Going East – The Iranian Adventure
“I think it’s a great idea!” I exclaimed when Waldir showed me the letter from Pahlavi University in Shiraz, Iran, inviting him to come as a visiting professor, to help set up the Pharmacology Department in the new School of Veterinary Medicine.
“It will be a great adventure!” I argued, to his skepticism. “I always wanted to know that part of the world…”
John backed me up. He was always ready for new adventures. Miriam wasn’t so sure. She would miss all her good friends, her gymnastics, and she wasn’t thrilled to go on an adventure to a country she didn’t even know the language of. Marcello could care less, one way or the other. Our relatives in Brazil thought we had lost our minds.
Auburn University approved Waldir’s leave request to go teach in Iran, and we made preparations. I had to stay behind to finish up my B.A. and the kids’ school year. We rented out our house and I moved with the kids and our Weimaraner Rina to an apartment. Waldir left, buoyed by my excitement.
That excitement was rather dampened by the mystery of the place we were headed to. We had some good Iranian friends who assured us we’d love our stay there, but I knew I’d miss my newly found colleagues in the English Dept. Under the mentorship of Mr. Roden, we had formed a Poetry Club. We met every other week and brought at least one poem to share. We also became the Publications Board of the new student literary magazine we were pushing the Department to sponsor – The Auburn Circle. I was writing short stories and poems, as well as my columns for the Auburn Alumnews.
I had told Waldir that I wanted to be an American citizen. “I refuse to leave this country without the guarantee that – if something happens — I would feel safe with this protection.”
I applied for citizenship, and was proudly sworn in a ceremony in Montgomery, thus becoming an adopted Alabamian, and a proud citizen of the U.S.A., the land promised to me by God, a sign of my liberation and intellectual growth as a female person endowed now with the gift of liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The day finally came to pack our suitcases and say our goodbyes. It was sad to part from Rina – Katharina Von Grauengeist – our regal and loving Weimaraner, but we had found a loving home for her with the people who had bred her mother in the first place.
The trip was indeed exciting, more so than we had bargained for. My comment “I thought this was going to be an adventure but this is ridiculous!” became a motto around the house, as Miriam repeated it all the time, sarcastically.
The great day of departure came, and we set out to Columbus, Georgia, to start our journey, helped by a bevy of our Brazilian friends. We sat at the airport lounge, chatting away, and either forgot to keep an eye on the clock, or failed to hear the call for the flight to New York. Our luggage went, and we missed the plane. The airline, whose desk attendants had neglected to look for us four passengers that were missing, told us the only way was to catch another flight from Atlanta. João Saibro, bless his heart, gathered us in his car and set out to drive us to Atlanta in order to try. We raced against time, and would have made it, except for the road work, and the slow tractors we encountered along the way. As it was, we missed our flight to New York there too, by a few minutes, as well as our PanAm flight to Rome. We were finally rushed into a Delta-PanAm flight Atlanta-Washington-London where we’d be booked into an IranAir flight to Tehran. By this time I was in a daze. Our luggage was gone, so we had only our carry-ons, with minimal necessities. In Washington covered with snow – to the kids’ delight – we bought a few things we needed, like an American flag, chewing gum, and liquor.
I hadn’t slept for the last three days so I was truly exhausted. As soon as we took off for London, I went to sleep, while the kids watched a movie, without the soundtrack, as it was too expensive to rent earphones for all three!
We landed at Heathrow at 9:00 a.m. the next day. England looked lusciously green from the air. I had been so immersed in English Literature, history, and culture for the past months that I was actually thrilled to be in British soil. “We’re really in Europe, children! We made it!” I exclaimed to my exhausted children.
The first few hours at the airport were hectic. We had been scheduled to fly to Tehran that same morning, but a mistake on our flight number put us among the crowds, waiting in nervous expectation, on standby, the whole afternoon. We ate meat pies, yogurt, and cheese sandwiches, in expectation of hearing our names called.
At the end of the day we were told that “we didn’t make it” and were supposed to be taken to a hotel near the airport. We also heard the awful news that our missed flight from New York had been the target of a terrorist bomb in the Rome airport. The PanAm desk crew being really nice to us guaranteed we’d be on a flight to Tehran the next morning.
We were ushered to a shuttle that took us to the airport hotel, where we had our showers, our suppers, and went to sleep on the luscious beds. I asked the desk to wake us up early in the morning. The phone rang dutifully at 6:30. I answered and called out to the kids who groaned sleepily. Our flight was scheduled for 10:30, so I thought we’d sleep a few more minutes. I woke up suddenly and it was 9:30! Oh well, I thought. No need to rush now. What will be will be. I called room service for breakfast, and we rolled around the airport very late for our scheduled flight.
The desk folks were on a tizzy.
“Where have you all been?” they asked. “The whole world is looking for you guys!”
They gathered us together and rushed us through the corridors and to the IranAir airplane.
“I won’t let you go now until I see you all sitting in your seats!” the nice Delta attendant told me.
We finally arrived in Tehran. Our first sight was of a crowd of wailing women, in long black veils, whose relatives had been killed or hurt in the bombing at the Rome airport. I had goose bumps all over my skin. Waldir wasn’t waiting for us.
I had a new problem to solve: Where to find my husband. I hadn’t the slightest idea. “Please, God, we need your help, now!” I told the kids to pray, as we took a walk around the airport and then I saw a sign for Tourist Information, in English. We headed there and I spoke to a very helpful young man about our plight.
“Do you have any idea which hotel he could be in?” he asked. I had no idea. He asked what my husband was doing in Iran, and I told him about Pahlavi University in Shiraz.
“Huh!” he said, and riffled through a thick phone book. “We’ll try this one.”
We listened as he spoke in Persian to someone. A few minutes later he handed me the phone:
“I believe it’s your husband,” he said.
“Waldir?” I asked, hopefully.
“Oh my God! Where in the world have you guys been? I was desperate here!”
“We’ve been all over,” I said. “But we’re alive and well. When can you come to get us?”
“I’ll be right over! Don’t move!”
When I asked the young man how he had found the right person so quickly, he told me that the clue was Pahlavi University. Its faculty always stayed at that particular hotel. And he found someone to accompany us to the passenger pickup exit.
After three long months, it was wonderful to sleep safely in Waldir’s arms. Our ordeal finally did come crashing on me, but I was numbed to the horror of having been spared the terror at the Rome airport. It all seemed like a dream, yet it had been worse for Waldir. Our names were still on the passenger list of the PanAm flight, but none knew of our whereabouts. Our luggage arrived without us. He could only pray and wish that we were alive and well. He’d called everywhere, including the American and Brazilian Embassies.
Waldir seemed well, and excited about his new projects. He liked the university and the people he worked with. We spent a couple of days at the hotel and looked around Tehran. It all looked very alien to me, but having had a head start, Waldir was full of enthusiasm for the place. He showed off how he had learned to speak a little Farsi. I just wanted to go home and get settled.
Shiraz seemed a much nicer looking town than Tehran, and our apartment was in a nice part of town, near a beautiful rose garden – Bagheran – and the majestic Intercontinental Kourosh Hotel. We lived upstairs and our landlord’s family lived downstairs. They were Iranian Jews. Our first weeks were idyllic.
Some of Waldir’s graduate students came to visit and gave us a mini tour of Shiraz, telling us about the Bazaar, the delicious wines (they brought us a couple of bottles) along with insights on the etiquette and religious customs. Miriam and I were relieved that we didn’t need to wear a chador.
We went to visit the Shiraz International School where the kids would be enrolled and immediately the Principal asked me whether I’d be interested in working at the school. I could be a substitute English teacher, or, they really needed to hire a librarian, and with my library skills, I’d be a perfect fit. Eager to do anything not to be at home alone, I said I’d be thrilled.
Meantime, I was recruited to teach English as a Foreign Language at the Iran-America Society, starting immediately. I was on a roll! The only drawback, insulting my budding feminist psyche, was when I was told I’d need written permission from my husband in order to be able to work.
“What?” I said to the Director. “I am not Iranian! I am an American citizen!”
“It doesn’t matter,” he responded gleefully. “It’s the law here. And anyway, why would you want to work outside the home? You have a good man, and three children to take care of…” he was enjoying my irritation.
I had no choice but to comply, and after a couple of days of adjustment, came to enjoy teaching the class of mostly male students who were eager to learn the language.
Church was another matter. That first Sunday I was told where to go to church and I found the nice, big church building, not too far from our home. Walking in right before Mass started, I admired the high nave, the Byzantine-Armenian look of the architecture, but as the liturgy progressed I found it a little strange. But no problem, I thought. The Eucharistic prayers were the same, and I went up for communion, under both species – bread and wine – which I loved. The Mass over, I went to meet the priest, and was surprised when he introduced his wife! That’s when I realized I was in an Anglican Church celebration. The Rev.Axtell was very nice and told me that the Catholic priest would come from Tehran and celebrate a Catholic Mass for us every other week.
John and Marcello enjoyed the new school and made new friends. Thirteen-year-old Miriam was the only one who was unhappy. She did not like the place, the people, the strange language and customs. She missed her friends, her Middle School, her neighborhood. She wanted to go home. We started considering sending her back to stay with our friends.
The Axtells introduced us to the British community, mostly military Air Force advisors, and we went to eat hamburgers at the Commons where the kids could frolic in the playground and the pool, and watch movies.
I did accept the position of school librarian and immediately I had a quite large budget to build the library from furniture to book orders. I began to catalog the books already there and set up story hours for the lower grades as well as study and research hours for the high school kids.
Time rushed by fast, and during spring break we got together with a British family who had bought an old two deck British bus and outfitted it for camping. The two families set out on the road south to visit the countryside en-route to the Persian Gulf and Bandar Abbas.
We visited Persepolis, where the Shah Pahlavi had been crowned, and marveled at the well preserved ruins of the ancient site. John and I found out we had a new interest – Archaeology – and marveled at all the digging sites, collecting pottery shards and all kinds of marvelous relics.
Driving through the desert toward the Gulf was an unforgettable experience; dehydrating hot during the day, but rather cold during the night. Barren hills, rocky roads, sand. Once in a while sculptures carved into the rocks — Kings in battle armor, mythic animals, horsemen. Riding through the villages our bus would call the attention of bands of dusty kids who would run after us shouting “Hello!!! How are you? What time is it?”
At one stop for bathroom break, we lost Marcello from view. He was found when we heard some whimpering calls for help. He was stuck on the barbed wire of a fence.
We finally got close to Ahwaz where we saw the awesome flames of the gas and oil burn-off shooting up into the air. Iranian families were camping and pic-nicking all over the place. Across the water was the Shat-al-Arab from Kuwait and Iraq. Petrol! Black gold, like the Beverly Hillbillies would call it, the source of Iran’s wealth, and the envy of the world. The air was warmed by the flames, as we drove by the seaside, and could see across the Persian Gulf the lights of Kuwait City.
Colorful and exuberant, Ahwaz was a good break from the monotony of the rocky desert. The river, the beautiful bridges, trees and greenery, and tasty food, as well as hospitable people made it one of our favorite cities in Iran.
Driving back to Shiraz we stopped several times at archaeological digs around the countryside and had the opportunity to see how the painstaking work of recovering artifacts from the rubble was done.
Coping with homesickness and depression
Miriam was one unhappy child. Surly and uncooperative, she was like a fish out of the water. Nothing would cheer her up. We were concerned.
One day one of Waldir’s students came over and presented her with a squirming brown bag. Gingerly she opened it to find a tiny kitten that immediately scampered through the living room and hid under the sofa. We named him Kourosh after Cyrus the Great. Kourosh grew up into a stunning velvety white Persian, and brought great joy to the kids, especially Miriam.
I myself had my dark moments. This is the entry in my journal, October 30, 1974:
Once again I am writing on my journal, perhaps in an effort to try to sort out my thoughts and feelings, and make some sense out the chaos I find in my soul.
We’ve been in Iran for more than ten months now. The greatest adventure that had thrilled me in the beginning has turned into the most harrowing of nightmares. Like Frost’s transplanted peach tree, the environment is killing me, destroying my sensitivity, annihilating my creativity, to such an extent that I sometimes wonder about my sanity. I can’t really understand the feeling. I do try, but I am unable to pinpoint the root of the discontent.
Is it the awesomeness of nature around here – brutal, unconquerable environment defying the centuries of struggle for domination?
Whatever it is, I find its presence in the air I breathe, in the dryness of the soil I tread – a dryness that permeates my soul, and numbs the depths of my psyche. I feel like a grain of sand, whipped by the storm winds, who doesn’t know the meaning of its existence, or where it’s headed in the maelstrom of this chaos. I feel the nausée of this alienation, this loss of touch with beauty, this confrontation with the nakedness of the reality around me. I am afraid; I tremble in the most inward recesses of my soul. I am totally lost in this desert, inside and outside, and this alien feeling oppresses me.
I have gone through the dark night of the soul, many times, and I have suffered the agonies of rebirth, but nothing compares with this lonely voyage through nothingness.
Nothing is as brutal as this sense of evil, lurking in the shadows that envelope me. Will I ever see again the rays of sunshine through the thickening darkness?
All Saints Day — and the clouds are finally blowing away. A while ago, as I went out to buy bread, the moon was high in the dark night. The moonlight surrounded me, as if separated from the darkness – the moon alive in its beauty, its peacefulness.
Yesterday, as the depression that encroached on me had come to a critical climax, I had no escape but to fall on my knees, during some precious minutes I had to myself (they’d become rather scarce) and cry for help. My prayer was as dry as my parched lips would allow. The tears burned in my eyes, rather than fall. But I begged my Lord to come to my help, and pull me out of the quagmire where I was slowly sinking. What I had in my hands were the Penitential Psalms, and David’s cry for help, from the depths of his own despair, were my own most desperate cry.
“Do not take from me your Holy Spirit, Lord. Be near me in this most trying period of my life! Let your Love be the balm, your Grace the living water to my parched soul! Let me have the gift of faith once again, my Lord, that simple, childish faith that brought me to you, as a humble child. Let your Love bring to my soul your heavenly Peace! Lead me out of this valley of the shadow of death!”
And this morning at Mass, He was with me indeed. Once again, praising God with his angels and his saints, the realization of his incommensurate love for us, for me, his most unworthy child, brought tears of joy to my eyes. Not burning tears, though. Sweet tears, the kind that assures me that not all is dead and lost within me as yet.
What should I say to my Beloved?
That I long for his divine presence?
That His love for me is more precious than this world’s finest array of treasures and worldly glories?
That my love for Him is the only guiding force that will bring me safely to everlasting peace and light?
I surrender into your arms, Beloved! Let your Love heal the festering wounds of my soul.
Up and down my moods go. I came home yesterday from work, stressed out and unhappy again, without any real explanation.
I spent a few hours trying to fix my guitar, badly mangled in the trip from hell. I thought it could give me some pleasure, if we could sing together. But poor thing, it also is broken, like me, like Colin Clout’s pipe. No matter what I’d do to its strings, my fingers could not awake the magic chords, the beautiful music we would make together before.
Discouraged, I filled out the tub, and tried to relax in the warm water. But as I lay there, all kinds of thoughts filled up my head. I tried to feel the intensity of my dislike for this place, and it was awful. I really thought I could have a nervous breakdown, if I didn’t watch out. Wrapping myself in a towel, I stepped out of the tub and headed for the bedroom. Under the blankets, just lying there, snuggled, I tried to pinpoint the reason for my distress.
I felt something in this place, something beyond alien, something deeper than mere hostility. I had the awful sensation of being face to face with Evil itself; evil lurking everywhere – in the bare forbidding mountains that loom like walls of an impregnable fortress, shutting out the rest of the world, transcending comprehension.
It’s a terrible loneliness, mine! I have none who’d understand my inner struggles.
If only I could reach you, my God, like I had before? Do you catch my wavelength? Are we in the same channel? What if you changed your plans and left us out here to our own devices, to wither away and die of loneliness?
Look at us – we’ll soon destroy each other, and our beautiful planet to boot, and then nothing will be left of your creation, and the civilizations we built, ruined, and rebuilt, only to crash again in ashes. This place you deigned to come and visit, to show us how to live peacefully, it will be gone, Lord, and evil will prevail. Nothing left but a dead planet, like many others, lifeless, circling aimlessly forever, through the indifferent universe.
Nobody cares, Lord. Look at us! We don’t even have a place to run away to anymore, a new world to start over. It’s all taken, all spoiled, all finished. I hope you don’t give up on us, entirely. Remember your mercy, your promise to be with us to the end of the ages.
That night, a fierce sandstorm blew all night, terrifying, whistling and scraping against our windows with ferocity. In the morning the landscape was covered in sand, like brown snow.
Stranded at home, sand bound, I wrote a poem to the mountains:
Encircling me, like prehistoric monsters head to tail.
Undulating torsos bare and dry
Ancient sentinels beneath the sky.
Where even hardy furze does wither
Bare hides buffeted by ice, and wind, and sand.
Trembling with the world’s first quickening
Burning, freezing, melting, and rebuilding.
Whole empires have trod your barren dust
Their glories flickering once to die again
Ignis fatuus in the marsh of human splendor.
I look at you and tremble
Mind twisting in pains of unknown fears
I want to reach to you with eager hands
To touch your coldest rocks and understand
The taunting enigma you’ve held
In your ageless memory, so clear.
You claw with death-cold fangs
Spreading over me your towering precipices
You curse my arrogance, I know.
Greater men have hewn out of your barren rocks
Mighty cities, monuments to their own glory
that lie now in ruined shambles.
as spires touch the golden clouds
that eons ago you’d risen above the waters
covered by all that’s sweet and pleasant.
Cedars and pines,
grasses, verdant pastures by flowing rivers
where deer and lions roamed and birds nestled.
Raped and razed,
burnt and despoiled
you scorn my brazen dare.
when the moonlight
bathes your naked sights
in bright veils of silver light
I will climb your highest heights.
A Summer to Remember—the adventure continued
Knowing that we had almost 3 months of vacation in the torrid Middle –East summer, Waldir decided that we’d go to Europe to buy a car in Munich. And we had to go by bus, so we’d get to know the western part of Iran, ride through Turkey, and take the train from Istanbul to Munich. It was well with us. Thus, on that sweltering June morning, we were driven to the bus station and boarded the nicely air-conditioned Iranian autobus to Istanbul. I settled the kids in and got my window seat from which I could contemplate the countryside. Taking notes on my diary, my language waxed poetic:
We board the bus – Friends, Pepsis in order to stay hydrated, farewells; the tremor of a tear in the good-byes.
My window opens toward a wild landscape of mountains. Awesome mountains, built layer upon layer, when the world was new, their naked saber teeth cutting ragged edges in the steel grey sky. These rocks were torn from the flaming womb of Earth when it was still being born in the cataclysmic birth pains of the universe.
Like primeval beasts, they lie in petrified sleep through eons, their tough dorsal bones blanching in the searing sun – inclement, primeval sun scorching life out of trembling lizards, scurrying the veiled cavalier in a cloud of dust.
The passenger in front of me does not like mountains. He’s drawn the curtain against the blazing landscape and turned up the volume of the piped in music where a female voice wailed.
I dozed off, and when I woke up, the sun sank slowly in a sea of golden dust. Twilight smoothed down the lizard skin of mountains, as twilight brought out the freshness of dew, the peacefulness of falling dark, to shepherd hands parched by dust and heat, returning to shelter their restless sheep.
Only one little mountain hides the setting sun. It wears its rays like a golden cape and stands there, like a holy mound, wrapped in gold, edged in onyx, ancient altar to unknown golden gods who once dwelt in this desert.
I ride into this velvety darkness in hope, for I had sat too long in the ashen dust of my desolation.
Let me borrow a sprinkle of gold from the setting sun – I pray – a sliver of silver from the evening star. Let me be bathed in cool moonlight wearing out the edges of my discontent.
We spent the night in Tabriz and set out the next morning, crossing into Turkey.
Sunflowers stood in perfect rows, sleepy golden heads bobbing in the morning’s breeze. Awaking, they praise the sun god newly risen in their fields. Straight they stand, clapping their leafy hands for joy.
Our road winds through multicolored mountains following now the trail of the sparkling stream, through valleys pregnant with grain. Sheep huddle together under scrawny trees, a calf stumbles in the pasture, after its mother. An old man leans wearily on his pitchfork, watching the bus roll by the golden piles of hay, while a woman tosses the golden threads up over their heads.
I pursue your rainbow mountains, golden country – what might lie beyond the crest of the next hill?
Istanbul — and the bus ride from hell
Delicate and grey like ancient filigree,
she lifts a million minarets like thin hands of a multitude
reaching out, starved for truth’s manna.
Her tresses of golden hay are left behind,
twisting golden braids in the sunshine,
as she daintily lifts her sooty skirts
to poise a silver-slipped foot
on another continent.
We had made friends in the bus, a couple with two kids, and together we searched for a place to stay. We planned to sightsee in the morning and buy our train tickets to Europe. We ate a supper of kabobs at the teeming bright bazaar and visited the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.
The next day, after a breakfast of sweet hot tea and delicious pastries, we made our way to the train station. To our great dismay, no train tickets were available for at least four days. As we stood there, trying to decide what to do, a well-dressed young man approached us, speaking almost perfect English.
“Are you going to Europe?” he inquired. As we responded in the affirmative, he continued:
“And did you have problems getting train tickets?” Waldir answered that yes, we’d have to wait four days.
“If you don’t want to wait, I have the solution for you,” he said. “I happen to work for an autobus company that travels to Europe twice a week,” he said.
“The tickets are half the price of the train, and it’s a very comfortable, Mercedes-Benz air-conditioned coach. You’ll have one stop on the way, and will arrive in Munich in less than 24 hours.”
We were rather skeptical, but the young man insisted that it was a great deal, the bus would leave the next morning from the bus station, and he guaranteed we’d have no problems.
In the end, we bought his tickets, paid half the fare, with the other half being due when we boarded. They’d send a taxi to pick us up in the morning to take us to the bus station.
The next morning we were all packed and ready to go, waiting in the lobby by 10:00 a.m. as directed. By 11:30 and no taxi, we were certain we had been duped and there’d be no bus to Europe. Half an hour later a van pulled up and a bearded man came in looking for us. That was our taxi. We were driven through the back streets – where was the bus terminal? – and delivered to the basement of a house where several men sat, drinking chai and smoking bubbling pipes. We were concerned, and asked the driver where had he driven us, where was the bus. He said the bus would pull up soon. This was better than the hectic bus terminal, we were told.
The kids were restless and we were concerned, but in another couple of hours the bus did pull up. A Mercedes Benz indeed, but beat up, with cracked windshield, floor covered with spat-out pistachio shells, and no toilet. We paid what we owed, simply because we wanted to get to Europe as soon as possible.
The seats were soon filled with the men – guest-workers obviously – bound for Germany. The driver welcomed us in his broken English and Arabic, and assured us that we’d stop in a couple of hours for dinner. It was getting late in the afternoon. We started off in silence through the streets and onto the thoroughfare that I could see in the rather small tourist map I had bought in Istanbul. I looked forward to crossing the beautiful bridge that linked the two horns of Turkey, but soon we exited and took another road. All quiet on the bus. Our kids had fallen asleep from tiredness, as it was getting darker outside. I called the bus attendant.
“Where are we going?” I asked. “Why are we out of the main highway?”
“We’re taking a shortcut,” he answered in pretty good English. “To avoid the heavy trucks. We’ll be stopping for supper soon.”
I leaned against Waldir’s shoulder and dozed off. I woke up with the bounces of the bus on rough road. It was darker outside, as I craned my neck to look at the landscape we were traveling by. Poppy fields! I turned to Waldir:
“We’re on a bumpy road, through poppy fields!” I said.
