I heard the chirping of cicadas and the occasional conversation among six men softened by their distance of three stories up on the roof of our house.
This was the first day of construction, or deconstruction, of our house. Huw and I watered the plants. Then, we weeded two of our four plots…quietly. The first day of the builders was so different than what we had anticipated and dreaded.
Our house is composed of two structures. The first is a solid granite house, which was built about the 1930s. The second structure is a slipshod incomplete expansion of inferior brick materials. One of the walls of the addition already had caved in when we bought the property. A neighbour told us that the owner’s son had done the addition; another said that his nephew had done it. This person had been to New York. We are using his trunk for firewood. We knew that we would have to demolish his attempt at expanding the house.
We thought that the builders would bring it down with a crash using heavy equipment.
On the Wednesday before building began on the first Monday in June, the builders had parked a heavy tonnage front-loader behind the house.
When we saw that an old grapevine had been yanked out and discarded along with two granite boulders on which we sat while doing fires on that terrace, our hearts were in our throats. We feared for our grapevines and fruit trees. For four days, we cleared in the courtyard – again --- around the grapevines along the wall. If the builders could not see the grapevines, how could they be expected to avoid them. Also, I hung laminated cards on them which said, “Por favor, deixe me em paz”, or “Please leave me in peace.”
On Monday, Caladon left for the school bus about 8 a.m. Frankly, I was afraid to go to the house site. Huw and I arrived there before 9 a.m. We found the front-loader transporting builders to the roof of the house. The team were removing carefully terracotta roof tiles that will be reused for a carport in the courtyard. Patricia, the engineer, and Joao, her father and builder, told us that they had to take out the grapevine to make enough space for the front-loader. They said that they did not see the need to remove any more. I was relieved that they told us about the grapevine. Huw and I pointed out the vines in the courtyard and our one lemon tree that is outside the courtyard.
No problem, they said. And I knew that it was not a problem. They and the builders are incredibly aware of the grapevines and trees, which is a challenge at our house. We have more than 200 grapevines all over our property and dozens of fruit trees.
Later, that morning, the builders asked where we wanted them to put the wood and stone from the house. The second terrace behind the house, we said. So, they threw the pieces from the third floor onto the first terrace, while someone on the ground threw it to the second terrace behind him. I cannot believe how much wood is in that pile, which is 3 metres high by 3 metres long. The builders’ pile is our third woodpile from the house. We should not have to resort to the piles that Huw and I already made for two years of winters.
We are impressed by the builders’ work and attitude. In two days, they stripped the inside of the new addition. Then, they moved items out of the old house. Months ago, Huw and I had made many trips to Oliveira do Hospital’s recycle site with metal and wood from the house. There were few things that we did not shift. One was a heavy metal bed frame, which the builders moved into the courtyard. Even their way of putting items into the courtyard is organised. Our courtyard does not look like a rubbish heap.
On the third day, someone came to the house to take measurements for wood. Also, Patricia came by to say that she was going to EDP, or the electricity, office to apply for a connection. No one came on the fourth day. On the fifth day, or Friday, the team were there, pulling out a mimosa tree root from the doorway of the adega, or downstairs, door with the front loader, and removing two granite columns in the adega. We want to use the stone in the rebuilding of the house. The builders had used a chisel and hammer to separate each column into three neatly cut pieces. The following week, I watched Joaquim do the same with the front part of the wine press, which is on a dais. We plan to put a kitchen table on the top. We told Joaquim that we want to use the stone for an outdoors table. He did a beautiful job of chipping it out with his hammer and chisel. It is a craft!
So, we are very happy with Scoplano of Manguelde. They are doing a superb job.
*** *** *** ***
Huw and I gave ourselves three years to get the quinta, or farm, up and running smoothly. I think that sometimes we forget that. We believe that we can do it all in one year. Well, we cannot. And that is fine.
One year ago, we bought 1.6 hectares of abandoned land, some of which was strangled in impenetrable bramble forest. There is no jungle now. I have a few more terraces to bush-cut, but I am cutting grasses, wildflowers and only some bramble. However, bramble spreads, so I am also cutting the bramble on our stone walls with a pair of secateurs.
