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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Part 2 of Coming to Canada: Leaving for Toronto

campo-de-santana-by-emanuel-meloCampo de Santana by Emanuel Melo

When my father arrived in New Bedford, Massachusetts, he lived with his aunt and uncle and their son. While there, he found a job pressing suits during the day and, in the evenings and weekends, he took it upon himself to organize his uncle’s warehouse. His uncle was so impressed with how tidy and clean the place looked that he wanted my father to stay a bit longer. However, my father’s US visitor’s document expired after seven months, so he crossed over the border with Canada to live with his older sister, her husband and their two children in the city of Toronto. They had been the first of our relatives to leave the Azores and establish a new life in Canada.

In Toronto, my father did various jobs, including work in construction and other backbreaking manual labour such as jack-hammering concrete near streetcar tracks. He even worked for a time on a tobacco plantation near Georgetown – a town several hours from the city. After three years, my father returned to São Miguel to be with my mother and me. My father had been away so long that I almost did not recognize him. He was like a mysterious stranger from a faraway place that I knew nothing about except for what I saw in the photographs he had sent me over the years.

Two months later, he brought my mother and me to Canada where we joined my cousins, paternal grandparents and my two aunts and uncles. When the day came, we left our house through the darkness of early morning, without even saying goodbye to my maternal grandparents. It was raining hard and we carried suitcases down the wet cobblestone street. I thought we were on our way to visit relatives in the country, but it was only then that my parents told me we were going to Canada. I was so shocked that I wanted to run away. I didn’t want to leave my home, my friends, and my grandparents. I wasn’t even given a chance to choose a favourite book or toy to take with me.

We walked to my mother’s best friend’s house where we changed from our wet clothes into our travelling clothes. My mother had sewn a brand new dress for the trip and a new suit for me. From there we travelled to the airport. In those days, the local people jokingly called the airport in São Miguelaero vacas,” as it was nothing more than a big field where cows grazed nearby. There was a small shelter room where we waited for the SATA airplane to come and take us away. I watched people saying goodbye to each other with only their tears and embraces.

It was my first time seeing an airplane up close. Up until then, an airplane was a thin matchstick moving across the sky once a week over our house. But now, I walked toward the grass runway and climbed the stairs to get inside a real airplane. It was so small that it could only carry twelve passengers. I was so nervous about this new adventure that I wanted to stay by my parents’ side for the flight. However, the stewardess escorted me to the very front where I was to sit by myself behind the cockpit. “O menino fica aqui,” she told me, “Little boy, you stay here.” As soon as her back was turned I ran back to my parents, but was sternly brought back to my solitary seat where I could see the pilot and his panel full of strange instruments. I was very scared, indeed.

Soon, the engine began to roar and the small propellers began to spin round and round. The airplane started to move and then, without any warning, the little aircraft lifted from the ground and made its way up, up into the blue Azorean sky. I was mesmerised by the view out of the small round window as I watched the greenest parcel of earth get farther and farther away from me until the sight of the blue hydrangea, marking the highways and fields, blurred with the blue of the vast sky and ocean below.

We landed very shortly on another island, Santa Maria. This was the island where the big jet airplanes landed and took off with immigrants to Canada. There must have been some engine trouble, or some other reason to keep us there, because we had an unexpected stay on this island for several days. We stayed in a hotel where there was a large dining room with big round tables decorated with linen tablecloths and napkins and plates with rolls and butter. Every night, after dinner, all the children would leave their parents’ tables and go sit on the floor to hear a singer and a band play.

The day finally came for our departure. The Air Pacific airplane was a hundred times bigger than the little SATA one that brought us to Santa Maria. I was given a window seat next to my parents where I could always see a bit of land outside the window until I realized that what I was looking at was only the long wing of the airplane.