“Not good…” he responded.
“I need to go bathroom…” Miriam stated.
“Me too…” from Marcello.
“I’m hungry!” complained John.
“When are we stopping?” I asked the attendant.
“Soon,” he answered.
After a few minutes we stopped in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the poppy fields. The attendant and driver got out. I looked out the window and saw a big pile of watermelons being loaded in the baggage compartment.
“Oh good,” I said to the kids. “They’ll give us watermelon snacks!”
We bumped back to the road and sped on. We finally arrived at the place where we should find something to eat. No rest stop on the highway, but a rather small canteen, with long tables and benches. The ‘restrooms’ were outside. Miriam and I stepped gingerly into one — the traditional smelly latrine on the ground, with places to put your feet and crouch down. I knew Miriam hated those things, but she really had to go. The toilet had no roof, and when I looked up I saw a pair of eyes out of a hooded head, looking down on us. The bus attendant!
“Damn it!” I yelled. “Get out, you son of the devil!”
When we were done I saw him sitting at one of the tables.
“You do that again and I’ll beat the hell out of you!” I yelled.
“Me?” he said, innocently. “I didn’t do anything…” I turned to the driver:
“He was spying on us in the restroom!”
The driver shook his head, pretending not to understand.
The fare was a thick stew of lamb and potatoes, or sandwiches of flat bread and sliced lamb. I ate bread and hummus with hot tea. I hated lamb. The kids tried the sandwiches. They were famished.
“Can we have some watermelon?” Marcello asked the driver.
“So why did we get that big load of them?” I asked.
They looked at each other, puzzled.
“No watermelon, hanum.”
I was thirsty, but didn’t trust the water from the jugs, so I drank more chai. The kids had their Pepsis. It was going to be a long night, I thought.
Miriam wanted to sit next to her dad, so I traded seats with her – the aisle seat right behind the driver, obviously the only one driving for the whole trip. I could see the lighted road in front of us, and we were the only vehicle on the road. We kept going through the darkness until we finally got to an exit and were back on the main highway D2. Company at last – trucks and cars zipped by us. I tried to sleep, but had too much chai. Passengers were asleep. We drove on, and the traffic thinned out. I kept my eyes on the driver.
“Lord!” I prayed. “I guess we’re trapped on this bus from hell… Please keep us safe. Send your holy angels to protect us! ” I started praying the rosary, counting the beads on my fingers.
Whenever I’d see the driver dozing off I’d kick the panel between us.
“Stay awake!” I shouted angrily. “I am watching you! We were really tricked into taking this bus but we have kids here, and I want to arrive alive. So you stay alert!”
“You must be Greek!” he said, irritated.
“I certainly am. My name is Heleni.” The Turks had just lost the Cyprus war…
He spat on the floor.
In the middle of the night we arrived at the border with Bulgaria. I told Waldir I was going to say I needed to go to the restroom, and would go to the police and tell them to check the bus for drug trafficking. He said we’d never get to Munich if I did that. I said we could never get there alive, anyway. Miriam and I made it to the restrooms, and then I walked to a window where a border patrol guard tried to understand what I wanted in German, French and English, to no avail. He finally called in someone who could understand English. I told him about my misgivings about the bus and the watermelon load. Explained about how we were misled into buying their tickets; and that we had 5 kids on board who had no food, or water to drink.
Suddenly the bus passengers were told to disembark, and open all their luggage. Bags strewn all over the ground were searched. Everybody complied, and there was some concern. They didn’t search ours, though, but they checked all passports and travel documents. I really didn’t know the word for watermelon, and I couldn’t tell them to search the bus baggage compartment, as I watched the search helplessly.
They hadn’t seen me talking to the border guards, but Waldir was concerned about what would happen if they did find some contraband. I’d hope they’d put us on another less dangerous bus.
After a while, the border patrol liberated us to go on, so we got back on our seats, and drove off into the night, but this time the driver and his assistant were sobered and quiet. I prayed, and kept watch, as we drove through Bulgaria.
We crossed into Yugoslavia in the wee hours of the morning. We’d been traveling almost 24 hours without stopping. I could hardly keep my eyes open, but I fought to stay awake. As soon as we made it through the border, and this time we weren’t stopped or searched. One could see the relief on the demeanor of our driver and attendant. Most of the passengers, who had been sleeping through it all, woke up and started chatting among themselves.
“We’ll stop soon for a big breakfast!” the driver announced, cheerfully.
We did so, at a roadside restaurant that seemed more civilized, with tables, and servers, and plenty of good food. We’d clambered out of the bus, exhausted and bleary-eyed, but the smell of coffee and nice pastries, milk and orange juice for the kids, and the enthusiasm of the crew of two, gave us hope that we’d finally arrived alive in German territory. All I could see was that we seemed to be at a nice tourist area, near a lake. I couldn’t tell the name of the town.
After our repast we got back in the bus and cruised through Yugoslavia as fast as we could. Belgrade and Zagreb flew by and we crossed into Austria as in a dream. When we made it to Innsbruck I told Waldir that — God be praised – we’d make it to Munich in a couple of hours.
We expected to be taken to the bus terminal in Munich, but no, knowing the address of our hotel, our relieved driver dropped us off at an intersection and pointed us in the direction of the hotel. We had to drag our luggage a couple of blocks, but we found it. We had been traveling, nonstop, for 36 hours.
I have only a foggy memory of that evening, but in the morning of the next day I asked for directions to the nearest police station. I had a complete description of the bus, their license plate, the names of the driver and attendant and the details of the trip, including the watermelon load. A very nice and polite young woman detective greeted us and I asked if she understood English. She asked if I spoke German. I told her about my meager vocabulary acquired in college classes. She said to try. So I proceeded to describe our ordeal as well as I could. When I had finished, she talked back to us in perfect English! At my surprise, she just said that I did well, and I just needed to practice more, while in Germany.
“You are very lucky,” she said. “We are very aware of these traffickers, of humans and drugs. Under the cover of the Gast-Werkers, they bring loads of opium and other drugs into Europe. It’s to their advantage to have innocent passengers like you all, especially with kids. You were very brave to keep a record of everything, this will help us to try and hunt them down.”
She kindly gave us some information about the best places to go look for a car to buy, and wished us a nice stay in Europe and a much nicer trip back to Iran.
The very next day we bought a car, from a very nice young couple – a VW Squareback – exactly what we needed. Then we proceeded to a sports store and bought a tent and all the camping equipment we needed and we were free to go into our next adventure – the trip back to Iran – but not before we toured as many places as we could on our way.
Traipsing through Germany, Austria, and East Europe
The German campgrounds were wonderful as we settled in Munich’s Kampingplatz Thalkirchen by the Isar River and toured the Zoo, the Deutsches Museum, Marienplatz, and all the beautiful churches we came across. Dachau was sobering, as the kids learned about the horrors of the Holocaust, but it was wonderful to be back in civilization even as we made our way through the Black Forest to Nuremberg, since I wanted to go to Czechoslovakia to show Marcello where his ancestors came from. We tried to cross the border at Torflohe but were greeted by border patrol guards with machine guns who, after searching our passports, were thrilled to see Brazilians, because of soccer and Pelé, but not pleased that we did not have visas.
“Need visa,” the nicest one told us. “No visa, no Czechoslovakia. You go to Vienna, get visa, then come back.”
So we drove south again. It was late, and raining, and we tried to find a Gasthaus somewhere down the road. We saw a nice one, a Heidi gingerbread kind, and went up to find out if they had room. They did, but when we said we had three kids, the rotund owner, decked in Schwarz Wald costume, told us “kein Kindern!” He had a brand new Gasthaus, and kids were trouble, and destructive. He would not believe our kids were older and well behaved. We left, disappointed. Since it was getting dark, we came upon a rather nice rest stop and I suggested we just stop there and sleep in the car. The rain had stopped, so John and Marcello took out their sleeping bags and settled on the grassy knoll. We were tired enough that we didn’t mind the car seats. Miriam curled up in the back.
We woke up in the morning with the noise of garrulous old ladies who had come out of a tourist van and were peering at us, while commenting, bemusedly:
“Look! Isn’t it wonderful? That’s how the Germans travel! Look at those cute boys sleeping on the grass, in their bags!”
We pretended not to notice that they were all Americans. Thankful that we had no rain, we set off for Vienna, Austria, through the breathtaking beauty of the Bayerische Wald and the Danube River valley, hoping that we’d make it to the Czech Embassy before the weekend. We did, and turned in our passports, but were told that we had to return on Monday to pick up our visas. Thus we had time to explore Vienna on the weekend. We had no problem finding a campground, right across the Danube. We wandered around the Innere Stadt, enjoying the music in the Parks, the art in the Museum, the delicious food, pastries, and hot chocolate, connecting the dots to the things we had learned about the history, and the famous artists, writers, and composers we loved. I promptly fell in love with Vienna; Miriam with the Austrian good-looking boys.
Early that Monday we got our visas and set off to Prague. This time we had no problems at the border, except for having our car and luggage thoroughly searched. Perhaps most for curiosity, as one of the female border patrol handled some of Miriam’s belongings, admiringly, such as her round radio hanging from a chain.
The countryside of rolling hills and verdant pastures was unremarkable, as we drove by quaint villages past Brno and on to Prague. It was early afternoon when we parked downtown and looked around, marveling at the golden town, rather deserted. I wondered at the lack of stores, even for souvenirs, the only displays at the windows being of food. We were experiencing the way of life in a Communist country. We finally found a tourist information booth where we got maps, postcards, and directions to a good place to go with the kids. We were told to drive to Vysehrad where we could visit the castle and stroll in the park. It was indeed a good choice, as the kids loved the castle, whose medieval owners were avid hunters and the whole place was covered with hunting trophies. We feasted on bratwurst hotdogs, beer and sodas.
After watching the sunset light up the golden city like a gigantic castle, we drove off to camp by the Vitava River. We pitched our tent at the recommended site, and were pleased by the cleanliness of everything in the campsite, such as restrooms, and the communal kitchen where we could cook our soup.
“So Marcello, you can be proud of where your grandparents came from. Perhaps when you grow up you can come and stay for a few days and tour the countryside,” I said to my adopted son.
He was too tired and sleepy, as he nestled next to me.
We sat down with our maps the next morning and took stock of our vacation days. It was almost the end of August and we needed to be back in Iran by September. We drove south again to Vienna, Zagreb, Belgrade and Sofia.
We enjoyed driving through Bulgaria’s countryside, the roads flanked by fruit orchards. We could just pick tasty apples off the ground by the roadside. We found a campground, rustic, but clean. I only had some trouble finding some milk for the kids. Although we’d seen plenty of cows, there were no food stores. I finally found a small one, down the road. I went in and tried to explain what I needed, in German, French, and English. The woman behind the counter could not understand. I finally fished a pen and paper from my purse and drew a cow with udders dripping.
“Ahhh…” she said, and went in the back, returning with a bottle of milk, which, back at the campsite, the kids rated as the best tasting one they had drunk in a long time.
We soon crossed into Turkey on the way to Ankara. We had been warned of the perils of the Turkish roads, where droves of kids roamed by the roadside, begging for cigarettes. If the tourists wouldn’t comply, they’d run the risk of having their windshield cracked by thrown rocks. We noticed that the British Land Rovers were all well protected by wire mesh on the windows, but our VW was unprotected. We were also warned not to stop except in urban centers or gas stations.
We bought lots of cigarettes and John and Marcello were given the job of throwing them out the window to the kids. John had the brilliant idea of packing the cigarettes with the heads of matches so they’d flare up when lighted… Hopefully nobody got seriously burnt! I just hoped some of the kids would lose interest in cigarettes.
The road to Iran had been recently resurfaced, so we had no road hazards. We made it to Tabriz in a couple of days, traveling all day and taking turns driving. We had made it, safely and economically within our budget.
Back to Shiraz I resumed my job as the International School’s librarian, enrolled in the Master’s degree program at Pahlavi University in English Literature and Linguistics, and continued to teach English at the Iran-America Society in the evening. No chance for depression or homesickness. The kids were doing relatively well in school. Miriam had made new friends and stopped talking about going back to Auburn. Marcello was his hyperactive self, riding his bike all over the neighborhood, and learning Farsi quickly from the Persian kids.
John was a little bored at school, so we enrolled him on Mr. Axtell’s tutoring program to work on his British O-levels. He learned all there was to be known about Britain’s history and Geography, as well as advanced Algebra.
Waldir was doing well, beloved by his students, and going places now that we had a car.
As for church, we were suddenly deluged with 300 Catholic families from Baltimore, Maryland, who had come to work for the new Westinghouse and Bell Helicopter plants. In a few weeks we had rented an apartment to serve as our new community church, and brought in a resident priest who celebrated liturgies and provided spiritual direction. We started CCD classes for the kids, preparation for First Communion and Confirmation.
Westinghouse provided a Community Center where the kids could go watch TV, movies, play sports, and swim. As a home away from home, Shiraz could not have been better.
My interest in Middle East history and Archaeology grew as I was fond of going to lectures at the University and forays to archaeology digs in the area. I also enjoyed reading the Sufi poets and philosophers, especially Hafiz and Saadi, held as saints by the Persians, and whose beautiful garden tombs were sacred sites where one could stroll and meditate.
The only area I avoided dealing with was Islam. Reading the Koran did nothing for me, and thus I avoided getting into the tenets of Mohammed’s religion. Jesus, the Son of God, continued to be all I desired and wanted to know about. But I did get very interested in Judaism and Israel. A holy desire to go visit the Holy Land grew in my heart, and when Spring break came around, I proposed that we travel to Israel. Waldir could not go because of his research projects, Miriam was scared because of the wars and terrorism, Marcello was too young to care, but John, my faithful travel companion, said he’d certainly go.
To leave Iran with my child I had to have my husband’s full blessing, with all kinds of protocols and paperwork, but we got it all done, and thus began one of the most spectacular and inspiring voyage of our lives.
ISRAEL – Past and Present – in Less than 5 Dollars a Day
It had been a long, cold winter, the second of our stay in Iran, and I still felt like Robert Frost’s transplanted peach tree – unable to grow any roots in that barren soil. For fourteen-year-old John, the chance of a vacation in Israel was like a reprieve from that self-inflicted exile, and a reward for his good work in school.
After getting through El-Al’s strict security, we settled exhausted in our seats, and gave a sigh of relief as we taxied off. It didn’t take long, or so it seemed, for the 747 to start descending serenely through the wisps of cloud, the captain’s voice informing us that we would be landing in Tel-Aviv in about ten minutes. The passengers craned their necks, eagerly, toward the windows, tugging at seat belts, to catch a glimpse of the city below. Suddenly, the soft music coming through the intercom turned into the rousing chords of Hava Nagilla. Soon everyone joined in, singing and clapping as the patches of green fields sped by below, and we approached Ben Gurion Airport. We too joined in the joyous Hallelujahs and it was like coming home again – the emotion of our companions was contagious! Tel-Aviv shone in the sun, flanked by green fields on one side, and the deep blue of the Mediterranean on the other.
At the airport we had a little trouble shaking off the over-eager taxi drivers who wanted to take us to the Hilton. They had trouble being convinced that we weren’t rich Iranians, or American tourists, that my “fur” coat was really fake, and that all we wanted was to go to our cheap hotel, away from the glitter of downtown. We finally chose a condescending driver (or he did find us) and with the help of Tourist Information we found one hotel that wasn’t over-priced.
We settled in with reams of leaflets and brochures from Tourist Information, but in a couple of hours we had decided that hotels and tours weren’t freeing enough for us, and if we really wanted to see as much of the country as possible in fifteen days, we would have to rent a car. That would take about one third of our budget I explained to John, so would we be able to survive on the rest? We’d have to give up good meals in restaurants, sleeping in soft hotel beds, and other amenities, really roughing it. We considered the matter carefully as we strolled next morning through Tel-Aviv’s downtown area, and got acquainted with its people.
Our first impression was not of a nation just out of a crushing attack at the Golan Heights, or stooping under a long drawn out war with its neighbors. We saw the joy of freedom and the pride of achievement in the eyes and the expression of everyone we met. “How do you like Israel?” and behind the stereotypical question, we could read the comments: “Isn’t this wonderful? See what we have accomplished?” as we strolled through streets lined with sidewalk cafés, where young and old people sat and talked loudly. European-style stores and boutiques opened their doors, offering all sorts of merchandise – mostly Israeli-made
We climbed to the top floor of Shalom Tower for a splendid view of the city, aware now of the threat that hung in the air – terrorist attacks – when our bags and packages were searched by security guards posted at the entrance of every shopping mall, and public place. People had grown accustomed to this, and were very conscientious about their security.
By nightfall we had decided to take our chances and rent a car. The man from Hertz – having the most competitive prices and economical cars – put me in the driver’s seat of a brand-new Ford Cortina, assembled in Israel, and we took off under the bright blue sky of that Sunday morning, breathing air salty with sea-smell, to discover the glories of the past and the achievements of the present, feeling elated by the adventure we had embarked in.
Riding Out in Faith
We backtracked first to old Jaffa, ancient Egyptian and Canaanite port-city from which Jonah had sailed for his encounter with the whale. Here too Jesus’ first disciples, Peter and Andrew were called to leave their fishing boats and follow him. There, at lunch, we ate our first falafel, which is to Israelis what hamburger was to us. Fried cakes – made of mashed chickpeas, mixed with chopped onions, garlic, parsley, coriander, salt, and pepper – stuffed into a flat, round roll; chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, pickles, and sometimes even coleslaw, give the finishing touches. Pour hot tahini sauce over the whole thing, and you’ve got a meal tastier than a taco and more nutritious than a Big Mac for less than one dollar.
The highway connecting Tel-Aviv to Haifa runs parallel to the Mediterranean through modern towns like Netanya, basking in the sun of what is called the Israeli Riviera. In the middle of March we could already go for a swim along stretches of white sandy beaches, bordering fancy neighborhoods.
From there on, the countryside becomes hilly and increasingly green, covered with forests. We reached Haifa late in the afternoon, after visiting Mount Carmel, where the prophet Elijah lived in a cave still preserved under the dome of a beautiful church dedicated to Our Lady. We wanted to make it to Akko (the famous Acco of the Crusaders) before dark, but we had to linger for a while in the restful Persian gardens of the Bahai Temple. The aroma of pine, salvia, thyme, and jasmine wafted up in the crisp afternoon breeze, and blended with the laughter of a wedding party on the lawn. We reached Akko at sunset, and — strolling by the ancient battlements in the seashore — we dreamed of knights and ladies fair, in pursuit of the Holy Grail. We tried not to think of the bloody battles and the casualties on both sides.
We bought some dark bread, milk, peanut butter, oranges, and a can of tuna, and drove up the mountain in search of a place to spend the night. It is a busy road, the one connecting Haifa to Kuneitra on the Golan Heights, and military trucks and tanks chugged continuously up and down the steep, winding hill. We made it to the observation point atop the mountain at sunset, and gasped at the magnificent view below us of Akko and Haifa, 24 kilometers away. The city shone brightly, cradled in the bay, the sunset enveloping everything in golden hues.
This was a nice rest stop, with restrooms and a grassy area, a perfect spot to spend the night, so after our frugal dinner, we crawled inside our sleeping bags and tried to rest our now weary bones, tired but satisfied – it had been a perfect first day, and we had spent less than 5 dollars!
The heavy traffic kept me awake for a while, but soon exhaustion overcame the noise and I fell asleep, watching the stars shining through the windshield. Suddenly I woke up with someone tapping on the side window. I sat up, cracked the window, and saw a male soldier standing with a couple of other comrades, looking in. He inquired what we were doing parked there, in Hebrew. I asked if he spoke English. He said he did, so I said that we were resting, sleeping, before going on our journey.
“American?” he asked. I said yes, and he conferred with his comrades.
“But this is an uncomfortable, dangerous place for a woman to be sleeping!” he commented.
“It’s OK,” I said. “I’m not alone. My son is sleeping in the back seat.” I didn’t mention that the son was 14 years old. He looked in the back, at the still sleeping John.
“We’re still concerned with your safety,” he said. “If you’d like, I can take you guys to my mother’s house, just down the road, and she’d be glad to put you up for the night…”
“Thank you so much, but we’ll be all right. We’re used to traveling like this, and we want to go on to Jerusalem really early in the morning.”
“All right, then, but be very careful. Do not open your door to anyone, and if you feel threatened, honk your horn, put your warning lights on, and yell for help. The soldiers in the road will come to the rescue.”
I thanked him, they left, and I went back to sleep. Birds woke me up at the first light of dawn. I got up, stretched my cramped legs, and looked around. We were high indeed –1,500 feet above sea level, according to a poster, and we could see as far as Tel-Aviv. The plain of Zebulon stretched for miles below us, as far as the eye could see. We were in the Galilean hills, covered with forests and blooming with all kinds of wild flowers.
At the picnic table, still moist with dew, we ate some of our bread with the milk, said our morning prayer, ate an orange each, and before 5 a.m. we started out, hoping to see a lot of the northern countryside that second day. The cruel reality of war was inevitable, contrasting with the peacefulness of those hills. All along the road we would see groups of soldiers, in full military gear, carrying machine guns, heavy rifles. And the charred remains of tanks and trucks reminded us that not too long ago a full-scale war had raged in those hills. We found it strange that the soldiers were asking for rides from the civilian drivers coming down the road. One billboard on the right-of-way read: “Driver, have you given a soldier a lift today? ” We obliged, and soon had a carload of weary soldiers riding with us in their heavy boots and their automatic weapons. John was thrilled, and chatted with the ones who could speak English.
Hazor and the Kibbutz experience
Our soldiers were on their way to the Golan Heights; security had been increased along the border with Syria. Passover was coming, and the Israelis knew only too well that a time for rejoicing is also a time for watching; they kept us up on the latest news, and again reminded us to be careful, always on the alert for terrorists. We arrived in Hazor, one of the oldest Canaanite towns, before 7 a.m. Hazor had been at one time the capital of the Canaanite kingdom and later King Solomon’s royal city. Perhaps the most interesting feature of the remains of that city is the underground water system. We descended 130 feet below sea-level to a tunnel that led to the water source outside the city walls. In times of siege, those water systems meant the survival of the city’s inhabitants.
Contrasting with the ruins in the National Park, Tel-Hatzor is the new, modern museum, built with the patronage of an American Jewish couple — Ayala and Sam Zacks in 1966. The exhibits show findings uncovered during the Tel-Hatzor’s archaeological excavations of the 1950s.
As we waited for the museum to open, the caretaker asked me something in Hebrew. When I stated my ignorance of the language, he rebuked me in perfect English:
“For shame! Don’t you say your prayers? Every Jew who says his prayers will know enough Hebrew to get along in his own country!”
“I don’t doubt it. Trouble is – I’m not Jewish.”
He was surprised:
“You look Jewish…”
“I am starting to feel like a Jew!” Perhaps centuries ago in Portugal, one of my ancestors was forced into conversion to Christianity, or perhaps did it willingly. It’s known that names of trees and animals were used as last names to baptize these new converts. My maiden name is one of those: Pinheiro or, pine tree.”
“Poor Jewish people!” he sighed as he shook his head sadly. “Persecuted, tortured, murdered, converted, slaughtered, and denied a homeland…”
He recommended that we have breakfast at the Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar, and sold us a card that entitled us to visit every State, National Park, and Monument in Israel. It cost us fifty cents. Without the card we had already paid that much in entrance fees! When we finished looking at the exhibits — finds from the site and explanation of its history, as well as a model of ancient Tel-Hatzor, we did as he’d told us and headed for the kibbutz. We were starved by then.
