport and just bypass it? Not with my history of leaving it as a child. The city would feel jilted, once again, and so I start there and stay for a respectable four or five days before moving on to the countryside.

Every time I go back, there is always the familiar waiting for me, but each time I also discover something new: a place, a different perspective, a revealed detail. These become part of my soul, my consciousness, and memory. Retracing my steps is my way of making up for those long years of absence. After immigrating to Canada, there were no further visits back. Leaving had been a permanent and final decision, one that had not been mine to make. Going back feels like a rekindling of that old strained relationship, a mending of a misunderstanding, a healing of a wound, and an awkward sense of wondering if the city and I can reconcile.

I’ve gone back several times over the last sixteen years, and each new visit brings me a little closer to a feeling of familiarity and belonging to the city of my childhood.  I’ve developed certain routines when I am there: where I stay, what I do, and who I visit. I am fortunate to have a long list of people to see, and they treat me with kindness and welcome me with open arms; the years of absence never an obstacle to a kiss on the cheek as if they see me always.

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There is only one place I will stay in Ponta Delgada, despite the sincere offer of relatives who would welcome me into their homes. At A Comercial, I am greeted by the staff like an old friend. My room is familiar and welcoming. O Torreão, the Tower Room, is on top of this charming two-story house, impeccably kept and infused with silence. My room has three windows, each providing distinct views. It has the best view of the church of São Sebastião and old terracotta roof tops, stretching out unto the doca and finally the ocean beyond it. I could not ask for better, nor is there better, in my opinion. It’s my home away from home and the owner and I have chats over a galão in the restaurant next door, where the best traditional meals are served cafeteria-style by a cheerful and hardworking group of beautiful women who indulge me by remembering my favourite dishes.

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I love this city, Ponta Delgada. When I leave my room each morning to go walking its streets, my past becomes alive. I still marvel at the beautiful churches, so many for such a small place, each worth a visit, each a part of my childhood. I admire the beautiful old houses with traditional trim in grey and windows with shutters and ironwork motifs.

But as much as I am taken by the charm of the city, with each new visit, I have started to see it less from the heart. All of a sudden, I am aware of the chinks on the walls. It’s like a love relationship that’s lasted beyond the romance stage. I now see a city that, in some ways, feels abandoned, let go to deterioration, desprezada.  The number of houses and buildings  still standing in various degrees of decay, often right next to very well kept houses, is painful to see. And each time I go back, even years later, the same houses are still there, just more neglected, more abandoned. There is a beauty, too, to these abandoned walls and broken windows, but a romantic take on decay can only go so far, and it would be wonderful to see these houses and buildings restored and lived in once more.

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“Houses are people, too. And they need people to live in them.”

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I see a city that is trying to adapt and change, to be modern. There are new hotels, slick and sophisticated, rising above the decrepitude and neglect around them. There is also some restoration work being done to old historical landmarks. For example, the Carlos Machado Museum. It had been closed for over ten years and I was lucky enough to be there for the much anticipated reopening this past September. It’s a beautiful treasure of a place, which includes the old convent church of Santo André, a church we used to go to for mass in the old days, now preserved as a museum space. I also visited the oldest Portuguese Jewish synagogue in the Azores, the Sahar Hassamain (Gates of Heaven), also newly restored and beautiful to see.The old Jesuit church of Todos os Santos was restored several years ago and houses precious art and artifacts worthy of the best churches in Europe.

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There is much to celebrate about Ponta Delgada. Its cultural heritage is quite impressive and unique for a remote city on an isolated island in the mid-Atlantic ocean. But I find walking its narrow cobblestone streets more annoying than pleasurable. I am always jostling to get by parked cars where many sidewalks are so narrow that only one person can walk, single file. These streets were built before the automobile and could have never anticipated the ugliness of today’s oversized cars. The wheels rumble noisily on the street where I stay, the sound is like thunder hitting the pavement.  The sound disappears at night when I sit by my window and listen to the church bells chime the hours. The church tower becomes lit up and I remember with joy that this is the church where I was baptised, had my first communion, and attended all the feasts.

