stories are always being constructed. the words work like hands, setting brick after brick in its place.
a wall that protects us.
my father was born in 1949, the year after the war had come to an end. my mother came into the world in 1952 and the Maquis still roamed the hills. the war seemed far away, but it was there.
and it is still there.
i don’t know the whole story. i only recall, although this i do recall clearly, some scraps. not even scraps of the story, but rather the ones of the stories that grandma gloria told about the story, or of the stories casilda struggles to remember that she heard from aunt ubaldina. how can you identify the links between one remnant and another? what stitch should you use? where should you cut the fabric? in fact, what cloth should be used? what is the right pattern?
is there a correct way to do it?
i come from a family built on longing, on nostalgia for bygone days.
grandma gloria was always talking about the times in the big house of portaris, about how she was happy before what happened happened. mom always talking about the family, about how important we were, about how in vigo we even had a coat of arms on a gothic style stone house. aunt pilar always remembering her childhood in the house of one of her uncles, who was quite sophisticated and very rich.
i come from a family built on anger, because the ruin we suffered wasn’t fair. if it weren’t for uncle manuel, portaris would be ours, if it weren’t for that fight, we would still have sunday lunches with relatives, if it weren’t for the war, i would be living in redondela.
oh, if only it weren’t for . . .
uncle manuel is in the only family photograph that my grandmother kept. uncle manuel was one of her older brothers, she was the youngest. there were thirteen of them, not counting the ones who had died. that’s why, in the photo, my grandmother is at my great-grandfather’s feet and is just two years old. uncle manuel looks straight-backed and stiff, in one of the outer corners of the photo. even though my great grandparents are sitting in the center of the picture, as if they are on a royal throne, the one who is presiding over the scene is uncle manuel. because he has that air about him. and he plays up that majestic appearance with the white suit and white hat and white shoes. as if he were an indiano, the emigrant returned from the americas.
the rest of the brothers and sisters, thirteen in all, besides the ones who had died, and even my great-grandparents, sitting on their royal throne, look like uncle manuel’s poor servants, the tenant farmers who work his fields, the washerwomen who rinsed out his pristine laundry, the wet nurses who nursed my grandmother.
always serving the lord.
portaris was a place of immense wealth, with the meadows, swiddens, oak groves, community fields, wheatfields, and hills where cart after cart of manure was carried down. they said that portaris had five hundred square meters or so for every day of the year and had at least thirty tenant farmers. there wasn’t a lunchtime during the week when there weren’t at least two priests sitting at the table.
where the priest says mass, he gets fed.
once this was all ours
one day my brother went with uncle josé to alter the course of the water. going up to the heights where the monastery was, where the well was and the irrigation streams started out, he looked where his uncle was pointing and listened to what he said: everything you see there on the horizon—and he pointed toward the north—were lands that belonged to portaris. when the words came to an end, he rested a hand on the boy’s shoulder, like they do in the films with the cavalry set in the far west, and they watched the sun set.
areias was a place of immense wealth, with the meadows, swiddens, oak groves, community fields, wheatfields, and hills where cart after cart of manure was carried down. they said that areias had five hundred or so square meters for every day of year and had at least thirty tenant farmers. there wasn’t a lunchtime during the week when there weren’t at least two poor persons and beggars sitting at the table and workers who were unemployed and ill.
the doors to the house of manuel gonzález fresco were always open and nobody went away empty-handed.
fishing without a hook
one day my brother went with uncle josé to change the way the water ran.
—everything you see there on the horizon—and he pointed toward the north—were lands that belonged to portaris.
inhaki was sad when he came back. he didn’t give a hoot about contemplating the horizon lit up by the sunset.
—i just wanted to see eels.
dad had told him the well where the irrigation streams emerged was full of them, as big as serpents. and he hadn’t caught sight of even one.
slippery fish, like the memories we retain of bygone days.
for years, during sunday visits to the house in ceia, my grandmother gloria would tell my father: uncle manuel is very ill, he might not make it past christmas. and christmas went by and a new sunday came. uncle manuel is really ill, he might not make it past easter; and easter came and went.
one of those mournful warnings by grandma had given rise to the rumor. dying he’s dying, but he hasn’t died yet. it might be he keeps going because of those shots of cane liquor, the old woman with the voice of a sassy young lass would affirm. even a frost won’t get rid of weeds, a member of the family would inevitably let slip out every sunday.
and that’s when grandmother gloria would get all riled up:
—shhhh! show some respect! he was never a good person, but i don’t wish him dead.
and then what died was the conversation. until the next sunday arrived bringing the same comment as always.
uncle manuel is very ill, he might not make it past midsummer eve.