After many hours flying across the Atlantic Ocean, we first landed in Montreal. It was February and we had to walk down a flight of stairs onto the tarmac before heading for the shelter of the airport. In my little cotton grey suit I could feel a cold that I had never felt before. And I saw something so foreign to me: snow! It was like a beautiful blanket covering everything in white. In São Miguel our winters were only rain and damp wet weather. But here, there wasn’t a sign of green anywhere at all. To me, Canada was just grey and white and that was very strange to see.

From Montreal we took a connecting flight to Toronto. My cousins, aunts and uncles, and my grandparents were waiting for us at the airport. I had not seen my little cousins for a long time, but they still looked just as I had remembered. I was so glad to see them that I almost forgot how much I missed my home in São Miguel. I also met my other two cousins who had come over to Canada when they were very little. Now, I would be living in their house along with the rest of the family.

I found myself very far away from my green island home, and suddenly in the middle of a vast city, made up of tall buildings and long wide streets, all spread out in a perfect grid going far into infinity.

coming-to-canada-part-2World Cloud created by Stephen Dow

 

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

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Part 1 of Coming to Canada: My Azorean Childhood

Ponta Delgada by Emanuel Melo

A long time ago, I was born on an island, right in the middle of the great Atlantic Ocean. My childhood years were spent on São Miguel, the biggest of the nine islands that make up the Azores. My family and I lived in the port city of Ponta Delgada, where Portuguese explorers arrived and began to populate the island in the 1430s. Our house was on the outskirts of the city, away from the ocean view and up toward the road leading out to other towns with names like Arrifes, Fajã de Cima, Fenais da Luz, Ribeira Grande, and far away Nordeste, home to my father’s family. Travelling along these country roads you would see miles and miles of blue hortênsias (hydrangea bushes), or nevelões, as we locally called the flowers that graced the sides of our dirt highways and overflowed from the black stone walls that separated the fields from one another.

Across from our house there was a small farm with a cow pasture surrounded by a wall made of black volcanic stones. As a little boy, I loved leaning on my parents’ bedroom window sill on sunny days and watching the white and black Jersey cows graze lazily on the field grass. In September, the time of the harvest, I would lean on the same window sill and watch the farmers cut the wheat and corn that had grown all summer long. Then, it would be taken away in big wagons drawn by sturdy oxen that swayed from side to side, chewing and drooling while carrying their big loads down to the busy market in the heart of the city. Every Friday in the early morning, our street would come alive with the sounds of the visiting farmers who came down from the other towns with their cattle, sheep, horses and carts filled high with hay to take to market. Again, I would watch from the window. Our sidewalk was so narrow that with all the animals and carts and the farmers with their black-shawled wives walking down the street, it was impossible to stand outside our front door.

Cascading over the volcanic black stone wall across the street were beautiful small white roses with prickly green leaves. Sometimes I would walk over and pick some to decorate my little shoe box altar to the Blessed Virgin Mary. These I would place in little vases on either side of the tiny altar. I made candles by rolling a long strip of coloured paper into tight round circles and then by pulling the paper up, I would form a candle. Flowers in place and candles made, I was ready to play church. I tried to make my altar look just like the one in the Matriz (parish church) of São Sebastião where I went to mass every Sunday. This beautiful church was many centuries old and still had its handsome Manuelino style doorway from the 16th century. The arches inside the church were made of caramel coloured stone set against stark white walls. The main altar was a magnificent baroque treasure. On either side of the nave there were several small side altars, all with niches elaborately carved out of rosewood with gold leaf and beautiful statues of saints showcased in them: Santo António, São José, and the loveliest of all, Nossa Senhora de Fátima, with a cascading array of roses on her altar, and tall candle sticks rising above the flowers, just like my little shoebox altar at home.

