It’s done was running thru my head as I shut the laptop. Our reservations to England stood cancelled and new ones had been made. “All booked” I said aloud to Jake who was fixing himself a sandwich. “I’m glad honey, you’ll do great” he replied. Of course, I’d have liked for Jake to come along, but I suppose one can’t win ‘em all. He has to stay back here and work. There was still some time before Pedro got up, so I started making a list of things I’d need to pack for our trip to Brazil.
This was not how we’d planned our spring break; but as things stand, I’m pretty glad with the change. Pedro is my 6 year old. We moved from London to New York about 6 months back and it’s not been easy – leaving friends, our home, his school – the familiar behind. But children always surprise you with their resilience, don’t they?
Resilience, such a strong word.
Growing up in Sao Paulo was fun. This huge, maniacal, urban magnet of a city was my home till I turned 8. Papa had a business and he worked so hard, I sometimes thought he loved his work more than he loved us. (Us was me, my elder sister and younger brother). But, whenever papa was home, it was magic. I remember him reading us stories, tickling us pink, playing all sorts of funny-weird games that made him the coolest papa ever.
Felicia, my sister, was the practical one. Pretty with blonde hair and beautiful green eyes, she’d look straight into my black ones and say sternly “ Don’t cry Ines. Only the weak cry”. This when I’d just skinned my elbow or knee and wanted mommy. But Felicia indulged me quite some too. Unlike other older sisters, she readily shared her oversized clothes with me and later on, to my utter delight (and amazement), her secret stash of lipsticks! My little brother, Juan was softer, baby of the family that he was. Felicia and I harboured the notion that he was our mother’s favourite what with his big brown puppy eyes and all that cuteness oozing out of him. But mother would have no such talk. I don’t have any favourites you silly girls. Ah, mother.
Mother was/is a character. Really. She lives her life queen-size. When we were in Sao Paulo, her soirees were the talk of town. I’d hear words like gracious hostess, brilliant home maker, amazing mother showered her way in multiple conversations. So when we moved from Sao Paulo to a slightly smaller city, into a gorgeous villa by the sea replete with sparkly fountains, green gardens and pets, mother truly came into her element.
This new house was where I grew up. Blazing a cool white under hot Brazilian sun, it’s walls were covered with bougainvillea flowering bright magenta and mustard yellow. It was the house of our dreams and as soon as we moved in, mamma and papa started transforming this gorgeous structure assiduously into a home. I remember papa sitting at the gleaming black grand piano, playing me popular brazilian songs while mother implored him to teach me something classical. He’d wink a mischievous wink at me and we’d both laugh. I remember the colorful birds that would fly into our gardens when tropical rains descended, picnics on a sandy beach just a short walk away. I remember playing hide and seek in the lawns with Felicia and Juan, catching worms and watching them crawl. I recall the food mamma made, cassava meals, manioc, sweet potato dishes, churrasco meats, freshly squeezed juices. The tang of our home-grown lemons and the sharp sting of my first real coffee. I remember the day papa died. I was 14. Juan 9. Felicia 16.
Just like that, dead. Heart attack they said. After the initial shock, it felt like it was our hearts that were attacked with a vengeance, everyday. Someone was plunging daggers into them constantly, ripping them apart. The days didn’t feel real, surely when we’d wake up tomorrow things would change? Too deep an empty silence engulfed us all. Couldn’t someone say or do something? No one did. Till day 10.
10 days after my fathers demise, my 45 year old mother packed up a few belongings, got the three of us ready and left our dream home for the Sao Paulo apartment. We were too young, too much in shock to ask her what was going on. My sense is, even if we had asked, she would have never let us in on it anyway. She still hasn’t.
My mother gave us the best years of her life with a smile. Sharp, smart and worldly-wise, she did not let us dwell too much on the fact that we were growing up without a parent. We finished school, graduated college. I picked up a job in an advertising firm and moved to San Francisco where I met Jake. We got married in Brazil (what a spectacular party mother threw!) and my son, Pedro came into our lives in San Francisco right before we shifted to London. Life moved on, as it should, as it must. But a part of my mother was stuck.
Don’t get me wrong, in time after papa’s death, she was back to her strong, ebullient, charming self. She took charge of my father’s business matters and ensured us food on the table. Although she now had relatively less time for us, she took us to European skiing trips and African safaris. She went out with friends and had them over for dinners and drinks. She seemed collected and contained. But, she never dated. As a child I grew up liking that no one was taking papa’s place but adult me began to wonder if it was fair for a lively, attractive woman to spend her life without a companion.
About the big villa by the sea, (I find it a bit difficult to call it home now) we never went back there. Not to live anyway. If we wanted, we could accompany mamma on her once a month, every month, day trips there (never overnight). She employed a married couple to take care of the villa to keep it clean, up and running, to have its lawns tended to and have its bougainvillea trimmed from growing wild. For over 20 years, that villa has been in a state of readiness.. towards what, I don’t know…why, I don’t understand. The linen is always fresh, the soaps always new, kitchen with running gas and mattresses regularly sunned. Toys in my room are just as I left them, each and every doll in place. My brothers trucks, my sisters slippers..everything, same. It feels like that place has been embalmed and preserved. A moment in time.
Far from selling it, mother never let anyone even entertain the thought of that old villa being up for sale. She never talked about it to us as well. Growing up, if there was one topic that was out of bounds for us, it was that of our ex-home. Felicia, ever the practical one, has expressed her frustration at this occasionally. “Why are we blocking so much money there? Obviously none of us is ever going back. We should just sell it!” Juan, dear sentimental Juan, on the other hand has been quick to jump to mother’s defense, “Just let it be. Mother wants it like that.”
I, on the other hand, am the balancing act. Yes, I would like to sell the house because I want my mother to get rid of it. I want mamma to unburden herself of the weight she’s been carrying..the weight she has refused to share with anyone, dead weight she’s held so close. But I want that to happen only when she’s ready for it.
Which is why when she called yesterday and said, “Ines, I’ve made up my mind. I’m putting the villa up for sale” I was stunned. No discussion, no seeking opinions. Just that. Those words, 20 years coming.
I would have liked it if mamma had shared some of her deep anguish with me, but then, who can ever reason with mothers? I can, however, be there for her when the sale happens this April. To hold her hand.. or if she doesn’t want that (as I suspect will be the case) to show my unerring support when the home she build brick-by-brick with my father and maintained year-after-year ever since, is sold off with everything in it, including her memories.
I will however, keep the grand piano.