My first memory of our family home in Portugal, the Casa dos Moinhos, was from Christmas 1977. After a long absence, we spent the holiday with our Portuguese family. I so remember that endless, ancient, flowing house: Hallways going on and on. I remember the smell of burning wood, and it being so cold that the only place to seek refuge was the kitchen or the dining room with its small wood stove.
There were the Marias, a set of ancient women who had raised my father, attended to my family, and ran the old place. They were little but mighty, wrapped in black, and wearing thick glasses. They cooked over fire in caldrons, with powerful smells that were totally alien to me.
The old house was so very dark, and it was almost impossible to understand that I had roots there too. This was a haunted house – haunted by the memories of the past I never knew, steeped in sadness, but not without its lessons or hope.
Room after room yielded strange treasures, like some sort of archeological dig. Those bedrooms seemingly untouched since their last inhabitants had left the planet. Books left half read on a nightstand, a faded grey uniform hanging in an armoire, a set of glasses left on a table, as if waiting for their owner to return. The past was unburied next to the present, and it simply obliterated any sense of time or place.
The drafty veranda, with its massive windows held newspapers from 1911 and magazines from 1903.
I loved the sitting room, in its faded green paint, with fancy furniture and every wall lined with images and portraits of people I was related to, but had no idea who they had been. Their own paintings were hung with pride on the old cracked walls. In one corner a Victrola, in another a Swiss music box that still played 9 songs when cranked. The final one was the Portuguese national anthem – unrecognizable to the modern ear – as it was the anthem of the Kingdom of Portugal, not the Republic.
There were two dining rooms. One was more formal, with brownish walls, and yellow trim – and a massive breakfront. Across the hall, a room for the staff and field workers where, in the day, anyone could come and eat. Its simple pine table was worn and happy. Down the hall the “new” kitchen, with a massive chimney, wood burning stove, and open fire.
That night, I recall meeting relatives for the first-time. I got a taste of what would become my love for Portugal. They were loud and wonderful, loving to shout, argue, reminisce, and explain things to each other. Emotions would rush out as they spoke of things that may or may not have been – disputing with passion the most mundane of details. Having grown up in America, this was like being on the Mars.
I would come to see that those Portuguese had many levels of feelings and emotions – and on the surface they enjoyed arguing about anything and everything, and calling out any point that, at the time, seemed incorrect. They complained with a passion – and saw the world with both skepticism and abundant hope. Nationalism was an unknown concept – but they loved Portugal with its flaws, its potential, and snippets of an unknown past. They were drunk in an intoxicating nostalgia. They suffered from bursts of enthusiasm that left as quickly as they came.
The holiday meal was tiered, long, and full of wine and talk. It had levels of strange steaming soups, boiled things, and too many desserts.
I still remember the room falling silent as my grandfather rose to speak. Though old and saddened, he still had a flame that had lead him to greatness. He had a power with words, and a poetry in speaking that seems impossible today. His voice commanded attention.
This was the least American scene I had witnessed in my life. This endless house, in a then broken and poor country. But they all had hope, they had not given up or fallen into a coma of self-pity. The past had been bad, and it had been glorious. It was all around us, it was there, unburied – and that context was comforting and unhinging.
I will never forget the first night I slept in Moinhos. It was so very dark – the room was as dark as anything I’d experienced. Not a bit of light, and the silence was just loud – you could not sleep in a place with no sounds whatsoever. The house seems so massive, safe, and just out of place with time.
They say that those who depart suffer no more, but to those who stay behind, the pain is such, that it is worse than death. Sadly, her time came in 2017, and she burned in a pyre - leaving behind ash from her thick walls. It was her time, perhaps all her lessons had all been shared, and the time had come to bury her dead. I do miss her. But to the memory of that ancient house, her orchards, and patios, her office full of treasures, and her olive oil press and dusty winery – I have nothing but gratitude.
As America today stands, as the Portuguese say, between the sword and the wall – my mind is drawn back to those days in the late 1970s. Political confusion, economic collapse, and endless uncertainty. The Portuguese of the day still found hope for the future, I hope you can too.
Jayme Henriques Simões