What are your first memories of learning how to pray or understanding the practices that comprise a religious life? I have many memories of my mother. Her wisdom about prayer is one of the most precious. Like many of my earliest memories, it is mixed with the daily actions my mother carried out in order to feed and care for a large family. Here I recount a couple of them.
I hope you will reflect for a moment on your earliest memories of your own growing faith and youthful curiosity about spiritual matters. Hopefully, you had a loving presence who could pass on these practices that, when they become habitual, nurture us in our mature years. These are irreplaceable memories for me. What are yours?
“Mother, Lola is teaching me how to pray. She said that now that I am five, if I don’t pray a Hail Mary every night and don’t cross myself, I’ll go to hell. I already know the words to cross myself, but I don’t know how to spread them on my face, yet.”
My mother chuckled. She was making cheese in the kitchen and I was watching. There was a smooth, narrow, slightly inclined table only for that purpose. It had a groove all around it where the liquid ran and fell into a big can on the floor. She put the curdled milk inside a round, wooden frame and pressed it slowly with her hands and the whey flowed through her fingers and ran down the table into the can.
“Mother, is it true what Lola said?”
“No, tell Lola that you are not going to hell. Tell her that you don’t need to learn the Hail Mary and to cross yourself, because you are Protestant.”
“What is a Protestant, mother?”
“To be a Protestant is to accept Christ as your Savior and Lord.”
“So, are we Protestant?”
“Why are we Protestant and everybody else is Catholic?
“When your real father was alive, and we lived in the backlands, an American missionary couple came to our house by horse, preached the Gospel, sold us a Bible, and we became Protestants.”
“And we don’t need to pray?
“But we don’t pray. Why?”
“Well, honey, it’s difficult to explain. The missionaries would come a few times a year, and we would invite all the neighbors and have a service.”
“What is a service?”
“Service is the mass of the Protestants.” Mother paused as she pressed the curdled milk. She added, “Then the missionaries stopped coming.”
“They became old and went back to their country. The new missionaries found the trip by horse hard and stopped coming. But your real father was a schooled person. He understood a bit of everything. He would read the Bible, explain it and we would sing hymns and pray. Then he died. After that, we never had a service again.”
“Why doesn’t Papai lead the service?”
“Because he’s a Catholic.”
“Why don’t you lead?”
“Because I barely know how to read.”
“I wish that my real father hadn’t died. I wish I could learn how to pray with him.”
“But you can pray, honey. Anyone can pray. To pray is to talk to God spontaneously as you are talking to me here, and nobody needs to teach you that.”
“So I am going to pray before sleeping every night, mother. I’m going to tell Lola that she doesn’t need to teach me how to cross myself anymore because now I know how to pray.”
“Do this then, honey.”
“Mother, how come, on the day you make cheese, you don’t make string cheese? I like hot string cheese better.”
“Because we have only a few cows now. The milk is not enough to make both.”
“Why do we have only a few cows now?”
“Lola and Lissa needed to have dental treatment and we didn’t have money so your step-father sold some of our cows.”
“I hope that nobody else has a toothache, because I don’t want him to sell all our cows. I love hot string cheese with sugar.”
Occasionally a little piece of curd would escape from between my mother’s fingers and run with the whey into the groove of the table. I would pick it up and eat it. My mother kept putting more curds in the frame and squeezing them down with her hands. Finally, she put some salt on top and spread it around evenly. She threw a dishtowel on top and said, “This is to protect it from the flies. It’s going to stay here until the day I make another cheese. Then I take it out, wash it, put more salt, and leave it on that board over the stove, to cure.”
“Cure it of what, mother?”
“To cure is a way of saying to dry.”
When she finished with the cheese making, my mother picked up an empty sack and an ax and threw them over her shoulder. I followed her outside.
We crossed a plank over the canal. At this point, the canal was narrow and deep. Farther down it widened, and it was there that people riding horses crossed. We passed under the old oak tree where a leather swing hung from one of its branches. I sat on the swing and wanted to ask my mother to push me high as Minha Santa and Doutor did to each other, but I knew it was useless to ask for that. My mother was always busy. She never had time for these kind of things. She even did the work of men. Men are the ones that work with axes, I thought. I ran and caught up with her, and held her empty hand. We went through the pasture in the direction of the serrado. There was still virgin savanna in our chácara and it was in that direction we walked. We passed near the tomb of my father. I saw the wooden cross standing on the head of it and suddenly I remembered the strong, strange smell of the whitewash and cement from the previous year, when the tomb was made. I asked, “What are you going to do with this ax, mother?”
