When I was growing up in the countryside of central Brazil, we almost always traveled by horse. Such journeys were long and when one went to the nearest large town or city, it was wise to get as much of the essentials for the farm as possible and bring some extras. These “extras” were the fun for me as a child. We lived far from other farmers and there were few towns and cities nearby.
This chapter captures this time in my life. I was the youngest in my family at this time and I’m sure my family spoiled me. I was also eager to help and be seen as responsible. I was also very attached to my mother. These memories make this one of my favorite chapters.
What are some of your earliest memories of life in your family? What are some of the differences between your life at the age of seven or eight and mine? Was rural life in Brazil much different from what you experienced or learned about rural life in the United States? Enjoy this walk back into my past.
Minha Santa, Doutor and I started counting the days on our fingers until our parents’ return. The worst time was at sunset. I sat alone on the steps of the back doorway with Futrica beside me resting her head on my lap. I saw the chickens climbing up on the lime-orange tree to roost and hundreds of wild birds arrived at their favorite orange tree beside the trough. They serenaded each other with their songs and tales then quieted down to spend the night. All the birds felt secure and happy beside their mothers, and mine was so far away. Darkness engulfed everything. The solitude hurt inside.
Neném came out onto the steps, “Alcita, you’re here, all by yourself. Poor thing! Don’t cry. Come with me to the front yard to catch fireflies. You like to catch fireflies, don’t you? We’ve already filled one bottle with them. All those eyes shining inside the bottle transformed it into a bright lantern, stronger than a kerosene lamp. Come and see.”
I grabbed Neném’s hand and followed her to the front yard where Nenenzinho, Minha Santa, Doutor, Lola and Lissa, each one with a cloth in hand, were knocking fireflies down and catching them. Joaquim and Davi watched this activity while sitting on stools by the door. Neném gave me a cloth and I began running around and singing with them, “Vagalume tem-tem, seu pai está aqui, sua mãe já vem.” (Tem-tem firefly, your father is here, your mother is coming.) When a firefly approached with its luminous eyes, I hit it with my cloth, picked it up and placed it in the bottle.
“Boys, don’t kill the fireflies!” Neném rebuked Nenenzinho and Doutor.
“They’re going to die anyway. What difference does it make if they die from lack of air in the bottle or smashed?” Nenenzinho answered back. They were taking fireflies from a bottle and rubbing them on their clothes. The eyes of the bugs were of a phosphorescent substance that, when rubbed on a surface, made it glow.
“Mother says that if we touch our eyes with this stuff we’ll go blind,” argued Neném.
“That’s dumb,” added Doutor. “Mother says this only to stop us from killing the fireflies.”
“Joaquim!” Neném yelled, “Come and make the boys obey.”
“Stop this!” Joaquim ordered with the authority of the oldest brother. “Go to the trough and wash your hands with soap.” They bowed their heads and walked away. “And you girls – let those fireflies loose and enter the house. It’s time for bed.”
The following night, we were together in the kitchen and Neném asked Davi and Joaquim to sing for us.
“I only sing if you make peanut brittle” Davi said.
“It’s a deal. Peanut brittle will be ready soon.”
Doutor brought Davi’s guitar and his mandolin from their bedroom. Doutor was learning how to play it with Davi. The two tuned their instruments and Davi and Joaquim formed a duet. Davi sang the melody and Joaquim the harmony. Their strong and melodious voices filled the kitchen and our minds with the impossible romance between a young man and a gypsy woman.
Foi numa noite de luar que conheci
Uma cigana de olhar encantador
Foi a mais linda das mulheres que já vi
Fitei seus olhos e fiquei louco de amor
Mas descobri que ela esperava ansiosa
Seus companheiros que aí iam passar
Uniu-se ao bando e sumiu lá na estrada
Deixando assim meu coração a suspirar
Cigana, foi para ti que escrevi esta canção
Cigana, és minha vida e toda a minha inspiração
Teus lindos olhos que jamais hei de esquecer
Somente a ti eu hei de amar até morrer.
It was a moonlit night when I saw
This gypsy gal with enchanting looks
The most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen
I stared at her eyes and fell madly in love
But I discovered she was anxiously waiting
For her companions who were going to pass by
She joined them and took off down the road
Thus leaving my heart to sigh
Gypsy woman, I wrote this song for you
Gypsy woman, you are my life and my inspiration
Your beautiful eyes, which I will never forget
Only you will I love until I die.
Neném went to the pantry and brought a sieve with some peanuts on it. The rest of us pulled our stools near her. With our thumb and index fingers, we broke each shell and opened it up. The nuts fell into the sieve. Requests for other songs came up and the three brothers played and sang their repertoire.
Neném toasted the peanuts. After they cooled, she rubbed the fine skins off and blew them out using a sieve. Then she put a hard brown sugar brick in the pan with some water. When it melted and thickened, she poured the peanuts in, and stirred with a wooden ladle. Finally, she poured the mixture onto a board. She let it cool and then cut it into pieces. She put the pieces in a calabash bowl and set the calabash on a stool in the middle of all of us.
Next day, after each one had finished their chores, we were sitting on the front porch, when Nenzinho yelled, “There, they come.”
