It had to have been 1989 or ‘90, and Dona Antonia was visiting us in Boston from Brazil. Because the trip was long, she usually stayed for two or three months once she was there.
When Mãe (pronounced ‘my,’ Portuguese for mom) visited, she readily cared for both of us: cooking meals, cleaning, mending clothes. This was a woman who had raised 10 children-there was always a home-cooked meal on the table, an organized house, a remedy for any illness, clean children…In fact based on her standard, my husband once thought that vacuuming and the such just came more naturally to women.
But several weeks into this visit there were no more missing buttons or scraggly hems. Mãe was bored, but only spoke Portuguese, so she didn’t want to venture too far from our apartment alone.
I worked for a not-for-profit small business association at the time and had a big mailing to get out. In fact, I had been looking to hire an intern or student to help, so I said, “if she wants to, she can come to work with me. I can offer her a job.”
Excited, she accompanied me as we boarded the train in the morning and spent the day with me in the office sticking labels on newsletters. After 8 full hours of work, plus an hour plus or minus commuting on each end, we arrived home, shortly before my husband.
He arrived about 10 minutes later, and looked around the kitchen, taking note of the bare table and empty stove. “Mae, he said, “what’s wrong? Where’s dinner?”
“Are you kidding?” she responded quickly in Portuguese. “I’m exhausted, I worked all day!”
- – Translated my ‘Portuguese to Portuguese.” She new me so well she could understand my intended meaning even when others were sidetracked by my Midwestern/Missouri accent.
- – Learned a little Yiddish. We had just explained the meaning of the word ‘schmuck’ (a jerk, or idiot) to her when someone in the room farted…to which she immediately responded “schmuck.”
- – Recognized the word “sale” (which she pronounced sah-lay) and would conspire secretly with me to get the best bargains on clothes and fabric to share with others in need in Brazil.
- – Cared for me after Dillon was born, so that I could care for him.
- – Had a secret tea for this, a spiritual ritual for that, to get us through colds and flu, infertility, colic, good times and hard times.
Dona Antonia is from a different culture, language, religion, education, family size, generation from me. How silly and what a loss it would have been to have let difference get in the way of knowing and loving her. I am a better person because of her touch.
Close to 200 family members came from across Brazil to celebrate her 83rd birthday with her in 2007. Today, more than 300 attended her funeral, to celebrate the life of an amazing woman.
Love you always, Mãe.