“I’m going to cut down a kapok tree and pick up all the fruit. Then I’m going to carry the fruits to the back yard and spread them there to dry. When the fruits open, I’m going to pull out the silk cotton inside to make new pillows.
“Mother, does the kapok tree produce fruit just once?”
“No, it produces every year. Why are you asking?”
“Well, you said that you cut the banana trees to get the bunch of bananas because each banana tree gives fruit only once. Wouldn’t it be better to collect the fruit of the kapok tree without cutting it down? So, every year you could collect more silk cotton from the same tree.”
“No. I’m cutting down the kapok tree not only to collect the fruits. I’m going to burn the trunk and use the ashes to make lye that we will use to make soap.”
My mother stopped under a dense tree loaded with elongated, green fruit. “This is the one. The fruits are ready.”
“Mother, I feel sorry for the tree. I don’t want you to cut it down. It’s so beautiful.”
“But honey, we need lye to make soap. Besides, there are many kapok trees.”
“If every time we need to make soap, you cut one down, soon there won’t be any.”
“We don’t cut only kapok trees, we cut other trees, too.”
“Then, there won’t be any trees.”
“You worry too much. There will always be trees. And now move back. We don’t want the tree to fall down on top of you.”
My mother started hitting the tree with the ax: each diagonal cut was followed by a horizontal one. Pieces of bark and then of the trunk flew through the air. Finally, the tree inclined slowly to the side where my mother was chopping and fell down, causing a thunder. I felt sorry for the tree, which had to die so that we could have soap and new pillows, and sorry for my mother who was also sacrificing her life for the family by executing such a heavy task. “Why do you do men’s work?”
“It’s because I ask others to help and they say, ‘I’m going,’ but never do. I ask your step-father and your brothers, and the result is the same. Therefore, I do it.” Breathless and sweaty, she stretched her back and arms and sat on the trunk.
“Now, while I rest a little, you gather the fruit.”
With the impact of the fall, almost all of the fruits flew off. I made a pile and filled the sack up to the middle. As we started back to the house, my mother threw the sack of fruit on her back and I carried the ax. She would have to make more trips to take the whole load.
Next morning, my mother started a fire in the round stove made of bricks and mud in the yard. A copper boiler fit perfectly on it. That’s where she cooked the meat of a cow or a hog, when they butchered one, or made soap or caramel. This time my mother poured in twenty liters of milk and two hard sugar bricks. She handed me a long, wooden spoon and said, “Stir well so the milk won’t stick to the bottom, while I go to the trough and wash the can.”
When she came back I asked, “Why are you making lots of caramel? Is there going to be a party?”
“No. There’s going to be a trip. We’re going to make balls of this caramel, roll them in corn husks, and keep them for snacks during the trip.
“Who’s going to travel?”
“Papai, Bejo, Luso and I.”
“Are you going to grandpa’s house? May I come, too?”
“No you may not. This time we’re going much farther. We’re going to Minas Gerais with cattle to sell.”
“What cattle? Our cows? I don’t want Papai to sell our cows. I don’t want to be without milk.”
“No, not our cows, other cattle he bought. More than a hundred head.”
Minha Santa, who had approached with a cup in her hand to pick up some of the sweet milk that was boiling and thickening to drink, entered the conversation. “I thought that Papai didn’t have money. He sold some of our cows for Lola and Lissa to go to the dentist.” Her voice revealed a tone of anger, remembering that her toothaches were never a motive to sell cows.
“When we return from selling these cattle, I’m going to see that you have your teeth treated, too, honey.”
“Mother, what money did he use to buy these cattle?” Minha Santa insisted.
“With the money from my land in Inhumas.”
“Did he sell your land? The land that father left you in his will?
“Yes, Samuel sold the land and bought cattle to sell in Minas Gerais. He said that we’re going to make lots of money with this business.”
The milk kept boiling and thickening until we could see the yellow bottom of the copper pan as mother stirred. So, she, with the help of Minha Santa, removed the pan from the stove and put it on the floor. When the mixture cooled enough, they made balls as big as a fist, rolled each one in corn husks and tied the tip with a slender strip of corn husk. Then they took the wrapped caramels to the kitchen and placed them on the board hanging above the stove. Minha Santa, Doutor and I greedily scraped the copper boiler.