My House

Ten years away, and so much had changed. Familiar faces were gone, or lined with the passage of time. What we call “progress” changed streets, businesses, the layout of a city etched deep in my memory. And my old home lay in shambles, even if it was no longer mine and had never been a perfect home for me.

I still see Mother bent over her pink roses in the front yard of this, the first house our family owned in Brazil. The house was boxy and ungainly like the fat hens she could never bear to serve for dinner. It looked out onto the one-block dirt street, a short street with a long name: Rua Visconde de Inhaúma. The life of the city really began at the corner, with the grocery store, with the pavement. Outsiders in Brazil, our life was here in the green wood-sided house.

One hundred and seventy-nine was our number, my number, part of my memories for­ever. I have trod up and down sandy sun-washed embankments in my dreams, the unfin­ished slopes of my life. It must be Rua Visconde de Inhaúma that I cross again and again. It must be the rooms of the old wood siding house, with peeling green paint, that I enter in my dreams of decades later.

The roses were one of Mother's erratic efforts at beauty. She also planted a papaya tree in front, just a little sprout like me, or perhaps it came up spontaneously, uninvited like me, from a casually dropped seed. Whatever its origin, when I left fifteen years later, the papaya tree shaded the roof with graceful fronds and continuously converted tiny green balls into large yellow fruit that from time to time hit the ground below with a flat thud.

Three steps crudely shaped of concrete and plaster, someone's wishful approximation of a quarter circle, opened in a stone embrace to the street and led up to the front porch. The family never used this pseudo-grand entrance. It was saved for special occasions, such as Father's birthday, when his Baptist congregation came to pay yearly respects to the minister. In real life we walked down the driveway and entered through the kitchen, then into the dining room, the nerve center of the house.

A dining table dominated the small room, chipped black varnish revealing soft mahogany underneath. Another table, this one made of wicker, sat in the corner, heaped with a perpetual pile of school books, utility bills, and dog-eared Readers' Digests in Portuguese translation. On the wall hung a blackboard, Father's attempt to enrich the environment for his two daughters.

Behind the blackboard wall and up a set of narrow stairs lay the master bedroom, with a large mirrored armoire, a corner sink, and an iron double bed that nearly filled up the room. It was here that Father slept, and occasionally, Mother.

Beds were never made unless we expected company. Transplants from Latvian soil into the raw red dirt of the New World, we dragged along the psychic baggage of revolutions and wars and hasty migration to a new land. I was ashamed of our messy, disorganized family, hard working in frantic spurts followed by long periods of torpor, much like Russian peasants who curl around the samovar to sleep away the winter. Whenever a classmate gave me a ride home from school I asked to be dropped off two blocks away.

The front room upstairs, meant as the living room for a normal family, was lined, literally, from floor to ceiling, east and west, north and south, with Father's private library. He eventually had the front porch enclosed, too, to make room for more books. His Old World scholarship clashed with Mother's yearning for “a man who worked with his hands.” She was a book widow, she said. Indeed, when they had any money, which wasn't often in the early days, it went first for books, then luxuries like food and clothing.

Center spot in the front room, surrounded by books, sat my grand piano. It looked better than it played, as did I, but my halting notes apparently spelled redemption for the family name. One sultry night, wearing little more than a black camisole to stay cool, I played my favorite pieces under the spotlight in the darkened room. Father stood by, lost in thought. I guess the spotlight, and the skimpy black slip, spoke to him of a concert hall. After a long silence, he reverently murmured, “That's where you belong.”

A creek ran past the retaining wall in back. Trash bobbed gently by on occasion, as well as septic tank efflu­ent. That the creek was my favorite playground horrified the church matrons, but Mother counted on torrential Brazilian rainstorms to wash away the germs, since she couldn't have kept me away in any case. In calm times the creek settled into clear, shady pools complete with hovering dragonflies and schools of minnows. One time a pair of beady green eyes stared at me from a black hole in the bamboo clump, adding a touch of delicious mystery to that summer afternoon. The creek will always murmur in my heart, and a house without a creek in the back will never feel quite like home.

At the corner of Rua Visconde stood Armazém Fonseca, the bar and grocery store owned by Mr. Fonseca, a small, stocky mustachioed Portuguese with salt-and-pepper hair. He scooped kilograms of rice and sugar and beans from wooden barrels onto sheets of brown paper which he would deftly gather with both hands and scrunch into a sack. Local laborers congregated in the Armazém after work. Leaning on the cool stone counter, they sipped jiggers of cachaça, sugar cane rum, and chatted with growing animation before heading home to supper. These “drunks,” as our family called them, were part of the Brazilian, non-Baptist, decadent world outside our gate.

To the right of our house was a lesser residence, if you can imagine a residence lesser than ours. Renters came and went, including a man who died of TB after coughing for two years. His departure made way for a large woman and her two drugstore-blonde daughters. My parents did not openly comment on the ladies or the steady stream of men who paid short visits. I suspect, however, that they took secret pleasure in the corruption next door. It went to prove the hopeless moral decay of Brazilians and our Latvian superiority, if not in this world, then the next.

At age twenty, I met a balding, footloose American writer. I had rashly promised to go to the States someday, there to create a new and better life for myself. I had no clue how, but suddenly, there it was. This was the end of an era. I sat at the old piano, in the old green house, to play Brahms' Lullaby one last time. Then I walked out to the car, on to the Baptist chapel where Father would declare us husband and wife, and then to the airport and my new country.

A decade would pass before I visited Brazil again. In that time, I had changed from young bride to well-traveled faculty wife and mother of four. The folks had long since sold the house on Rua Visconde and moved into town. They filled me in on the main events of a decade. Mr. Fonseca keeled over dead one fine day, and the Armazém was gone. His widow liquidated the business and invested in a franchise in sin, a house of easy virtue staffed in part by our former bleached blonde neighbors. Health authorities had implemented a final solution to the creek problem. It had been sanitized, sterilized, and encased in concrete, never again to murmur in the afternoon sun.

My sister and I drove by the neighborhood that same evening, half expecting to see the familiar landscape, but our house was no more. Bulldozers had cleared the way for condos. One could still make out our driveway in the harsh light of the car's high beams. We stepped out and took a few cautious steps on the rubble, before turning our backs on all that remained of our childhood home.

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