In the spring, when Huw and I went on our fern bracken campaign, we really thought that we had eradicated it for the year. Not so. The bracken has sprouted up again this year. We think that there is less bracken. However, I thought it would have stopped growing this year. We had a rainy spell of a few days in June. Steve, our project manager, said that he has never known it to rain in June in his 12 years here.
Deadlines do not work in the new business of managing a quinta. All of our deadlines are false ones because we have no idea how long projects take for completion. For two months, I have been bush-cutting, a long time partly because I also have been planting, watering and weeding, and partly because I limit the time I bush-cut to protect my hands. I have finished nine out of 13 terraces. Meanwhile, the grasses keep growing higher and higher. They are taller than my 5 ½ feet.
It is hard work bush-cutting. Next year, I will try a scythe. This year, we let the grass get too high to use that tool. We had lots of rain, and I began to wait until the grass stopped growing, which does not happen here. So, lesson learnt.
I am proud when I look at the work that I have done up to this point. Even though I am often dog-tired when I get home and the next morning, working on our quinta gives me energy. I love it.
I am doing the maintenance projects. Huw is doing the capital improvements. For example, he dug out the steps leading down into our quinta. Lo and behold, he found that there was some structure underneath the soil. Last week, he began to dig around the house well and washing trough. He found that the well is sitting on a handsome stone structure, and he found the pipe that feeds the trough water from the well. The trough will be a plunge pool. The area, which is near a shady persimmon, or diospiro tree, will be a great place for a bench and relaxing. We already sit there when we eat lunch.
The advantage in taking our time in developing our property is that we find out where we do take breaks. We are acquainting ourselves with the land.
With regard to agriculture, we said that we did not want to try to be self-sufficient the first year or the second or the third. This relaxed approach takes off the pressure.
Huw began planting seeds in pots months ago. So, on our quinta, we planted five plots on the same terrace.
In the first plot, there are seedlings of onions and spring onions, watercress, basil, and lettuce in two plots no larger than 1 metre by 2 metres, which were planted with other crops last year, by our neighbour, Anibal. On a 5 metre by 4 metre plot, on the same terrace, we have planted artichokes, squash, tomatoes, eggplant and beets. On a fourth plot, 2 metres by 1 metre, Caladon planted sunflowers for seeds for his lovebirds, Rosie and Green-Leaf. On the fifth plot, 5 metres by 2 metres, we planted raspberries, gooseberries, tayberries, blueberries, and red, black and white currants.
We planted in stages. Once we got past trying to plan the plots, we just started planting the seedlings. I admit that I thought planting would be a one-shot endeavour. It is not. I thought that weeding was a one-shot endeavour. It is not. I thought that bush-cutting was a one-shot endeavour. It is not. In the spring, these are concurrent activities.
Before we went to Britain for Christmas, we worked hard at clearing the bramble on the lower terraces. Now, before leaving for New York, I am working hard at bush-cutting the lower terraces.
Now, I know that spring and summer are incredibly busy and not a sensible time to take a holiday.
Live and learn.
*** *** *** ***
“It’s not easy out there for women our age.”
Caladon and I met a former Williams College roommate for lunch in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. Debbie and I were17 when we lived together our first year at college. She married and has three sons, the youngest of whom is now a student at Williams. Deb still is vivacious, attractive and intelligent. She is looking for a new position and says that women in their 50s are at a disadvantage. Somehow, I cannot see any demographic having an advantage at this somber time in the global economy.
“We have to look at our futures as 10-year-plans now.” she said. She gestured toward Caladon who was happily eating fish and chips at the traditional British eatery, A Salt and Battery.
In 10 years, Caladon will have graduated from high school and be on his way. Ten years, I can envisage easily. Longer than that, and there are too many unknown factors. In the two weeks since Caladon and I returned from six weeks in the United States, I have thought of Debbie’s 10-year-plan advice many times and found solace in it.
