I spend the day crocheting, sitting by the French window in the room that I used as a study when I was still teaching, looking out to the sea while my hands work the stitches. I'm making a lace tablecloth for the church raffle, working on it from early morning until the light is too weak for me to see the white thread. Third prize, Padre José told me. I was taken back. Did he know that I had been working on it for months? Did he realize how much the thread cost me?
"What's first prize?"
"A TV set. Second is a digital camera."
"I shouldn't have bothered volunteering to donate a prize," I grumbled later to my niece, Elena. "There was a time when people valued a lace tablecloth."
"It's impractical. People like something they can throw in the washing machine." Elena had not been sympathetic. "Why don't you just say you can't do it? You're eighty-four years old. You've already done a lot for the church. Padre José would understand."
"I doubt it." I know Padre José better than most people.
At the end of the day, I go down the stairs to the first floor, one slow step at a time, holding onto the banister with both hands. For supper I eat bread and soup. Elena used to bring me a big Tupperware of consommé and a loaf of wheat bread every week, but in the last few months she's cut back to once a month. She says it's cheaper to buy bread and is threatening to stop making it. I pay her, the same as when she gave me a loaf every week, hoping to convince her to keep baking. My sister Leonor calls me every night before the eight o'clock news on TV. Sometimes we just say hello and complain about our old bodies. Other times, we have more to say.
"I lent Elena ten thousand euros," I tell Leonor.
"Why does she need it?"
"She didn't tell me but I'm sure it's for her daughter. She's separating from her husband and wants to buy her own house."
"That's too bad. Young people have so much turmoil in their lives today. Do you think she'll pay you back?"
"I don't know. It's family."
"Elena should be grateful to you."
"Mother and Father would have expected me to do it."
Leonor and I reminisce about our parents and forget about watching the news. It's just as well because my TV isn't working very well—the picture is fuzzy, sprinkled with black dots. It hurts my eyes to look at it. Lately the sound has started crackling with static. Once that goes, I won't bother with the news. It's nothing but atrocities, anyway. I'm grateful that my life has been quiet.
Unlike my father, and later my brother Pedro and two of my sisters, I never left the island. They travelled to America and Canada, looking for work and a future. Father went to California twice, once in the twenties, and again in the thirties, but he came back home to São Miguel, the largest of the nine volcanic Azorean islands in the middle of the North Atlantic, tiny dots on the map. I've stayed put. I've never even been on an airplane. I've done most of my travelling on my own two legs, walking to and from Vila Franca do Campo, where I taught for forty years. Maybe that's why my legs gave out? The doctor said surgery would help, but he was wrong. My legs, once sturdy as a tree, are spindly and weak. I need a cane to walk.
As I crochet, my hands dancing back and forth in a pattern of familiar stitches, my mind unravels a tangle of memories. My past is alive; stirring up my present. Mother had kind eyes and a gentle, soothing voice. I can see her before me as if she were alive. I can feel the soft weight of her hands on my forehead when I was sick with measles; the same hands that gathered and twisted her long, black hair tightly into a bun at the nape of her neck. Father was the voice and face of authority in our home. He was the tallest man in the village, with dark hooded eyes and a strong, square jaw. He was born in São Paulo, Brazil, and came to the island with his parents when he was fourteen years old. It was Father who encouraged me with my schooling.
"Isabel, your teacher says that you are a very good student. I want you to get an education."
We lived in a farming village, Agua d'Alto, where most children only had elementary education, some no schooling at all. Father was ahead of his time, but he followed the rules.
"Your brother will walk you to school in the morning. People will talk if they see a girl walking by herself to Vila Franca do Campo. It's not done."
My brother Pedro walked with me early in the morning, shortly after the rooster crowed dawn, from our house in Agua d'Alto to the lyceum in Vila Franca do Campo, a two-kilometer distance. He walked back home to work with Father in the family land, growing potatoes, beans, corn, and wheat. At the end of the school day, Pedro waited for me outside the school gates to escort me home. Father encouraged Pedro to get an education as well, but Pedro dreamed of making lots of money and believed the land held more promise than the classroom. I never forgot that he accompanied me to school all those years. It's true that Father asked him to do it, but Pedro never complained. We were raised to be dutiful and look after each other. When Pedro married I gave him a dining room table and chairs, which cost me a year's salary. In those days teachers made very little money, not like today.