It’s a gift to return often to my city of birth, and to watch it from the window of my room, after a day of wondering the streets and visiting those wonderful people who are still there, connecting me powerfully to my past.

On my last day in the city, I stop at the market, O Mercado da Graça, and drink a glass of freshly squeezed pineapple juice from an entrepreneurial young man who has found a delicious way to entice tourists. He transformed the old market concept into something new, at par with what I might find at the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto.

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After drinking the locally grown sweet pineapple, there is nothing left for me to do but head back to my room to pack and head out to the next part of my the journey, to the sossego do campo, the quiet of the countryside and the ocean, where I walk along black sandy beaches or sit on rocks, and gaze out into the infinite distance, comforted to know that my life in Toronto, a five hour flight away, is there on the other side of the ocean waiting for me.

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For more images of S. Miguel, scroll down past Toronto pictures on my Photos page.

Also on Comunidades Blog.

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Part 4 of Coming to Canada: To the Azores and Back!

coming-do-canada-part-4“Across the Street” by Emanuel Melo

When we arrived back in São Miguel, my mother quickly learned that my grandmother was now in good health and did not need looking after.  She became very angry for making this unnecessary trip and vowed that we would go back to Canada as soon as possible.

We stayed in Ponta Delgada until late-June while my father tried to come up with the money for the return air fare. Until then, I went back to my old school to finish the academic year.  However, the six weeks spent in Toronto had already changed me and I felt like a stranger in my old classroom.  Because I had already learned some English, I found it confusing when we had English language lessons as the English teacher in São Miguel was not pronouncing words the way I remember hearing them in Canada.  Years later, I realized that she was speaking British-English and this explained why, at the time, I did not believe she was speaking English at all.

We finally said goodbye to my grandparents and returned to Toronto several days before my 10th birthday.  My father was overjoyed that we were going to be together again.

Towards the end of July, a letter came to inform us that my grandfather had died of a heart attack seventeen days after my mother and I left the island. I was the one who opened my grandmother’s letter and read the sad news.  It was very hard for me to tell my mother, when she got home from work, that her father had passed away. My grandmother was very sad living alone and decided to come and live with us in Toronto. She arrived in September of that year. Since there was no room available in the Euclid house, my parents’ bedroom was partitioned off with a temporary wooden wall to create a long, narrow corridor with two beds, back to back, for me and my grandmother.

During that first summer in Toronto, my cousins and I explored the city. We collected pop bottles that could be exchanged for a penny. We always made enough change to buy some liquorice sticks or a very sweet ice called a “Lola” which would take a long time to suck on, so you really got your money’s worth!  One day, we made it all the way to Alexandra Park on Bathurst Street, south of the Sanderson Library, and begged the ice cream boy to let us have some ice cream for free.  We teased him, laughed at him, and made lots of noise. He was very annoyed indeed and said, “I wouldn’t give you any ice cream even if you paid me.” A few minutes later one of our relatives walked by and he bought us all ice cream. The boy looked really upset that he had to sell it to us.

Inside the Sanderson Library, newly built around the time of my arrival in Toronto, I began to choose new books to read – English books!  I read all the Dr. Dolittle books, fascinated by the little man who spoke to the animals.  My cousins and I got involved in doing puppet shows in Portuguese at the library.  Our parents came to see us one day performing Snow White.  There was a Portuguese librarian and she helped us to find books in our mother tongue while introducing us to books in English.  Now that I look back, I can see how good it was to have that transition from the only language I knew to my newly acquired language. I never lost my love of good books, and I still read novels in Portuguese.

We also went over to the local fire hall to watch the fire trucks leave the station.  One day, we were standing by the entrance, trying to have some fun with the firemen, when their fire truck blasted loudly, scaring us so much that we jumped up in fear and ran away.

