The Work of Irene Fialho
Someone had caught the rabbit during the night, running after it in the forest nearby Lisbon, and taken it home, where nobody knew what to do with the little fellow. Victor begged those people to give the rabbit to us, and so it travelled inside a cooking marmite, in my lap, and even managed to run to the car motor before we arrived home. We had married three months before and lived in a tiny apartment where there was no space for a wild rabbit: it stood in the bath room, where he managed to find a hole to sleep over newspapers, fed with cabbages and carrots. The next weekend we were travelling to the countryside, south of Portugal, to visit my grandmother Antonia, living at a nun's convent in her birth village, so we decided to take the rabbit and return it to nature and freedom. We stopped on the road, near a wheat field all embroidered with red poppies, we opened the car door and the small white tail run free for his life; he gave us a last glimpse, while eating herbs still freshen with morning moisture.
When we arrived at the small southern village, we went immediately to meet my grandmother at the convent, and my parents asked about the rabbit. I think I told the story with a special shine in my eyes, because when I finished it, grandma Antonia looked at me with pride and said: "Oh, you sure have inherited something from your grandmother!"
The first memory I have of her is that of a lady singing and dancing in front of me. I was in my mother's arms and did not quite understand why a lady all dressed in black could be singing like that, just to amuse me. And I really felt amused. Later in my young life, Antonia has taught me many of my most memorable lessons.
She was born in the beginning of the 20th century in a poor rural zone of Portugal. She was the youngest of many child of a 40 years old mother which liked to dream with her eyes opened, and of a strong, very masculine father, that enjoyed gardening and bearing strange animals. They were so poor that Antonia never went to school, since she had to work to help her parents. She never learnt to read or write, but she was the most literate woman I ever found, mainly because she did not know what literature is. She loved words and stories, and that was enough for her.
Antonia married at 20 with a man recently returned from France, from WW1, a man who had seen it all but that kept his innocence and love for her and for their five children. His name, my grandfather's name, was Antonio. They were the perfect couple. He worked and worked all year long, and his only holidays were the 9th of April and the 11th of November (the La Lys battle and the armistice day ). Antonio died of cancer, provoked by a bad untreated wound got at La Lys battle, thirty years after he returned from the war. Forty years later, Antonia still cried when she looked at his picture and repeated, "He was so handsome!" Antonio was really a handsome man: tall, blond, green-eyed, so different from the ordinary short, dark, Portuguese type. She sure loved him for is character and his beauty, and she refused every other men that proposed to her from then on.
Antonio left Antonia with five children, the last-born handicapped by poliomyelitis. It was tough for everybody, the WWII had begun, and so the children had to start working and abandoned school. Nevertheless, it was not a drama, she had strength for everyone, and laughter, stories, and love were distributed in a great scale. Antonia was what we call a "forneira", a woman that keeps the communitarian woven alive, so bread can be baked, and everybody at the village respected her for the great dignity she had and transmitted to her kids.
By then, catholic church still had a enormous power in Portugal, and the village priest noticed that one of Antonia kids had talent to paint, so he asked her to allow the boy to come to Lisbon and study. In a closed, matriarchal society like the Portuguese one during the 1940s, it was not natural for a mother to leave her children go and grow alone, but she could see far, and sent her boy to the college, knowing what was better for him, though for her it meant separation. That boy was my father.
The kids grow up, they got married and, a lone woman in her fifties, she could not keep the woven. She had to give up, but she had other skills: she bought a weaver and begun to make lovely pieces of silk clothes. So she survived, and loved her way of survival. Many years later, a teacher told me that the root of the word "Lady", in ancient English, meant the woman who was in charge of the woven and of the weaver. I do not know if this is real, but I want to believe it is, because it makes me profoundly proud of my granny.
And she was a Lady. When I was about ten years old, Antonia would take me everywhere with her. She liked to pay visits, and she was one of the few persons in the village that could enter any house, because, as I said, she counted on the respect of all, rich or poor. Once, Antonia took me to the house of the Landlord. I remember a gentleman and two ladies, sitting in three big armchairs, in a big dark room, talking to grandmother, who was standing in front of them. After that, we went to the convent, where the nuns kept a home for old people. There, things were gay, white and clean, full of light and joy. An old lady was sitting in a chair, her feet in a bowl of water, moaning with pain. Antonia kneeled in front of her, took her feet, which she massaged, soaked them in water, put them in white cotton socks. I was astonished, because my grandmother kept saying "Oh, the poor old lady, how she suffers! Now, let me help you… Yes, that's better, you'll be Ok". I believe grandma was older than her patient, and that was confusing to my ten years old little head. I never forgot both visits, and later, when I could reflect better, I found this was one of the biggest lessons I had in my life: stand proud and still before the lords of this world, and kneel before the humble and suffering. The first ones will respect you for your dignity, the seconds will be thankful for your love.
Antonia lived on milk, bread and fruit. She also lived on flowers, having in her small yard the most complete collection of herbs, roses, geranium and bulbs I have ever found in a garden. At seventy, she kept going to the water well three times a day so that in the hot summer sun of south Portugal would not damage her plants. She really had the mythical "green finger": everything she sewed would gloom; once she put a piece of wood in the ground, to help the growth of a rose, and the next year we had a tree in the yard.
Flowers and words were the meaning of her life. And they mixed together in her love for life. As many old people, she had troubles with sleep, but she did not get any pills. When I asked her how could she pass all her nights with so little sleep, she answered: "One night, everything comes out roses; next night it's carnations". She meant that one restless night she remembered all the poems she knew by heart and that mentioned roses; the following night the theme was carnations, and so on.
After her youngest, sick child, died, Antonia decided she did not want to stay at the other children homes, since she had the intelligence to understand that she could became a burden to them, and the less thing she wanted in this world was to be a burden. Therefore, she decided to go to the convent, where all of us met her weekly, always with joy. It was there that I told her the rabbit's story. There, at my twenties and her eighties, we revived the special relationship, only possible with women that have the power of the youth and of the crone.
She told me all her stories, all her poetry, both coming from the oral tradition and from her heart. I recorded as many words I could, and put them into paper: I have more than one hundred pages of Antonia literature.
One day, when we where saying goodbye, grandma gave me one of her silk bags and said "Hide it and don't show it to anyone. These are only yours." The bag was full of ancient photos, from her children, her brothers and sisters, herself and, most of all, her husband. The bag also contained documents on her and my grandfather and old notebooks, full of her poems, which she asked other people to write. For some strange reason, she knew - and I knew - this was the last time we met. She passed me her inheritance of poor woman, who had nothing else to leave for her descendents. I hope I can go on with this inheritance, both cultivating words and flowers, children and love.