This is my climate change story.
It was a seemingly ordinary Sunday in October 2017 when Portugal experienced unseasonably hot temperatures and relentless winds, igniting devastating wildfires across the country. In the middle of this chaos was my family's ancestral town, Vila Nova de Poiares, a place we had called home for more than six generations. That day, a monstrous blaze consumed almost 70% of the town, including our cherished family homestead, a place with two centuries of history. I received a chilling text from a cousin that simply read: "Jayme, we have lost everything."
In my earliest memory of Casa dos Moinhos, it was Christmas, 1977. After a long absence, we reunited with our Portuguese family. The house left an indelible impression on me—a vast, ancient structure with endless hallways, each exuding a sense of timelessness. I recall the aroma of burning wood, the chilling cold that confined us to the warmth of the kitchen and the dining room with its wood stove. Here the Marias, resilient women who had raised my father, presided. Clad in black, they cooked over open flames, filling the air with unfamiliar, rich scents.
This house, steeped in history, felt haunted yet laden with poignant lessons and a hint of hope. Exploring its rooms was akin to an archaeological dig, unearthing forgotten treasures like half-read books, faded uniforms, and abandoned eyeglasses. The past coexisted with the present, blurring the boundaries of time. This was where we were from. On the wall of the office in Moinhos a ceramic plate hung, and it read: "I asked God for advice, to find happiness. God showed me the earth and said, work, plant and grow."
The drafty veranda, adorned with newspapers from 1911 and magazines from 1903, seemed frozen in anticipation of the return of their last reader. The sitting room, with its faded green paint and adorned walls, held portraits of unknown relatives, their paintings displaying a pride of heritage. In one corner, a victrola played melodies of a bygone era, including a no longer used Portuguese national anthem.
Meeting relatives for the first time was an unforgettable experience, their passionate arguments and emotional reminiscences contrasting sharply with my American upbringing. These Portuguese kin, deeply connected to their roots, embraced both skepticism and impossible hope. Their conversations were infused with intoxicating nostalgia and bursts of enthusiasm, making every meal a lengthy, wine-filled affair filled with laughter, debates, and an array of simple dishes.
I vividly recall the room falling silent as my grandfather, aged but still full of vigor, spoke. His words carried a poetic weight, a power that seemed almost supernatural. This scene, set in a time-worn house in a once-poor country, was unlike anything I had witnessed in America.
Despite the challenges, these people held on to hope, refusing to succumb to self-pity.
The first night I spent in Moinhos remains etched in my memory. The darkness was absolute, the silence heavy. The house felt immense, offering a strange sense of safety and timelessness.
Sadly, that Sunday in 2017 marked the end of Casa dos Moinhos as it burned in a pyre. Perhaps it was her time, her lessons shared, her legacy intact within her thick walls. I will miss her deeply.
They say those who depart no longer suffer, but for those left behind, the pain is worse than death. Yet, I am filled with gratitude for the memories of our ancient house; its orchards, patios, treasures, olive oil press, and winery. Casa dos Moinhos may have lost its physical form, but it helped saved me, and for that, I am still profoundly sad to have lost it.
In the grand scheme of things, my family was fortunate—none of us lost our lives that day, unlike the tragic fate that befell over 30 individuals in Portugal. Yet, the impact of this disaster went beyond the immediate loss. It obliterated our sense of identity, erasing two centuries of memories, stories, and heritage in a matter of hours.
As I reflect on that moment, I am haunted by harsh questions: What if, two decades ago, I had done more to combat climate change? What if we all had? Would our beloved Casa dos Moinhos still stand tall today? The edges of these questions serve as a stark reminder of the urgent need for collective action to protect our planet, our homes, and the legacies we hold dear. We need to think less of ourselves, and more about our human family. Trust me, we will have a climate change story one day soon.