Every year, on the Monday after Easter, the Procissão dos Enfermos (Procession for the Sick) would pass by our street. The neighbours got up very early in the morning and made beautiful “carpets” out of flower petals and an assortment of coloured sawdust in intricate designs in the middle of our black cobblestoned street. This was to honour the Blessed Sacrament, carried by a priest who went to visit the sick of the parish to give them communion at home. He stood under a gold embroidered canopy carried by four men. The priest had a liturgical shawl around his shoulders made of fine silk and gold, and he covered the base of the gold monstrance while he held it up to show the host inside of its round centre, radiating the Divine Presence. People would stand on the street to watch the procession then kneel as soon as the priest would pass by them. An altar boy would lead, incensing the Blessed Sacrament, and the clouds of smoke would envelope the canopy and the priest within it. It was all very sombre and magical.

There were many other processions, where groups of men wearing red capes called “opas” would carry the “andor” (a litter) on their shoulders supporting the statue of the Virgin Mary on it or other saints that were being honoured. Little girls dressed in angel costumes with big white feather wings attached to their back always took part in the processions. All the houses displayed their best colchas (bedspreads) made of silk or linen which would be draped over second floor window balconies, decorating the houses in an array of beautiful colours and designs.

Once the procession passed by, and the people went back into their houses, I would go out into the street and gather as much of the coloured sawdust from the trampled decorated “carpets” as I could carry. Afterwards, inside my enclosed yard, I would make my own “carpets” of sawdust and play procession with my little primos (cousins) who lived with me. I would take the lead role and carry a big banner at the head of the procession, then they would follow me in great solemnity as we sang hymns to our Blessed Lady.

A treze de Maio, na cova da Iria,

apareceu brilhando, a Virgem Maria,

Ave, Ave, Ave, Maria,

Ave, Ave, Ave, Maria.

The biggest feast on the island was always after Easter when the procession of O Senhor Santo Cristo would go through all the city streets followed by the “arraial” (fair) in Campo de São Francisco in the evening. That’s when the filarmónicas (big brass bands) played into the late hours in the “corete” (a bandstand) and all the streets were decorated with colourful lights and garlands made of fresh flowers and paper lanterns. People came from all the towns of the island to attend the “festa” and to show their great devotion to the statue of the miraculous Christ, a gift to the island from Pope Paul III in the 16th century. The statue of the “Ecce Homo” is a bust of Jesus, with a crown of thorns made of gold, his bloody face looking at you with tenderness, his shoulders draped in a red fabric cape with gold embroidered on it, holding a golden sceptre in his tied hands.

The people look up to the statue with devotion, begging God to grant them healing and to cure them of all sorts of illnesses. Many women and men would crawl on their knees around the Campo de São Francisco, carrying tall círios (candles) in their arms to “cumprir uma promessa” (to fulfil a promise) they made to Senhor Santo Cristo, if He granted them their wishes. The statue is kept in a beautiful convent covered with Portuguese blue and white azulejos (decorative tiles), showing the life of a saintly nun, Teresa da Anunciada, who promoted the cult of the Holy Santo Cristo back in the 17th century. The last time I saw this special procession in São Miguel was when I was nine years old with my mother and my maternal grandparents.

Everyone who immigrated from the Azores, and especially from the island of São Miguel, brought their love and devotion of O Senhor Santo Cristo to wherever they went, especially to Toronto, where at St. Mary’s Church there has been an annual feast and procession of O Senhor Santo Cristo since the 1960’s.

Another important feast was that of São João Baptista, which took place every twenty-fourth of June. Each neighbourhood would celebrate the feast with street decorations and huge fogueiras (bonfires) lit in the centre of the street at night time. The boys and men jumped over these fogueiras for fun. I was never allowed to join in. But one thing I could do on the feast of São João Baptista was to gather hortelã (mint) and alecrim (rosemary) and other fragrant herbs and add them to a bowl of water that would be left outside overnight for St. John’s blessing. In the morning we would wash our faces with this cool soothing water and feel clean and fresh and holy.