I had heard of kibbutzim before, but thought of them in terms of the 1950s shabby farms with makeshift buildings, put up in haste to house the returning Jews who had to live there and rough it, farming the land. We drove up to the guest house, through wheat and corn fields, and vegetable plots, all emerald green. The work day was already in progress. Crops were being dusted by airplanes, cows milked in brand-new, shining-with-stainless-steel stalls, and more ground was being prepared for planting by modern tractors. The guest house was an impressive building, with picture windows all around, surrounded by well-kept gardens blooming with exquisite plants and flowers. We walked into the immense dining hall. Tables were littered with the debris of breakfast. Young men and women laughed and sang, as they cleaned up. We found a clean table, and soon they began bringing the food: olives, pickles, fresh vegetable salad, smoked salmon, rolls, fresh butter, jellies, yogurt, cheeses, coffee, tea, and milk, scrambled eggs, all fresh and delicious. We stared at the profusion with disbelief, as through my mind ran the words of the prophets about how God would bring them back to a land flowing with milk and honey, where they would eat and be satisfied. So we ate as much as our hollow stomachs would support, and I was amazed when the man at the cash register told me two dollars for both of us.
It was with a spirit of reverence, awe, and wonder that we took the road south, toward the Sea of Galilee. This was now for us holy ground; we couldn’t stop thinking that we were now following in Jesus’ footsteps. We came upon the Mount of Beatitudes first – a beautiful church commanding a view of the plains and lake – its blueness enveloped still in the morning mists. By the lakeshore there is a place called Tabgha, with a simple Franciscan church covering the rock where Jesus is said to have stood after his resurrection, and where he fed a multitude with a basketful of bread and fish. The ancient Byzantine mosaic floor in the chapel depicts the two fishes and five loaves. The mystical peacefulness of the place took hold of us. We were absolutely alone, and speechless with emotion. We could almost hear the voice of Rabbi Yeshua calling the poor, the peace-makers, the merciful — blessed. Pointing to all those beautiful flowers that even now bloomed all over the tender green grass to remind us how God provides for his creation and his little ones.
We arrived in Nazareth in the middle of the afternoon, and suddenly everything changed. This now was Palestine. The faces in the street, the peacefulness of the fields, and even the civilized rush of Tel-Aviv and Haifa changed to the loudness of voices speaking a different language; brown-skinned children ran barefoot through dusty streets amidst donkeys, chickens, and sheep; men wearing caftans and headdress; veiled women – it was like being back in Iran. We rushed through the Church of the Annunciation where a guide tried to convince us to go eat shish kabob with him.
Instead, we visited Mary’s well and climbed one of the hills to see that breathtaking view on our own. The city lay cradled in the hills, the plain of Esdraelon stretching all the way to Mount Tabor, before our eyes. Just like in the Bible. Woolly sheep munched on the soft new grass, sprinkled with flowers. We thought of the young Miriam of Nazareth, standing on the hillside, tending the sheep, as the sun sank in the horizon, startled at an angel appearing before her with a greeting – Hail Mary, full of grace! Back in town we also thought of a young child running barefoot through the dusty alleys, laughing and shouting like the town’s children.
By this time we had already filled our gas tank twice, each fill-up taking a considerable bite from our budget. Of all the nations enduring the hardship of the Arab oil embargo, Israel was, of course, suffering the most. One dealer told us that all the oil pumped out of the Sinai wells was being sent to Europe – Israel needed the money badly. So the people just had to walk more; with the price of gas at two dollars a liter, most people had no choice. Thus I was becoming a little concerned about our fast-shrinking traveler’s checkbook. Our stomachs grumbled for a full meal, and I was beginning to long for a hot bath and a good night’s sleep on a comfortable bed. In this not so bright a mood we drove south of Nazareth, toward Beit-Shean.
It was then that we decided to try the Youth hostels. The woman at the Ministry of Tourism in Tel-Aviv had told us about them, but I was reluctant to try. I knew that in the U.S. and Europe only students under 25 years old could stay in hostels. Although I was a student, with a university card, I was certainly way past the age limit. But then it was getting dark, and we were hungry, and the area was getting less populated – this was the Jordan Valley, lusciously green and amazingly beautiful in early spring. We were also close to the Jordanian border, where trouble frequently occurred. We followed the signs for the Maayan Harod Hostel, and finally got there just before dark. It was in a national park, one of King Herod’s resorts, where he and his court came to relax in pools heated by hot mineral springs. Now a band of noisy young people – obviously some school on holiday – romped on the grassy slopes and splashed in the pools. We finally found the hostel’s guardian. He was a tough-looking fellow, who spoke only Hebrew and French, and the first thing I noticed was the .45 he wore conspicuously at his belt. When we inquired if we could spend the night at the hostel, he simply asked for our passports, handed us a key and some bedclothes, and pointed to a low building near the park’s entrance. The room was furnished with eight bunkbeds. We made ours and walked over to the dining hall, as instructed. Dinner – all we could eat of a hearty stew made of fresh root vegetables and tasty chunks of meat, served with all the brown whole wheat bread we could eat, plus orange juice to drink, cost $4 for both of us, and the price of the beds — $5 – included breakfast the next day. Not bad, for we were truly famished – all we had eaten all day was some fruit bought at the Nazareth’s bazaar. On the way to the dining hall we noticed the first signs of the strictly enforced security we would find from then on. All the workers wore guns, and signs warned guests to beware of any packages left unattended, suspicious or not.
After nice hot showers, we crashed on our bunkbeds and slept soundly until the bright sun shining through the windows woke us up. After a hearty breakfast the next morning, we left for Beit-Shean, a city that has been inhabited for over 6,000 years. Here the bodies of King Saul and his sons had hung from the walls. The magnificent remains of the Roman theatre must be one of the best preserved in the world. Beit-Shean was once wealthy Scythopolis, on the trade route of the East, one of the ten cities of the Decapolis. We climbed the mountain-like mound, or tel, to see the ruins of the Canaanite and Israelite town at the top. The view was breathtaking – if one still had breath to be taken after the climb. Sprinkled with yellow flowers, the grassy slopes fell precipitously toward the valley, as the cool rapids below cascaded down toward the Jordan. The only incongruous sight was the ever-present machine guns of the soldiers.
Meggido rises spectacularly out of the plain of Esdraelon. An archaeological wonder – twenty different historical periods, from 4,000 B.C. to 400 B.C., were brought to light during the Rockefeller Foundation financed excavations, between 1925 and 1939. Being situated in a strategic position, astride the great road from Egypt to Syria and Mesopotamia, it was the scene of mighty battles throughout history, right up to the First World War. According to the prophecies in Revelation, it is here that the great final battle of Armageddon (a corruption of the Hebrew Har and Megiddo) will take place. With the overwhelming sense that I was touching and trampling on the history of humanity, I limped on my now blistered feet through the magnificent halls of King Solomon’s fortified chariot-city and the remains of Hyksos and the Canaanite cities.
The Good Samaritan Rerun
And then we had to drive through Samaria – where one felt a lot less secure than in the Israeli-settled part of the country. Where indeed, from time immemorial, the Jews traveling to Jerusalem had been fearful for their lives. I remembered the story of James and John asking Jesus to send fire down from heaven to consume the inhospitable Samaritans; and the heartwarming episode of Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman, asking her for a drink from the well; and here we strangely and marvelously relived the parable of the Good Samaritan.
We stopped at Sebaste for a quick lunch, and then kept driving on down to Nablus, ancient capital of Samaria, where I planned to find an emergency clinic to get treatment for some badly infected blisters which by that time had left me almost unable to walk. At the gas station where we filled up, I got directions to the local hospital, but somehow I missed it at the top of a long hill. Feverish and in pain, I tried to ask for directions, but nobody understood English, French, or German. Even my reduced Hebrew vocabulary found no response. I turned around and said to John:
“This is not good. We really need help. Only the Lord can help us here. Let’s return to the gas station. Pray!”
At that moment, a gentleman came across the road. I must have looked at him piteously, because he walked up to my window and asked, in perfect English:
“May I help you?”
I sighed with relief and explained my situation, how I had gotten in the present condition, and he was immediately sympathetic and kindly offered to ride with us to the hospital’s emergency room where he’d try to find one of the doctors who was his friend. The doctor came out immediately, and looked at my infected and badly swollen foot. My Good Samaritan, Mr. Marbruk, and the doctor, got me to lie down on a stretcher, and the two of them disappeared for what seemed long minutes. I looked at John, worried, but then they came back and Mr. Mabruk explained that this was a Friday, a holy day, and with the exception of real emergencies, everything was locked down, and they were having trouble finding some anesthetic for my foot. I affirmed that I was in such pain, that whatever they had to do to clean the blisters would not cause any greater suffering. The doctor started the procedure then, while Mr. Marbruk stayed at my side, and held my hand, throughout the whole ordeal of having the festering blisters lanced, cleaned, and dressed.
Because I was a tourist, I didn’t have to pay anything, not even for the antibiotics, and Mr. Marbruk insisted that we drive to his house and rest before we went on our way. There I met his lovely wife and daughters, who settled us in comfortable chairs in their beautiful garden where we were served tea, and cake, cookies, nuts, orange juice, and all sorts of sweets. We chatted about our adventurous trek through the country, the women astounded at my courage to be driving alone with a teenager, and about Arab-Israeli relations, and the history of Nablus.
“We do our best to co-exist with the Israeli occupiers,” Mr. Marbruk told us. “If we are civil toward one another we have no problems. But then there are the troublemakers.”
Mrs. Marbruk insisted that we spend the night with them, but I explained that I was anxious to get to Jerusalem, where I dreamed of arriving on Palm Sunday. We thanked them profusely, promising to write, as Mr. Marbruk warned me about the dangers of stopping on the road, and not to trust hotels in the region, to try and get as close to Jerusalem as possible.
“If you do have to stop, look for a police station. Stay in your car.” We all hugged and kissed, and we departed. I was more than a little choked up, as I asked John if he understood what Jesus, with the Marbruks help, had done for us.
“Healed your foot?”
“Well, not yet. Do you remember the parable of the Good Samaritan?”
“Yep. Well, I guess we were the actors in this one?”
“You bet. Above all God wants to remind us not to discriminate against people, whether they are Jewish, Palestinian, Christian, Moslem, black or white. We are all travelers on the road and we should always look after each other, as the Marbruks did for us.”
“Amen!” he said, smiling. “But we can discriminate against bad people, like the ones that didn’t help in the story?”
“Maybe…but even them might have had a reason not to stop and help. Maybe they were too busy.”
We had about three hours of daylight left, and with luck we would have made it to Jerusalem, but the road was curvy and busy, my foot throbbed, and a light rain began to fall. We arrived in Ramallah at night, and I told John that I could go no further. I still had a fever, and my head hurt. But where could we stay? There were no hostels. We came upon the local police station. There were two military trucks full of soldiers and machine guns, and even a tank in front of it. I asked if anyone spoke English. One of the soldiers came forward. He had a New York accent.
“Is there a place around here we can spend the night?” I asked.
“Are you tourists?”
“Yeah…” I answered.
He scratched his head.
“Well, there’s a hotel downtown, if you want to take the chances…”
“What do you mean — take the chances?”
“This is a troublesome area, bad things happen around here all the time. You know – bombs, hostages, things like that.”
“Oh wow! Any other suggestions?”
“I suggest you go on to Jerusalem. On the other hand, stay around, I’ll be off duty at midnight, we’ll go into town, eat a shish kabob, have a few drinks, and talk until morning.”
“What fun! But I really cannot.” I showed him my bandaged foot and explained my health problem, and how I didn’t feel very well. I said I’d rather park the car and sleep in it. He then escorted me inside where he introduced me to the Palestinian officer in charge of the station, who also spoke English well. I asked permission to park in the parking lot and spend the night there. He found it very strange that I’d want to do that, when there was a very good hotel downtown.
“The trouble is, we don’t have too much money. I’d rather sleep in the car and go to Jerusalem early in the morning,” I explained.
He showed concern for my hurt foot. I suppose I looked rather tired and bedraggled. I assured him that I’d be all right.
“You shouldn’t trust these Israeli soldiers. They’re no good. Just no good.”
“I’ll lock the doors.”
He thought for a while, and then went to speak with the police chief. He bade me to sit down, and disappeared across the street. After a while he returned.
“Turn your car around, and park in front of the station. Then you guys come with me. I found you a place to spend the night where you can be more comfortable.”
He took us to a house across the street. We climbed the wooden staircase to the top floor, where a young man met us. They talked in Arabic, and then we were shown into a room with two beds. The place looked like a rooming house, or a pension. In the living room a TV was showing a western movie.
“Is it good?” the captain asked about the room.
“It’s great, but how much will it cost?”
“Don’t worry about that,” he said, and I saw him slip the young man some money.
“Please let me pay you back,” I asked, when John and Yasser, the young man, had gone down to get our belongings.
“Listen – Ramallah is my country. I am proud to have you here as my guests. When you get to Jerusalem tomorrow, say a prayer for me, for all of us here. Do you want anything to eat? Some tea?”
“Tea would be great.” I had tears in my eyes.
When the boys came back, he helped carry our sleeping bags and clothes inside the room and told Yasser to bring us tea, milk, anything we might want. Then he wished us good-night, and warned:
“Lock your door before you go to sleep.”
He left, and soon Yasser brought the little cups of tea on a tray. We ate jelly, peanut butter, and crackers we had brought from Iran, and stretched our sleeping bags on top of the not-so-clean bedding. We fell into a deep sleep in no time.
Yasser took some time to ask us about America in the morning. Like so many young men in that part of the world, he dreamed of one day going to America to study, or to work and get rich. He told us his father had emigrated to Brazil, and being the oldest, he had to take care of his mother and sisters. He gave me his father’s address in Brazil, and asked me to write to him and tell him that I had met his son, and that all was well with them, and to come home – everyone missed him. He also told me that although things in Palestine were better than before, it was very sad that they didn’t have a country of their own anymore, and were instead the “slaves” of the Israelis.
We had more tea and cookies, and said goodbye to our new friend. Yasser said we didn’t have to pay anything; the captain had paid for it all. At the station, the captain had gone off-duty, but I left my address and a message of thanks for my Good Samaritan. I also humbly thanked God for this most wonderful experience of his love and care. My foot was healing, I had no fever, nor pain, and I had now this most sacred memory to treasure. Up to that point, my interest and pursuit was basically scientific – archaeology and the history of the places we had visited. But now a new dimension had been unfolded for me. This was God’s country, Jesus’ people, whose stories he had told his disciples, teaching us how we must love and care for one another, selflessly. And here God was showing us how He could take care of our needs through the kindness of strangers. As I started down the road under the now clear blue sky, I shared my thoughts with my son, and we prayed the Lord’s Prayer, full of gratitude, and peace.
The Jericho Guide
The road from Ramallah to Jericho waves through the terraced Judean hills. Here one reels back to biblical times. People dressed in robes and brightly striped headdresses, sedately guide their mule-pulled plows. Barelegged children ride donkeys in the dusty roads, alongside long-skirted women carrying water jugs and firewood on their heads.
Ageless Jericho is an oasis amidst the barren hills. Believed to be the oldest city in the world, it was Joshua’s first conquest in the land of Canaan after crossing the desert from Egypt. To Jericho Joshua sent his spies who came back loaded with produce from the land that flowed with milk and honey.
When we went to visit the walls that had fallen at the sound of the Hebrew trumpets, we made another interesting acquaintance. He was a small, withered old man, full of vigor and vivacity. He came to offer his services as a guide.
“You American? Speak English?” he asked.
“Yes…” I answered.
“Me guide. Me show you all Jericho. Me show you beautiful synagogue nobody knows about.”
“Well, thank you, that’d be lovely, but we can do it on our own. We don’t have much time,” I answered, knowing there would be a price for his services.
“Me guide here for sixty year. Me boy when start guiding. German peoples, French peoples, all come here and me guide them. Me learn French, German, English, Hebrew, from guiding peoples.”
He followed us into the compound, talking incessantly.
“German, French, American, British peoples pay me seven, eight, ten dollars for guiding. Me very good guide. Me know all about Jericho.”
“Is that so? Well, thank you very much, but we can’t possibly pay you. We just have to do it on our own.”
That didn’t discourage him, for he followed us on, explaining about the buildings, about how one could tell the difference between a Canaanite and a Israelite building by the way the stones were laid on top of each other. He also pointed out how the Crusaders built theirs, borrowing stones, pieces of columns, and whatever they’d found lying around.
“Listen, Mr. Ahmed, don’t you think that you may be missing some tourists that can pay you for your services? We’re just poor students. We just really cannot afford to pay a guide!”
He shrugged and kept on telling us the history of each wall, each foundation. Then he showed us to the top of a hill, from where we could see the actual city of Jericho, with its wall that had fallen at the sound of the Hebrew trumpets.
“Jericho is valley full of flowers, date trees, almond trees. All drinks from spring. People drink from spring, animals drink from spring, trees and flowers drink from spring. Whole Jericho drinks from spring.” He gave us a drink from the spring.
We were stuck with him. Noticing my hurt foot and how I was limping, he cut a tough branch from an almond tree and fashioned a cane for me. Then he guided us to see the synagogues and Sheik Hisham’s Palace – a marvel of Islamic architecture destroyed by an earthquake long ago. Then he invited us to eat breakfast at a small Arabic restaurant.
“You eat now true Arabic breakfast,” he said, showing us how to eat the chick-pea paste with the flat bread, while sipping cardamom tea from tiny cups.
“This is real good food for you. Chick-peas with lemon and olive oil good for you. You going to Dead Sea? Dead Sea good for you. You go there, get on water, foot be good as new again. Salt good for hurt foot.”
And he’d look around, proud to be in such good speaking terms with his American tourists. He wanted to take us somewhere else, but I absolutely refused, saying we had to return the car in Jerusalem the next morning. I paid for the breakfast, and gave him a couple of dollars after all, thanking him so much for his kindness.
“You go to Jerusalem, return car, then come back to Jericho tomorrow, with bus. Car too expensive, anyway. Bus cheaper. Me take you in my car to Dead Sea. You come tomorrow, OK? ”
“Sure!” I answered, to get rid of him. I gave him a hug, though. “We’ll be right here.”
Tempted at the Mount
At the Mount of Temptation I couldn’t resist climbing to the summit where an old Greek Orthodox monastery stands, perched on the rocks. Of the community that once amounted to more than one hundred men, five monks are left; living up there, in the middle of the wilderness, with hardly any human contact – the monastery is almost completely inaccessible, except for those with strong legs and a lot of determination. But the view from the top is fantastic. Here Jesus had spent forty days and forty nights, fasting and praying. Here those men – dedicated to prayer and worship, live in sacrifice and self-denial. We were shown around by the white-bearded monk, who gave us to drink from the spring flowing from the rocks. He told us that someone from the village would bring them food once a week. They baked their own bread.
Then we climbed down, the warm sun making sweat roll down our faces. We got to our car and had an unpleasant surprise – I had locked the car keys in!
“Oh my God!” I said to John. “What are we going to do? We’re miles away from civilization, and the monks have no phone!”
“It’s hot! We’ll die from thirst! How could you do this, Mom? Do we have to wait for a week for someone to come to the rescue?”
I had left the windows cracked because of the heat, but I had nothing in my bag to help in any way. I lifted up my eyes to heaven and prayed:
“Lord Jesus, you were tempted here, and Satan told you to leap down from this mountain, that the angels would hold you up. We need an angel now, Lord. Deliver us from this mess, please!”
John had walked to the wire fence at the foot of the walking path. I followed him, and he said to look for a loose piece of metal. I walked a few feet and found one. John bent it back and forth until it broke off. But it was only a 3 inch piece of wire.
“Look in your bag,” he said. “See if you have a piece of string.” I had dental floss.
That future mechanical engineer made a hook at both ends of the wire, broke off a length of dental floss, and we walked back to the car.
“Pray hard!” he said, as he dangled his apparatus from the crack on the window and swung it back and forth. I was on the second Hail Mary when the hook caught on the closed peg and the door miraculously was opened.
“Baruch ha-shem!” I exclaimed, as I hugged and kissed my resourceful son. “Thank you, Jesus and John!”
Driving through the desert to the Dead Sea
Coming down from the Judean hills to the Dead Sea is a truly unforgettable experience. The surroundings change completely from verdant oasis to a salt desert. In one of the many caves around the Qumran area, a shepherd found the invaluable Dead Sea scrolls. We descended 1,300 feet below sea level, the lowest place on the planet, and suddenly the sea appeared out of the brown earth, sparkling like a precious sapphire in the sun. Salt sculptures were an interesting attraction along the shore, reminding us of what had happened to one over-curious and disobedient woman – Lot’s wife.
Its surface smooth as polished glass, the sea sparkled with myriad specks of light. We stood there, mesmerized. At the resort town of Ein-Gedi, we stopped to try the amazing experience of swimming in that strangest pool. All one has to do is sit and lie back, and the magical waters that have the feel of heavy cream, hug you, cradle you in their arms, and make you float, without any effort. And after getting out, one has to march immediately to the showers provided on the beach, otherwise one turns into a salt sculpture immediately.
It was a beautiful moonlit night, and we decided to sleep on the beach, under the stars. Other people were doing the same, and we joined two Hebrew University students from France, who had a guitar. We sang folk songs into the night, and went to sleep when the moon set in the horizon. I woke up at dawn and just sat in utter awe, watching the east light up in different shades of pink and orange, until the sun came up in glory. We had a long way to go, so we started early. It was a hot day, and the desert sun was burning, even in the early morning.
After eating breakfast at the modern cafeteria, while watching Henry Kissinger’s helicopter take off, we drove down again, toward the Negev desert. The heat increased as we went further south. And suddenly Masada loomed before us, a massive rocky fortress, impressive and disturbing. My knowledge of its history was sketchy, so John read to me from the tourist book, while I drove to the parking lot at its base. Contrary to the Mount of Temptation, this modern tourist facility had an escalator to facilitate the climb to its top.
Masada – King Herod’s fortress and refuge during wars – had been the last stand of Israelites against the Roman army invaders after the fall of Jerusalem. It was a somber review of the abandoned quarters where men, women, and children chose to die, rather than surrender and be killed by the Romans. We came down again with a heavy heart.
On the way to Avdat, we hit a sandstorm. Heaven and earth were enveloped in dust – greyish like moon dust – and suddenly we found ourselves riding a cloud of sand, the high winds whipping it against the sides of the car. I had no idea where the road was, and could see nothing around us. But I had learned in Iran that you do not stop in a sand storm, or you might be buried, or blown away, like in a tornado. We kept rolling, blindly on, and then it was over.
John looked at the map and told me to make a left turn into a side road and suddenly, like on a movie, we found ourselves in a breathtaking oasis in the middle of that desert. Stream of limpid water flowed from the rocks, verdant grass full of blooming exotic flowers, palm trees, almond trees, and the sweet perfume of lilies of the valley. We stretched our cramped limbs, drank from the fountain, dusted ourselves and the car off, and lay out in the warm sun, contentedly. We were utterly alone in Paradise.
We had a few hours of daylight left and several miles to ride back to Ber-Sheeva and Ashkelon. That would bring us back full circle, and we decided we’d better save more time for Jerusalem, instead of driving all the way to Eilat. We found a campground by the beach, rented a cabin for the night, and dined on olives, cold baked beans, bread, nuts and wonderful Jaffa oranges. In the coolness of the night, looking at myriad stars under the darkened sky, we slept under the shadow of the wings of Almighty God, who had kept us safe and totally overflowing with thankful hearts.
