Finally Antônio youngest sister, the widowed Corbina came walking up Canada do Porto. There had been a beautiful set of four action pictures in sequence of Ira and her together, which chronicled the emotional buildup second by second until they finally embraced. But I include the photograph taken in front of my Great Aunt’s doorstep because it is my favorite.
Ira & Great Great Aunt Corbina
When we arrived at São Mateus by taxi, my friend Antônio Gregorio, from Porto Judeu was my guide and interpreter. Standing on the steps of Saint Mathew’s Church Tony asked for directions to the Casa do Povo. Usually those working with the people there are always helpful; and in gathering their information they take the pulse of the village from day to day and because of this are very reliable. The first villager Tony asked about the House of the People sent us up a long winding street that veered left. It was already hot and humid and the uphill grade immediately broke us out into a sweat and started sapping our energy level too. When we reached a basalt wall we looked up and Tony asked a lady dressed in black who was high above us and leaning over her balcony.
“Do you know the Lemos family?”
“There’s only one Lemos left in São Mateus,” the widow said.
“She has a sister who never married. Went crazy in the head. She died not long back.”
Tony was still trying to follow up on an earlier clue from the man at the church and started asking the lady in black another question, but before he could finish she cut him off.
“No, no-don’t bother with the Casa Do Povo! The old man with the knowledge of the people owns a grocery store across the corner from the Igreja da São Meteus.”
So Tony and I and Ira walk back down the steep grade of the hill, and Antônio says to me jokingly.
“The old man who owns the grocery store knows everybody because when they immigrated to America they all owed him money.”
When we get to the store, a young lady working there informs us that the old man has died and that his son has gone for the day. But she knows the Lemos name too and tells us to go up the street and turn left at what’s remaining of the old ruins of the fort.
On the way there we ask yet another person who confirms the direction of the Lemos house. Finally Tony recognizes a young man he had taught in grade school in Mississauga, Ontario.
“Are you George?”
“No, I’m his brother.”
“George did magic tricks.”
“Could make a dollar disappear, right?”
Brother goes through several teachers he had and they both knew in common: living, retired, and dead.
“I plan on staying here.”
“I’m thinking about starting up a little business. Perhaps you can give me a good reference?”
“I don’t live here anymore.”
“I make good hot chicken wings. The best!”
“You don’t say.”
“Yeah, next to this house. I got it all planned out. Right here. The flat concrete place on this roof is perfect. I could set out some round tables and wrought iron chairs. Put up some colorful umbrellas. A lot of people pass along this way to the port and swim in the sea.”
He offers us a beer, but we persevere on the thread of our only heresy evidence that leads towards the supposed direction of the Lemos house. Two young boys about ten years old are playing out on the cobbled street. Tony asks them while they bounce a red ball and of course they don’t have any knowledge of old people or clues to anybody’s past.
I tell Tony and Ira, starting to feel our search might lead to nothing; and thinking that maybe only a little humor might save the day.
“What we need is a good Hot Chicken Wing Franchise in Montana. You think George’s brother will give us his secret famous recipe for the barbecue sauce?”
“It’s possible. We’ll drop him a postcard in care of Fantastic Chicken Wings Incorporated. The Azores.”
“Maybe George could do magic tricks while the customers are stuffing their bellies? It’s an idea. What do you think?”
Tony keeps the funny twist going on our quest when he points to a mansion up on a hill as we’re passing by.
“And if these Lemos relatives of yours turn out to be rich, you’ll never have to work again Art. Just move to São Mateus and kick back for the rest of your days in luxury.”
“You could quit teaching Tony. I could give you a little of my pile of money, but I still think I should keep up the Hot Chicken Wing Franchise as a sideline, you know. It might be a bit premature to quit my day job just yet. You know what they say, “A rabbit in hand is worth two in the bush.”
Ira spots a farmer with a long scythe way up where the street ends and a donkey path continues towards the pastures in the rolling green volcanic hills beyond. By now we know the street my relatives live on is called Canada Suja. The lavrador has two mean dogs and puts them in the back of his little pickup so they don’t munch us into a palpable late afternoon snack like a platter of hot chicken wings. The farmer walks part way up the street with us and then points to the Lemos residence. It is a newly whitewashed house with green trim. When we get to the Lemos place, Ira goes over to a rock fence because he doesn’t want to wait for the gate to be opened. Tony asks him if those were pigs he was looking at in the backyard.