When I wasn’t playing processions, attending festas, or going to church, I tended to my silk worms, kept inside a shoe box, where they built their cocoons. I would walk up the street to a house that sold the right kind of leaves for a silk worm to eat. Hanging outside the door was a leaf to let people know that you could buy it there. Other houses might have a “couve” leaf hanging outside the door to let people know that you could buy collard greens to make “caldo verde” soup. After bringing the fresh leaves home, I would freshen up the box and watch the silkworms take little bites out of the tender green leaves. But it was the cocoons they made that were the most interesting to watch: round yellow cocoons, hidden in a shroud of sticky gauze material that the silkworm wove around the cocoon before it would break open to reveal the delicate butterfly inside.

I had a pair of white rabbits given to me every summer. Every day I had to make sure that they got enough carrots and other vegetables to eat. I also had to clean out their big cage, which was always full of small black pellets. My two rabbits entertained me for hours and I even learned how to twitch my nose just like they did. My mother told me to stop doing that. Every year, in December, my mother would take me to the Convento da Esperança, where we delivered my poor little rabbits as a spiritual gift offering for the nuns in thanksgiving to St. Lucia who had cured me of an eye infection when I was a baby. I wished I could have kept my rabbits but I had no choice but to give them up and wait for new rabbits the following summer.

I remember once when I had to be taken to the hospital to have my chin stitched up. It was laundry day and I was playing with the dirty sheets. The washing was done in the yard, inside a big tank where clothes got scrubbed by hand and then hung up to dry. The ground was all cement. I took a big white sheet from the dirty pile, wrapped it around my shoulders like a cape and twirled myself around, faster and faster, while the sheet floated in the air and I became very dizzy indeed. Boom, I fell down face first and cracked my chin open. I ran upstairs yelling for my mother. It felt like my chin was this big gaping hole, blood flowing everywhere. My mother panicked. “Ai, Jesus,” she screamed. My father drove me to the hospital where they stitched my chin.

On the way home, to make me feel better, my father stopped the car, and walked across the street to a toy shop where he bought me a little iron I had wanted for a long time. I liked to gather all the little scraps of fabric from my mother’s sewing kit and I made little dresses and pants for my cousins’ dolls. The toy iron was needed so that I could press the brand new clothes. I knew how to use a needle and thread because I watched my mother make all kinds of home-made clothes, like dresses, shorts and shirts. In those days, most of the clothes you wore were made at home and not store bought. My mother was a great costureira (seamstress).

School was a very serious place. We sat in neat rows of old-fashioned desks that had a hole on top of the desk which held a porcelain inkwell. In those days, we learned to write with fountain pens and would always get our fingers stained with black ink that spilled out from the nib. In drawing classes we used aguarelas (watercolours). A special uniform called a bata was worn and every morning we would stand at attention and sing the national anthem – Heróis do Mar – before saying our morning prayers. We learned that the most important thing to do was to respect and obey our Pátria (our Country), and our Santa Igreja Católica (Holy Catholic Church).

I loved books and very often had new ones bought for me. One day, when I was seven, while in a book store with my mother, I wanted her to buy me a particular book that she could not afford to buy. I got really angry when she said “não” so I stormed out of the store and walked all the way home from downtown to our house. On the way, I walked past my paternal grandmother, who was shocked to see me walking alone without my mother on the busy streets of Ponta Delgada. “Onde está a tua mãe?” where is your mother, she asked. I lied and told her that I was sent home to get her rosary while she stayed in church waiting for Mass to start. My grandmother’s mouth dropped for she could not believe my mother would ask me to walk home alone. I kept on walking, never realizing that my mother was following me as fast as she could. When she got home, my mother was very angry and wanted to hit me with a sturdy clothes brush. But my maternal grandmother stood in her way, protecting me as I hid under the table.

