Thursday, March 24, 2011


Yesterday I shared a cute email my Aunt Dot sent to me. I'd like to tell you a little about her. She's a tiny, peanut of a thing, five-feet nothing with a massive spirit and a quick wit. She's actually my great aunt, the baby sister of my grandmother who became best friends with my mother because of the closeness of their ages. I've only met her once, about 35 years ago.

My mother's mother's side of the family is Portuguese. Her father's side is French/Portuguese, which made my mother a stand-out looking woman as I grew up in suburban Maryland in a white-bread, predominantly Anglo community. I thought this side of my heritage sounded so exotic and special, particularly since everyone said I favored my father and his seemingly plain English/German side. But being different and looking different was challenging for my mom, particularly so because she had lost her father at a young age and ended up with a step-father who had been abusive to her, verbally and physically until her self-esteem was shattered.

She had grown up wishing she were blonde and blue-eyed like the anglo kids in her school, who often looked and treated the more ethnic children as if they were less. It scarred her. When she moved east as a young bride, she hid from the people who noticed the shy, dark-eyed, dark-haired beauty that made them think of Sophia Loren. To her, each eye was a judgment, and she became nearly reclusive.

She lost ties to her Portuguese family in California, and so did we by consequence. She's in her seventies now, and we have a weekly "date." She loves to tell the old stories, about childhood parties at her Grandmother Rose Rodrigues's house where a family gathering meant upwards of 100 loud, loving, dancing, singing, card-playing people. She can't remember the language anymore, but she remembers hearing it spoken by the older folks around the table as they cut slices of dark, Portuguese breads and cheese, and by her aunts and uncles when they'd hold a conversation not intended for the children's ears.

I discovered copies of my great-grandparents and their children's records from their first immigration from the Azores to Hawaii. They're names were Maria, Alejandro, Joaquin back then. As they came to America, they wanted to fit in to their new country so they Americanized their names to Mary, Alexander and John. They worked hard, and served their new country in the military. Soldiers, hungry for home, would walk past the Rodrigues house during the holidays and hear a band playing music inside. They'd knock on the door and ask if this was the dance hall, Elmurst Gardens. The family would laugh and reply that it wasn't but that they were welcome to come in and join their party. It sounds like heaven doesn't it?

I have a few brief memories of my mother's people from the 60's when we lived briefly in California. Then we never returned. They became ghosts to me--rarely heard from, rarely spoken of. My grandmother and her sister Dot flew east in 76 for my wedding. It was the last time I ever saw either of them. Grandmother is gone now, but Aunt Dot connected with my mother, and she and I began emailing some years ago. She sends me cute jokes and quizzes like the one I posted yesterday, and she tries to help me put my mother's family tree back together.

She sent this one as well, and I have to say, as I read it, my heart broke a little. How I would have loved to have known this kind of extended-family love:

Portuguese kids vs. American kids:

American kids: Move out when they're 18 with the full support of their parents.
Portuguese kids: Move out when they're 28, having saved enough money for a house, and are two weeks away from getting married... unless there's room in the basement for the newlyweds.
American kids: When their Mom visits them, she brings a Bundt cake, and you sip coffee and chat.
Portuguese kids: When their Mom visits them, she brings 3 days worth of food, begins to tidy up, dusts, does the laundry, and rearranges the furniture.
American kids: Their dads always call before they come over to visit them, and it's usually only on special occasions.
Portuguese kids: Are not at all fazed when their dads show up, unannounced, on a Saturday morning at 7:00, and start pruning the fruit trees. If there are no fruit trees, he'll plant some.
American kids: Will come over for cake and coffee, and get only cake and coffee. No more.
Portuguese kids: Will come over for cake and coffee, and get a fish dish, a choice of two meats, potatoes, salad, bread, fruit, espresso, multiple choices of cakes.
American kids : Will greet you with 'Hello' or 'Hi'.
Portuguese kids: Will give you a big hug, a kiss on your cheek, and a pat on your back.
American kids: Will eat at your dinner table and leave.
Portuguese kids: Will spend hours there, talking, laughing, and just being together.
American kids: Know few things about you.
Portuguese kids: Could write a book with direct quotes from you.
American kids: Eat peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches on soft mushy white bread.
Portuguese kids: Eat presunto and cheese on a fresh baked Portuguese roll.
American kids: Think that being Portuguese is cool.
Portuguese kids: Know that being Portuguese is cool.

I wish my mom had come away from her childhood holding fast to these ideas of self and heritage. Fortunately, my Mormon heritage instilled these same values of family devotion and love in my family, but I would have loved to have had some of those great Portuguese hugs.

Mom and I are going to try to get out to California for the Rodrigues family reunion this summer. She's never wanted to go, but this year, she says she's ready. I will hear about a lost side of my self, a side I never embraced. A side my children know nothing about.

Of all the history I ever research, this is the one I most need to understand. When we lose a child, no matter how he or she is lost, we lose a generation. What are we planting in their little hearts?

So I'll go to California, and then I'll try to reclaim a lost Portuguese/American/German/English generation. Thanks, Aunt Dot!


  1. This: "When their Mom visits them, she brings 3 days worth of food, begins to tidy up, dusts, does the laundry, and rearranges the furniture." made me laugh. Cuz that was pretty much what my Mom did when she came to take care of me. Maybe she has some heritage she doesn't know about?

  2. I think that kind of mother-love crosses all borders and bloodlines. Anyone who has that in their life is infinitely blessed. I know you are!

  3. I loved this post. It reminded me of growing up. My Mom was always cooking for all the relatives who always came over. No invites because if you were family you didn't need one.She was Italian and my Dad was Scots/Irish and Italian . :)
    My Mom is gone now but I will never forget her "bear hugs" or her laughter. :)Unfortunately we've now lost track of our relatives. Everyone moved away and life I guess got in the way. I wanted my kids to know what I grew up with. They did for awhile while my parents and grandmother was alive.
    I wish you much happiness when you reunite with your family Laurie. I truly believe children should know their heritage and relatives, if possible because it gives them a sense of where they come from. Happy Reunion. :) Your Aunt Dot sounds wonderful.
    Carol L

  4. Thanks, Carol. I'm learning so much from Aunt Dot--about family ties that know no boundaries and have no expiration date, and about aging with grace and spirit. Can't wait to see her. Thanks for sharing your own memories.