Pedro gave up on the island and immigrated with his family to Canada. I catch myself gazing at the sea, with my hands lying idle on my lap, as the memories play inside my head. The sea is soft blue this morning, stretching out to the sky, the two coming together in an embrace. The sight comforts me.
I loved school, especially Portuguese literature. I read the beautiful prose of Padre António Vieira and fell in love with the Portuguese language and took care to speak it properly. My teacher Dona Conceição advised me to become a teacher.
"You have the intelligence and authority to make a fine teacher, Isabel."
At the time there were two choices for women: teaching or nursing. Besides my parents, Dona Conceição was the person I most respected. She was plump and short, and her brown hair was wrapped in a chignon. The white smock she wore over street clothes smelled of talcum powder when she walked by our desks. My heart swelled with pride whenever she marked my work 'well done' or 'excellent.' In the evening, after my sisters and I helped Mother wash the dishes, and after the rest of the family had gone to bed, I studied by candlelight at the kitchen table. Mother worried about me not getting enough rest but I was the first one awake in the morning, eager to go to school. I noticed that Mother and Father, like most people in the village with little or no schooling, spoke in a dialect full of grammar and pronunciation mistakes, swallowing vowels instead of enunciating carefully. It would have been disrespectful to correct them, but I tried with Pedro.
"S'benca," Pedro mumbled, asking Father for his blessing, the customary greeting a child made to parents every morning and night.
"A sua benca," I corrected Pedro.
"No need for you to teach your brother, Isabel," Father admonished me.
Father was wrong. Pedro would benefit from my corrections, but I did as I was told and kept quiet.
Neither Father nor Mother appreciated the beauty of our language. They had never heard of Padre António Vieira. Father had lived in Brazil and worked in America, but Mother knew nothing of life outside of the village. Neither of them knew anything about the knowledge inside books. Still, it was with them that I felt at ease. I have always felt awkward with people who weren't family.
If my education made me unique among other girls in the village, the rest of my upbringing was typical. Like every Azorean girl from that time, I learned needlework. Mother, my grandmothers, aunts, and older cousins, all taught me how to use needles to sew, mend, embroider, crochet, and knit. We made everything by hand - clothes, kitchen and bed linen. No one bought anything from the stores in the city. When my older sister, Sofia, got engaged, all the women in the family gathered together in the evenings to sew her trousseau. I sewed for three more trousseaus when Pedro, Ana and Leonor married. I'm the only one in the family who never married.
There was one man, a farmer, who asked me to marry him.
"David, you're a good man but I'm not interested in marriage." I told him flat out.
He flinched as if I had slapped his face.
My brother Pedro, once when he was home on a visit, asked if I regretted not marrying.
"No," I told him, without a second thought. "Mother was all the companion I needed. I can't see me putting up with a man."
When Leonor, my youngest sister, wanted to follow in my footsteps and become a teacher, I tried to discourage her. Her marks were only average and she struggled to answer the questions when I helped her prepare for exams. When she came home in tears, I knew she had failed, as I had expected.
"Never mind," I told her. "You can stay home and help Mother."
She looked at me in defiance. "I'm not giving up. I'll repeat the year and pass."
"I don't know, Leonor. You should forget about becoming a teacher." I thought I was helping her by being honest. Just because she was my sister didn't mean I would treat her differently than my students when they didn't show potential.
"A teacher should encourage, not discourage students," she snapped back.
I was surprised when she was accepted into Teachers' College on her second try. Standards had changed since I had become a teacher ten years earlier. What had once been exceptional had become average. It continues. Today women make up more than half of the professional faculties, I'm told. Progress makes past accomplishments appear ordinary.
"I find something that my students are good at. Singing or drawing, it doesn't have to be an academic subject, and I praise and encourage them to develop that talent. By the end of the year, they all have something they're good at." That was Leonor's teaching philosophy.
