Fiction? Of course, it is.

It was Tante Emmas’ birthday. And party fragrances transpired from our memories: vanilla pods, strawberry Jell-O, Weinmann[1]’ s soda pop, a layer cake called Frankfurter krantz, coconut pudding swimming in black prune sauce, and tiny sandwiches with country cheese and bologna, topped with tiny slices of cucumbers. They composed a symphony with the perfumes of the adults—lavender, Mitsuko, L’Origan, L’Aimant, and Palmolive soap.

Uncle Maarten would not be there, in his wife’ s next birthday. His remarkable contraption closed its eyes with him. Opa Bino blamed his son-in-law for his untimely exit, “Ach, Marteen was dickköpfig und sehr Bammelich [2]to have his guts opened”, or to “let the knife do whatever had to be done”.

Uncle would not allow Dr. Franz to perform the stomach surgery he needed. Eventually, he consented to it. However, his battle with pain and hemorrhages had been already lost. They took him to the emergency room of the local hospital, but most of his blood had already slipped away. The catcher of our treasured moments had departed. As we did not see him go, for some years, we believed he was convalescing in the mountains.

In one of the pictures he left, our baby sister smiles on Uncle Marteen and Tante Emma’s lap. She would depart less than two decades later.

Scan 111810000

Machado de Assis, one of the greatest Brazilian writers, might have said that these cherished images represent “times that have been lived and gone” or are the “remains pulled out of the earth that has seen us together”[3]. They revive gatherings in which people and events coil amidst the woven yarn we keep on spinning.

Our lives continued after that last picture. When the party was over, we went to our separate houses. One day, however, as we got back from school, adults told us that the other grandmother had flown to Heaven. Tante Emma tried to explain—though the briefing about such final voyage had met our immediate needs—that our deceased grandmother had just gone, directly from the operating table, free of pain because of anesthesia, to the hereafter. These words thumped in our heads, and years later, we linked these strange words, anesthesia, and operating table, to the Departure. The repetition of these elements brought us to the foggy threshold of a mystery: our loved ones would be safe with us until these two words entered their lives.

We did not attend our mother’s mother wake. Actually, we did not really know her, but for special days, every other year. She had been tall—six feet—and wore size 11 shoes; had curly dark hair; was very fair skinned and had deep blue eyes. She loved cooking, and one of her favorite menus was roasted and stuffed chicken with spätzle[4], followed by a warm Apfel Taschen with vanillesoße[5]. From the information we have about her, she loved to knit gloves, socks, and dresses, especially, to our sister, whom she had raised since birth. We, to tell the truth, ignore the details of how, why, and when mother handed this baby down to her mother’s arms and heart.

It might seem awkward, but we—except for the sister who lived with her—felt an inexplicable joy, because, from that moment on we would be closer to each other: two would stay with mother and one would stay home with Grandmother. Besides, we would have more weekends and fun together.

The Bible stood on our bedroom shelves as a sentinel. Adults used to quote some of its passages, according to the situation at hand. They used to modify its verses to make them even more resolute and fitting to our situation. Actually, it was not so much what they quoted, but how they did it, with the solemnity of their tone of voice, that opened up our minds to carefully selected sentences from the Book.  In their views, IT constituted a tool for our education to keep us on the right train tracks or in a straight line—in Tante Emma’s words—with respect, good manners, virtue, thoughtfulness, forgiveness, and gratitude. She explained to us the importance of kind words and virtuous deeds with the awe-inspiring words she had borrowed from the Book. Thus, IT became, at the same time, a source of comfort and fear.

At Sunday school, we listened to stories and parables, which each of us understood in our own ways. We dreamed of becoming a Good Samaritan [6], the same way we dreaded what would happen if the smoke from the small bonfires we built in the backyard did not go straight to the autumn skies. Our God was gracious and loved us. However, as He was everywhere, He was able to see and hear whatever we did or said, so we prayed for mercy for a possible past and future wrongdoing, though unintentionally performed. Was it wrong to frighten chickens inside their coop? How about hiding Tante Emma’s reading glasses, when she was taking her after lunch nap? Would we be cast out because of those make-believe cigars of dried avocado leaves? We were convinced that sneaking into the pantry to sip condensed milk from a can—bought to prepare custard pies—through a hole we had made with a rusty nail, certainly would qualify as a misdeed. Residues of our linkages with what established the great divide between right and wrong have contributed to some of the dark clouds that still linger over our tapestry.

Stories come back to us at all times.  We do not need much to fabricate them all over again when there is a certain sound, when the shadows of trees let the sun draw pictures on the sidewalk with that familiar hue, when the curtain billows from a window pane, late afternoon, when there is a distinct perfume we are the only ones to perceive. A mental image takes us to secrets of bliss…and misery.



[1] This was the local soda pop producer, especially of guarana, with extracts of the Amazonian fruit, and  Gasoza ™, a real lemon soda. It closed its doors for competitive reasons.

[2] He was stubborn and very frightened

[3] Machado de Assis, J.M. A Carolina. He wrote this poem as a tribute to their married life together. In Obra Completa de Machado de Assis.Rio de Janeiro: Nova Aguilar, 1994. This poem can be read at

[4] Spätzle is homemade pasta, which, in those days, was sliced in uneven sizes with a kitchen knife.

[5] This dessert includes a type of apple pie accompanied by a vanilla sauce.

[6] Luke 10: 30-37. It is a parable in which a Samaritan felt compassion for a man, who had been a victim of robbers and despised by two other travelers, treated his wounds and carried the poor man to the nearest inn.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s