Caladon and I spent four weeks in New York and two weeks traveling 3,000 miles in the Midwest on Amtrak trains. I loved the train because I could see the country and because it slowed down the time. We stayed in five households. Zooming from one house to the other by plane would have made the holiday even more intense. We had not seen some of our hosts for 12 years. Although we loved seeing everyone, our time on the train was our time to ourselves. We brought our own food and a blanket, and we created our home.
A retired couple, seated across from us in Chicago, shared their popcorn and stories as we traveled toward La Crescent, Wisconsin. They lived outside Chicago and gave us bits of history about the area. We showed them the photographs of our house, which we took one year ago when we bought it. They were fascinated by the house and the differences between life in Portugal and life in the Chicago suburbs. Their questions reflected their interest.
I met a few other people who wanted to delve into our life. At a family barbecue near the Oranges in New Jersey, the Jamaican father of my sister’s brother-in-law, Greg, asked lots of questions about my life. He said, “Cities are not natural, are they? They can’t continue.” I agreed. In the long-run, cities are not sustainable.
Waseka, my sister, Julie’s friend, likened my life to that of her deceased grandmother’s in Alabama. As a girl, Waseka left Cincinnati, Ohio, and spent summers there. She loved it, she said. She misses it. She would like to build a house on her grandmother’s land as a place of respite. Her grandmother grew everything that they ate, she said. I invited her to visit Portugal and said that I would love to visit her in Alabama.
Most people in the United States are so busy working that they have little time to dream of another way of life. I found that to be sad. Jobs suck up most of their psyche. In their free time, they work hard at squeezing in recreation, which often feels forced and harried. As I looked around at fellow passengers on the train, I noticed that technology separated people from each other and the journey that we shared with each other. At one point, we were traveling along the photogenic upper Hudson River. The woman sitting on the river side of the train had drawn the curtain against the glare on her computer on which she was watching a film.
Unfortunately, the people who see the flaws of the use of technology are not the ones writing on various computer websites. Yet, there must be many. It is so clear that technology can be used to keep people busy and complacent and unthinking.
*** *** *** ***
At breakfast, my brother and I sometimes fight a war of the worlds when I visit him and my mother. These days, I make a silent truce and try to accommodate him. On one side of the table, his 320 pounds spread over a bench meant for two. I look at him and wonder what his life would have been if he had not become ill.
I wonder to myself whether he would have had a family. Then, in one of his insightful moments as if he has read my mind, he says, "I have a daughter. Did you know that I have a daughter?" Because it is too painful for him to imagine a normal life out of his reach, he launches himself on a fantastical biographical journey: "I have hundreds of children." The huge number counterbalances the cipher his diseased mind tells him he is over and over again.
Schizophrenia is a group of severe disorders in which people interpret reality abnormally, according to the Mayo Clinic. It may result in some combination of hallucinations, delusions and disordered thinking and behavior.
I tell my brother that I love him and always will love him, no matter what. But when he reaches those heights, it is useless to try to bring him down to my reality.
"I'm the king of England. I'm the richest man in the world. I'm the best DJ."
It breaks my heart to hear the rant of this madman. My little brother. I remember sharing a hot dog and orange drink with him at Nedicks after our mother shopped in Macy's at Herald Square. I remember him riding around our apartment on the most wanted Christmas toy that year - Tony the Pony. I remember him delivering Newsday on his banana-seat bicycle in our Long Island neighborhood. He achieved a black belt in karate, played trombone in his high school band, and worked for badges in the Boy Scouts.
Teachers, friends and family said that he was a pleasant, well-mannered boy.
There is no schizophrenic gene. Schizophrenia, however, runs in our family, and genetics is like throwing dice. Our mother had an uncle jailed in the attic, not unlike Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre. Madness is an all-consuming monster. Sadly, my brother threw unlucky.
My reality is one shared with most other people. The more I interact with others, the more it is reinforced. His reality is his own creative survival technique. The less he interacts with people, the more it is reinforced. And he is interacting less and less.
"Do you want to have lunch at our sister's next door with the family?"
"No, thanks," he says and smiles a sheepish smile. He has company himself -- better company.