I didn't agree. My job was to teach Portuguese language and literature, not singing or drawing.
My first teaching job was in Ribeira Quente, a small fishing village by the sea, huddled beneath mountains. I boarded with a family and slept in the attic with their three daughters, our beds separated by blankets hanging from the ceiling. They were a nice family but I missed home. At dinnertime I wanted seconds, but was too embarrassed to ask. I went to bed when everyone else did even though I wanted to stay up and mark my students' work or read Padre António Vieira. My bed was by a window and I awoke with the first streak of daylight and read until the other girls woke up. When I came home for Christmas I gorged myself on Mother's food. I took back a loaf of massa sovada, a traditional leavened sweet bread which Mother baked for feast days, and kept it wrapped in a tablecloth underneath my bed. For as long as it lasted, I would break a piece in the morning and eat it while I read in bed.
A few years later, I got a job in the lyceum in Vila Franca do Campo, where I stayed until I retired. Shortly after I came back home, Father broke his leg and the doctor botched up the surgery, so he couldn't work in the land anymore. Mother's black hair turned silvery grey, but she was still busy cooking, cleaning, and looking after the chickens and pig and the vegetable garden. My days were mapped in routine. I awoke when it was dark outside and washed my face and arms at the water basin in my room. After I dressed and packed my briefcase I went downstairs to the kitchen where Mother was cooking over a fire. I cherished those few minutes with her, drinking the sweet strong coffee, the coarse grains sticking to my teeth, and eating a slice of bread covered in homemade grape jam. From our house, I walked down the steep, narrow, craggy hill that branched into the road along the coast, making my way to school, with the sea at my side. In all those years my feet touched every bump, every hole, every pebble, every piece of moss, on the road between home and school. I knew it as intimately as my own body.
By the time I reached school, the sky had opened up in full daylight. I set up my desk and prepared to teach my students to speak well and to appreciate their cultural heritage. Of course, not all my students took an interest in what I taught, but I was able to get them to respect it. In the evening I walked home, tired but satisfied with the day's work, anticipating sitting down to dinner with Mother.
I was like a plant with deep roots in daily routine, in our house, in school, in the village. My brother and two of my sisters moved to new lands—Canada, United States—but I stayed in my nest, alone with Mother after Father died, living a life of habit and repetition, marked by the school year and the religious holidays, Easter, Assumption, All Saints' Day, Christmas.
When I catch myself nodding off, I secure the stitch on the crochet hook, fold the tablecloth and lay it on the table. The walls are filling up with shadows as I slowly make my way down the stairs. I wish Mother was in the kitchen, warming up dinner for me, but it is empty and cold. I pour a ladleful from a Tupperware of Elena's soup and add water to it. While the soup heats on the stove, I slice a piece of bread and scrape the blue grey fuzzy mold from the top. I hope Elena brings me a fresh loaf soon.
I'm eating when I hear my nephew Rui at the door. He has a key to the house and comes to see me a couple of times a week.
"Why don't you turn on the light?" he asks, switching it on.
I'm embarrassed to be seen in my old dress, which is worn and ripped at places.
"This bread is full of mold." Rui is loud.
"I will cut it off," I say, but Rui has already picked up the bread and thrown it outside into the garden.
Now I don't have any bread and I don't know when Elena is going to give me another loaf.
"I'll bring you some groceries tomorrow. There's no need for you to live like this. Why don't you get Casa de Saude to deliver your meals? You can afford it."
"I can still look after myself." If I spent money like everybody wants me to I wouldn't have any savings.
"I don't like to see you eating spoiled food. You've been generous with me and the rest of the family. How many scholarships have you paid for? Why don't you spend some money on yourself?"
Neither of us speaks as I finish. It tastes sour but I'm too upset with Rui's outburst to notice it much. After I finish the soup, we sit outside on the back porch and look up to the mountains covered in semidarkness as the moon plays hide-and-seek with the clouds. We talk about the church renovation which is costing more than the village can afford and how people managed better with escudos, before the euro. I tell him about the family of puppies that were eating my vegetable garden.