In the morning we sat at the breakfast table and talked about how absolutely overwhelmed we were by the beauty of the country, the diversity of its landscape, the kindness of its people, the energy, happiness and enthusiasm of its settlers. And we understood why this people had remained loyal and kept their faith, against all odds; against oppression, enslavement, persecution, exile, rejection, un-relented hatred, and the final solution slaughter of the Holocaust. They were God’s chosen people then, and were God’s people now, again a remnant, but a faithful remnant, that had come through fire and water, from the edges of total extermination, back to this Promised Land. If we indeed had, in our chromosomes, a link to family ties with this people, we would gladly assume our heritage and be proud of it.
Yerushalaym, my love
Thankful to go to Jerusalem, at last, at such an auspicious time – the Jewish Passover and the Christian Easter coincided exactly that Holy Year – made this a very special spiritual pilgrimage for us Catholics. And, above all, there was peace in the land.
Bethlehem was disappointing. In its eagerness to protect the holy places, the Greek Orthodox Church has covered them with cold marble bathed in incense fumes forever. One can’t really associate the mausoleum-like Church of the Nativity with the place where Baby Jesus was laid in a manger. The fact that the Basilica is the oldest in all Christendom may account for its being built like a fortress, in defense of the holy places from the hands of the infidel. It’s a relief to walk out to Shepherds’ Field and breathe the pure air, sweet with the memories of Ruth and Boaz, of the little shepherd boy David, and of angels singing their song of peace to humans besieged by war and slaughter throughout the ages.
Passing on the shadow of Rachel’s Tomb and through the Valley of Hinnom, we came to Mount Sion and Jerusalem’s walls. Crowds of people – tourists, natives, pilgrims – filled the streets and the square in front of the Jaffa Gate. We drove around, trying to find the Youth Hostel where we hoped to find room. Fortunately, I was accepted – on my old Auburn University ID card – which the warden preferred to my most recent graduate student ID from Pahlavi University. Thus a very expensive short stay in Jerusalem turned into an exciting week of sightseeing for about $20, including breakfast, for the two of us.
We had one more day of rent in the car, so we drove off the next morning to see another one of King Herod’s fortresses – the Herodion – and the surrealistically beautiful Beth-Guvrin caves, the filming site of the Jesus Christ Superstar movie. The man-made caves resulted from years of cutting blocks of limestone for building purposes. It’s a beautiful, peaceful place: fields sprinkled with red poppies, daisies, wild irises, and numerous other flowers and shrubs – God’s own little garden.
Back in Jerusalem, we set out to visit this sacred city – adorned as a bride, shining in the sun as carved in jasper and onyx –as we reverently approached it from Mount Sion. And then we entered the city walls through the Jaffa Gate, and instantly wished we could stay there forever.
There is a mystical enchantment about this walled piece of holy ground that takes hold of one’s soul. Here Moslems, Jews, and Christians of every denomination have lived in friendly cooperation, even in the midst of Israel’s worst times. And now, when the holy city had gone back to the descendants of King David, this sense of unity, of the disappearance of barriers of language, costumes, and prejudices is truly amazing, at least as we talked to the local people. Whether one worships at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, at the Dome of the Rock, or at the Wailing Wall, one feels God’s presence most intensely, as one feels the suffering, the contradictions, the faith and hope of mankind.
We walked through the streets teeming with people, speaking loudly in every language of the world, selling their wares, souvenirs and other relics. We bought gifts to take back home, and a new pair of sandals for my achy feet; large pilgrim crosses for our necks, rosaries, among other things. Then we ate our falafels, and bought supplies to take to the hostel for snacks. Filled with joy and expectation, we walked around like we belonged to the place.
We entered the coolness of the Dormition Abbey and followed a group of tourists being guided around down to the crypt where the body of Mary, the holy Mother of Jesus, was laid down by the caring hands of her Son’s disciples and apostles. The air was cool, and perfumed by incense and flowers. In semi-darkness, the only light being the oil lamps by the slab of stone where they had laid her lifeless-looking body, I knelt at a pew in silence and awe, as the words of a prayer failed me. I remembered the story I had read, as a teenager, about how the disciples who had protected Mary while she lived, as the very presence of their Rabboni’s flesh and blood among them, had covered her body with roses, and not knowing if she was really dead, as she appeared to be only asleep, left her that night, in sorrow. At that time I still struggled with the Protestant prejudices about Catholic near adoration of the Mother of our Savior, but my love and appreciation for her brave YES to the announcing angel of the Lord, for her fortitude through the many trials that commitment had brought to her life, for her courageous last stand at the cross when she cradled in her arms the body of the Son she knew was hers and God’s, and for her final joy when she embraced his resurrected body, convinced me that she was indeed a treasure for Jesus and his followers, for me, her daughter, who now knelt at this place and asked her to give me a sign that she was indeed alive and at work, body, soul and spirit, Queen of Heaven, and Mother of us all who believed.
I remembered how the disciples had returned the next day and found that her body was gone, and only the roses remained. Nowhere in Christendom would the bones of Miriam of Nazareth be found, even as she was already venerated as the Most Holy Mother of God.
My folded hands rested on top of the pew I was kneeling at, and I felt something under my hand. Beads. Olive wood carved little rosary, the small kind one held around one’s fingers. A gift? Something forgotten by a careless pilgrim? A sign! My fingers curled around it and I held it to my lips. Ave Maria gratia plena, Dominus tecum! Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb — Jesus! Holy Mother of God, pray for me a sinner, now and at the hour of my death. Amen!
It was a most holy week indeed. On Thursday we visited the Upper Room, that cenacle where Jesus ate his last Passover with his disciples, and where he consecrated the bread and wine as His own body and blood to be poured out for our salvation. Then we followed the crowds to the Mount of Olives and Gethsemane, where we prayed through the night at the Church of All Nations. The Church of Saint Peter in Gallicantu reminded us of Jesus’s suffering as he was arrested and brought to the High Priest, thrown down to the pit where prisoners were kept till they could be sentenced. There Peter, the rock where Jesus built his Church, denied three times that he knew him.
On Friday we went to the Antonia, the Roman fortress where Jesus was tortured and flagellated, condemned to be crucified by Pontius Pilate, to placate the fury of the reigning High Priest. And in sad remembrance, we followed the Stations of the Cross all along the Via Dolorosa, pilgrims from all over the world taking turns to bear the heavy cross, while singing and praying with tears of sorrow for our sins.
After that we relived the tragic hours at Calvary, the descent from the cross, the burial at the Holy Sepulchre. It was late when we sadly walked back to the hostel, in silence, under the brightness of a full moon. We had nothing to eat that day.
Saturday was a day of rest. Being the Jewish Passover, all stores, restaurants and businesses were closed. After our frugal breakfast of Matzo and tea, I told John I was going to go back to the Garden Tomb and pray. John said he was tired and was going to go back to bed and rest the rest of the morning. We had been told that there’d be no dinner that evening, and the hostel would be closed until sundown. We could stay in, but if we’d go out, we could not return. John said he’d meet me at Holy Sepulcher by noon, so we could find something to eat.
Encounter with Mary and the Lost Child
At noon I was there, faithfully waiting for him. The bells tolled at midday, thirty past and then 1:00 o’clock. No sign of John. I walked around the neighborhood’s empty streets, looking for him. No John. By three o’clock I became concerned, and walked back to the hostel. All doors and windows, closed. I knocked and knocked at the door. Nobody opened it.
Panicked now, I went back to the places we had been the day before, in case he had forgotten where to meet me. No signs of him. Thoughts were flying through my head – kidnapped, held as hostage, disappeared. And how would I ever call my husband and tell him I had lost our son, left him alone and vulnerable, not protected him? I entered a small Franciscan chapel and fell on my knees before Mary’s statue, holding the lifeless body of her son.
“Mother,” I prayed. “You know my anguish. You also lost your twelve year old son, and looked for him all over Jerusalem! Please help me find John… I promise to be a better mother and never, ever, leave him on his own again! Forgive my carelessness!” At that moment the church’s bell struck six o’clock, the Angelus, and I remembered the door of the hostel would be open and I could go back for help, for direction on what to do.
I ran back to the hostel. The door was indeed open, and I heard voices. As I walked in the dining room, a few of the hostel’s youngsters were sitting at the table, talking and laughing, munching on matzot. John was among them. I ran in and hugged him tight, weeping.
“What’s the matter, Mom?” he asked, surprised.
“Where have you been? I was looking for you all over Jerusalem!”
“I am sorry, Mother. I slept most of the day… Got up just a few minutes ago… why do you worry so much? I was just here talking to my friends…”
Thank you, Lord, I thought to myself. One more little reminder of how we can be part of your own Story…how believable it all can be!
Early on Sunday morning all Jerusalem’s bells pealed for joy. Hallelujah! Christ is Risen!
High Mass at the empty Tomb was celebrated by the Vatican’s Envoy, with the mighty sound of the organ and the choir singing Alleluias at the top of their voices, sending shivers through our bodies. The only regret was that our time was up, and we should leave the next day.
That same night we boarded the bus to Tel-Aviv. It had been a most inspiring, most wonderful experience! We had just enough money to get back to Shiraz, and we had to spend the night sitting in the airport’s lounge where we had lots of company – youngsters and their families lying around the floor – while we comforted our hungry stomachs with the matzos from the box the hostel’s hosts had provided us with, as we thought of the meal we would have on the airplane – even though it would be only El-Al’s matzos…
And as our plane flew over the city in the morning, I looked out toward Jerusalem with longing, and repeated in my heart the words of the psalmist:
If I ever forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand be withered
If I don’t make Jerusalem my highest joy.
Peace be within your walls, in your streets — peace! Shalom, Yerushalayim…
Farewell to Iran
On the trip back home from Israel, I proudly wore my rather big pilgrim’s cross, which elicited sober stares from the airport personnel in Tehran. We arrived in Shiraz with lots of tales to tell and bags full of souvenirs, photos, and gifts. It took us a while to get back down to earth, I wished so much to be back in Israel… We took our films to be processed into slides – John had been the photographer and he had done a great job. Thus we were terribly disappointed when we were told that the whole roll of film from Jerusalem had burned up on a malfunctioning processor. I couldn’t believe it. To this day I am sure they stole John’s photos for some devious reason.
By Pentecost Miriam decided she wanted to receive the sacrament of Confirmation with her friends. It was a very nice ceremony, and I asked the Holy Spirit to fill her with every grace and protect her from evil. Although she wasn’t as depressed as on that first year, she still disliked the place, the bullying from the Iranian men, the touching and the grabbing we all had to deal with. She ran around with a nice group of both Iranian and American girls and they seemed to have lots of things to do. I suspected a little too much drinking and even smoking pot among all the teenagers, but Waldir shrugged it off.
I myself had an interesting encounter on the sidewalk of the main avenue that led to the School of Arts & Humanities where I had my graduate English Literature courses. I was approaching the gate when a guy came down the street, exposing himself, even though there was a security guard at the gate. Annoyed, I looked at him in the eye and said in Farsi (of which I already had a beginner’s command) loud enough for all to hear:
“Hube nist. Khaly koochik. In English: Not good enough. Too small.” He was totally taken aback, closed his fly and crossed the street. The guard at the gate guffawed with laughter.
I also knocked another one off his bike with my purse when he tried to grab me. I wasn’t about to take the disrespect.
Being a graduate student at Pahlavi University gave me a good insight about the discontent of the Iranian people with their ruler Shah Han Shah Reza Pahlavi. The royals and the very-rich lived in high European royalty style while the lower classes suffered want, the middle class decried the lack of good education and health care, and the mullahs preached against the moral decay and the disrespect to Islamic sharia laws.
Waldir continued to enjoy his Pharmacology Dept. and his students did love him and his courses. One day the Shah came to visit, and he was proud to shake hands with His Royal Highness, who congratulated him on a job well done at the Vet School.
We were all very busy with our different endeavors, and had very little notion of what was going on in the Iranian political situation. Shiraz was a peaceful place, but we watched and read news of unrest and demonstrations in Tehran with growing concern. Then there was a horrible incident in Shiraz. A movie theater caught on fire, killing several young people who couldn’t escape because the doors were locked. Insurgents were blamed
I wrote a poem To a Woman Begging in a Street of Shiraz:
Woman, old woman, shriveled up like a dog’s carcass
drying in the sun over rocky bottom
of empty riverbed.
The street is a river
the hot concrete
where you sit shriveled up, knees drawn,
perpetually giving birth under the blackness
of your veils.
The street is dry like the river
great clouds of dust blowing
in rivulets of hot acid air, tumbleweeds
rolling along relentlessly forever
while you sit and watch with your great eye
the nothingness around you.
who pass by, freer than the splotches
of color on the wall behind you,
I place this silver coin
marked with the sign of our degradation
upon your shriveled hand.
Accept it, and bless me
with your toothless grin
and your gleaming eye.
You know I understand.
Copyright © 1978 Heleni Pedersoli
The Lord is our Savior;
I shall sing to stringed instruments
In the House of the Lord
All the days of my life.
I was born on the day that Jesus died – April 7 – and the life I now live I live in the power of His resurrection. This is how I planned to start the telling of my life tales. I was 14 years old then. I always found a million other things to do in those 70 years of my life, but today I decided it was time, so here it goes.
I always like to say that, since I was conceived in the little town of Caparaó, Minas Gerais, at the foothills of the second highest mountain in Brazil – the Pico da Bandeira where my grandparents had a coffee farm — that my soul came from there, descending from the cloudless sky of that late winter morning, down through the tropical forest, and the water falls, bouncing on top of the blooming coffee trees, to the manor house where my newlywed parents – Aura and Isaias — made love for the first time. My mother was 18 years old, my father 10 years older.
Nine months later, in Belo Horizonte, a baby girl was born to them after a rather laborious delivery at home, assisted by a midwife and my grandmother Isamira, who took the wailing baby in her arms, looked at me in the eye, and stated that this was one ugly child. They named me Heleni, a Greek name for sure, having nothing to do with my heritage, just a name that sounded melodious to my mother.
My heritage was a mixed one, reflecting the races and ethnicities that settled the country discovered by Portuguese adventurer Pedro Alvares Cabral in 1500, when his mother ship Santa Maria landed in the coast of a country that was not the Indies, as he had hoped, but that he thankfully baptized Terra de Santa Cruz – Land of the Holy Cross.
Here’s how the story of my ancestry goes: my maternal great- grandfather Avraham Berçot arrived in Rio de Janeiro in a vessel coming from Geneva in the late 1700s. In my dreams he was a Huguenot, fleeing the persecutions following the St. Bartholomew Day massacre of the heretical followers of Jean Calvin. He married Magdalena and, enticed by the government’s effort to encourage coffee growing in the region, settled in the place that reminded him of the Alps of his native Switzerland. His granddaughter Analie Berçot married Agenor Pinheiro and they settled in the outskirts of what is today the National Park of Alto Caparaó. Isaias and Alfredo were their surviving children.
Sitting at the feet of tio Alfredo, many years later, I learned that the Pinheiros (Pine trees) were descendants of Jewish Portuguese conversos who were given the names of trees, when baptized Christian, in order to escape the Inquisition. But this is another story.
Arthur’s story — the departure
The breeze that gently rocked the boats anchored on the bay cut through her skin, freezing her very soul. Her hands, trembling inside the pockets of her coat, would briefly grasp the cold railing, as if to steady her body. The great ship’s hull loomed like an enormous sea-monster in the early morning’s fog. It had come all the way from England, crossing the channel to anchor at Porto to collect more passengers. Arthur was one of them. Her reddened eyes searched frantically for the figure of the boy, high up on the ship’s railing. His father had gone up with him to get him settled. She had been told to wait down below, no use cluttering up the gangway with visitors. She had kissed the boy with a quiet despair, hugging him close, a silent prayer for his safety choked at her throat. Twelve years old he was, a mere child! She brushed the heavy hair away from his eyes, straightened the cap on his head, wrapped the muffler closer around his neck. Her little boy! And now he was going to brave this hostile ocean, like his ancestors, in search of a new world.
She could see him now; yes, it was him, in his new grey overcoat, and red scarf. She saw him wave goodbye to his father, and then bend over the railing, his eyes searching the crowd. She waved frantically. He smiled in recognition, waved back. Her hand stopped in midair, caught a kiss on her lips and blew it toward the boy.
Twelve years! It seemed not so long ago that she had held him in her arms, for the first time — her own little boy, a dream-come-true, an answer to prayer. For five years had she been married, and no child. Not until she had gone to Lisbon and crawled on her knees the whole length of the cathedral and made many novenas to Saint Anthony, did she become pregnant. Arthur was her promised one, God’s gift, solace for her loneliness. Marriage had been not more, not less than she had expected. The General was good to her, like her father had told her he would. She had a beautiful house, servants to care for it, and the husband never did bother her with his presence too often. His love was the life at court, and politics, and the army.
She had raised Arthur herself, pouring into his pliable soul all that had been passed down to her from her own mother. She told him of knights and troubadours, of one of his ancestors who had followed King Alfonso in the war of independence from Castille, whose ancient sword hung from the walls of her father’s manor house in Braga. Together they had run through the fields, the tall grass sprinkled with red poppies. Portugal was all red and green in the Spring, like the flag waving gaily in the gentle breeze, but was all grey and cold now, as she hung suspended from the eyes of the small figure at the railing, his violin case clutched tightly under his arm.
The General had not been pleased with the way his son was being raised. "You’re making a sissy out of him," he had told her sternly when during one of his home stays she had Arthur play a few pieces for him on the violin. She had been so proud of Arthur! By the time he was eight he could not only play but also compose his own songs, and they would play them together, her fingers running nimbly on the piano keys to catch up with him, the notes chasing his arc on the strings.
And he wrote verses on the back of his homework papers, and he would bring them to her, and she would praise him, hugging him tightly when the felicity of a well-turned verse would strike up a chord on her own soul.
When he turned ten, the General was adamant. That was his only son, who would carry on his name, and he would no longer neglect his child’s need for proper education. Arthur was sent away, to boarding school. She bore her loneliness bravely, roaming the empty rooms of the mansion, writing him long letters in the never-ending afternoons when she would miss his laughter, his music, and his presence. She waited for Christmas, while the snow piled up deep outside, and the fire crackled brightly in the hearth, keeping her company, and then she would hurry down to the train station, and every time there would be the wonder of his growing up, the stories he couldn’t wait to tell her while they roasted chestnuts over the fire in the long evenings made short by his presence. Christmas eve he would take his place in the choir of the old parish church, like Saint Anthony himself; and pride would swell within her heart bringing tears to her eyes, when the crystalline sounds from his violin wafted up like incense to God and his angels on the ceiling.
The sound of the horn startled her. It was the first signal, she knew. People threw paper serpentines from the top railings, and confetti drifted like snow over the heads of the crowd on the quay. There were shouts, laughter, tears, last kisses and hugs, and she felt detached from the crowd, floating above the noise.
The General had come home unannounced one night, the hooves of the horses clattering on the stones of the driveway. She had come down the stairs to greet him, wondering what might be wrong. Manuel, the old butler, opened the front door, and helped him with his bags. He brushed past her unseeingly, his face as inscrutable as ever. She dared not ask what was afoot. He shouted for Manuel to wait on him, and slammed the door of the library. The next day, men in overcoats and grim, worried faces, walked in and out all day, and even at night the traffic continued at their door. Her sister Olivia came to visit in the afternoon, and told her the news. There had been an insurrection, the king was in Leiria, under house arrest, there were rumors that the prince had been smuggled out of the country, for safety. The monarchy tottered in its shaky legs. The General, under suspicion for his loyalty to the King, had to get out of Lisbon.
She was summoned to the library the next morning. She walked in quietly, and sat down on the chair by the dark mahogany desk. He lifted his eyes off the newspapers he had been reading and greeted her grimly.
"I suppose you have been told about the coup-d’état. Our monarch is in great danger,” he said.
"I’ve arranged for Arthur to go out of the country. I wish I could have arranged for you to go too, but at this critical moment, one place in the ship that leaves tomorrow was the best I could do. The ship is headed for Brazil.”
She tried bravely to hide the tremor of her hands. She thought of the statue of the Virgin at the church — Our Lady of All Sorrows she was called — and she remembered the great eyes, brimming with tears, turned up to heaven in agony.
"Arthur will stay with my brother in Rio, at least until the situation is settled, one way or the other. I sent for him, already. He will arrive on the last train tonight. Please make the necessary preparations for his departure.”
She said nothing, glued to the chair like a stone. His face softened:
"He will be all right," he said, almost tenderly.
"What are we going to do?" she asked, bewildered.
"I will leave for Lisbon again tomorrow, after Arthur’s departure. The King needs me. I have asked Olivia to come and stay here with you for a while. She has agreed.”
The horn blew again, this time longer, fiercely. A bright green paper serpentine came flying through the air, toward her. Arthur had thrown it. She caught one end of the fragile strip, Arthur held on to the other. The great ship heaved, people waved white handkerchiefs, shouted blessings, bon-voyage, Godspeed. The streamer stretched, snapped. She held on tightly to the broken end.
My grandfather Arthur arrived in Rio and went to live with his uncle Manuel and tia Eulalia. Childless, they took the boy under their care and lavished him with love, nurturing his artistic abilities and sending him to school to be an accountant, at which he excelled. His spare time was spent hanging out at the theaters, at first as part of the applause crowds, later being given small parts and stand-ins. His love was the circus and vaudeville, and it was as an actor in a vaudeville troupe that he met my grandmother, during a tour in Belo Horizonte.
She was a pretty young lady with creamy skin and soft brown eyes. That day she was part of a gaggle of young women, Madama Filomena’s seamstresses and apprentices, who had been taken by the solicitous Madama to see this particular circus performance.
Madama Filomena was an Italian dressmaker who had set up her shop in Belo Horizonte. Although she employed quite a few young women as seamstresses and apprentices, her establishment was far from being a sweat shop. She took a personal interest in the youngsters’ lives and went into great pains to teach them the trade so that they could go off and fend for themselves. Yet, she was a hard taskmaster who required absolute perfection from her employees. Every stitch had to be small and even, and — with the exception of embroidery — all but invisible. She demanded speed and accuracy, but her demands were always tempered with love and a wry sense of humor. Miluca – Isamira’s nickname — whom she called “Milusinha,” was her favorite, and my grandmother — a perfectionist herself — became quite good at the trade.
Madama would always — after they had finished a particularly taxing job, like several outfits for a wedding — take them to the theater, or to a concert, or to a picnic. That evening the circus was in town, and off they went to see the show.
Sitting on the first row, close to the arena, Miluca was handed a rose by the handsome harlequin, as the actors paraded around the roped off arena. The girls giggled and hooted with delight. The handsome harlequin seemed to work his way up to the same spot where Miluca was sitting, and during the recess, as they walked out of the tent to buy popcorn, he was there, handing her a big bag of peanuts.
"Would you like to come feed the elephants?" he asked.
She found his Portuguese accent endearing.
"Sure," she said, and went off with him, ignoring Madama’s disapproving chuckles.
They fed the elephants and played with Chita, the ballerina chimpanzee.
"We will be in town the whole week," he told her. "Would you come back again? I’ll give you a free pass for every night there’s a show!"
She had already fallen in love with his green eyes and dark curls. She promised to return. And return she did; the days there was no show they would go off, and sit outside under the stars and talk into the night. At the end of the two weeks he asked Miluca to marry him.
"How can I possibly marry you?" she asked. "You’ll be returning to Rio, and anyway, my mother will kill me if I tell her I want to marry a circus actor."
"You can run away and join the circus," he said, holding her soft hands in his. "You’ll make a wonderful ‘colombina’! I do love you, and life won’t be the same if you don’t come with me.”
"Arthur, it was wonderful meeting you. You are a sweet man, but I do not see any future in this relationship. But you can prove your love by returning to Belo Horizonte and settling here. Then I’ll consider your proposal.”
The circus left town and Miluca was sure that was the last she would see of the handsome harlequin, but a month later he was back.