While we were having many adventures that summer and causing mischief whenever we could, our parents were busy working to make a living and to save money to someday buy their own houses.  My paternal grandmother and my youngest aunt went to work at a jeans factory called Carhart’s.  Every kid wore jeans back then but not the Portuguese children.  Our parents would not allow us to wear them because no one wore jeans back home and, according to them, only “bambos,” bums and teenagers with long hair wore them in Canada. Later, my mother and my paternal grandmother went to work at the Irwin Toys factory.  My mother was proud of her job placing wire strings inside the Etch-a-Sketch frames and the white knobs on the outside.  But working in a factory was hard for her because back in São Miguel she had been a housewife and she was very shy around people. However, she understood, as did the other women of my family, that in Canada everyone had to work to make a living.

The good thing about my mother and grandmother working in a toy factory was we kids all had our very own Etch-a-sketch and other toys.  My father worked at Neilson’s Chocolate Factory on Gladstone Avenue in the Shipping and Receiving Department.  He didn’t make the chocolates himself but every Halloween and Christmas he would buy boxes of all the varieties of chocolates they made at the factory and gave them to me and my cousins as presents. My father was known as the chocolate man.

Living in the same house did not last very long for our big family.  Within a year, my parents and I started to move around, staying in several flats in other Portuguese peoples’ houses, until we could afford to buy our own house on Atkins Avenue, near Brock and Dundas.  My youngest aunt and her husband bought a house in “Corktown” at the east end of the city. Sometimes, on Saturdays, I would take the King streetcar on the long ride to go visit my cousins.  They were now truly far away from our Portuguese neighbourhood. On the other hand, my grandparents bought a house on Manning Avenue, right behind the Euclid Avenue house where now only my eldest aunt and her family remained.

Every Sunday our parents would take turns entertaining the family. There was much laughter and fun and great food all the time, especially when it was my paternal grandmother’s turn to host.  She always had a tray full of biscoitos (biscuits), malasadas (a kind of doughnut), and other treats ready for her grandchildren, and she was only happy when her tray of goodies was empty.  Our parents tried to keep all the traditions of their island home alive. They still cooked with chouriço (sausages), morcelas (blood pudding), couves (collard greens), pão de milho (corn bread), and vinho (wine).  We also attended all the festas and processions at St. Mary’s Church on Bathurst Street, where all the Azorean families congregated to relive all the traditions of home, including the most important one of all, “as Festas do Senhor Santo Cristo.”

We children spoke Portuguese at home and English at school.  My cousins and I had fun giving Portuguese titles to all the pop tunes we’d hear on the radio. We renamed all the songs we liked. Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly became “Super Mosca”; Stairway to Heaven became “Escada para o Céu.” We slowly, and without knowing it, learned to blend the tongue of our birth with the language of our adopted land. In time you would hear Portuguese conversations about the “streetcarro” and then we forgot that the word for garbage is not “garbicho” but lixo.  We began to form a new language, a mix of the old words with the new words, and if people back home were to hear us, I am sure, they would have been shocked and disappointed, thinking that we were trying to show off.  What they would not have known is that we began to forget some of the old words as we stopped using them.  But it would take me a few years before I stopped thinking completely in Portuguese, and when that happened, the English language became the most prominent way for me to communicate and express myself to the world.

We all made Canada our permanent home.  I remember how proud my parents were when they became Canadian Citizens and to this day my mother praises this country for giving our family the best lives possible.

I still live in Toronto, now in the east end, near the Scarborough Bluffs. Often, I walk the short distance down my street to the edge of the Bluffs where I can look down below and see Lake Ontario with its vast gentle waves. And when I lean on the fence, overlooking the lake, I am transported back to my childhood home – an island surrounded by an ocean that is wild and vast – an island with magical lakes, hot springs and geysers – an island with green gentle hills and roads overflowing with blue hydrangea bushes – an island rich in religion and colourful feasts – but most of all an island where I remember laughter and joy amongst family and friends in those early years of my childhood.

And every time I gaze out over the lake, I can almost smell the salt sea air of my mid-Atlantic Ocean home, and I wonder if those black and white jersey cows across from our old house are still there.

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  Written in 2008 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of my arrival in Canada.

