‘The Woman in the Doorway’ was Julian Silva’s first posting in Comunidades (2008-10-09 17:19:49). Today, we republish this wonderful story as a thank you note to Julian’s great contribution to this project.
Stories are the threads that weave cohesion into our existence. So transparent in our daily lives are stories that they tend to evade conscious awareness and active reflection; they link us to both our ancestors and our descendants; they conjure up the fusion of voice and identity, wrapped in culture […] Who we think we (or they, Others) are, and were and will become remains indebted in various ways of storytelling qua a sort of liminal form of agency recording, reflecting and transmitting culture as well as identity (I. Blayer 2004).
Julian Silva’s stories reflect the art of a great storyteller, whose stories can never be wholly his, alone, and we are greatlty indebted to him for having shared them with us. The indexing of his memory is reminding us of the gist that invites us to unravel and recover our own stories.
Julian Silva’s stories reflect the art of a great storyteller. His stories can never be wholly ‘his,’ alone, and we are greatlty indebted to him for having shared them with us.
The indexing of his memory is reminding us of the gist that invites us to unravel and recover our own stories.
Irene Maria F. Blayer
March 1st, 2013
It’s the women who capture the imagination. For the men, the long and dangerous voyage around the Horn was their door to a New World waiting to be conquered and claimed. My great-grandfather Silva was fifteen when he made that crossing, little more than a boy, and whether the deciding factor to emigrate came from the cruel exigencies of life on his island home, the poverty, the starvation, the lack of employment prospects, or simply the lure of adventure, the choice was still his to make and the long journey, even at its most tempestuous, was, once the terrible fact was over, merely the first test of his manhood. For his second wife, as for most women at the time, it was something else entirely and with nothing of the heroic about it.
Though my step-great-grandmother is not strictly speaking one of my ancestors, since no blood of hers runs in my veins, it is the drama inherent in her story that has for decades most fascinated me. The men came first, to acquire land and to cultivate it. Only later, once they had established themselves, did they feel the need for wives to people their new kingdoms, modest though they might be. There were for these early settlers few local women of their own culture and religion to choose from; but there were some and my great-grandfather was one of the lucky few to woo and marry a real woman, American born and bred, rather than the figment of some clever broker’s imagination whose stock in trade is a seemingly endless supply of marriageable virgins from the Islands.
My great-grandfather’s luck was great, but not enduring. His wife was handsome, literate in two languages; but she had also in her upbringing acquired certain notions of independence alien to her new husband. She did not willing submit, as most of the Old World brides did, to becoming simply the household’s chief cook and breeding mill. When at the age of twenty-three, already encumbered with three children under the age of four, two daughters and a son, my own grandfather among them, she found herself once again carrying another child, she decided to take desperate measures to rid herself of this unwanted burden – and she paid dearly for her drastic declaration of independence. Still a young man, my great-grandfather was left a widower with three small children to raise as best he might. And raise them he somehow did.
Not until his first family reached adulthood did he feel himself entitled to a second wife and this time he had no choice but to resort to the waterfront marriage brokers. He must from the first have known the risks involved, for they had to be general knowledge to even the most gullible of recent immigrants. To exaggerate the virtues of whatever product is on offer, has always been a prime rule of salesmanship, and no exception when marriage is the commodity under consideration. The crux lay in the extent of the exaggeration. And what my great-grandfather had bargained for was clearly so different from what he actually got that it set in motion a family drama that would dominate the rest of his life. Though it was a family drama too common to dignify with the word tragedy, it must, for the woman involved, have produced its share of shame and suffering.
“For the woman involved.” That phrase too is a measure of the shame inflicted upon her. I never knew her name and was, apparently, never curious enough to ask. She had to be, like my own grandmother, Mrs. Thomas Silva, because she was married to my great-grandfather, but she always seemed to me more like a serving woman than a wife. I was never formerly introduced to her, never touched by her and certainly never, on any of my rare visits, greeted with a kiss. I was sometimes taken to my great-grandfather’s Decoto ranch in the company of my grandfather or father. It was in the early thirties a simple, rundown wooden farmhouse with sash windows and shingled dormers and scarcely a flake of its original paint left on the bare boards. With its nearby windmill-topped tank house, it was like any other less than prosperous farmhouse seen up and down the length of California. There was no garden, at least nothing resembling a flower garden. There was in the backyard a skimpy patch of greenery that passed for a kitchen garden, a wild growth of mint burgeoning near a dripping faucet, and a few, sad rows of kale. Otherwise the place was all dust and dry grass, with a wire-enclosed pen for chickens, and a sad, dilapidated automobile of some unknown make.
