Ten years away, and so much had changed. Familiar faces were gone, or
lined with the passage of time. What we call “progress” changed
streets, businesses, the layout of a city etched deep in my memory. And
my old home lay in shambles, even if it was no longer mine and had never
been a perfect home for me.
I still see Mother bent over her pink roses in the front yard of this,
the first house our family owned in Brazil. The house was boxy and ungainly
like the fat hens she could never bear to serve for dinner. It looked
out onto the one-block dirt street, a short street with a long name: Rua
Visconde de Inhaúma. The life of the city really began at the corner,
with the grocery store, with the pavement. Outsiders in Brazil, our life
was here in the green wood-sided house.
One hundred and seventy-nine was our number, my number, part of my memories
forever. I have trod up and down sandy sun-washed embankments in
my dreams, the unfinished slopes of my life. It must be Rua Visconde
de Inhaúma that I cross again and again. It must be the rooms of
the old wood siding house, with peeling green paint, that I enter in my
dreams of decades later.
The roses were one of Mother's erratic efforts at beauty. She also planted
a papaya tree in front, just a little sprout like me, or perhaps it came
up spontaneously, uninvited like me, from a casually dropped seed. Whatever
its origin, when I left fifteen years later, the papaya tree shaded the
roof with graceful fronds and continuously converted tiny green balls
into large yellow fruit that from time to time hit the ground below with
a flat thud.
Three steps crudely shaped of concrete and plaster, someone's wishful
approximation of a quarter circle, opened in a stone embrace to the street
and led up to the front porch. The family never used this pseudo-grand
entrance. It was saved for special occasions, such as Father's birthday,
when his Baptist congregation came to pay yearly respects to the minister.
In real life we walked down the driveway and entered through the kitchen,
then into the dining room, the nerve center of the house.
A dining table dominated the small room, chipped black varnish revealing
soft mahogany underneath. Another table, this one made of wicker, sat
in the corner, heaped with a perpetual pile of school books, utility bills,
and dog-eared Readers' Digests in Portuguese translation. On the wall
hung a blackboard, Father's attempt to enrich the environment for his
Behind the blackboard wall and up a set of narrow stairs lay the master
bedroom, with a large mirrored armoire, a corner sink, and an iron double
bed that nearly filled up the room. It was here that Father slept, and
Beds were never made unless we expected company. Transplants from Latvian
soil into the raw red dirt of the New World, we dragged along the psychic
baggage of revolutions and wars and hasty migration to a new land. I was
ashamed of our messy, disorganized family, hard working in frantic spurts
followed by long periods of torpor, much like Russian peasants who curl
around the samovar to sleep away the winter. Whenever a classmate gave
me a ride home from school I asked to be dropped off two blocks away.
The front room upstairs, meant as the living room for a normal family,
was lined, literally, from floor to ceiling, east and west, north and
south, with Father's private library. He eventually had the front porch
enclosed, too, to make room for more books. His Old World scholarship
clashed with Mother's yearning for “a man who worked with his hands.”
She was a book widow, she said. Indeed, when they had any money, which
wasn't often in the early days, it went first for books, then luxuries
like food and clothing.
Center spot in the front room, surrounded by books, sat my grand piano.
It looked better than it played, as did I, but my halting notes apparently
spelled redemption for the family name. One sultry night, wearing little
more than a black camisole to stay cool, I played my favorite pieces under
the spotlight in the darkened room. Father stood by, lost in thought.
I guess the spotlight, and the skimpy black slip, spoke to him of a concert
hall. After a long silence, he reverently murmured, “That's where
A creek ran past the retaining wall in back. Trash bobbed gently by on
occasion, as well as septic tank effluent. That the creek was my
favorite playground horrified the church matrons, but Mother counted on
torrential Brazilian rainstorms to wash away the germs, since she couldn't
have kept me away in any case. In calm times the creek settled into clear,
shady pools complete with hovering dragonflies and schools of minnows.
One time a pair of beady green eyes stared at me from a black hole in
the bamboo clump, adding a touch of delicious mystery to that summer afternoon.
The creek will always murmur in my heart, and a house without a creek
in the back will never feel quite like home.
At the corner of Rua Visconde stood Armazém Fonseca, the bar and
grocery store owned by Mr. Fonseca, a small, stocky mustachioed Portuguese
with salt-and-pepper hair. He scooped kilograms of rice and sugar and
beans from wooden barrels onto sheets of brown paper which he would deftly
gather with both hands and scrunch into a sack. Local laborers congregated
in the Armazém after work. Leaning on the cool stone counter, they
sipped jiggers of cachaça, sugar cane rum, and chatted with growing
animation before heading home to supper. These “drunks,” as
our family called them, were part of the Brazilian, non-Baptist, decadent
world outside our gate.
To the right of our house was a lesser residence, if you can imagine a
residence lesser than ours. Renters came and went, including a man who
died of TB after coughing for two years. His departure made way for a
large woman and her two drugstore-blonde daughters. My parents did not
openly comment on the ladies or the steady stream of men who paid short
visits. I suspect, however, that they took secret pleasure in the corruption
next door. It went to prove the hopeless moral decay of Brazilians and
our Latvian superiority, if not in this world, then the next.
At age twenty, I met a balding, footloose American writer. I had rashly
promised to go to the States someday, there to create a new and better
life for myself. I had no clue how, but suddenly, there it was. This was
the end of an era. I sat at the old piano, in the old green house, to
play Brahms' Lullaby one last time. Then I walked out to the car, on to
the Baptist chapel where Father would declare us husband and wife, and
then to the airport and my new country.
A decade would pass before I visited Brazil again. In that time, I had
changed from young bride to well-traveled faculty wife and mother of four.
The folks had long since sold the house on Rua Visconde and moved into
town. They filled me in on the main events of a decade. Mr. Fonseca keeled
over dead one fine day, and the Armazém was gone. His widow liquidated
the business and invested in a franchise in sin, a house of easy virtue
staffed in part by our former bleached blonde neighbors. Health authorities
had implemented a final solution to the creek problem. It had been sanitized,
sterilized, and encased in concrete, never again to murmur in the afternoon
My sister and I drove by the neighborhood that same evening, half expecting
to see the familiar landscape, but our house was no more. Bulldozers had
cleared the way for condos. One could still make out our driveway in the
harsh light of the car's high beams. We stepped out and took a few cautious
steps on the rubble, before turning our backs on all that remained of
our childhood home.
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