"My uncle works for a road construction company in Rio. They have recently opened an office in Belo Horizonte and my uncle has found me a job as an accountant, with them. Will you marry me now?” he asked, holding her in his arms, under the flowering hibiscus at Madama’s front porch.
My great-grandmother Ubaldina Luiza was a strong woman whose ancestors had been the first settlers in Belo Horizonte. She was raising her two daughters by herself, after her husband had died from complications of alcoholism. She was a stern disciplinarian, who kept the two girls on a tight leash, thus she was less than amused when Miluca told her she wanted to marry this Portuguese youngster who had not a nickel on his pocket, who did not own the smallest piece of land, and who was — God forbid — a circus clown. When Miluca insisted, she gave her a beating to remember. The next day, when she sent word to Madama that she could not go to work because she was sick, her employer came to visit, solicitously. When Miluca greeted her at the door, all bruised and battered, Madama blew her top.
"Milusinha!" she exclaimed. "Your Mama is a beast. She is a cowardly abuser. You come live with me, Milusinha, I will take care of you, and get you ready for your wedding.”
In the end, the little seamstress married the handsome harlequin, and they settled in a tiny house owned by Madama. Arthur proved to be a hard worker who became his employer’s right hand man. In his spare time Arthur played the violin with the city’s orchestra, and continued his acting career. Miluca joined him, whenever she could, between pregnancies. But the fairy tale love story had its dark side. One after the other, their first three children Orlando, Willer, and William died of cholera, gastro-enteritis, and other childhood killer diseases. The fourth one was a girl whom they named Iracema. She lived to her second birthday, a beautiful, intelligent child, until she too was stricken by diphteria. Arthur and Miluca were grief-stricken. In her sorrow, Miluca started frequenting seances, in a desperate attempt to be in contact with her lost daughter. One day, one of her friends invited her to a revival service at the then missionary Methodist church in town. The preacher spoke about God’s infinite love, the hope of heaven, and the futility of this life. "This is just a short journey. A little longer for some of us, a little shorter for others. But in the end we will all meet again, hopefully in heaven, if we give our lives to Jesus, and live in His love. God knows the pain and the sorrow in your hearts, and He wants to heal you and fill the vacuum in your hearts with His eternal love.”
Miluca answered the altar call and got saved. From that day forward she became a faithful “crente”, filled with evangelical zeal. The first soul she won for Jesus was her husband. Arthur would go to church with her, but to his death he never became a professed member of the Protestant church. Yet, one of the cherished scenes of my childhood was seeing vovô Arthur, no matter how late he would come home at night, standing by his bureau, reading his Bible and saying his prayers.
The early years
My earliest memories are of a happy little family. A loving mother, and a daddy who would sing to rock me to sleep: “Oh,oh,oh… lá no pé do jatobá… a rede veia fico sozinha… pra lá pra cá, pra lá pra cá….” He was a fun daddy who would take me with him to the park to play, or to the movies. I remember one night at the movies, when the news trailer they always showed before the actual film (these were the 1940s) was about the world war front, and I saw this gigantic tank, guns blasting, close up, coming toward us. I screamed in fright, and had to be removed from the audience. I still have problems separating fiction from reality…
Then the troubles started. My daddy had a good job, as an accountant for a local firm. We lived in a nice house with a garden, where I liked to play, watering the flowers with my little watering can. And we had a little puppy dog – Toto. But my parents were always on the go, just about every night and weekends too. My daddy had a band of friends who’d come from his home town and stay at our house. And most of these times I was dropped off at my grandma’s house – and I loved it! I simply adored my grandpa Arthur and their maid Lica. Vovó Miluca was a little too severe for me, but I loved her too. And I loved their house, a Victorian, whose walls were painted wall paper style with frescoes of curlicues, roses, and a border of vines with luscious grapes. They had a piano, my grandpa played the violin, and we’d have sing-alongs into the night, with duets between my aunt Neusa on the piano and Arthur on the violin. I liked to sing, and dreamed of being an opera star.
My mom and dad, well, they’d go off to have their good times with their friends. Pampulha was the place to go have a good time then. There was the Casino, and the Casa do Baile, the Igrejinha, all the art deco creations of Niemeyer’s architecture and Portinari’s paintings and tile work. My mother was a good looking rather petite woman, and she liked to be pampered, and dressed up to go dancing, and eating and drinking, and then – gambling at the Casino with my father and his friends. He was a lucky gambler, and she was, literally, having a ball. By then my brother Helcias had been born, but she’d leave him with the maids at home. I’d stay with my grandparents and my aunt Neusa.
The addiction was insidious. The winning streak dried up. They lost all they had, including my father’s good job. Isaias left for Rio in search of work. My mother, on her last year of nursing school, stayed behind, with my little brother Helcias, and they moved to a small one bedroom house. I stayed with my grandparents.
The separation was hard on me. My nice, orderly world suddenly disappeared. I hardly ever saw my mother. My daddy, I was told, left us.
I had my first asthma attack when I was 2, and from then on I fought for every breath, and was constantly bombarded by hot mustard poultices, painful shots, hot herbal baths, and bitter homeopathy medicines, until I screamed when I’d see the doctor walking through the door. Nothing helped. One night the doctor threw up his hands and said he was afraid I wouldn’t last through the night. He picked up his bag and walked out. I lay in bed, blue on the face and nails, my stomach swollen with the pressure on my lungs. My grandma sat on the rocking chair by my side. Grandpa read his Bible in the other room. Lica, their maid and my nanny, cried softly, sitting by my side.
Maria Sudaria Correa was her name — Mary of the Holy Shroud. She was born in the small town of Bicas, the second daughter of a farm worker. Her mother died giving birth to her brother Antonio who, possibly because of the extended labor of the mother, was mentally handicapped. The father also died, shortly after, and the oldest sister who was in charge of raising her brother and sisters, committed suicide by jumping into the Rio das Velhas. Lica was very close to her, and was devastated by her death.
The kids went their separate ways then. Lica, 14, went to live with her uncle who was her godfather, and his wife, a mean spirited woman who treated her as her personal slave. In their home she was sexually molested and then raped by her cousin, got pregnant, tried to hide it as long as she could, but on her 7th month her wicked “madrasta” found out and threw her out of the house.
Antonina, her sister, who had been married and lived in Belo Horizonte, took her in their small one bedroom home, where she slept in a cot in the kitchen by the wood stove. She got increasingly ill, until one day she passed out and was carried off by ambulance to the Santa Casa de Misericordia. She was anemic and undernourished, and had other maladies, and thus joined the numbers of indigents being cared for by the sisters and the good doctors with their meager provision of health care. Her child was stillborn and she almost died giving birth, but slowly she recovered enough to return to her sister’s house. By then Antonio, the brother, was also there, and he became her best friend and companion, helping nurse her back to health. The only future for such kids, if they wouldn’t find a husband early enough, was to find a good home where they would be employed as maids and nannies, for housing and food only. Lica was fortunate enough to find such a place in the home of Arthur and Isamira Marques.
My mother Aura was 4 years old and her sister Neusa was 2. They were the only surviving children. Arthur and Isamira had lost 3 boys in infancy and one 3 year old girl to childhood diseases – dysentery and diphtheria. They were, understandably, over protective of the two surviving girls.
Lica turned out to be the model housekeeper. A wonderful cook, conscientious and trustworthy, she became my grandmother’s alter ego, indispensable and reliable. A very devout Catholic, she nevertheless accompanied my grandmother to her evangelical church, and ended up joining the Methodist Church my grandparents attended. She loved Jesus with an ardent passion, and trusted God’s providence for every step she took in her life. She was the little sparrow, and the humble lily of the field, in God’s hands. Never married, but became a beloved member of our little family. It was at her knees that I learned about all the above stories of her life, and marveled at her absolute trust in God’s love for her, and for all of us.
Lica was almost 100 years old when she finally went home to Jesus, still caring for all around her, still blessing all of us with her spirit, her wisdom, the sharpness of her mind, the kindness of her heart, her charm, and her beautiful soul.
That night, when I – the youngest of her charges – lay agonizing in my death bed, Lica got up, ran to her room, fell down on her knees, and begged her Savior and Lord:
“Please, Lord, do not allow this child to die. You have given her to us and she is the light of our lives here. We’re now a bunch of old people, and she’s our joy. Please, Jesus, I know you can heal her as you healed that official’s daughter in the Bible. Cause her to breathe, Lord, lay your hands on her and set her free from death. And I promise you this day that I will make sure that Heleni grows up to be a blessing, for the honor and glory of your holy name, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen”
She stayed on her knees, for a long time, weeping softly, until she felt the Lord say to her: “Go in peace. The child will live.”
She came into the room, cautiously. Grandmother was asleep in her rocking chair. I was breathing softly, my rosy lips smiling at her. She picked me up and held me, sobbing.
“Why are you crying?” I asked.
“Because Jesus is alive, and so are you…”
Lica took pride in telling me this story, often, stressing the part of her promise that she’d help me grow to be a blessing.
I turned 3 that April, and, as I was convalescing, that Holy Week, one night I heard the sounds of the brass band and the drums that accompanied the procession of the Encounter (of course, I knew nothing about this then) which was part of Holy Week celebrations in our parish. I heard the music, and I wanted to see what that was all about. Grandmother said I couldn’t. It was too cold out and I wasn’t well enough yet. I cried louder. I could be very convincing. Lica wrapped me on a blanket and carried me to the front porch. The life size statue of a bloodied, thorn-crowned Jesus, fallen under the weight of this heavy cross was right in front of our porch. I stared in awe, and then started sobbing:
“What are they doing to Jesus?” I cried.
“Jesus did this for you and for me,” Nanny said.
“Because of our sins. He died so that we might live.” She brought me back inside, still bawling.
Grandma wasn’t pleased. “That’s just a statue,” she said. “Jesus is alive in heaven.”
“He died for my sins…” I sobbed. I cried myself to sleep, but that was the day that I fell in love with Jesus – forever.
My Father was born at the foothills of the Pico da Bandeira, the Serra do Caparaó, one of the most beautiful places in Minas Gerais, and even in the whole country. From its summit, which is accessible by climbing the trail through the tropical forest, one can see the borders of three states – Rio de Janeiro, Espirito Santo and Minas Gerais. It’s a treat to spend the night at the windy top of the mountain to watch the sunset and then the sunrise, hear the many birds, especially canaries, and be visited by the native wildlife. It’s a blessed place, for many people, a place to get closer to God, a peaceful place to enjoy God’s creation and meditate on God’s bountiful gifts.
Isaias was the youngest of the two sons of Agenor Pinheiro and his wife Analie. Alfredo was the oldest, as their two daughters died young. Handsome and bright, Isaias was one of the few to leave the coffee plantation to go study in the big city. His father, Agenor, was a wealthy landowner who, at the insistence of Analie, paid the tuition for Isaias to attend the famed Colegio Batista in Belo Horizonte. Agenor had dreams of his son becoming a pastor, but Isaias liked business school and thus became an accountant. He met my mother at the Praça Raul Soares’ Baptist Church in town, and she had her protective parents’ blessings for finding herself an evangelical husband. They were married at the Baptist Church and set out on their honeymoon for Caparaó for Aura to meet her inlaws.
I was about 4 years old when my grandfather came to town to rescue my daddy Isaias from his gambling sins. He walked into my grandmother’s living room, tall and serious, in boots and cowboy hat, and tickled me with his big moustache when he kissed me. He had come a long way, by choo-choo train and horseback riding, and he wasn’t pleased to be taken away from things that mattered, such as growing coffee.
We had a family reunion where my grandfather addressed my father in his gruff voice and said that he greatly regretted the way my father had behaved as a husband and father, and thus eschewed his responsibilities to his wife and children, as well as to his Pinheiro heritage of honest and hard-working men. My father listened, his eyes downcast, while my mother wept quietly, and my grandmother glared at them and nodded approvingly of everything Agenor said. After a heavy pause, when nobody dared to say a word, Grandfather Agenor ordered:
“Stand up and look at me, Isaias! I will pay all your miserable debts to save you from going to prison. But you are coming back home with me, and you will work for me at the farm until you have paid every cent you will owe me.”
My father stole a glance at my mother, but she had her nose on her hankie, still sobbing. Then he said meekly:
“Thank you, Dad. I promise I will go with you and work hard to redeem myself in God’s eyes and your graces, for the good of my family.”
I ran to my daddy and hugged his knees, anxiously:
“You aren’t going far away, are you? I don’t want you to go… Take me with you!”
He picked me up, kissed me, and I held on to his neck, to hide from my angry grandfather.
I don’t remember the day he left. But I do remember I missed him quietly, sitting in the big stuffed arm chair in the living room, for hours, pretending I was in his lap, as I snuggled my face on the soft cushions, and sang “our song” to myself – oh,oh,oh, lá no pé do jatobá… a rede veia ficou sozinha… pra lá pra cá…
My mother refused to go live in the farm. She was on her last year of nursing school, and not ready to go live the life of a farmer’s wife. She moved to a small two room house on the backyard of a nice Jewish man and his wife, with my brother and his young nanny. I stayed at my grandparents. Slowly my maternal grandfather Arthur won my graces, and I found a wonderful dad substitute in him.
I was still subjected to asthma crises, but they were never really as intense and critical as before. New research was being done, and I was one of the first to be given an allergy test. The results weren’t encouraging. I was allergic, most intensely to gluten, then to pollen – of trees, grasses, and just about every pollinating plant. I was allergic to dust, mold, and animal dander. Since at that time there were no processes to exclude gluten from wheat flour, I was forbidden to eat bread (my favorite food), cookies, or anything containing flour. My mattress and pillows were covered in plastic, and I could no longer take the long walks with Lica, through the fields covered with black-eyed susans, that I loved to pluck up to build garlands, crowns, and bracelets. And the trips to the country, on the bouncy, dusty jardineiras, enjoying the sweet smell of lemon grass and capim meloso, were now poison to me. Then we had the weekly trips to the Medical School, where I was given the experimental allergy vaccines that would eventually cure my asthma attacks.
My Dad would come to town once in a while and stay with my mother and my brother Helcias. Then he would come visit and take me out for walks. I’d see less of my mother. She was now employed as a nurse in a big hospital, and worked many nights, so had to sleep during the day. Thus it happened that, one day, my Baptist father took me, on one of our walks, to visit the Catholic parish church of Saint Sebastian in our Barro Preto. I was enraptured. Our Methodist church services were held on a warehouse downtown, empty and bare, except for the chairs and wooden pulpit. This was a big temple, with high windows with colored panes, and a ceiling painted with clouds and angels. I had never seen anything like that!
As we walked around, I saw a side altar with the statue of a man dressed in a white robe and a red mantle, one of his hands extended to us, the other pointed at a bleeding heart crowned with thorns. He had holes in his hands.
“Who’s that, Daddy?” I asked.
“That’s Jesus, honey…” he answered.
I stared at Him, transfixed. So this was the man in the stories of my Sunday school, the one who let the little kids sit on his lap, the one who raised a sick girl who was dead already. I flashed back to that night in my porch, Jesus carrying his cross, dying for my sins. I looked into his eyes, smiling at me, his wounded hand reaching for me, inviting me to look at his heart.
“I love you, Jesus!” I murmured.
Daddy pulled me away, and as I walked by another altar, I saw a beautiful lady, looking up to heaven, crowned with stars, a cloud under her feet.
“And who’s that?” I asked.
“That’s Mary, the mother of Jesus,” he said.
“The one at the stable in Bethlehem?” I asked again.
“That’s the one,” he stated, also looking at her.
“Oh… She’s so beautiful!”
Then my eyes wandered to the main altar, in the front of the church. A man was tied to a tree, also looking up to heaven, his face contorted in pain. His naked upper body was all bloody, trespassed by arrows.
Before I could ask, my Daddy said:
“And that is Saint Sebastian. They killed him with arrows because he was a Christian. I think he was a Roman soldier… But now let’s go to the tower to see the bells.”
And this was the day I became a Catholic.
First First Communion
I was almost seven years old when I went to school for the first time. Grupo Escolar Caetano Azeredo was half a block from my home and, after Lica accompanied me a couple of times, I was able to walk alone every day. I enjoyed school very much. We gathered at the patio every morning, and before going to our homeroom, we prayed aloud together – Our Father (which I knew already), Hail Mary (which I learned but was told not to pray, but did anyway), and Glory be to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Early in the school year our teacher asked who wanted to be prepared for first communion. I raised my hand. The ones of us who did would go to a special religion class twice a week where we learned the Creed and all the things we were supposed to believe that were in it. I had no problems with that, it was also what I learned on Sunday School at the Methodist Church. When we got to “I believe in the Holy Catholic Church” I remembered the church I went to with my Dad and thought to myself “yes, I do believe it’s a beautiful holy church…” I had a little difficulty with the Pope (Pius XII at the time) but saw a nice picture book with the photo of this handsome man in beautiful robes with a funny crown on his head, and realized it’d be nice to have him come to our ugly church at the warehouse and make it a little more “holy.”
When we learned about the Eucharist I was enraptured. That Jesus would be present body, soul, and spirit in that consecrated bread and wine, was awesome to me! And that He would then come to live in our hearts when we ate that bread and drank that wine was absolutely heavenly. I so wanted to have Jesus come and live in my heart! I could hardly wait. To receive Jesus in the Eucharist became the highest desire of my young heart.
The Ten Commandments were a breeze. I knew them by heart from Sunday School, and from my grandma. Contrary to my classmates who struggled to learn by heart, I was the class’ star. I had a little trouble with the sins, and the need to confess them to a priest. I was sorry I had lied so many times to everyone at home, and that I had been mean to my little brother and not shared my books (he’d tear them up), and that I had stolen cookies from the cookie jar (the ones I was forbidden to eat), but I didn’t see how I could confess them to a priest. I was relieved when the teacher told us we didn’t need to go to confession this time, but we’d have to from then on, after our first communion.
We walked to St. Sebastian’s Church one afternoon, and as we knelt at the pews and prayed, I told Jesus with the bleeding heart how much I loved him, and wanted him to come live in my heart. I looked at our Mother Mary crowned with stars, and asked her to be my special mommy, since I really didn’t have one with me every day, like the other kids had. I also met a very special young lady – St. Agnes – holding a little lamb in her arms. I wondered who she was, but told her I wanted to be her friend.
Then we met Padre Americo Campos Taitson. He came to meet us, in his black priestly robe, which I learned later was called a cassock. He told us again how important it was to make our first communion and how happy we would make Jesus – who died for us and rose again from the dead, and was in heaven looking down at us, smiling at his little children. Jesus was anxious to come live in our hearts.
He gave us little cards (called “santinhos”) and when he got to me he asked:
“I haven’t seen you around here. What’s your daddy’s name?”
“Isaias…” I answered.
“Oh… a prophet’s name!” He patted my head. “And what santinho would you like to have?”
I pointed to Jesus with the thorn crowned heart.
“Ah… the Sacred Heart of Jesus… very well, let me see if I have one.”
He flipped through his pile of cards and pulled one out.
“Here you go.” I kissed the card he handed to me. He smiled.
“What’s your name?”
“Heleni.” I answered.
“God bless you, Heleni.”
The teacher rounded us up to go back to school. That was the first encounter of a spiritual relationship that lasted for many years.
First communion Mass was supposed to be a grand occasion. Belo Horizonte was hosting the National Eucharistic Congress and the solemn Mass at which all the school children would receive their first communion was to be held at the Praça da Liberdade, with our Archbishop Dom Cabral celebrating.
I had to have a plan. First of all, it was a Saturday, not a school day. We were supposed to meet at the school and be bussed to the Praça. I needed a white dress and a white veil.
One day Lica had shown me the veil she’d wear to church when she was a Catholic. I had put it on my head and looked in the mirror, fascinated by its lacy look. I knew where she kept it, and I went in her room and stole it. Then I told my grandma that we had an event at school, and I sang in the choir, and the teacher wanted us to wear a white dress. No problem there. I had a very pretty white dress. She helped me to get dressed; I looked at myself in the mirror, and was pleased. I knew Jesus would be pleased too. But… Grandma said it was cool out and I had to wear a jacket. The only jacket I had was red.
“No! I cannot wear anything red!” I cried.
“Why not?” She insisted. “You have asthma. You’ll get sick. You have to wear a jacket.”
“No jacket, please, vovó!” I was in tears.
She turned to Lica.
“Please take her to school and explain to the teacher that Heleni has to wear a jacket in this cold weather.”
I stopped crying and followed Lica meekly out.
“You don’t need to go…” I begged. “I’ll wear the jacket.”
“It’s OK, I’ll check with your teacher, just to be sure. We don’t want you to get sick again!”
We got to school to find the kids all lined up to board the bus. All the girls decked in their finest white dresses, with veils and flower garlands in their heads, the boys in their white suits.
We found my teacher, and Lica explained about the jacket.
“It’s OK,” said the teacher. “We only wanted them all in white because they’re making their first communion.”
“What?” asked Lica. “First communion? This child can’t make a first communion. She’s Protestant. Her whole family is Methodist.”
“But Heleni finished the whole religious instruction and preparation for first communion! She was the star of the class!”
“I want to go!!” I sobbed hysterically. “Please let me go! I want Jesus to be in my heart!”
Lica picked me up and told the teacher:
“Sorry! Next time check their background first!”
And she carried me back home, kicking and screaming.
After Grandma explained to me that the Catholic church was of the devil, and all Catholics were going to hell because they worshiped idols made of stone and mud, and that Jesus was already in my heart, I went to bed, still in tears. I was sure she was lying, but in my heart I knew that I didn’t get to make my first communion because I had sinned. I lied about having to wear a white dress, and I stole Lica’s veil. I had been a bad girl.
I kissed my holy card and whispered to Jesus:
“I am sorry I sinned. I love you. Please be in my heart, Jesus.” And I fell asleep holding on to Him.
They allowed me to sleep through Sunday morning, but when he returned from church, Grandpa Arthur had mercy on me. He came into my room and sat on my bed.
“How do you feel?” he asked, in his endearing Portuguese accent, kissing my forehead.
“I’m OK…” I answered, uncertainly.
“I heard you had a difficult day yesterday?”
“Yes…” I had tears in my voice.
“I know you are very disappointed. Sometimes we have to give up something we want very badly so that God can give us something even better. There’s a place in Portugal, near where I was born, where something very special happened. The Virgin Mary, the Mother of Jesus, appeared to three little shepherds and told them to pray very hard for the world because something very bad was going to happen.”
“Really?” I sat up in bed, my eyes shining.
“I’ll tell you the whole story later,” he said, hugging me. “Right now we need to go have dinner, but before we go, I want to read something to you.”
He pulled up the Bible he had taken with him to church and read Psalm 23 to me. He stressed the last verse:
Only goodness and kindness will follow me all the days of my life
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come.
Bonding to my Grandfather Arthur was complete. He was a wonderful Renaissance man – musician, poet, playwright, actor – were among his gifts and abilities. He was also a very kind, generous man, beloved of all who knew him. His patience with his wife was unending. From retrospect now, we know that Isamira was bipolar, and had seriously depressed moods. Her strong faith in God was the only safeguard she had from harming herself and others.
As for me, I tried to stay away from my grandmother as much as possible, following vovô Arthur everywhere he was willing to take me. And that meant to plays, concerts, the opera, and festivals at the Centro da Colonia Portuguesa. Whenever there would be a small role for a child in a play, I’d get it. I loved to accompany him to the Radio Mineira, for the broadcast of the novellas he starred in. I’d do well, and not be shy for him, except one time that I was the voice of a young girl in the show, and I had to scream bloody murder when my mother was attacked, and I would not scream. I thought it was too impolite, as Grandma had taught me.
In order to be able to become his accompanist at the piano, I dutifully practiced every day, in between lessons from my Aunt Neusa, who was on her last year at the Conservatory. And almost every night Grandpa and I would play together – he at the violin, me at the piano.