“Yeah, two big ones.”
The neighbor next door is playing with his dogs. One of them, a Doberman pincher, comes bounding up to the fence like our throats is the first thing on his menu. Tony asks the man if this was the Lemos house and he said it was. We go through the gate and knock and no one is home.
We came back the next day after lunch, but my son Ira had lost interest in the Lemos pursuit. For some reason the olive-skinned Azorean girls in their bikinis at the beach seemed to hold his attention better with sand and sun and fun. When we were on the island of Flores, João A. Gomes Vieira the scholar, curator of the Museu de Arte e Tradição da Ilha das Flores, and scrimshaw artist lined Ira up with a date. What he called “a good girl.” He acted as his chaperone and told my son who was a Montana working cowboy for ten years. “Don’t wear that big cowboy hat when we escort Angela out. Nothing can be hidden. A girl from here has to see your eyes.”
When we knocked at the door an old lady with whitish gold hair came out of her garden in black with three brown chicken eggs held in a fold in her soiled apron and one solitary tooth slowly, but finally showing itself in the front of her mouth.
Tony through a series of explanations informed her of my purpose here. She realized she was related to me and said.
“That’s very distant relation. A long long time ago.”
As if to say our kinship hardly mattered anymore. After the long two-day hunt, to hear our kinship was remote, I was immediately let down by what Tony interpreted to me. It was also the only relative in the Azores that I looked up that never invited us in for a drink. Of course her husband wasn’t home. And on a Mainland Portugal news channel that day there had been a scam on old people, telling them they were their relatives, then as one person kept them occupied in an isolated area of the house, the accomplice went around and robbed the valuables in the other rooms.
I asked Tony to tell her I wanted to take a photo of her.
“I’m too ugly,” she said.
I insisted and she went inside the house for a comb and came back and kept combing it like no matter how long she worked on her hair she’d never be satisfied. For vanity’s sake, we both took off our eyeglasses.
I noticed a big birthmark on one of her elbows.
I could feel her back warm against my hand as we faced Tony and his camera. He took six photos from several angles. He seemed real professional and I was happy with the documentation.
“What else you want to know, Art?”
“Does she have any old family photos?”
In my sense of disappointment, and not knowing what Tony had already asked her in Portuguese-I ended up not knowing even her first name. Whether she had any children? Or grandchildren? If any of her family had immigrated from São Mateus to Canada or America or Brazil or Bermuda? I only had the names on the genealogy chart. Absolutely nothing current.
We said our goodbyes. She walked all the way out to the edge of her yard that bordered high above the street. She stood there alone, looking down at our taxi cab like she was stunned or puzzled or still wondering about the unexpected visitor from out of the past. My solitary wave met hers. When I got back to Montana Tony called and said there was no film in the camera.
In time the memories of that day grew to be something very special to me. I know they became sharper in focus because of the lost of the photographs. I remember the old straw hat she had tilted to one side of her head. And that one tooth she had so prominently exposed became as memorable as the three brown chicken eggs; they seemed to define quite well the legacy of those two days well spent. Because there was something very rewarding in my search; and especially so when my relative walked all the way out to the street and stood above us and kept waving as we drove away. She was so visible and alive in her saudade. I could tell she finally got caught up in the moment like I was. This surprise visit had made her day. This two-day blood walk to find a relative proved to me why I have a greater respect for ambiance than I do the dusty names on genealogy charts with the ink so dry. Nobody ever said it better than balladeer Johnny Cash: flesh and blood needs flesh and blood and you’re the one I love.
April 30, 2010
Art Coelho poet, novelist, painter, and 7 Buffaloes Press publisher(Rural & Working Class Literature), lives in Big Timber, Montana, but grew up rural on two family farms in Fresno County’s Central California. His grandparents immigrated from The Azores. Art is currently writing two Diaspora novels. Art Coelho’s ten-year gypsy period included a work, My Own Brand, in the Macmillan anthology Traveling America with Today’s Poets. A short story, My First Kill, was selected for Fiction 100, a Prentice-Hall university textbook. Coelho won the Pushcart Prize in 1976 with the poem Like a Good Unknown Poet.
P.O. Box 249, Big Timber, Montana 59011