 

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Part 3 of Coming to Canada: Arriving in Toronto

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My family by Emanuel Melo

When we arrived at my aunt’s house, there was no place for us to stay but the basement. She, her husband and two children lived on the main floor. Upstairs lived my younger aunt and uncle with their three children and my paternal grandparents. That made a total of 14 people in one house! Yet, we somehow managed to get along very well. I think all our parents were so happy to be together again that they did not mind living in such close quarters.

Within a few days of arriving in Toronto, I was sent to school. Luckily, Charles G. Fraser Public School was just a few steps away from our house on Euclid Avenue. My cousins did their best to teach me some English so that I could get by on my first day. Once I arrived in the classroom and the teacher began to ask me questions, all I could answer in return was, “My name is Emanuel Duarte Cabral de Melo.” He kept asking me over and over again and the children were laughing at me. During recess I asked the other Portuguese children what was so funny and they said, “Well, the teacher was asking where you live, how old are you, where do you come from, and all you kept answering was your name.” I was sent to special English classes for new immigrants so that I could learn to get along in my new country. I had to learn to make the “th” sound and learn about the letters w and y. It was all very confusing but after a while I began to understand English.

When my class went out into the school yard to play baseball, I tried very hard to hit the ball with the baseball bat, but no matter how much I tried and no matter how hard the other kids encouraged me to hit it, I never did. We didn’t play baseball back in São Miguel. I had never seen a baseball bat in my life and, besides, I never cared for sports that much anyway. After that first try at hitting the ball, I didn’t go out to play baseball again.

I will never forget how I learned the meaning of “I Love You.” One night, my cousins and I had watched “Whatever happened to Baby Jane” on TV, where frightening Bette Davis, crazy eyed, shouts up from the bottom of the stairs to her bedridden sister, “I LOVE YOU.” I kept thinking of those mysterious words. The way she said them, I thought, they must have meant something awful, and so the next day I asked my cousins what the words meant. They said that if I wanted to find out, I should go up to my oldest cousin and tell her, “I Love You.” She was sweeping the front yard at the time and when I said it to her, she hit me over the head with the broom and my cousins laughed so hard that they were doubling over with laughter. After that, I could not say “I Love You” for a long time.

I was mesmerised by television as this was the best thing about Canada. I was fascinated by all these little people, buildings and cars that somehow fit inside that little box, all in black and white. Every night, after dinner, we would all sit together and watch shows like The Avengers, The Red Skeleton Show, and The Ed Sullivan Show. On Sunday afternoons we watched The Lawrence Welk Show and Tiny Talent Time. Every Saturday night my father, my grandfather and uncles enthusiastically watched Hockey Night in Canada while the women were in the kitchen cleaning up, baking, talking, and sewing. As I spent more time watching television I discovered other shows like Bewitched, Gilligan’s Island and I Love Lucy. These were some of the shows that captured my imagination. The most magical TV moment of all was when we all sat hushed together in awe and watched the first landing on the moon in 1969.

At the end of winter, I liked going outside into the garden to watch the snow start to melt. Snow was still mysterious and wonderful to me and I tried to taste it, surprised by its lightness and blandness. Snow muffled and hushed all outside sounds, creating a silence unknown to me back in São Miguel where street sounds were always loud and alive with the clicking and clacking of animal hoofs and people’s footsteps on the cobblestones. In Canada, all you heard was the muffled swish of cars going up and down the streets through the snow and slush.

Less than two months after our arrival in Canada, my mother received a letter from her brother, who was about to leave São Miguel with his family for a new life in the United States. He wrote how my grandmother was very ill and that my mother should go back to take care of her. My mother was heartbroken. She had spent three years away from her husband and now she was forced to leave him. It was the last day of March, a Saturday, I remember, and my father cried and cried, inconsolably, at the prospect of living without me and my mother again.

I felt stunned, finding myself back at the airport and getting inside an airplane to go back to the Azores without any guarantee that I would ever come back to Canada. This time, the magic of flight was gone.

 

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Word Cloud created by Stephen Dow

 

Written in 2008 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of my arrival in Canada.

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