One of my favorite outings was on Saturday afternoons, when he’d take me along to his best friend’s restaurant downtown. Senhor Machado – who was Portuguese and made the best bacalhau `a Gomes de Sá (baked codfish) in town — would serve me a golden condensed milk pudding, soaked in burnt sugar syrup, with a plump prune on top, on a shiny silver dessert bowl.
I eagerly waited for opera season, when Grandpa would take me along whenever Grandma could or would not go (she only liked the “light” and funny ones, such as the Barber of Seville). I loved Madame Butterfly, Don Juan, La Boheme, and all the dramatic ones, except that I slept through the last few scenes of my first Tosca, from sheer emotional exhaustion.
At the Colonia Portuguesa, I was Grandpa’s Portuguesinha, who would dance the Vira dressed up in my authentic Minho peasant costume sent from the relatives in Portugal, and thus steal the show.
Grandpa was also my tutor every evening, helping me with Math, but also instilling on me a great love for literature, especially poetry, the classics, and all the major writers. I’d have to memorize one poem every month (and that included his own) and thus my poetry performances became a common addition to church and school events. Although I was very bad in Math, I was the best writer of stories and essays. Language and literature were my specialty, and the feedback I got from good grades and the praise of teachers and fellow students increased my self-esteem.
It was during one of Grandpa’s tutoring sessions that I had my first migraine. I was 9 years old, and the violent attack of visual disturbance, facial and limb numbness, and severe headache, scared everyone. My asthma attacks were under control — I was one of the first patients treated at the School of Medicine with the experimental serum vaccines, after allergy testing that showed allergies to everything, but especially pollen and dust. But the migraines bothered me for several years.
I can say those were the good days of my childhood. Though I never heard from my Dad – and I would write him long romantic letters and sign them “your abandoned daughter”— I begged him to come and see me, and take me to Caparaó to meet his mother and my cousins, yet he remained absent. In one of his infrequent letters he said that I was in the best place I could be. To study hard, be obedient to my grandparents, and be all that I could be. I never wrote to him again. I made a pin cushion of the only photo I had of him.
I was about 10 years old when I became – in Grandma’s eyes – mature enough to be entrusted with the task of going to the neighborhood bakery to buy our daily bread. The bakery was 3 blocks from home, but I had to cross an avenue. There were few cars, but I had to be careful to watch for the streetcars. I had gone to the bakery numerous times with Lica, so I knew what to do, and what to look for. I loved to have that obligation, especially because I got to keep the change.
One day I decided to change my route. I walked to the next street down from our house and went by St. Sebastian’s Church. I resisted the first impulse to go through the side door and revisit my favorite church. But the next day I could not resist. I went in, and the 6:00 p.m. Mass was being said. I sneaked in quietly and sat at the end of a pew. I watched as the long line of faithful going up for communion snaked by me, everyone devoutly singing, the women’s heads covered by lacy scarves. I looked up at my beloved Jesus on that cruel cross, and all that yearning to receive Him in the Blessed Sacrament came back flooding into my soul.
“Why?” I said to him. “Why can’t I be one with you, Lord? Why can’t I eat of this bread and drink of this wine?” I had tears in my eyes. But I had to leave, or they would notice that I had been gone too long.
From that day forward I would always stop at the church for a few minutes. I would devoutly pray before the Sacred Heart of Jesus, speak to my Mother Mary of the desires of my heart, greet my good friend Agnes, and then be on my way to the bakery.
My best friends – our next door neighbors Vanda and Valdete – went to Catholic schools, and knew everything about the Church. One day Vanda told me that I couldn’t receive communion because I wasn’t baptized.
“Yes, I was!” I complained. “I had a big birthday party when I turned 8, our pastor came to our house, I had a beautiful new red dress, and there was this bowl of water. The Pastor dipped his fingers in it, sprinkled my head and said he was baptizing me in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
“That wasn’t a real baptism. You had to be baptized as a baby, in a church, and you had to have godparents. My little sister had to be anointed with oil, there were candles, and a party afterwards.”
I was a good student at Sunday School. I read my Bible in its entirety, and loved to pray the Psalms. I knew all the answers to the Catechism, and prayed with Grandma and Lica every night for everyone in our family, and for all our friends’ needs. But one thing was missing. I hadn’t been properly baptized, and could not receive communion. I had to be a Catholic first.
I started questioning what I read in the New Testament. Jesus’ words in John 6:7-55 about the “Bread of life” about his Body being real food, and his Blood being real drink: “If you don’t eat my body and drink my blood you will not have life in you.” Jesus repeated these words several times, making sure they understood, even if this caused many to think it was a hard thing to swallow, even departing from him. To me, it was clear as day, and I continued to hunger and thirst for this close union with my Beloved.
Meanwhile, I finished the 4th grade, passed the admission test to Middle School (Ginasio) and was sent forth to Colegio Anchieta where I was given a scholarship.
I loved my new school. It had a good library, I could read all the books I wanted, there was music and dance lessons, and – good looking boys! I found a little encyclopedia called Tesouro da Juventude and read all the volumes, especially the one dealing with the History of Christianity. Luther had been just a name I occasionally heard in Sunday School. I decided to find out more about him, the founder of my Protestant church. I was surprised that he had been a Catholic Priest. What I read (and I have no idea who had written that one biography, but it must have been sanctioned by my church, because I found it among Grandpa’s books) did not allay my doubts that I was in the right church, founded by Jesus Christ.
One day I paid a visit to Padre Americo. He had seen me frequently at his church, praying, and knew about the first communion fiasco, so he would say hi to me, bless me, but that was it. This time I told him I needed to speak to him, and he said sure, and invited me to his office next door. I was blunt with my question:
“Will you baptize me?”
He hesitated, but asked:
“And why would you want to be baptized?”
“I want to receive communion, to be one with Jesus’ flesh and his blood.”
“ So… You want to be Roman Catholic, to be able to do that?”
“Yes!” I answered enthusiastically.
“And why can’t you do that in your church?”
“Because we don’t have it. We have little pieces of bread and little cups of grape juice, but they’re not real flesh and real blood. They say it’s just a symbol. Our pastor cannot consecrate them and make them turn into the Body and Blood of our Lord.”
“And what do you know about the Catholic Church?”
“Everything!” I said enthusiastically. “I know about St. Peter being the Rock where Jesus built his Church, I know about the Pope, and the Saints, and how much we must love and honor Mary, and I’ve read the whole Bible two times, and… I know about Luther…” I said breathlessly.
He remained quiet for a long minute, his eyes closed.
“Heleni,” he said. “I see you have done your homework, and I am impressed. How old are you?”
“Twelve,” I answered.
He smiled. “Just like Jesus in the Temple?”
“I guess..” I said humbly.
“My child, I know your story. I know you were prepared to receive your first communion five years ago. I’ve seen you praying in church almost every day, and I know your devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. Believe me, dear child, Jesus is already in your heart. Only His Holy Spirit could put such desire in your heart and soul. But…” he hesitated just a moment, but then looked at me tenderly. “You are a little too young to make this decision. There will be consequences, and persecutions, I am sure. Your family will not be pleased.”
“But… Jesus said to leave your family and follow Him… if you have to…” I had tears in my voice.
He stood up, and lifted my chin to look him in the eye:
“Go home to your family. Jesus had to do that, and he was obedient to his parents. Go to church with them; learn all you can about God and his love for us. In a couple of years, if you still think you want to be Catholic, come back, and I promise I will baptize you.”
He placed his hands on my head:
“Heleni, I bless you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I will be praying for you every day. Go in peace. Louvado seja Nosso Senhor Jesus Cristo!”
“Para sempre seja louvado…” I brushed back my tears.
The Good Presbyterian Child of God
I came home from the meeting with Padre Americo with the firm intention of doing what he told me. Perhaps that was Jesus speaking to me, saying that He wanted me to be a good Protestant Christian after all.
That word bothered me. Protestant? What were we protesting? I knew about the indulgences, and the excesses of the Roman Church, the sins of the Popes, and how Luther had rejected them, and called them the Antichrist. I know he protested against the “idols” made of wood and stone and how the people prayed to them and believed they had power. I knew that only Jesus was Savior, and that only by faith in Him we were freed from eternal damnation. But that was also what Catholics believed. And I knew that we would rather be called crentes (believers) or evangelicals, rather than Protestant. And then there was that passage from St. John… and Jesus’s promise that he’d be with his Church to the end, and that the gates of Hell would not prevail against her. The Church founded 2000 years ago, the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, the Church of the martyrs of Rome.
We had a new church just down a few homes from our house. Congregação Prebiterial. A few people who had come out of other denominations joined in, because they wanted to live their faith in the Calvinist Credo. By grace alone. Sola Scriptura. My grandparents joined it because of the convenience. They didn’t have to go all the way downtown on Sundays. And Jean Calvin wasn’t too different from John Wesley. Being a smaller congregation, it was more like a family, everyone knew each other. I remembered that my ancestors from Caparaó had been Huguenots – early followers of Jean Calvin.
Although my heart wasn’t really in it, I was prepared, as a 12 year old catechumen, to make my “profession of faith” in the Presbyterian Church, joining my new Sunday School friends.
I learned a few things about Eucharist in the Presbyterian Church, especially the notion that Word and Sacrament are not equally important, and that we thus honored Scripture, the Word of God, and the preaching thereof, as the summation of worship. Once a month we’d celebrate the Lord’s Supper, eat the bit of bread and drink the grape juice as a mere remembrance of what Jesus had told us to remember him by. I pondered, and went back to the 6th Chapter of the Gospel of John — how could a church who believes in the absolute authority of Scripture, dismiss this whole chapter as empty rhetoric? Jesus’ recommendation to become one with him through this Sacrament? The doubts were still there, but I was too afraid to question this doctrine, and not become a professed member of this church whose people I had come to love, and not be able to partake of this one Lord’s Supper, at least.
Thus, in front of the Elders and of the Congregation, I promised to uphold the teachings of the Presbyterian Church, and I answered the 3 questions put to me, honestly, in the affirmative:
Do you profess faith in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?
Do you look to him for your salvation?
Depending upon the grace of God, do you seek to serve him through this congregation?
Thus I became a full-fledged member of the 2nd Presbyterian Church of Barro Preto.
Our next door neighbors – the Pedersolis – were very close friends of our family as I have commented above, and the girls – Vanda, Valdete and Vilma— were my best friends. I seemed to be always at their house – it was lots more fun over there, and their mother Dona Durica – Lindorica Emilia was her real name – was a great cook and a very maternal person. Like everyone else – I adored her.
The sons were Walter and Waldir. The youngest boy was Valfrido, about my age. Walter always said he was my fiancé and I was going to marry him. Waldir was younger, and more reserved, and at one time had been my Math tutor. He was going to be a veterinarian and had a mean dog named Tiu.
Their father – Mario — was born in Brazil of immigrant Italian parents. He was also lots of fun to be with and made great pasta, gnocchi and capelletti, which he spent hours preparing, and we loved to eat.
I was barely 13 when Dona Durica suggested to me that I should marry Waldir. I had never paid any attention to him. At that point I had a crush on one of my classmates – Wagner – who really could care less for me, even though I kept sending him romantic notes and soupy Valentines.
So I started looking Waldir over as a boyfriend possibility. Valdete was in love with the bus driver that went by our house several times a day, they flirted for a while, and then they had met, and held hands, and one day she told me he had kissed her. All that my girlfriends at school talked about was their boyfriends, and how wonderful it was to be kissed.
Waldir was handsome, muscular and tanned from playing soccer and swimming, with beautiful, shiny green eyes, wavy dark hair, but a little short of stature, just a couple of inches taller than I, and I was still growing. But he was 9 years older. His sisters knew he had a steady girlfriend, but they were separated, and she was dating his best friend. He was kind of heartbroken. Romantic… He also had a parakeet named PiuPiu.
One day Waldir was sitting on the sofa listening to his stereo. He had a lot of long-playing records with great music to dance by. I had PiuPiu on my finger and sat next to him to listen to the music. The lights were dimmed, it was early evening. We were alone.
“What’s that song?” I asked.
“That’s “Tea for Two” – you like it?”
“Yes, it’s pretty, “ I said, and sang along with Doris Day — “Tea for two, and two for tea…”
He joined me, and sang along, softly for me — I didn’t know English well yet, although I was learning it in school:
Picture you upon my knee,
With tea for two and two for tea,
Just me for you and you for me, alone!
Nobody near us, to see us or hear us,
No friends or relations
on weekend vacations…
I watched his lips, enthralled. I lifted PiuPiu on my finger and let him “kiss” me. He took my lower lip gently on his beak and brushed it with his dry little tongue. He wouldn’t let go. Waldir’s arm was behind my shoulders. He took PiuPiu off my finger making him go to his hand .
“I can kiss better than PiuPiu…” he said, his beautiful eyes on mine. My heart was pounding. Doris Day sang on… “Just you for me, and me for you… alone…”
PiuPiu flew to his shoulder as he lifted my chin, lowered his mouth to mine and kissed me gently. PiuPiu flew off in a flurry … “… a boy for you, and a girl for me…”
“Do it again!” I teased.
“No! You’re too young!” but he was a little breathless, as he pulled me to him and kissed my forehead.
“So you want to be my girlfriend?” he asked.
“I guess… “ I said. “But only if you give up Terezinha!”
“Who told you about her?”
“Well… she’s not my girl anymore. She ran out with another man…”
I felt really sorry for him.
“If I am your girlfriend will you kiss me again like this?”
“Anytime! I promise…”
I heard Lica calling my name outside.
“I have to go now. See you tomorrow!”
Thus started the other love of my life. My fate was sealed with that kiss.
It was fun having a boyfriend, walking up and down the street, hand in hand, and being kissed goodnight at the gate, no later than 8:00 p.m. It wasn’t that much fun for Waldir, being already 22, and a Vet student, dating a little girl of 13 who wasn’t allowed to go anywhere with him. No dances, no swimming, no movies. Strictly within Grandma’s eyesight. They liked him, though. He’d stop by the gate when she and Lica were sitting by the garden wall, and they’d converse. I’d go back to my girlfriends and trade stories about our dates.
One night Grandpa invited me to go listen to the Choir of the University of Coimbra who was visiting Belo Horizonte. Fifty dashing young men, dressed in their long black capes, like vampires, singing. Grandpa told me they had a tradition of trading a little square of their cape for a kiss. Their capes would be raggedy.
Waldir couldn’t go, he had to study for an exam, so Vanda went with me in his place. Their music was great, and they were indeed charming, with their Portuguese accents. At intermission I said to Vanda:
“I want a piece of that cape!’’ pointing to a cute guy who was looking at us.
“You do not!” Vanda objected. “You have a boyfriend! Waldir won’t like this.”
“Oh you silly! It’s just a game!”
So I got up, went up to him, and asked his name.
“Fernando…” he said, shaking my hand. “And yours?”
“Heleni… May I have a piece of your cape?”
“Oh yes!” he said. “But do you know what you have to do to get it?”
He sat on the platform steps to be on the same level with me. He was a lot taller. He offered his lips. I planted a wet kiss on them.
“Wow! That was good, Heleni! Here, let’s rip a piece for you…”
He gave me my trophy and I went back to my seat, triumphant. Vanda wasn’t pleased.
“You’re crazy! I am telling!” she said, frowning.
“Go ahead! He doesn’t really love me anyway.”
“He’s your boyfriend, isn’t he?”
“Yes, but he still loves Terezinha!”
The show over, another student came up to me. Grandpa was talking to his friends.
“I heard you collect cape squares?” he said. He was gorgeous! Tall, slender, blonde and blue eyed, the way I liked them. He looked like Robert Wagner, my favorite movie star.
“Come with me! I’ll give you another one for your collection.”
We went to the garden, and he took me to a corner, behind the parked cars. He held me by the waist and kissed me roughly. I tried to escape, but he held me tighter. His kisses became more urgent, and when his hand tried to go under my skirt, I pushed him away.
“No!” I said, scared. “Don’t do that!”
“Why? Can’t I touch you there? You can touch me too!” He held me tighter by the arm.
“No! I can’t! I will not let you! If you don’t let me go I will scream!”
He tried to kiss me again, but I shook loose, and ran inside as fast as I could. I was breathless when Grandpa found me panting by the stairs.
“What happened?” he asked.
“Nothing! Just some hot kisses and I didn’t even get another square.”
Fernando was coming toward us.
“What’s going on?’ he asked.
“Your friend is nuts!” I said angrily, almost in tears.
“Where is he?”
“Out in the garden.”
Fernando ran out in a fury.
We walked home quietly. Grandpa was worried.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” he asked.
“Yes, I am.” I said, but inside I was in shock at how close I had been to being raped. And I felt a twinge of guilt. I had sinned, but now I was Presbyterian. I didn’t need to go to confession.
The next evening Waldir came to the gate.
“So I heard you had a kissing party at the show?”
I didn’t respond.
“I am really disappointed. I thought you liked me, that you were my girlfriend.”
I still said nothing.
“If you go around cheating on me like this, then we have to call this off. I can’t trust you.”
I wanted to tell him about being almost raped, but I thought he wouldn’t understand. That it had been my fault. I still said nothing.
“So then… it’s over, right?”
“I’m sorry…” I whispered.
He grasped my hand and shook it.
“Goodbye, then, Heleni.”
I stood there for a couple of minutes until he went into his house. Then I ran back inside mine. I cried all night, in shame, and a sense of loss. I had brought all this upon myself. I had been a bad girl, hurt Waldir, and above all, hurt Jesus.
At Colégio Anchieta I became a star. School plays, dances, ballet, poetry, piano. My writing skills improved and I won first place on an essay contest – mine was about Marco Polo and was so well written I had to take a test to prove it was my own writing. I became editor of the school newspaper.
I was growing up, and with the new maturity my religious quest for an authentic faith was renewed. I became less and less satisfied with the Protestantism I seemed to profess. The lifeless worship, the boring preaching, the hypocrisy of some, bothered me. The lack of mystical adoration of God, and the fellowship of the saints, left me empty. I continued yearning for the ecstasy of the Eucharist.
I’d still go pray at St. Sebastian’s, and everyone at school, even the teachers, knew I wanted to be a Catholic really bad. We were planning the Easter Eucharistic Mass and event at school. It was again an Eucharistic Congress, and our choir rehearsed every day. I was one of the singers, and the Ave Verum Corpus Natum enraptured me. Latin was the tongue of angels to me. The Archbishop would celebrate our Mass.
My friends encouraged me to go talk to Padre Americo again. We met in his office that cold morning of June 2 and I told him how I had kept my promise of going home to my family and trying to be a good Presbyterian child. I did all I could, but I failed to find peace and consolation in their beliefs. I wanted to be a Catholic more than ever, and receive Jesus’ Body and Blood in my heart. I wanted to be His, body, soul, and spirit. Would he baptize me now?
He did not hesitate.
“Yes, Heleni. I know now for sure that you’ve run the race and won the crown. The desire that Jesus put in your heart to be one with him, to be a baptized Catholic, is sincere, and the work of the Holy Spirit. Come back Friday after school, bring a godmother and a godfather, and I will baptize you.”
I was delirious with happiness! Next day I told every one of my friends about it. Maria José Krieger Sant’Anna, bless her heart, said she’d go with me and be my godmother. Her boyfriend, José Expedito, would be my godfather.
That cold Friday afternoon – June 2, 1955 — the 14th year of my life, we stole out of school a little early and walked furtively to St. Sebastian’s. In my mind I recited the words of the Song of Songs:
Place me like a seal upon your heart,
Like a seal over your arm;
For love is strong as death…
Many waters cannot quench love;
Rivers cannot wash it away.
If one were to give the wealth of her house for love,
It would be utterly scorned.
Come away, my love,
And be like a gazelle… on the spice-laden mountains.
We gathered by the baptismal font in the back of the darkened church. After I answered yes to all the questions, and repeated the words of the Credo in Latin—Credo in Unum Deo, Patrem Omnipotentem, et in Unum Dominum Jesum Christum, Filium Dei Unigenitum… — by the light of the holy candles, Padre Americo anointed me with oil, and poured the waters of baptism upon my head.
“Heleni, Ego Baptizo te in Nomine Patris et Filio et Spiritus Sanctus.” I felt like fire had touched my head, descended into my chest, and set my heart on fire.
My lover is mine, and I am His…
I walked blindly home, floating in the clouds, basking in the glow of that glorious feeling. I didn’t eat anything and went straight to bed, telling Grandma I had a headache. Under the covers, in the dark, I hung on to my new rosary, Maria José’s gift, and prayed it over and over again. I opened the little book my godfather had given me, and opened it at random. The title was Pontos de Meditação sobre as Virtudes de Nossa Senhora, by D. Ildefonso Rodriguez Villar. José Expedito’s dedicatory read:
Heleni, you opened today the door of Religion and Eternal Life.
May the teachings of this book be guidance for you to find
I was the happiest of God’s creatures right there and then. I read a paragraph of the little book:
God blesses us with much of his grace, fleeting blessings… that are our sustenance… divine inspirations that God uses to guide and to direct our souls… it’s indeed by his great love that God would care for us so much that he wants to be our Teacher, our Guide, our Director, and this done with such kindness, with such tenderness, and patience, with such sweetness…as of a gentle breeze…. p. 340
Exhausted, I finally fell into a deep sleep, in the arms of my Beloved.
First Communion, at last!
I was glad the next day was Saturday, and we had no school, because of the preparations for Sunday’s Mass. I had to go to school for choir practice, and to see to the printing of our school newspaper which showed, on its front page, my editorial: “Meditations at the Foot of the Cross.” I was rather quiet and introspected, and everyone, especially my close friends and my teachers, who were absolutely awed by my courage to go ahead with the baptismal ceremony, surrounded me with loving concern. They said my face was glowing with happiness.
And the great day arrived of my espousal with my beloved Lord. Interestingly enough – it was almost a replica of the failed attempt of seven years thence. This Sunday I had good excuses. The day’s events at school went beyond the Eucharistic Celebration. It was a fun day of sports and parties, and all students were encouraged to attend, especially those who were student leaders. As the newspaper editor, I had to be there. And we didn’t need white dresses. We had to wear the school uniform.
It was Trinity Sunday. A bright, cool, limpid blue skies day. The altar table was decorated with banners and flowers, and white and gold banners decorated the patio where we congregated. Teachers, students, and staff surrounded the altar, and the choir sang beautifully the entrance song, greeting the Archbishop – Dom Cabral — who was the celebrant. It was my first experience of a Solemn Catholic Mass, and I was enthralled at the beauty of the liturgy. The sounds struggled to come out of my throat, as tears flooded down my face.
“O Triune God, victory of those who hope in You, listen with kindness to our prayers, because without you our human weakness can do nothing, grant that with the help of your grace we willingly please you with our will and our works, in the observance of you commandments. In the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”
And the first reading from St Paul to the Romans:
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments… how inscrutable his ways…
Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or has been his counselor?
Who has ever given to God,
That God should repay him?
For from him and through him are all things.
To him be the glory forever.
And in St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’s injunction to us, his disciples:
To me has been given all power in heaven and on earth.
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit
Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.
And I will be with you always, to the end of the ages.
By the time we sang the Sanctus I was down on my knees in adoration. Finally came the moment that I had yearned for all those years – when the little host consecrated by the Archbishop and by our praises, containing my Lord Jesus’s flesh, blood, and divinity – was placed in my tongue, such joy filled my whole being I could hardly stand it. I wanted to get up and leap, and dance, and sing! I would die for you, Lord Jesus, my love, right then and there! But I stayed down on my knees, as the angelic sounds of Ave Verum Corpus Natus de Mariae Virginae flowed in waves of joy and grace all around, and over me.