I ask him how many voices he hears in his head. He names them --his junior high school girlfriend, his high school girlfriend, the CIA and a few others. During the 35 years my 54-year-old brother has been sick, I believe that the number of voices has increased to a small network. He once complained about his former girlfriends; now, he talks directly to them.
The ability of people with schizophrenia to function normally and to care for themselves tends to deteriorate over time. He showers daily now; in the past, he has gone through periods when he has refused to clean himself. Even today, he sometimes needs prodding to change his clothes which can smell stale and of urine.
I listen to his conversations with his voices --laughing and talking-- and I feel sad and
rejected. "Talk to me," I sometimes say. "I'm flesh and blood." It is said that schizophrenics have no control over their voices' identities but, I believe, that my brother feels safe with their numbers. He sometimes tells a voice to stop it, a voice telling him to do bad things. All in all, it seems that his inner world is of his own design.
Madness is not poetic; it is not romantic.
At 18, the technical school he was to attend closed, and he was at loose ends. A year later, I received a telephone call in Washington, D.C. from our mother in New York saying that he had been taken to a hospital's psychiatric ward. He had begun swinging his fists, leaving behind a bashed-in plaster wall in the dining room. Our 11-year-old sister hid in a bedroom, terrified. Her twin and 12-year-old brother were not at home. Emergency was called, and Clive and our mother left in a hospital ambulance. Our sister was left behind, not understanding why.
I flew home, thinking that there was a cure, thinking that there was a controllable cause. For years, we all believed and prayed for that. Our parents blamed marijuana; they blamed themselves; they blamed his friends. We all reached for a reason to make sense of this awful tyrant of a disease. Yes, we had schizophrenia in the family. But why wasn't I, or our sisters, or our younger brother schizophrenic?
Researchers believe a combination of genetics and environment, such as transitions and stressful life events, contribute to the development of the disease. They do not know what causes it. They do not have a cure, only the hope of controlling it. Schizophrenia is a chronic condition that requires lifelong treatment.
After a few years, our mother stopped attending a parents' support group when the moderator began to refer questions from other parents to her. She had stopped blaming drugs; she realized that drugs may have triggered his initial breakdown which may or may not have happened otherwise. She had stopped blaming our father who she thought had been too strict with him, specifically on two occasions, which, on hindsight, were psychotic episodes of withdrawal. She had stopped blaming his friends. Our father, on the other hand, refused to attend the support group. He never truly accepted his elder son's illness. Sadly, during his last days nine years ago, he cursed his son in anger at his own helplessness.
"It's not easy," our 84-year-old mother says.
When we drive pass, she repeatedly points out the halfway house that a social worker had recommended for her sick son 20 years ago. She rejected it because she said that he would bring friends who she could not trust nor control into her home.
His choices in friends are not good. Once in the early days, our father gave him an ultimatum resounding with the familiar: "You live in my house; you live by my rules." So, he went missing. It was frightening. Several days later, he returned in someone else's shabby old clothes and the thousands in his bank account withdrawn by a friend. Never again, my mother says. He could have lost his life on the street.
For a while, my brother seemed to be in and out of the hospital. My parents would telephone the police who got to know him. The officers often managed to talk him into the car before driving him to the hospital. Our mother says that he seemed to relish a stay there almost as a vacation spot, where he would meet new people and eat different food.
During crisis periods or times of severe symptoms, hospitalization may be necessary to ensure safety, proper nutrition, adequate sleep and basic hygiene.
For a few years 30 years ago, my brother worked a part-time job loading trucks for a company whose good-hearted owner hired the mentally ill. He and the rest of our family thought the situation a godsend. He was getting out, meeting people and earning dignity. Life was fine until one night when he was 29, he called our 21-year-old brother to the telephone for a call from a friend. Our younger brother then met up with this friend and another. The caller drove his car into a parked truck. Our brother and the third friend died instantly; the driver survived the tragedy. Shortly afterwards, the company owner suggested that my brother move on because he had slipped into a more remote place in his mind.
