It was a stuffy December day, and the sun was trying to burn through the cloudy sky.
That Friday before my baby sister’s high school graduation, my father gave The Angry Chef and me a ride to the familiar house on Rua Bastos Pereira. The air still smelled of rain – it had been raining on and off all week. Dad parked his massive silver SUV in front of the white metal gate. The gate looked strange and new; when I was a child, an orange, solid wood slide one had been there instead. I wondered what that gate must have looked like to my mother, as she probably still remembered the short metal fence that stood there before.
Dad called Nira, the lovely housekeeper, and she ran down the garage ramp to open the gate for us, the click-clack of her flip flops announcing her arrival and denouncing her speed. My father drove off to pick up my mother and sister at home for Shabbat at the nearby synagogue.
The Angry Chef and I followed Nira back into the house, with its familiar smells. The dark entrance hall; on the right, a narrow bay window above the large mahogany corner table where the phone sat and the copper umbrella stand, which still held the umbrella my mother used to set up on my stroller, white with purple-blue polka dots. The yellow pattern tiled floors kept the hall cool and fresh, and we could feel the breeze coming in from the sitting room windows.
Standing on this hall that day felt like what Brazil will always feel like for me: warm, and smelling of rain and freshly cut grass.
My grandmother wobbled slowly down the hallway towards us, with difficulty and without her cane. She had a great big smile on her face, and that smile was pure love. Everything about her made you feel loved.
She hugged and kissed me, and then hugged and kissed The Angry Chef. She then immediately asked if we would like some coffee, or some water. Coffee would be great, we said, and Nira went into the kitchen to get the ancient coffee maker warmed up and started. My grandmother held my arm tightly as we walked through the sitting room and out the glass doors to the garden.
“Look at them,” she said, proudly pointing at the vases hanging from her garden wall, “they have never bloomed all at the same time before. Ever.”
Her orchids covered the tall left wall of the garden, hanging from vases and stands made of pau d’agua. White, yellow, pink, green-yellow with magenta highlights – my grandmother had been collecting them for years. Everyone who knew her had given her an orchid at least once in their lifetime. I had sent her an enormous vase for her birthday the previous March.
“And come, look over there,” she said, as she took my arm again and walked with me to the far right corner of the garden, “I had no idea if these would bloom, I brought them all the way from Rio Preto, but they seem to like it here.” The rosebush was as tall as me, and white roses were blooming at the end of every branch. I smiled. Her kitten followed us quietly, found a bald patch of grass at our feet, sat, laid down, turned his belly up. My grandmother smiled at her beloved pet.
Coffee was ready.
We sat in her sitting room, The Angry Chef’s eyes wondering from frame to frame on the walls – photos of my cousins, my sister and me as children, a charcoal portrait of me which my grandfather paid a gentleman in Praça da Republica to make, watercolours and landscapes in canvas and oil. A huge television sat propped up against the wall, my grandfather’s leather rocking chair still a strong presence in the small sitting room. The window open to the garden. The fresh breeze flowing in, filling the old house with life.
Nira brought the coffee in the vintage brown glass coffee cups we’ve had since I was a little girl. We drank the coffee with the television on in the background. We watched an episode of Two and a Half Men together – she found this show so funny – and then the football was on. My grandmother told The Angry Chef he was welcome to watch it. She started telling me something, and I wanted to write it down, but couldn’t find a pen.
“There’s one upstairs,” she said, “come, I’ll show you, it’s on my desk.”
We worked our way slowly up the green carpeted stairs, and down the hallway to the left – her bedroom. She sat down, and as I looked through the papers piled high on her desk looking for a pen, I got sidetracked and mentioned to her she had never showed me her wedding album. “It’s up there,” she said, pointing to the highest cabinet on her side of the bedroom, “why don’t you get on the chair and get it.”
There were three old-fashioned albums, the textile covers so delicate I was afraid they might come apart just by looking at them. I carefully took all three albums down with me, and sat next to her.
Her wedding photos seemed so real. The pure silk taffeta wedding dress, the orchid bouquet (the receipt for which was still inside the album), her hair parting slightly off centre (she must have done it herself), her bright smile in the photographs taken at home, before she went to church. I asked her why she wasn’t smiling as she walked down the isle to my grandfather’s side, on my great-grandfather Antonio’s arm. “I was concentrating,” she said, laughing. “You know,” she continued, “I was so focused that when the priest said, ‘you may kiss the bride,’ I forgot that I was the bride, and that your grandfather was meant to kiss me! He had to pull me close to him so I would kiss him!” We laughed together, as she turned more pages: faces I got to know many years later, faces I heard about all my life, her happy face, my grandfather’s Fred Astaire-lookalike face. The faces that would become my world.
“You know,” she said, as we closed the album, “I miss your grandfather. I’ve missed him every day ever since he died. But my God, we had such a wonderful life.” She looked at me, and she looked so honest, the tears glistening in her dark brown eyes, “I had such a happy life. And I would do it all over again.” The Angry Chef often mentions that when we came back down the stairs and to the sitting room, we giggled together like two schoolgirls up to no good.
That was the last time Nonna and I spent time together, just the two of us. Two weeks later, and two years ago today, she joined my grandfather. There was no long-term illness, no pain, no drama and no hassle. Nonna simply went to sleep on December 23, and never woke up.
While I miss this great lady a great deal, I’m grateful I was lucky enough to have been a part of her life. Because she is an important part of what made mine, and so many others’, so happy.
Thank you so much for reading, and happy holidays!