She always came to the door when she heard a car enter the premises, but she never in my presence moved beyond the doorway itself. Nor did anyone, either my grandfather or my great-grandfather, ever explain to me who the sad woman in the doorway was. My grandfather may have nodded to her, but never greeted her in any way more affectionate. I knew she was the mother of my great-grandfather’s nine subsequent children, all those great uncles and aunts who seemed far closer to my father’s generation than to my grandfather’s. I knew the names of only the two youngest, George and Dudley, the last scarcely a decade older than I, because they sometimes acted as my grandfather’s hired hands.
Although they might have been treated with more deference than the other workers, they were certainly never treated as my grandfather’s brothers and invited into the house. Never were any of them included in family feasts such as Christmas or Thanksgiving, though they were faithful attendants at all family funerals, and the last time I ever saw or heard of any of them was at my own grandmother’s funeral, in 1958, when I was thirty, when I was introduced to two women – spinsters, I assumed – who were my father’s aunts and seemed to revere him as if he were royalty, though he himself had difficulty recalling their names.
It was only later, long after it was too late to do anything about it that I began to dwell upon the plight of this woman married to my great-grandfather as she must once have been on that long, long passage around the Horn, coming to her New World. A small, almost tiny young woman, awkward, with coarse hands, placid sheep eyes and heavy brows, she must have lain for months on the miserable bunk of that tossing ship, all the time knowing full well that she did not even come close to resembling the woman her future husband had bargained for, that she was merely the pawn in a timeworn confidence trick. More than anything she must have feared that she would be rejected at first sight and returned unwed to a solitary life of virtual slavery and endless shame. Because she could not articulate her fears made them no less real. She knew little more than the name and age, a generation older than herself, of the man who was to become her husband – a word at the time, for her, at least, hardly distinguishable from that of master – and that her future marriage would more than likely, at best, be a kind of indentured slavery.
And my great-grandfather – how did he greet his prospective bride? When they met for that first time on the docks of San Francisco, there were undoubtedly such centuries of peasantry engrained in her mute placidity, he had to know instantly that all his pretensions to gentility must now be forever forfeited. With the help of his dead wife’s family, his first three children had all completed the twelfth grade, had all three then married well, and he now, the pater familias, stuck with this woman, scarcely older than his daughters, but so transparently an illiterate peasant, almost more brute than woman, would forever bar him from that other world, the world of his first well-born family. And he did what most men of the time would have done, retreated ever deeper into a fierce, defensive pride as a shield against his recent degradation. Being poor, he had no choice but to keep her, and for form’s sake, to go through a kind of marriage, blessed by both Church and State. He was a healthy, normal man with a healthy normal man’s needs and nine children were to follow in regular sequence. But when he drove her and her burgeoning family to Sunday Mass at All Saints in Hayward, he, as a proper bourgeois, took his rightful place in the front pews, while his second family remained behind, where they too had their place, in the back pews. He spoke to his wife only in Portuguese and as far as possible kept his two families apart, as if the new one might somehow vitiate the great strides made by the first.
What the woman in the doorway made of all this in her innermost heart we can only surmise. Her traditional role had been set centuries before: A peasant woman’s duty was first and foremost to obey her father and later her husband, and both without question. My great-grandfather was a proud and severe man, but he was not a monster. One cannot make love to the same person for decades without occasionally allowing a moment of tenderness to slip by, and she herself must at the very least have found comfort in the children who were hers as well as his, if not in the making of them, at least in the nursing of them. For they all gave evidence of fearing as well as respecting the martinet who was their father and of loving the illiterate woman who was their mother. And she did outlive him.
But we know no more about how she received the news of his death than how she received his first embrace. It was a widow’s duty to mourn her husband and mourn him she did, if only for the sake of their children, but whether she mourned him with a secret relief at her liberation or with true grief we will never know. We have all heard about those who grow to love their chains, but whether or not she did, she needs a great novelist, a latter day Flaubert, to tell her side of the story. And a fine story it might prove to be – though, sadly, no writer of the period would anymore have considered her worthy of his attention than the young boy I once was watching her stand in that bleak doorway.
Julian Silva is a fourth-generation Portuguese-American whose Azorean ancestors first settled in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1860s. His novel, The Gunnysack Castle, was first published by Ohio University Press in 1983. The second section of the Death of Mae Ramos, “Vasco and the Other,” was originally published in 1979 in Writer’s Forum 6 (University of Colorado). In 2007, Distant Music Two Novels: Gunnysack Castle and The Death of Mae Ramos was published by the Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Distant Music is the story of the Woods (anglicized Portuguese) and Ramos families and their descendants in California. In these narratives Julian Silva “celebrates not only the resilience of men and women confronted with failure but, even more important, he exposes the compromised morality of their achievement” (Portuguese in the Americas Series). Julian Silva’s latest novella, Move Over, Scopes and Other Writings, was published in 2011 by Tagus Press, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.