Eventually, he attended a day group. Again, he had something to do, somewhere to go. But he brought home friends, my mother says, who put their feet up on the living-room table and ignored her when she asked that they remove them. As she points out, they were big men, not small boys. She could not stop them.
Over the years, my brother's psychotropic medications have changed; the diagnosis of his condition has changed. I don't pay much attention anymore. Psychiatrists are working in the dark. The good ones admit their ignorance. At the start of this hell, I put a stop to electric shock treatment, my mother now tells me, minutes before it was to be administered to him. I felt that he was being used as a guinea pig. At that time, our parents would have deferred to the education and experience of the doctor. Now, if my brother is prescribed a medicine that agitates him, our mother refuses to give it to him and another drug is prescribed in its stead. One drug made him shake and drool; it was replaced with another. His drugs have caused weight gain; he smiles proudly when complimented on losing 20 pounds. Our mother also gives him a cocktail of vitamins which she insists makes all the difference in keeping him calm.
In the first years of his illness, a psychiatrist associated with a venerable institution asked whether our family would talk with him on videotape. Back then, we were all hoping for a cure, and we assumed that this interview would help us get there. I can imagine our parents asking him whether it would help their son, and the doctor answering offhandedly that it might help him. Our younger brother refused to participate. Afterwards, we felt exploited. We had helped the psychiatrist write a paper on families of schizophrenics.
Our mother sits on the other side of the breakfast table. She serves her son oatmeal. She says that some people do not visit because they are afraid of him. He has not been physically violent in 30 years. However, he sometimes makes inappropriate verbal sexual overtures to women. He is all talk. But his bulk and his height overshadow most people, and his unpredictability can be menacing. Madness already scares people. Our mother takes offense at the people who do not come to the house because they fabricate excuses. She says that she would understand the truth. When he unrelentingly accuses her of poisoning his food, she sometimes takes her meal to another room.
While he talks to one of his voices, she tells me that she refuses to feel that his life is a waste because he will begin to feel that way, too. However, in his lucid moments, he sometimes will say as much.
"He's my son," she says, her eyes glazing over with tears. "I brought him into this world. I can't abandon him."
My eyes glaze over, too.
This visit, he has a schedule. His hours may be anti-social ones but, at least, they are regular. He wakes at 4 in the morning when he showers and dresses for the day. He then sits at the breakfast table listening to the radio and sleeping until our mother wakes and prepares breakfast around 7. He rarely cooks now; years ago, he caused a kitchen fire by forgetting that he had something on the stove. After eating, he watches the news and other shows on television. He has lunch and reads The New York Times thoroughly. He has dinner. He only leaves the house for doctor's appointments - bi-monthly injections for schizophrenia and regular check-ups for diabetes. Outwardly, he is not doing much but, inwardly, he is embroiled in exhausting relationships.
Throughout the day and night, he talks to his voices who talk to him. They, too, will never abandon him.
*** *** *** ***
Things have changed in Fiais da Beira.
While Caladon and I visited the States, Peter, our landlord, sold his house. It was our agreement that when he sold his house, he and his family would move back into their first home, or our rented house.
Peter and his partner, Anna, kindly helped us find new lodgings in our village of Fiais da Beira. Our new abode is a magical place. It is stately in size and style. In one of the two living rooms is a fireplace over which the words “Era uma vez…”, or “Once upon a time…” are carved in wood. Across the road is the Palheiras, or old village of dozens of abandoned granite structures.
Sitting outside on a granite bench, we look over Fiais. It is beautiful. Yesterday, at dusk, we sat outside and watched bats flit across the sky in front of a sinking red sun.
I attended my second festa of Fiais da Beira the weekend after I returned from New York. Last year with coaxing from Caladon, the three of us went to the outdoor dance. It t was great music, but only a few couples at a time danced, and they were often women friends and relatives. This year, I arrived too late for the candle-lit evening procession of saints’ statues from the church. However, on Sunday morning, I went to Mass in hopes of a procession afterwards.