"By the time I discovered them, they had nibbled at my tomatoes and spinach." I'm still bothered to think about the food I lost.
"Do they belong to anyone?"
"I asked the neighbors but nobody claimed them."
"I might be able to find someone to take them."
We could hear the sharp chirping of crickets scampering around the yard.
"I couldn't let them eat my food."
"What did you do with them?"
The chirping rose in pitch, tickling the inside of my ears.
"I choked them."
There was a moment of quiet as if the crickets lost their breath.
"Why didn't you tell me? I would have helped. There's always someone looking for a dog."
"Five of them? You've got enough to do." I don't add that he usually doesn't follow through on the promises he makes to me. I know he's busy with his job and family and all the chores that swallow up a day.
He looks at me as if he's shocked. He sees an old woman and doesn't remember that I was raised in a farming community and was used to seeing animals killed. After Father died, Mother and I continued raising pigs until she stopped eating pork. We had chickens until the last couple of years of her life.
"I didn't like choking them but I had to do it, otherwise they would have eaten all my food." I eat only vegetables now.
The next day is rainy with wind squalls from the northeast. I wrap myself in Mother's old black shawl, which keeps me warm even though it's full of moth holes, and sit by the window crocheting. The sea is a dark grey, the waves swallowing up each other in great rage. On such a dark day, without any sun, I can't help feeling the disappointments of my life weighing heavily on my heart.
I worked hard and dedicated myself to teaching, following in the footsteps of my esteemed teacher, Dona Conceição. When I started teaching, academic standards were clear and firm and I applied them to evaluate students' work. By the time I reached the end of my career, standards were less rigorous and a teacher was beginning to lose authority in the classroom and in the way she marked. At the end of the school year, teachers presented final marks before a committee that included the principal, the parish priest, and other teachers. I never paid much attention to the meeting since it was merely an administrative formality and marks were not normally questioned, especially the ones submitted by an experienced teacher like me. One year, shortly after the April 25th revolution, I failed five students.
"Don't you think that's too many failures, Dona Isabel?" Padre José, the parish priest, asked in a voice that sounded jovial.
"I had some slow learners this year. Last year all my students passed. I used exactly the same tests for both years." I answered with easy confidence knowing I had marked according to standards, yet I noticed that my colleagues had drawn blank stares and avoided me with their eyes.
"Dona Isabel, that's too many failures. You'll need to adjust the marks and pass the students you've failed. Parents have been complaining. They don't want their children held back. We're not here to make lawyers and doctors out of everyone. Our standards have been too rigid in the past. Schools need to change and become more flexible about academic achievements and pay more attention to the needs of students." Padre José's voice had lost any hint of joviality. He sounded serious.
"They failed the tests," I argued in a firm voice, unable to imagine passing students who had failed their tests.
"We know more about education than we did thirty years ago. We need to prepare our youth for the future. We want them to succeed. Self-esteem is very important to a young person; more important than knowing how to spell."
"They need to learn how to speak and write properly and to develop critical thinking skills. They can learn when they're young. I'll work closely with the students who failed this year and make sure they improve their language skills. They'll benefit from another year in the same grade and they'll have a better chance to succeed later in life."
"Dona Isabel, we want the same thing; what's best for the students. If they pass they won't be disappointed and they can learn what they didn't get this year with another teacher who will have a different approach." There was a severity in his voice that warned me not to argue anymore.
I saw the other teachers nodding their heads in agreement and stretching their faces in strained smiles that contradicted the fear in their eyes.
"You want me to pass all of them?" I asked in a thin, weak voice I didn't recognize as my own.
"That's right. That will send a hopeful message to the students and their parents."
I've relived that conversation in my head countless times but I've never been able to change the outcome. In front of my principal and peers I had been rebuked about my competence and integrity as a teacher, the thing that mattered to me most of all. Padre José had dismissed my decision to fail the students who had not been able to pass the tests and raised doubt about the merit of all my years of teaching. He had insinuated that there was a problem with my approach to teaching, as if it might have kept my students from learning, or at least not as well. I felt my life's work coming undone, as if I were to unravel this lace tablecloth and end up with twisted, broken and weak thread, to be discarded as garbage. That evening I sat by Mother's bedside, holding her small hands in mine, yearning to rest my head on her breast like when I was a child. At night I got into bed beside her and cuddled against her body, feeling the bird-like bones under her flesh.