Later on, when the celebration was over, and we went to our lunches and our games, one of our teachers wanted me to meet the Archbishop, to be given a special blessing. We went into the cafeteria, where the meal was being served. Dom Cabral was seated at the high backed chair, at the head of the table. I knelt and kissed his ring, and he placed his hands on my head and blessed me, saying: “Courage, my daughter! Keep the fire of your faith burning!”
When I got up, full of great joy, Vilma, who had come with me for Mass, whispered to me: “Lica is here. She’s coming in, looking for you!” My heart skipped a beat, but at the same time I was glad that my martyrdom was about to start. My teacher, though, pushed me behind the Archbishop’s high chair, and told me “Stay here!”
Lica came into the room. Apparently, one of my classmates, who belonged to my grandparents’ church, asked them where I was.
“Heleni is at the school event,” they responded.
“Event? That’s a Mass they’re having there!”
All the bells started going off in Grandma’s head. Lica was commanded to go find out what I was up to now. So there she stood, right in front of the Archbishop’s chair. I was almost entirely visible, but God closed her eyes. My teachers reassured her that I had not participated of the Mass, only sang on the choir, and was upstairs with my classmates. They escorted her out of the room, and I escaped by the back door and upstairs, where she found me. I blessed the Lord who had given me counsel and intelligence and who would be always with me, at my right, so that I would not be perturbed.
I went home later, emotionally drained, but intensely happy. I still had wonderful days ahead of me, full of the sweetness of the Holy Spirit’s consolations, before my trials and sufferings would start in earnest.
Blessed be the Lord forever!
Troubles started early for me. Everybody noticed I was different, at home. Willing to do all my chores gladly; playing the piano for hours; praying down on my knees by my bed before going to sleep (Grandma would spy on me); doing my homework, and reading the Bible faithfully.
I had a stash of holy cards, several rosaries, and a little statue of the Sacred Heart buried under my books and things in my dresser drawer, by my bed. After everybody had gone to sleep, and I heard Grandpa snoring, I’d pull them out and talk to them.
I continued to stop by St. Sebastian’s every day of the week, and my good Padre Americo would open the door of the sacrarium, take out a host, and give me communion, in a little prayer ceremony, as I knelt by the altar rail. I felt so blessed!
He also counseled me to be humble, and obedient to my grandparents; to continue going to church with them, faithfully. That Jesus would honor that, for he loved everyone, and we were all his brothers and sisters, even if believing in different ways. So I was at a great peace, as I grew in the knowledge of my new-found faith.
I had a happy surprise when my mother Aura came to visit, and we sat in the backyard, eating jaboticabas all by ourselves. She pulled me closer to herself, and hugged me.
“I hear you have been baptized a Catholic?”
“Who told you that?” I was uneasy about what to reveal to her.
“Dona Durica. Is it true?”
“Yes…” I said, expecting the worst.
“Can I tell you a secret?”
“Yes…” I said uncertainly.
“I am a Catholic too. I converted, before you did!”
I looked at her, wide-eyed. “Really, Mommy?”
“Yes, really. And you can share with me, and count on me to help you, OK?”
I hugged her tightly. “Can I come live with you and Helcias?”
Her eyes clouded. “Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be a good thing to do right now. It’d break your grandparent’s heart, for one thing. And then there’s your school, and your friends… We should wait on that, OK?”
“OK,” I said, resignedly.
“But you can come visit me at the hospital, sweetie. I want you to meet my friends. And I have another secret to tell you…” she smiled coyly.
“You’re going to have a little sister! I am pregnant!”
I jumped back in amazement. “You are kidding?”
“No, it’s true. She’ll be born in November!”
“Oh my God! I am so happy!” I hugged her neck.
“What are you naming her?”
“Lucia…” my mother said.
I pondered a moment. “Lucia de Fatima?”
Mom smiled. “Sure! Why not?”
A few weeks later I came home from school to find Grandma in a violent temper tantrum. Lica was trying to calm her down. Grandpa hadn’t arrived from work yet. She yelled at me to go to my bedroom immediately. I got there to find the place upside down, my books on the floor, my bedclothes on a heap, and pieces of my rosaries and holy cards strewn everywhere. My heart sank.
“We’re waiting for your grandfather to come home to have a talk,” she said, sternly. “Meanwhile, clean up your mess.” She slammed the door and locked me in. I sank to my knees.
“Jesus, Lord, have mercy on me. Give me courage! Calm her down! Now it starts…”
I collected all the little pieces of the pictures of my friend saints, and the beads of the rosaries. Thankfully, she hadn’t found the one from my godmother or the little book from my godfather, or my copy of the Imitation of Christ. They were under my mattress. I put all the pieces in a little bag, and dropped them in my school bag. I sat on my bed and opened my old Bible, which was lying on the side table, untouched. Psalm 143:
Show me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul.
Rescue me from my enemies, O Lord, for I hide myself in you.
Teach me to do your will, for you are my God;
May your good Spirit lead me on level ground.
For your name’s sake, O Lord, preserve my life;
In your righteousness, bring me out of trouble.
In your unfailing love, silence my enemies, destroy all my foes,
For I am your servant.
The “talk” was a vitriolic accusation of my rebelliousness, the sinful things, the idols I was bringing deceitfully into the house. I was doing all this evil in retribution for all they had done for me, saving me from perdition, and raising me with everything I could wish for.
Obviously they had heard the whole story from my classmate at school. Later I found out that her parents were on a warpath suggesting that I had been brainwashed, and forced to convert to Catholicism.
“You are going to hell, do you know that?” Grandma raged. “You’ve fallen from the grace of the true God and into the hands of the devil!”
Grandpa stood there, livid, saying nothing. Lica wept, telling Grandma to stay calm. I was in tears, shaking with terror.
“Go pray to your dead Jesus, and your false gods. Go ask that miserable priest to come save you. Let’s see if your ‘Nossa Senhora’ can restore the beads of your damned rosaries!”
“I am sorry… sorry I hurt you…” I blubbered.
“Hypocrite!” she yelled. “You hate us, you and your catholic demons!”
hen she came toward me, to hit me, Grandpa grabbed her arm and said:
“Miluca, calm down now. Enough! Let’s go!”
She followed him out, slamming the door. I heard the key turn in the lock, and threw myself in the bed, weeping desperately. I heard her crying in the dining room, and Grandpa trying to comfort her. I felt numb with pain, suffering for being the cause of such anguish. I did love my Grandma, although she was very severe with me. Tongue lashings and much verbal abuse were her ways of punishing the smallest infractions of her discipline. I thought of the rawhide whip she had hanging behind the kitchen door. Both I and my brother had been whipped severely, for other greater faults. Usually, Lica was able to stop her from harming us too much. I shuddered when I thought she might use that whip on me now. But at the same time I wished she would, I’d be like Agnes, a martyr for my Lord Jesus.
I crawled under the covers, covering my head, my fingers on my ears. I wished I had my rosary, but I was afraid to get it out from under the mattress, and have it destroyed too. I prayed the Creed quietly, and the Our Father. I could use my fingers for the Hail Marys.
Later, after dark, the door opened. It was Lica, with a bowl of soup.
“Are you awake? Please eat some soup; it’s the one you like – chicken and rice.”
I said nothing. I was hungry, but I’d rather starve to death.
She put the bowl on the side table, sat on the bed, and put her hand on my back.
“I will be praying for you, my love. Jesus will take care of you.”
New tears rolled from my eyes, and sobs rattled my body.
“Remember when I told you the story of my prayer for you, when you were almost dead from asthma, how I asked Jesus to heal you, and he did? I promised that I’d help you grow up to be a blessing and a song of praise to God. I am sure Jesus gave you life so that you could be just that. Always remember that he will always be with you, at your side, and I will too. Sleep in peace, my child.”
I told God that I didn’t care if they killed me. I was ready to die like Agnes and all the other young girls who would rather die a cruel death then deny their love for His Son Jesus. Then I drifted off in a deep sleep, and dreamed I was tied to a tree, like St. Sebastian, and that a lot of people were shooting arrows toward me, but they missed every time. I woke up in the morning, thinking I was going to be late for school, because nobody woke me up, but then I saw that the door was still locked.
I got on my knees and said the Morning Prayers that I had already memorized, so if I had my prayer book taken away I could pray by heart. I felt very peaceful and loved. Then the door opened, and Lica came in.
“Do you need to go to the bathroom? You need to brush your teeth.”
“Am I going to school?”
“No, isn’t that wonderful? Your Grandma said you need to stay home a few days.”
”B-But… I have midterms… all of next week!”
“I don’t know. We’ll see what happens.”
I went to the bathroom and brushed my teeth. Lica had milk and bread, and she had baked her famous corn bread for me.
“You didn’t touch the soup?”
“I am fasting,” I said.
“Don’t do that! You’ll get weak and get asthma again!”
“That’s OK. Jesus fasted 40 days and didn’t die.”
”Well… he was strong!”
“I’ll leave the tray in case you change your mind.”
She left, and I opened my window to let the sunshine in. Silly people, I thought. Don’t they think I could jump through the window and escape? But I didn’t. I took the Imitation of Christ from under the mattress, sat out in the square of sunshine, and read it for a while. Then I read the Bible. This is just wonderful, I thought. I can be like a cloistered nun! Pray and read all day… Thank you, Lord!
The morning was quiet. I took a nap, and then wrote in my diary.
Lica came back with a jar of water, and two books for me. One was about this nun who converted to the Protestant church. I started reading it, but it had the opposite effect on me. I enjoyed reading her experiences as a nun, and then thought she was nuts, trading her spiritual life, so rich, for the lack of excitement of a “crente.” I preferred to read the Bible, and decided to read the Acts of the Apostles – exciting times, those! I could picture myself, sitting in a Roman cell with St. Peter, and having an angel open the door for me!
On the third day I wasn’t hungry any more, just light headed. Lica was worried and tried to break me down with some of her delicious dishes. I didn’t touch them. I drank the water and read the Bible. In the afternoon, I heard my Mom’s and my Aunt Neusa’s voices, arguing with Grandma, but they weren’t allowed to see me.
On the fourth day, the Director of Colégio Anchieta, Dr. Newton Paiva, came to the house seeking to speak to my grandparents. He wanted to see me, to make sure I was alive. He also brought me homework and the class notes my friends had taken down for me.
Lica came in my room and told me to get dressed. I was quite dizzy, and pale looking, but I complied, and then she took me to the living room. Dr. Newton looked at me with tenderness, came over, and gave me a hug. I felt I was going to burst into tears, but I held on, saying over and over in my mind “Jesus, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me.” He handed me the sheaf of papers, and then turned to my Grandma, very serious:
“Dona Isamira, if you aren’t aware, Heleni is one of our best students. She is the current editor of our newspaper and is involved in many student activities on campus. Next week is midterm exams. If she’s not present to take the exams, I will have to notify the authorities.”
Grandma made a sign to Lica to take me back to my room. I said goodbye to Dr. Newton and left with Lica.
Left alone again, I turned to the notes and homework. I smiled. Embedded in the handwritten notes were little messages from my friends: “We love you!” “Courage! Jesus loves you!” “We’re praying for you” and even one from Wagner “Hope to see you soon! Hang in there!” I kissed the pages, my heart full of thanksgiving.
On Saturday, they had a family reunion. My mother was threatening to take me away, but Grandma had a nervous breakdown, said she was going to kill herself, and then she agreed for me to go to school for the exams, but she’d go with me, so nobody could get close, or say anything to me. She was threatening to sue the school and the teachers for influencing me to become Catholic. The Presbyterians were on the warpath too. Lica, who was getting really upset with the whole thing, would give me updates, as she tried to coax me to eat.
Thus, on Monday, I was told to get ready, and our pastor drove us to the school. I didn’t say a word all the way there. We were escorted to the classroom. Grandma sat across the hall, where she could keep an eye on me. The kids were all serious and subdued. Once in a while one would get up and block her vision while another went by me and handed me little notes of encouragement. Even Wagner once again went by me and handed me a little card, with a bleeding heart, a sword through it. “I love you! You’re great!” I was overwhelmed. It was sure fun to be a martyr!
This went on for two more days. I was still not eating, but Lica would coax me into drinking the milk before I left. “It is food for your brain!” she’d say.
At the end of the week, my last day, when I got up to leave, all the kids stood up, clapped and cheered. “See! They’re glad you’re leaving!” Grandma said. And then – “Next week you will move to another school – Izabella Hendrix.”
I was in a daze, from then on. Sunday night Grandma came into my room and told me to get dressed, we were going to the church down the street. I did as I was told. When I got there, Senhor Martins, the head of the Presbyters, greeted us at the door. I noticed that the evening service was over. He ushered me into a meeting room. All the twelve Elders, or Presbyters of our church, were there, sitting in a semi-circle. There was a chair for me in the middle. I started trembling, but I wasn’t afraid.
Senhor Martins addressed me:
“So, Heleni, you are a professed member of this church, are you not?”
“Yes, Sir, I am.”
“OK, so we, your appointed leaders, are here to ask you some questions, and find out how you were led to switch your allegiance to another church and agreed to be baptized a Catholic.”
I said nothing, mostly because my mouth became very dry, and my heart was racing.
“Was it Padre Americo from the St. Sebastian Church who gave you instructions, and suggested it was a good thing to be Catholic?”
I lifted my head then. “No, Sir. I wanted to be a Catholic since I was 7 years old.”
“But some people, probably at school, told you bad things about the Protestant church, certainly?”
The shaking was worse. I started to sweat.
“Nobody ever told me anything. Everything I know I read about in books, and the Bible!”
“Who gave such books to read? “ another Elder asked.
“Nobody. They were in the library,” I answered.
“Did you tell Padre Americo that you were a member of this church? That you had already been baptized a Christian?”
Now I was really shaking. Yet, I answered firmly “No… No…I didn’t say anything. It’s nobody’s fault…”
Senhor Martins stood up, right in front of me:
“Can you tell us then, Heleni, why you renounced your membership in the Presbyterian Church and wanted to be baptized a Catholic?”
I wrung my hands together, tears streaming down my face now, but I lifted up my eyes to him, and spoke clearly:
“I wanted to be Catholic because it was in the Catholic Church that I found Jesus. And I wanted to be baptized because it was the only way I could receive Jesus in the Eucharist.”
Senhor Martins went red in the face. There was a murmur among the others. Then he turned back to the rest of them and pointed a finger at me:
"She is ANATHEMA!” he declared.
With that, Grandma came into the room, and pulled me out by the hand. Obviously she was eavesdropping by the door. When we got outside I threw up, yellow bile stuff. She took me back home and told Lica to make me some chamomile tea and put me to bed.
I was sick the whole weekend and too weak to go to school the next week. Slowly, with Lica’s ministrations, her good chicken soup, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, I got my strength back. The worst was over. Lica accompanied me to Izabella Hendrix, a Methodist School for girls, where I was enrolled in order to save me from going to the Catholic hell.
My mother was the oldest surviving child of my grandparents. She was born in Belo Horizonte on April 15, 1922. She was a very dedicated member of the Methodist church her parents attended, involved with serving in the youth groups, and teaching Sunday School. She was very lively and smart, and was educated at Izabella Hendrix, the school I was then sent to.
She met my father, Isaias, when she was 15, and fell in love with him, although he was 10 years older. Her mother wasn’t too pleased, because, besides being too old for her, he was Baptist, and kept taking her to the other side of the Protestant fence. Baptists had weird beliefs, like baptizing people by immersion… But Isaias was charming, and when he told the family that his father was a wealthy landowner and coffee baron in Caparaó, they relented.
When she turned 18, they got married, and went to spend their honeymoon at the farm in Caparaó. And as I described above, that’s where I was conceived. I have already told the tales of their high living, their stormy relationship, and final breakup. She refused to go to the farm with him because she was finishing nursing school.
Helcias was my little brother, and when my father departed, he stayed with my mother, which caused me to be jealous of him all my life. But Mom described to me later how difficult her life was, fending off by herself, without hardly any help from her parents, who totally blamed her for the breakup, accusing her of living in sin, of being a bad mother, etc. She told me they were hungry many times, but she lacked the courage to go begging help from her parents. My father never sent them any money.
She recounted one time when Helcias was crying for food, and all she had was enough for a bottle of milk. She walked with him to a bar that would be open late, and bought the milk which he downed in a few gulps. Then he wanted a piece of the luscious cake on the counter. She told him she had no more money, and he burst into a temper tantrum. A man who was sitting at the bar, turned around, and offered to buy the cake for the kid. At first she refused, but gave in when Helcias refused to shut up. He bought the cake, for the three of them, and invited her to sit at the table and eat. That’s how she met Francisco Capanema, who would remain her life companion, until his death.
Against all odds, my mother received her RN degree and went to work for the then biggest hospital in town – Felicio Roxo. She and Francisco did not live together in the same house. He was a tailor, and had his men’s wear atelier in his apartment downtown, which wasn’t big enough for the three of them because his aged aunt lived with him as his housekeeper. But he helped her whenever she needed, and yes, they became lovers, much to her mother’s chagrin.
My mother was a skilled obstetrics nurse and a midwife. Women still preferred to have their children at home, so my mother exercised her function with aplomb, even in the most difficult cases, without needing help from the doctors. She treated her patients with love and concern, and everyone, even the doctors at the hospital, loved her as a person, and relied on her skills for help.
My little sister – Lucia de Fatima – was born November 18, 1954. Dona Durica gave me the news, as my grandparents wanted nothing to do with their bastard granddaughter. So, saying that I was going to study at my friend’s home, I escaped from home the next day, and ran to the Hospital, about 3 miles from our home, to visit my mother and see my baby sister. Mom was delighted to see me. Lucia was beautiful, and looked at me with her big brown eyes. She was the spitting image of her father, Francisco, who, although reluctant to admit it, could not now dismiss his paternity. Francisco was a devout Catholic, a very honest, law abiding man, especially following faithfully the severe Church’s laws that forbade him, as a Catholic, to marry a legally separated woman (there was no divorce in Brazil at that time). Cohabitation was a serious sin. This legalistic attitude kept him from truly enjoying the company of my mother, all his life, but once he held his daughter, he was taken. They moved in with him, all three of them.
Lucia was one year old when my grandparents broke down and allowed Mom to bring her to their home. She was a lovely child and I adored her. I liked to babysit, and to take her out on the sidewalk, on her stroller. She was a good, beautiful baby, and very smart. She loved sweets, and would go to anyone and say “Lucinha qué balinha! (Lucie wants candy!)” I remember one birthday party when she passed out from going from glass to glass, without anyone noticing, taking sips of “caipirinhas.” When my mother took her to the emergency room, they said the problem was my mother had a drunk baby!
I could not understand why I had been left out with my grandparents, missing out on my mother’s loving care, but I learned to accept it as “the best for me” and to transfer my yearnings for maternal love to Our Lady Mary, the lovely Mother of my Lord Jesus, to whom I confided all my secret hurts and desires, praying in front of her many “disguises” as I called them – Fatima, Lourdes, All Graces, Perpetual Help, etc. My favorite, though, was the one depicting her triumphant assumption into heaven, the one at St. Sebastian’s, when she joined her Son in the clouds, and sat at his right hand as the Queen of Heaven.
A glowing ember
It started with the visit of another dear friend – Lia. We’d walk together around the neighborhood and go to the bakery together. One day she asked to see my ex-boyfriend. I said I’d show him to her, at the first occasion. That occasion arrived that same afternoon, when we left the house to go to the bakery. Right outside, in front of the next door neighbor’s, stood that handsome guy, dressed in a beautiful blue shirt, sunglasses, just hanging out nonchalantly.
“There he is!” I said to Lia. “Dr. Waldir Pedersoli.”
“I don’t believe it!” she said.
“What don’t you believe?’
“But he’s beautiful! A hunk! So handsome!” she blurted.
“I agree, but so what?”
“But you must be crazy to let him go!” she upbraided me. “Have a heart, girl! Guys like this don’t come easy!” She looked back:
“He’s looking at us! He’s looking, Heleni! Please, look back, look at him!” She pushed me back, to make me look.
Our eyes met. He smiled at me. Immediately a glowing ember burned feebly in my brain, among the long dead ashes. After that, every time we’d go by, Waldir seemed to be on his porch. Lia would say hi. We’d exchange a look and a smile. Another day he was leaning on the garden wall, smoking!
“I can’t believe he’s doing that! How horrible! “ I said to Lia. He threw the cigarette butt on the sidewalk right before we passed by. I stomped on it angrily. He laughed.
At school, my friends noticed my transformation from a shy little girl into a fashionable, modern young woman, who could easily converse about clothes, makeup, and men. I was accepted into the popular crowd. They also wanted me to edit their literature essays for them.
One day Gloria asked me what had caused this transformation.
“I guess I am just growing into adulthood,” I said.
“No, there’s more than that, girl! I know when a girl is in love, you can’t fool me. Speak up!”
So I told her the whole story of my relationship with Waldir.
“And now… what shall I do?” I asked.
“It’s simple. Be always elegant. Discard this baby look, let him see you at your best.”
Thus I started taking care of the outside.. . Nice clothes, makeup, manicure, good haircut. One cold night I was outside, leaning on the garden wall, alone. Waldir came up on the other side, on the wall between our houses. He said to me:
“Aren’t you cold, Leni?” He’d always called me by my nickname.
It was the first time I’d heard his voice since the “kissing party” of years past.
I was shaking, more from emotion than from the cold, as I answered:
“Of course!” And I ran inside, angry at myself for being so icy cold.
“Oh my Lord! Forgive me! I don’t know what to do! I love you so much! But would you mind if I’d share this love with someone else?”
Then his sister Valdete got married. Our families were estranged because of my conversion, of which my grandparents believed the Pedersolis took part, as instigators. That rift was painful to me, who missed my good friends badly. I could not go to Valdete’s wedding.
Aunt Neusa and I were spying from our porch as Valdete came out of the house, dressed in her bridal gown, looking gorgeous. Aunt Neusa pointed to Waldir, all dressed up, looking like a movie star.
“Look, there goes your beloved, and he is alone!”
“I don’t care to see,” I said, turning away.
She forced me to look, and when I saw the sight of my best friend and confidante so beautiful, and glowing with happiness, next to him who I had loved with my childlike simplicity, I burst into tears, and ran inside, but not before I heard her words:
“The first love never dies!”
“Jesus is my first love!” I yelled at myself.
A few days later, I had another guest at the house – she was my age, the daughter of Grandpa’s uncle from Rio de Janeiro. Her name was Suely, and she was eager to go to town, and meet people. One of our neighbors, Wady, liked my carioquinha friend, and he took us to the Cruzeiro Sport Club’s pool to see a competition.
We were sitting there, chatting, when I looked up and saw Waldir standing there, in front of us.
“What miracle is this, Leni, you visiting the pool?”
“Rio de Janeiro’s miracle” I said, introducing my friend.
He shook her hand, and then walked away, went to sit a few places down from us.
I said to Wady:
“Do you think you can lend some of your courage to our poor friend over there?”
“Of course, dumb head! I see that you are not very observant…”
“Yeah, the problem is, I am a little dense today, dear, forgive me.” And to Waldir:
“Hey, old man! Are you staying there alone? Come join us.”
Waldir came over, sat by my side, and said nary a word.
Later, Wady invited us to go walk in the Praça Raul Soares. He said to Waldir:
“As you know, one billy-goat alone cannot drag two carts. Come with us?”
Waldir said he’d see if he could.
Suely and I went home to shower and change. At fifteen, I looked slender, really dark short hair with reddish highlights, eyes full of mischief. A young nymph, a Brigitte Bardot look alike. We looked good, as we went out to meet the guys.