At church, there were twice as many in the congregation as usual. There were 24 people. I did not recognize the priest, but I had not been to Mass there in a couple of months. The procession seemed to flow from the Mass; I don’t recall Father giving the customary blessing at the end of the service. One…two…three…four…five…six…seven…eight statues left the church on platforms carried by male and female parishioners. They brought them directly outside the church where there was a gaggle of people, including officials such as Carlos Artur Simoes Esteves Maia, president of the Junta of Ervedal da Beira district, and the orchestra, who had played during the Mass.
Finally, the procession order was organized and the march began around the church and through the village led by the priest. I stood back and watched everyone leave the start. When a teenaged boy and girl debated about joining the procession, I decided that I would do so. I brought up the rear.
We stopped frequently at every street. I noticed red and purple flower petals on the ground. At the third stop, I arrived soon enough to see people on their balconies throw flowers on the procession. The ground was beautifully marked with the passage of the march.
We also passed houses with no one on the balconies; they were empty houses. Somehow, I felt that the spirits of the houses were very much alive. I felt that I was walking in a traditional procession that included everyone who lived in Fiais or had lived in Fiais. It was a touching experience.
I was honoured to live in a village, where newcomers are accepted as one of their own. I know that I am not Portuguese, but I am of this village.
*** *** *** ***
Everyday, Huw and I walk to our land to water the crops and work the land. It is a practice that has acquainted us with our fellow villagers.
When we first moved to Peter’s house last September, we walked straight through the heart of the village on our first stop at the communal recycling collection bins. We often went past an old man who sat in the sun and two villagers who were talking to him.
At that time, we carried our tools – hoes, secateurs, rakes – and work gloves and water bottles. Eventually, we left some things in the adega. Now, of course, we have the shed. Everything that we need is at our quinta. There were times that we needed tools for Peter’s place. However, at our new rental, the caretakers, Dona Lucinda and her husband, Senhor Antonio, are looking after the land.
So, Huw and I walk with nothing in our hands taking in the cool morning air and hailing villagers.
“Bom dia,” we always say to passers-by and they return the greeting.
When we first began doing these walks, I felt the need to broadcast the news that we were working the land. Now, I know that there is nothing to broadcast because anyone can see where I am going, and, when I return, what I have been doing by the dusty state of my clothes and body.
The house builders returned to work on our house during the first week of September after an August holiday. They made fast progress on beginning to erect the second floor.
Huw has attacked the soil buildup on the huge threshing rock that lies outside the summer kitchen. In fact, before he began doing it, I did not realise that the summer kitchen is built on the same rock.
I have been working my way down the terraces from the house, hoeing out deep roots of bramble and other weeds. Last year, I only cut down the bramble. This year, the pest has returned more than once, but I am strong enough now to whack away the roots. I did try last year, succeeding rarely before growing tired and giving up.
So, I am excited about this work. I’m hoping that I will see less bramble.
Huw wants to spend another few days pulling out bracken. I agree with him. The bracken will begin to thin out in time.
Of everything that I do in a day, working on the land and writing are what is most rewarding to me.
Caladon does not like working on the land. We have not asked him to do much this summer. However, when we do fires again, I will need his help raking up grasses and hay on the lower terraces. He will moan, but he will thank me for it…a long way in the future.
Okay, I really do not know if he will thank me for it. The lesson may skip a generation and be beneficial to his children. I am learning that we cannot plan our children’s futures. We can give them tools. However, sometimes this can be difficult.
Caladon passed into Year 6, which none of us took for granted. It is not unusual for a student to be held back a year. However, Caladon worked hard at learning Portuguese and his lessons. By Christmas, he asked me for less help translating his assignments and textbooks. By Easter, he stopped asking completely. It is as Carlos, the vice principal at EBI Cordinha, predicted: Caladon was fluent in Portuguese by Easter. I am thankful to his teachers for their help.
Caladon still says that he wants to be an ornithologist and a pilot. Again, he says he does not want to move once we live in our house. He said this when he was 7, and we left Chepstow for Cornwall. He liked his holiday in the United States but says that he does not want to live there. He says that it was too busy.