All my avós (grandparents) lived with us. Upstairs, there were my maternal grandparents. Avó stayed at home and took care of the house. Avô was a serralheiro, a blacksmith. I loved to stop by his oficina, his shop, after school to see the red hot iron tongs go up in smoke as they were plunged in the water to cool them down. Downstairs lived my paternal grandparents. They came from the country, from far away Achada, in the district of Nordeste. Avó made delicious country soups with feijão (beans), couves (collards greens), and other wonderful vegetables, with a touch of chouriço (sausage) added to the soups for flavour. I had a set of clay dishes that I bought during one of the festas and I would go into her kitchen and ask her to fill up my little pot with her hot fresh soup. Avô had been a barber back in Achada and a carpenter on the island of Terceira at the American Military base.

One of my aunts, with her three children, also came from Achada to live downstairs in our house on Caminho da Fajã de Cima, while their father worked on the big cruise ships that left the doca (the dock) of Ponta Delgada every few months. When they came to live with us, my father had already left the island. He had owned Mercearia Esperança, a grocery store, right across from the old church of Santo André and sometimes I would stay with him at the store and watch him work. One day in November, when I was six years old, my mother told me that he had gone away to America. I was so upset that I hid under the skirt of my mother’s Singer sewing machine table. I didn’t understand why my father had to leave. My mother tried to explain he went away to find work so that we could have a better life. Why did we need to have a better life than the one we had already? I just wanted to be with my pai. But with time, I learned to live with the idea that my father was gone.

I liked school and playing with my friends. I had a pião, (a top), and I would wind it up with a special string and then let it spin on the ground. This was fun. Or we would play with marbles. But at home I would sit by myself and do drawings with my aguarelas or I would read one of my favourite books, A Gata Borralheira, A Herdade da Branquinha, O Touro Azul, A Branca de Neve, all in Portuguese. In the Azores we spoke only in Portuguese. Sometimes, I would hear English music coming from the juke box of the café across from my school. The same year that I left the island, it was “We all live in a yellow submarine” that was being played. At that time I did not know who the Beatles were nor did I know their music. That came later when I went to Canada. My friends and I liked to sing along to that English song even though we did not know what the words meant; we just liked the melody.

While my father was away, my mother and I would go out on Sunday afternoons to visit her fine lady friends. At these parties I had to wear my best suit and bow tie. Her friends’ tea parties were very proper and grown up. I didn’t mind going to them because there was always a table covered with delicious treats: everything from pastéis de nata (custard tarts) to bolas de coco (coconut balls) and marzipan shaped into peras (pears) or laranjas (oranges) or morangos (strawberries). Every kind of cake imaginable graced the table, like bolo de ananás (pineapple cake) and bolo de laranja (orange cake). It was all there for me to try, except the licores (liqueurs) made of varied fruits. Those were only for the ladies to drink. One time, I was given a tea cup, a proper china tea cup to drink from. My mother taught me the proper way to hold it with my fingers and not my hands. The cup was very heavy and my fingers were very tiny. I almost let the cup fall down along with the hot tea but I tried really hard and was able to lift it up to my lips and take a sip without spilling a drop. And, even though we had eaten so many sweets by the end of the party, my mother always stopped on the way home at the pastelaria to buy some hard sugar coated biscuits to share later with our evening chá (tea).

And so, for three years, while my father was away working hard, I continued with my studies, did my drawings, read my books, and spent time with my friends. Finally, the day came when my paternal grandparents left for Canada, followed by my aunt and my little cousins. On the morning they left, I lay very still in bed fingindo (pretending) to be asleep. I could hear them approach my bed, trying quietly to give me a goodbye kiss without waking me. After their departure our home felt empty with only my mother, my maternal grandparents, and me waiting for my father to come back.

Coming to Canada WORD CLOUD Word Cloud created by Stephen Dow

In 2008, to mark the 40th anniversary of my arrival in Canada, I wrote this story of the journey from my place of birth in the Azores to start my life in Toronto, as a gift for my family; especially for the younger generation. It was and is my hope that, through my writing, this Canadian-born generation will have a tiny glimpse into a faraway world that still resides inside of me.

 

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