version 1 (more outlandish and unpredictable): one day my great-grandfather went to the county fair in cambados and when he came home he ordered everything to be packed up because he had just bought land over yonder, along the sea, that they told him was better for planting gardens and growing fruit trees.
version 2 (more sensible and boring): the old man had become very ill with a chest ailment. he sold everything in cervanha and bought new land, near the coast, so he could go more often to bathe in the waters at a toja, which they had said could cure you and he would cough less and wouldn’t suffocate from the spasms in his diaphragm.
the point is
the important thing about the imaginative and random version as opposed to the sensible and boring one is seeing how each thing that happens has many versions that people tell, one, two, twelve, not as many as there are people.
as many as the times this story is told.
shoes ask for stockings
stockings ask for shoes
the shoemakers in the mountains
want land in cambados, they do
the oldest children were all fairly grown. only the little girls had been born in the new house. the move took a couple of days and required four or five oxcarts, with the chestnut bed frames, the dressers and trunks for the bed linens. on the trip they had to go back a ways, because along the way they’d lost aunt carmen, who was very little then.
they say uncle manuel, one of the older ones, had a girlfriend acquired during the festival in bandeira, but the relationship never made it past bandeira. who knows if that’s how the meanness entered his body.
we don’t know what market our great grandfather went to, but we think it was the one by the mosteiro, in meis. it was held on the ninth and twenty-fifth of each month and it was the biggest one in the area. who knows if that’s where the muleteers decided to accept dried octopus as payment for oil and paprika, and was thus the origin of polvo à feira, octopus market style, a national dish, gastronomic seal of quality. what was definitely true is that was where they sold cows who had just given birth, pregnant ones, the ones meant for slaughter, young cows, calves, oxen, pigs and horses. the wagon drivers from carvalhinho traded ribeiro wine, chestnuts from the courel mountains, walnuts from brolhao. the shepherds from ourense visited houses to buy livestock for wool. people came from meanho and valga, and caldas, and moranha, and cambados selling and buying, or just stopping by the vendors’ stands to listen to stories and have a glass of wine.
and in the middle of this hoopla great-grandfather heard them talking about a farm that belonged to some friars that nobody wanted: portaris.
grandmother gloria had the family portrait, with all of them, male and female, in front of the family home, perhaps in order to soften the suffering from having lost it. But every time the photograph emerged from the drawer and the parchment paper that it was wrapped in, the trauma, like the phoenix, was reborn from its silver nitrate.
. . . back then, back then, we were really happy, before uncle Manuel.
the one who saves, never goes without
version 3 (who knows if it’s the last): the old man was a clog maker. He went around to the big markets, and in his stand he repaired soles, replaced laces, tried to renew worn-down clogs. at one of those fairs he heard them talking about portaris.
The job as clog maker wasn’t a small business, considering the profit.
old wives’ tales
years ago i heard about the strength of the agrarian movement in the area around taveirós. the peasants, women and men, organized in unions, listened to the emancipating sermons of basilio álvarez and, in partnership with the ones who had emigrated, set up the first secular schools in the region, because they wanted daughters and sons who were deserters of illiteracy.
one of the things that amazed me the most was when i found out what happened in 1915. as always, the big houses with 365 ferrados were not required to pay taxes, the huts with a few cuncas, scraps of land, a granary with a single section, had to pay for the rest. And there was a general strike: for weeks the villages in the area refused to sell their produce in town, which meant the people there had no milk, no flour, no eggs, no vegetables or apples.
i had the idea that my people were downtrodden and had no backbone, and i was quite surprised at its astonishing history of resistance. astonishing and forgotten.
in the morning, uncle Manuel only had two shots of cane liquor, one the white kind, the other with herbs. so they say.
oral literature traditions
one of the sayings i recall from grandma gloria is her i’m going to tell you a story. a saying that always surprised me because what my grandmother would tell was what we children called gossip. my grandmother never lost her fondness for telling stories and she never lost the ironic way in which she told them even when her memory failed.
i never saw them, because i hadn’t been born yet, but i can see them in the tiny kitchen in ceia, crowded in there, sitting on those white and green stools, around the table, my aunt yoya pretending she didn’t know anything and grandma gloria telling about the big house in portaris and about when the whole family had come from cervanha with the beds and dressers in ox carts and they lost aunt carmen, the one some missionaries passing through later took to become a nun, because grandpa, abuelito, was a man who went to mass every day and had the priest to eat at the house and that peddler who stopped in the big house on market days and the odd rubber that he kept in his traveling case and how aunt ubaldina egged grandma gloria on to steal the rubber and…
© Susana Sanches Arins. By arrangement with the author. English translation © 2021 Kathleen March. All rights reserved.