When I was eight months old they sent me into exile. Let me explain. It all begins, naturally, with family. We always had my Mother’s birthday cake on the twenty-ninth of November, which should not have been a problem, except that she kept insisting, every year, that her real day of birth was the eleventh or twelfth. It always puzzled me, this not knowing your birth date for sure. Every year on the twenty-ninth, there would be cards, the small cake and the candles, and always her gracious “yes, thank you, thank you. It’s a nice cake. But you know, I think my birthday is really in early November, on the eleventh, the twelfth maybe.”
I could never figure that one out. Why didn’t she know for sure? And of course she wouldn’t think of celebrating her birthday on the eleventh or twelfth even if we tried to do it. Then one day I got an answer. It all started when she told me the story of the woman in Taunton we had just visited on Saturday. The woman had been injured in a car accident and was still recovering from her injuries.
“That woman was amazing. She worked miracles. It wasn’t her fault they found out about Lucinda and me.” She talked while she sewed, as she always did, not wanting, I suppose, to waste the time doing only one thing. “That was the doing of some of the old-timers who wanted to get in good with the authorities. You know who they are, the Pireses and the Cardosos. But it’s best to forget them, at least forget about what they did to us. Still, that woman-it’s sad to see her now. She doesn’t look powerful. Life’s been tough on her, at least lately. But maybe after she gets healthy again, gets a bit stronger, she’ll be all right. But she will never be her old self again.”
In my mind’s eye I saw this woman again, saw her as she was now-fiftyish, wrapped in a faded gray-green flannel bathrobe, her pepper-and-salt hair cut short like a man’s, wearing a plain square watch with a large face set in a heavy black leather strap, the face showing out from the inside of her wrist. “Look, look at these,” she bossed, holding out some newspaper clippings. “Notice the picture of the accident. Good thing that photographer came along. See how that guy’s car is rammed up against the side of my car, the car I was riding in, I mean. Somebody’s got to pay for all this, my injuries, my disability, my loss of working time. I’ve got a good lawyer. I couldn’t use Andrade, of course. He’s family-well as good as family-and it might hurt the case. Besides, I’ve got an excellent lawyer. I’ll win this one. You’ll see. Everybody will see. I’ll win it. I’ll do it.”
She put the clippings down, on top of the desk, stood up straight, thumped her fist into her open hand, twice, three times, and then again leaned down to the desk, picked up the clippings, glanced at them, put them back, in a drawer this time, and pushed the drawer flush. “If I could get those boys out of the trenches, and I did get them out, I certainly did, I can win this case.”
“That woman was remarkable, what she did nobody could do,” said my mother, without missing a stitch, then drawing in her breath and talking to the end of her story. “That’s why you were with me back in Portugal on your first birthday, that’s why you took your very first steps in Freixo-de-Espada-à-Cinta where your father is from. That’s why the first word you ever said, you said in Vila Ruiva da Serra. Remember that picture I keep with the other pictures in the drawer? You’re walking along in the Lameiro and you’re hanging on tightly to a bottle? A small brown bottle full of milk? Remember?
“What she did in the War was miraculous. One miracle after another. She pulled boys right out of the trenches in France, right out of the fighting. She got them away from the bullets, from the shells, away from the gas. How did she do it? She proved that those boys had been born in America. They were Americans who didn’t belong in any foreign army. That’s the way it started. But after a while things changed, and the truth was that some of the later ones that she got out of France weren’t American-born at all. Some of them were children born to immigrants who had been in America all right, but they were born only after the parents had returned to Portugal. No, these boys were Portuguese all the way, and before they were sent to the War they hadn’t even been away from their villages, let alone out of the country. How did she do it? It so happened that these boys had names similar or identical to names of other boys their age who had been born to Portuguese parents in the United States, taken back to the old country, and had the misfortune, poor things, to die in childhood. Working from the United States, that woman dug up all the papers, birth certificates and what have you, belonging to the now-dead children so that they could be used for the grown-up boys now in France. It was not an honest thing to do, of course, but it worked. And nobody was hurt by what she did.
“Now let me tell you why we-you and I-were in Portugal, marking time just six months after you were born, born right here in America, in this very house.” She paused, having come to the end of that particular bit of mending, on a boy’s white shirt, and bit off the thread. She folded the shirt and put it aside, and then picked up one of her own blouses, looked it over carefully, sighed, and began to sew up a tear at the sleeve, just above the cuff.