I submitted the final marks the next day, and as I had been instructed to do, passed all the students. During the summer break I stayed home looking after Mother who was growing weaker and needed constant care. When she died in late August, I longed to be buried with her, but a month later I found myself walking down the familiar path to school.
I have finished the lace tablecloth. I wrap it in tissue paper and prepare to take it to the church rectory. I put on my plum-colored suit and tie a pink silk scarf around my neck. No matter how well you look after clothes, they eventually show signs of age. The suit reeks of mothballs but it wasn't enough to stop moths from making holes on the inside of the sleeves. I tuck the scarf inside the jacket to keep the frayed ends from showing. My brother Pedro sent me the suit from Canada over thirty years ago. I don't remember who gave me the scarf but it was a long time ago.
Agua d'Alto is wrapped in sunshine. I catch glimpses of the sea shimmering like glass as I make my way down the hill. As weak as they are, my legs feel at home on this road. The road is paved and smooth now, with more cars than people. Besides children and old people, like me, everybody drives through it.
Padre José's housekeeper, Rita, opens the door and escorts me into the living room which smells of cedar. Mother used to spread cedar branches on the floor to make the house smell fresh.
"Dona Isabel," says Rita, "my daughter, Cristina, graduated from law school and has a job working in Brussels."
"Cristina is very intelligent. I'm not surprised she's doing well."
"It wouldn't have happened without your generosity. She wouldn't have been able to go to university without the scholarship you gave her."
Padre José comes into the room pushing a walker. He is a few years younger than me but his legs are in a worse state than mine.
"Dona Isabel, it's good to see you." He sits on an armchair close to me and I hold myself erect and guarded. I have never trusted him since the meeting about marks years ago.
"I have brought the lace tablecloth for the second prize in the raffle."
"Third prize, I believe, Dona Isabel. It's generous of you to donate it."
I feel the humiliation of my mistake and again realize that whoever wins my lace tablecloth is not going to appreciate its value. Not as much as if they had won the TV or the camera. It's only third prize. Even in a rural village like Agua d'Alto no one wants a handmade lace tablecloth these days. I should have listened to Elena and withdrawn the offer to make it and let the church find another prize. A cell phone would have been more appealing.
Rita brings a tray of tea and biscuits and offers me some. I sip the hot lemon balm tea and chew the biscuit, still warm and buttery. I'm thinking how wonderful it would be to have a second cookie when Padre José offers me the platter.
"I have some good news for you, Dona Isabel. The village council has unanimously voted to name a street after you, in honor of your remarkable career as a teacher. You have taught generations of children from Agua d'Alto and Vila Franca do Campo and earned their esteem and appreciation. You have provided financial assistance for many students who otherwise would not have been able to pursue higher education. You were an exceptional teacher. It's a well-deserved honor. Congratulations."
"Thank you," is all I manage to say, despite feeling immense pleasure. I wish I could say something gracious. My sister Leonor would have found the right words.
"Don't you want to know where your street is going to be?" Padre José asks. "It's the road to Praia do Degredo. The road to the beach now but in a few years it will be full of houses. Perhaps, even a school? That would be appropriate."
"I won't be around to see that, Padre José."
"Nor I. Nor I. You and I, Dona Isabel, are from another era. I hardly recognize the world anymore. Even the church has had to make changes. It was difficult when I was middle-aged, but now that I'm an old man I've come to accept things as they are. What can you do? It will be no different for those who are young today. Nothing stays the same and nobody stays."
"Thank you." I take another biscuit when he offers me the tray.
"I'll ask Rita to give you a bag of cookies to take home."
I stay to finish the tea and it's with regret that I leave Padre José's company. The sky is still bright blue as I start walking back home, my right hand anchored on top of my cane, my left holding the bag of cookies.
Title graphic "Laced" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2015.