Doutor and I ran to meet our parents. Papai leaned over, picked me up and put me on my mother’s horse behind the saddle. As for Doutor, Papai only reached down and caressed his head, and then urged his horse forward. Doutor came running after us. I leaned my head on my mother’s back, circled my arms around her, and inhaled the peculiar, unique perfume of her sweaty body.
After dismounting, taking the saddles off of the animals, and bringing the bags inside, my mother started showing us the things she had brought from the city. A bag of white sugar was a great novelty. Until then we had only had brown sugar. There was a pair of shoes for each one of the girls. Our mother had taken a piece of cord exactly the length of each one’s foot to be sure the shoes would fit.
My mother kept busy showing fabric to make dresses for the girls and different ones to make shirts and pants for the boys. Minha Santa put on her new shoes, wrapped the cloth around herself and danced, imagining how pretty she would look with a dress made out of such delicate fabric. Our everyday clothes were sewn of rustic, homemade material. I took a perfumed, rectangular box out of a bag. “What is this?” I asked.
“Oh, this is soap, bath soap,” my mother replied. We had always used black, homemade soap for baths.
I took the soap from its case. I touched the smoothness of the white surface and went to the kitchen with it in my hands, smelling the essence of flowers.
Our mother kept taking objects from the city out of a bag and finally said,
“This one here is for… well, she is not here. Where is Alcita, Doutor? Go find her.”
Doutor found me coming from the trough, holding a tray containing cups, the coffee pot and the cloth coffee filter.
“How come you washed the coffee utensils without anybody asking you?” Doutor asked.
“Well, everybody asks me to do it when they are going to prepare coffee, so I did it in advance.”
“Mother wants you in the living room. She brought you a present.”
I put the coffee things on the rustic, wooden table by the stove, and ran to the living room, drying my hands on my skirt. “Mother, what did you bring for me?”
“For my youngest one I brought …” and handed me a ceramic doll. I cried and laughed with the doll in my arms.
Doutor timidly asked, “And for me, did you bring any toy, mother?”
“No. For you I brought fabric to make pants and shirts. You don’t want to wear shorts anymore, so I am going to make two beautiful pairs of long pants for you.
He tightened his mouth to stop his lips from trembling. Men don’t cry, he told himself, and slowly started leaving the room.
Minha Santa, recognizing the signs, teased him. “Hey guys, do you want to see Doutor cry?” And she chanted, “He is going to cry! He is going to cry!”
He ran to the back yard and entered the manioc field, sobbing. I went after him with my doll. “Stop crying, silly! I’ll let you play with my doll.”
“Men don’t play with dolls,” he answered drying his tears with the back of his hands. “Nobody likes me. Senhor Samuel picked you up and put you on the back of my mother’s horse. He could have lifted me up and put me on the back of his horse, but he didn’t. I am like a dog that nobody wants. Everybody makes jokes about me, and our mother didn’t bring me a toy.”
“I like you, and you are the only one that has something that our real father gave you, the mandolin. Besides, you can make your own toys, and they are better than the ones from a store. I am going to help you construct a little truck with the empty spools and an empty can of marmalade.
After our mother showed all the novelties bought in the city, including a bottle of perfume for the girls, she asked, “Who’s the cook this week?”
“Me,” answered Neném.
“So, make us dinner. We are starving.”
“In a minute!” replied Neném. “I cooked enough food for lunch and dinner. I only have to heat it.
“But first make us some fresh coffee,” said Papai. “I am tired of drinking cold stale coffee from a bottle.”
Neném poured water into a saucepan, added some of the new, white sugar and placed it on the stove to boil. Then she put a few spoons of finely ground coffee in the cone-shaped, cloth coffee filter that always sat in the coffee pot. When the sweet water boiled, she poured it into the filter. While the liquid dripped, she placed two iron pans on the stove to heat. One contained rice cooked with pork sausages, the other with beans. She set little enameled cups on a tray, filled them with steaming coffee, and took them to the living room. The first one to drink from it was Joaquim. He made an ugly face, but swallowed it and waited to see the reaction of the others. The second one was Papai. He made a growl and spat the coffee on the floor. “What happened, Neném?” What did you put in this coffee?”
Before Neném could answer, Joaquim jokingly said, “I think she used perfume to sweeten the coffee.”
Everyone either tasted or smelled the coffee and all of them agreed that Neném had put perfume in it.
“You are nuts to think that I would put perfume in the coffee. What I think is that you are not used to drinking coffee sweetened with white sugar. I used the new sugar to sweeten the coffee.”
They ran to the kitchen. My mother tasted the sugar, “There is nothing wrong with the sugar. Think, Neném. What happened while you were preparing the coffee?”
“Yeah, there was something different, but I don’t imagine that it has anything to do with the perfume in it. I didn’t have to wash the utensils. They were already washed.”
“So, who washed the coffee utensils?” our mother asked.
“Not me,” defended Lola.
“Me neither,” echoed Lissa.
“Not me,” added Minha Santa.
“I have an idea,” Davi said. He dashed to the trough and came back with the new bath soap in his hands. “Somebody used the perfumed bath soap to wash the coffee utensils, and it only can be. . .
“Alcita.” answered all of them, while I entered the kitchen holding my doll. A happier Doutor followed close behind.
“Alcita, why did you wash the coffee utensils with the bath soap?”
“Well, to make them smell good.”