Waldir did join us after all, and we walked to the Praça. It felt awkward, at first. Neither of us said a word, while Wady and Suely, holding hands, talked away.
We walked leisurely the perimeter of the Praça. The famous Praça Raul Soares was meant to be at the center of the State Capital. Belo Horizonte was a planned city, built in the late 1800s, in the style of Washington, D.C., its main avenues converging at the Praça. Designed as a large roundabout, by the architect Eric de Paula, inspired by European gardens, its colorful sidewalks are paved in colorful mosaics in a marajoara style; roses grow in profusion in the gardens, and in the center, a magnificent fountain shoots colorful jets of water into the air. At my time, it was the place to go with boyfriends, or to hang out, looking for one.
Tired, I invited Waldir to sit at one of the many stone benches, under a blooming tree. We had much to share about the two years separation. The story of my conversion; my new school; his last year in Vet School; all his many activities.
In the end, he took my hand between his.
“Can we see each other again?” he asked.
I was suddenly struck by an extreme case of the shakes, my eyes filled with tears.
“We’ll see..” I managed to blurt out. “As you know, there’s a tremendous rift between our families…”
“Well, that should not be an impediment, if we like each other…”
“Yes, but…” I said shyly. “There’s another thing too… I think I want to be a nun…”
He laughed. His shiny green eyes met mine. He placed his arm around my shoulders, pulled me back in a hug, and kissed the corner of my mouth.
“What for?” he asked, in jest. “Are you going to set fire to the convent?”
As much as I’d like to, I did not resist his embrace, and he kissed me again, gently.
Wady and Suely returned, and we walked back home, hand in hand.
I struggled with my new found love. Jesus was the King, sitting in the throne of my heart. I wanted to be his bride, and serve him for the rest of my life. I loved him with a passion.
But now what? This feeling, this human love that had again surfaced in my soul; how could I reconcile the two?
Two months went by, that we didn’t even see each other. No friends came to visit. We were both busy with finals. It had been two years since my conversion, and my grandparents were still angry at the Pedersolis for having been on my side. The two families weren’t on speaking terms.
I said to the Lord:
“I am so sad, and don’t know what to do. I know it’s my fault that two families who had been friends way before I was born are now enemies. Please show me a way to bring healing between them, and thus free us from this animosity. Please forgive us all, Lord!”
In my regular daily visit to St. Sebastian’s (I sometimes wondered how nobody in my home ever wondered why it took me so long to get the bread at the bakery?) I knelt down by his altar and implored:
“Please, Lord, show me a way. I want to offer something, some costly sacrifice that would bring healing and peace to our families. Please, tell me what you’d accept as a ransom for this deliverance?”
I was immersed in prayer, when I felt someone was at my side. I looked, panicky, and it was Waldir!
“Don’t worry, it’s only me…” he reassured me.
“Praying a lot?” he asked.
“Trying to…” I replied.
“Well, I would like to give you an invitation to my graduation.”
“That’d be great!”
“When can I give it to you?”
“Tomorrow, at the same time, here.” I answered.
“OK.” And he left.
Immediately a thought came to my mind:
“Would this be the sacrifice?…. Oh no…”
I knelt at Agnes’ altar.
“Dear little friend, pray for me! Help me to be strong to do this, if it’s God’s will. Give me strength to renounce, as you did!”
Next day Waldir brought the invitation, as he promised. We walked out of the church together. Suddenly he said:
“I miss you! Can we see each other again? Restart where we left off?”
My heart skipped a beat, but my voice was firm:
“There are too many reasons… I can’t…” And in my mind: “Please, do not torture me, my love!”
“OK… I thought that after what we shared in the Praça recently…”
“Forget it.” I said emphatically.
“All right. If that’s how you feel… I’ll see you at the graduation?”
I extended my hand. He gave it a squeeze, and departed.
The vow was confirmed, and I could not draw back.
I took the invitation home, still hoping the vow wouldn’t be accepted. The envelope was addressed to my grandfather, but Grandma opened it. While she read, I prayed that she wouldn’t reject it.
“Well…” she said, finally. “I guess we need to attend.”
If I weren’t in her presence, I’d have fallen on my knees in thanksgiving! All week I prayed that there wouldn’t be any impediments.
Finally, December 9 came around and the three of us were there. It was very difficult for me to avoid looking at Waldir, so gorgeous in his black gown! But – glory to God! I had tears welling up in my eyes when Grandpa hugged Senhor Mario and my Grandma kissed Dona Durica. Sweet reconciliation! I looked at Waldir and his eyes locked on mine. He smiled.
When the new year – 1957 – had just started, and all was well between our families, I asked the Lord if he’d release me from that vow. I thanked him profusely, but it had become too difficult for me to ignore the feelings in my heart. That day I picked up my Bible and opened it at random. Genesis – the story of Abraham’s sacrifice. As he was about to sacrifice his son, an angel held his arm. Could God do this for me, too? I wondered. I picked up my precious Imitation of Christ, and had my answer:
“God’s free gift is love, from Jesus our Lord. Therefore, when you find it in your life, do not reject it, because it is a gift from God.” Abraham loved his child, almost as much as he loved God. I did love Waldir too, not quite as much as I loved Jesus…
I knelt down and prayed:
“Jesus, Lord, my Savior and my God. You know how much I love you, and I know how much you love me. I then give you my life. Make it a hymn of praise, a sweet offering upon your altar, to love and serve you all the days of my life, to the end of my days, come what may.”
I waited quietly for his answer. It came sweetly to my mind, like a gentle breeze:
“I love those who love me, and those who look for me early in the morning of their lives, will find me.”
“Surrender your life to your Lord, trust in him, and he will give you your heart’s desire.”
Life at a new school
My first semester at Colégio Izabella Hendrix was very difficult. I was this weird kid who was a religious nut and had to be admitted in the middle of the year because she was rebellious. Izabella Hendrix was an exclusive school for girls – boarding as well as normal school, Kindergarten to 12th grade. It was founded by American Methodist missionaries who still taught courses at the school. The Director, Miss Verna Farrar, was American. She was very nice to me, from the first day of school.
My classmates came from a variety of backgrounds, mostly wealthy – several of them were Jewish, some were Catholic, most from Protestant denominations.
I went from being the star, and sweetheart of my previous school, to an outcast, depressed, displaced, and bullied by the most popular girl — Doris Schneider . I was terribly embarrassed to be escorted every morning by my nanny. Doris said I was a silly 14 year old baby. One day she said something blasphemous about Catholics, and about Our Lady. Enraged, I flew at her, threw her down and pulled her hair. The other girls pulled us apart. From that day forward, Doris avoided me.
My lonely days were spent reading (their library wasn’t as good as Anchieta’s); it annoyed me that they’d have the first volume of a novel like Les Miserables and not the second, so you didn’t know how the story ended. At Anchieta I read everything they had – from Crime and Punishment to all the famous Brazilian writers. At Izabella I did find several complete classics like the Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, Wuthering Heights, all the Bronte’s novels,among others. I read voraciously, and soon wished that I could read those books in their original languages. I had taken French and Latin at Anchieta, but here there was only English. I truly enjoyed that class, though. The library had many books written in English and I struggled to read some of them. Hemingway was one of my favorites. I read and reread A Farewell to Arms. I also wept over The Diary of Anne Frank.
I missed my friends, and I missed going to pray at St. Sebastian’s every day. I was watched like a criminal by my Grandmother. All that I could do was to go to bed early, read my Bible ostensibly, and then, after lights out, under the covers, by the light of a little flashlight my Mom had given me, read my precious Catholic Night Prayers, the Imitation of Christ, and pray my rosary. I had to be careful not to fall asleep before stashing everything again under the mattress. And I missed Padre Americo terribly too.
My Aunt Neusa took me under her wing. I went to her house on weekends to help her babysit for Lucia when my Mom had to work. I loved my cousin Norton, her son. And then Jesus gave me a marvelous gift – my dearest friend Maria Aparecida Brandão. The Brandão were relatives of my uncle Lacerda, Aunt Neusa’s husband. They lived in Pitangui, a town not very far from Belo Horizonte.
The school year over, I went with them to Pitangui, where I stayed with the Brandão, in their big, colonial house. Aparecida had 4 sisters, all unmarried — Maria José (Zizinha), Maria de Lourdes (Lourdinha), Maria da Conceição (Lia), and Adelan. Their house was so much fun! And what was absolutely heavenly – they were thrilled that I had converted, and were ready to help me grow on the faith. I was free to go to the wonderful church a couple of blocks from their house, the Matriz de Nossa Senhora do Pilar, with Aparecida, every morning for daily Mass.
December 31, 1956, I had an entry in my journal: “I spent the evening at Our Lady of Pilar, on my knees, at Midnight Mass. I received in my heart my sweet Lord Jesus, for the second time during Mass, since my spectacular first communion, asking him to make his home in my heart forever, guiding my steps in the way to his Kingdom.” Oh joy!
Padre Guerino was the pastor of Pilar, and he continued where Padre Americo left off, becoming my spiritual director, helping me to set guiding posts to my spirituality.
I finished Middle School and was enrolled in the last three years of High School – the teacher formation track. Things improved for me. I had two close friends, both Catholic: Gloria and Vicencia. I did well, was still a very good writer (everyone loved my stories). My grandparents trusted me more, since – at Padre Americo’s urging — I obediently went with them to church (back to the Methodist church downtown).
So much so that I had a real party for my 15th birthday, in April, for our relatives and friends. The only sadness for me was not being able to go to Mass. But I did promise Jesus that I would always be his pure and faithful bride. I accomplished the impossible, and celebrated the first anniversary of my baptism with a special communion service at St.Sebastian’s – all the work of my dear Padre Americo.
I found other ways to exercise my faith. On the way to Izabella there was the beautiful Gothic cathedral- like Basilica of Our Lady of Lourdes. It was up on the hill from Avenida Bias Fortes, from where it could be accessed by climbing the steps of a side street. I would leave home early, pretend I had eaten my breakfast, and run up the steps, almost every day, to go to morning Mass. I loved that church! It had a replica of the grotto at Lourdes, with water coming from under Mary’s feet, and St. Bernadette kneeling before the apparition. I was so grateful that the Mother of my Lord could be with us on earth, any time she felt like it, to bless us with her presence, and her gifts, and take us ever closer to the heart of Jesus.
Then I found another way to be with my Lord on Sundays. Across from the new building of the First Methodist church, stood another beautiful church: the Matriz of St. Joseph. I’d be with my grandparents at the morning service, and when we’d break for Sunday School, I would escape and run over to St Joseph’s for Sunday Mass. I asked one of my friends at church to cover for me. I told her I had to meet my boyfriend in secret. My grandparents could not find out. One day that Grandpa was looking for me all over, she did just that, and told him she had seen me in our class and that I was probably in the restroom.
In Love with Love
Struggling with the new, impudent feeling that had taken root in my heart, that had me writing poetry and reading romance upon romance, writing furiously in my diary odes to love, love letters to Waldir, reading Song of Songs over and over again. That root was turning into a tree under which I sat and dreamed.
To the window in my study:
“The precious window in my study is such a great friend and confidante! From it I can see Waldir in his room every night, and we talk for hours. This indiscreet window has been a Purgatory for me. I’m getting calluses on my elbows from hanging from its sill, and my knees are red from kneeling, looking for my Beloved. It’s more like a confessional than anything!
It has heard the most delicious conversations. She’s very nice, but really, I am getting tired of this. Window dating is passé, like from the XVIII century. Two alleys and a wall separate us. If I were a gazelle, I could jump through the space and into his arms. Yet, I can’t, so I must wait. But if this lasts much longer, I’ll give up, go back to the convent and tell him to go jump in the lake… But… Ok, I guess I’ll go back to the window.”
A long time ago, before the great break-up, that little 13 year old had written him a love letter that I had hidden in his room, capriciously, after we had a silly fight:
“Forgive me, my darling. Let me tell you that I couldn’t sleep last night. I’ll never forget you, never! I’ll always be yours, only yours, forever, no matter what.” Heleni
“Today I asked him, from the window, of course, if he still had it. He did! He showed it to me, and read it aloud. And I repeated the words of that little girl:
Forgive me, my darling. This time it’s a little harder to forgive, but know that I never, nevermore, could forget you, because I loved you then, and love you more still, now, with all my heart.
The pages of my diary burned with my anxious obsession. “I want you with all my heart, my darling, my love, yearning for your kisses, for your embrace, for your love. I want to quench in your arms this fever of love that devours me! Come back to me, beloved, my eternal love, come take refuge in my arms, that I might tell you how much I love you, forever! Do not ever leave me, my love, my desire!”
I shared my yearnings with St. Agnes, my sweet little friend. I’d tell her about this violent feeling that had taken possession of me. I never thought that I could love a human being with so much fervor, almost the same way I loved Jesus, except perhaps for the kissing and embracing part… I want him near me, now, and not only from that window. Help me, Agnes! Pray for me! Pray that he will want me as much as I want him. Pray that he will want to hold me in his arms, and kiss me, like in the past.
It might have been through her intercession, I don’t know, but that same night he came to my house, and we sat, held hands, and talked, for hours.
A few weeks later, on his side of the alley, under his window, hidden from the sight of all, he took me in his arms, and kissed me, long and passionately. We couldn’t get enough of each other, and stayed there, in the warm night, under the stars, all alone, he kissed me all over, my lips, my neck, my breasts, with the hunger of years. I surrendered to his passion with the same thirst for love. It was a good thing that we knew we had boundaries that we should never cross, or we would have consummated our love right there and then.
I knew I was obsessed with Waldir. I knew I breathed and lived thinking about him. I went to bed dreaming with his kisses, and woke up wishing the day would go faster so the night would bring him to me. Being next door neighbors made it easy to be always within reach.
I knew my grandparents were worried about me. I seemed to be always on the extremes – either religious or lusting for my lover. I was only 15. Would I survive adolescence, or would I have to be married, pregnant? In the fifties there was no way out. No contraceptives. And even if there were, I’d never think of using them. It was an absolute no-no for the Church I had adopted. Chastity and virginity were the ideal for a young woman to find a husband.
We’d come to the edges of ecstasy, and he – more mature, more controlled, would draw away from me, and leave me there, breathless. It didn’t take me long to become orgasmic, and at first I’d wonder what that new sensation was all about. I just knew I wanted more of it. As I wrote in my diary, I was in “combustion,” consumed with desire for his body. What had happened to the holy child of God?
The only outlets were the good friends I had at school. We traded stories and experiences, shared each other’s journals, and tried to calm each other’s yearnings. It was a good thing to be in an all- girl school. Fortunately, my grades didn’t suffer much, I remained a good student.
My 16th birthday was lots of fun. It was Sunday, and I knew I could not manage to go to Mass. I had to go to the Methodist church with Grandma. The desire of my heart was to receive communion at St. Sebastian’s, not eat the little piece of bread and drink the little cup of grape juice, or like I’d put it, “comungar protestantemente.”
Yet, I knelt down with my folks, and while they said their prayers, I confessed my many sins to the Lord, asked him to forgive me, please. Kneeling at the communion table I asked him:
“Lord, one more time I ask you to forgive my hypocrisy. You know how much I desire to receive you in the Holy Eucharist, body, soul, and divinity, in my unworthy heart. It didn’t work out this way for us today. Your will be done… Yet, you are all powerful and ever present with us. I know you are here with me, I feel your presence. Come to my heart, then. I am not worthy to receive you in my heart, but say one word, and I shall be saved. Give me this birthday gift today.”
I ate the bread and drank of the fruit of the vine, and I felt the sweetness of his presence, filling my soul with peace.
As I said above, the party was fun. Our families were together, every one of them. As part of the fun and games we played one called “rustic marriage.” Waldir had failed to win one game, so his penalty was to find himself a wife. After rejecting every one else, he came to me and asked me to marry him. Grandma asked him why (it was part of the game) and he explained, winking at me:
“Because she needs to get married.” Aunt Neusa went to the piano and played the Nuptial March, and we walked in, holding hands. Everyone had to give their opinion about the newlyweds and they were all very positive. Great fun!
Later, as I had done for him, he wrote me a little “love note.” I read it in bed, and was overwhelmed. He said he loved me more than I could believe, and that he was happy to be part of my life. He promised to be always with me, at my side, looking after me, admiring me, and loving me.
The lust of the flesh
Waldir was the first to pull the brakes on our out of control love life. He told me he thought that we were going overboard on the kissing, hugging, touching, etc. That we had a couple of years ahead of us before we could get married, and that we needed to be careful.
I agreed. I had always thought that the love that God endowed us with, was holy, pure, divine, full of concern for each other’s well-being, full of the presence of God with us, he who is love itself. As Victor Hugo once wrote – “Love? It’s to be two and be one. A man and a woman that melt into each other and become an angel. It is heaven.”
So I curled chastely in his arms, my head in his chest, and prayed that God would help us to love each other with self-control. That we’d aim to yearn not only for the physical, but also for the spirituality of our love – the understanding, the tenderness, the trust, the hope for a blessed life ahead of us. And we promised that when one of us would let the flesh conquer reason, we’d call on the Holy Spirit to give us strength to resist.
And I did return to my first love. That Good Friday, contemplating my Lord all bloody and hurting on that cruel cross, I asked forgiveness for my sins, asked him to come and be my Lord once again, and allow me to be his servant, doing all the good I could for his children on earth. I prayed for Waldir, the man who God had chosen to be part of my life, to share that great love God had put in my heart. And the sweetness of his love filled my soul with peace.
The fact that Waldir was now traveling a lot for his post-doctoral training helped us. But at home I had new problems with my grandmother. She’d find prayers that I recorded in my school notebooks and rant and rage about my rebelliousness, and accuse me of trying to kill them slowly. “I will send you back to your father in the farm, and you will never see Waldir again!” she’d threaten. And as I would burst into tears, she’d say – “Call on your Mother of God to come rescue you, to help you! Certainly she will come to your aid!”
She would spy on me at night, and if she’d see me on my knees praying, she’d come to my room and ask to which devil was I now praying to. She’d heap abuse upon me until I’d burst into tears and cry myself to sleep.
At the end of my rope, I decided to run away. I’d go to Pitangui, to stay with my dear friend Aparecida. I’d hide in the church where nobody could get me. I wept and prayed all night. In the morning even Lica was alarmed by my pale countenance.
I told Waldir as we walked together to school. He would walk with me to his English class as I would leave on my way to school. He said for me not to make rash decisions; to wait at least until that night when we could talk about it. Talk and kiss, and hug some more, and my plans were forgotten, even when I came in after he left, and Grandma accused me of being a slut, and an easy lay. I couldn’t win!
We endured the short separations of two or three days as if they were months! And when he returned, the fight against the lust of the flesh would assail us again. We could not be left alone in a “place where nobody could see us…”
Problems in the home front
My falling out of control in love brought a backlash at home, especially from my Grandmother. We now had clashes not only because of religion but also because of what she thought was my sexual obsession with Waldir. But ever so slowly I was becoming more mature, and with maturity came a more philosophical attitude about her aggression. I was now able to confront her attacks without feeling so terribly hurt. I was actually talking back, and that was intolerable for her. She threatened to send me back to my Dad in Caparaó and I said sure, I’d gladly go. The situation got so out of hand that she hit me on the face, in public. That did it for me. I really wanted out of her reach, away from the verbal abuse that was becoming intolerable.
Grandpa felt sorry for me, but he feared her outbursts, and her rages. I felt that he had to keep the peace. Many times he would come to my rescue, interfering against her physical attacks. But the truth was – everyone was afraid of Dona Miluca. She had full control of her family under duress.
The stress at home was affecting my relationship with Waldir also. We had many disagreements, and love spats, that wouldn’t last long though, but burn out in the fire of our kisses and embraces.
In the summer of 1958 Waldir was given a teaching assistantship and internship at the Medical School in Rio de Janeiro, to work on his Master’s in Pharmacology. It was an honor and a realization of his plans for the future – a scholarship to study in the United States.
I was proud of Waldir and heartbroken at the same time, at the prospect of having him so far away. How could I survive without his daily presence with me? Deep down I knew that this separation would be good for us, in more ways than one.
In my last year of High School, finishing the formation coursework that would give me a certification to teach elementary school, I was working hard to keep good grades, studying with dedication. That helped the time pass rapidly, although I longed for Waldir’s presence, and our love filled letters to each other were small consolation.
Being a 17 year old young adult I had more freedom, and less fear of disapproval to continue growing in the knowledge of the faith I had embraced. I kept on running to Our Lady of Lourdes for daily Mass. I grieved the death of Pope Pius XII, and rejoiced at the election of John XXIII whose kind countenance I admired on television. I prayed for him, that God would give him the wisdom and the loving heart to guide his Church in the right direction by the power of the Holy Spirit.
I became less self-centered and more concerned with the social issues and the well-being of people whose lives intersected with mine. And then, another good thing happened. I was called to be a substitute teacher at the Mauricio Murgel School where my Aunt Neusa was a music teacher. And I loved the experience. Here is what I wrote in my journal:
“Today there were tears in the classroom. Poor dear children! I suffered on seeing them suffer… I believe I will continue to enjoy teaching them, and this may turn out to be really a good career for me. These children entrusted to my care, those little birds, so diverse in their plumage, and personality, which I must help to nurture, and develop, I love them as if they were my own children.
It’s so nice to hear them say to me: ‘We like you so much, Dona Heleni! You are our little doll…’ I could tell you about blond Camilo chatterbox. I can’t make him be quiet one minute! But I know this shows he’s smart and intelligent. Christopher, that little piece of humanity that can make himself insupportable! But oh… he does try to write his exercises with the very best letters he can, just to come show them to me, proudly. Cleonice, of the golden hair, with her doll face, always following me around; Victor, the best behaved one, is no trouble at all, always does his homework, and is the best teacher’s helper I can get in every need. And then there’s Ana Maria – so plain and annoying, poor little thing! Lazy, disobedient, but so loving and so sweet! She has a problem in her eyes that keeps her from coming to school many days. If I could choose the most beautiful it would be Tania Mara, dark skinned, with great big green eyes that remind me of Waldir’s, long raven hair down to her shoulders, which makes her look like a little Indian girl. Lovely! But not exactly hard working, although very intelligent; regretfully, in the end, I could not give her passing grades to go to the next level. And I watched with sadness the pouting rosy lips, and the tears in her eyes.
Thus I love them all, without reservations as to their race, color, gender, or social position. They are my little babies, even when they annoy me to tears with their lack of discipline!”
The prose in my journal grew more mature and poetic. I delighted in the beauty of nature, the flowers, birds, sunshine of early Spring. I became more and more contemplative and wondered how our memory was like a magical box full of surprises. “Sometimes, when we least expect, a little jack-in -the-box will jump out, reminding us of long forgotten memories that we thought dead and buried, but that were nevertheless very alive, buried in the depths of our unconsciousness. Here I am, taking out jewels from this secret coffer. Good or bad, they are there; ready to come to us when we need to remember something, or someone. In my journal, my good friend and confidante, I left all the impressions of my heart throughout the years. What for? — I would sometimes wonder. What good would do me these volumes, mirrors that record faithfully my soul in what it has of good or evil? Ciro dos Anjos says that a daily journal is the equivalent of a slow suicide… and Gregorio Maranon added that ‘when we leave in the paper the happenings of our daily lives, our actions and our thoughts, we feel as if this personality that appears in this biographic novel is not ourselves, but only marionettes with our faces and our personality.’ ”
I read voraciously everything that came my way. Victor Hugo, my preferred writer, Ciro dos Anjos, José de Alencar, Annna Sewell’s Black Beauty. I enjoyed Abilio Barreto’s A Noiva do Tropeiro so much that I wished I could also someday write a book, be a good writer.
That December was a busy time for me. Preparations for graduation, for Waldir’s return, and for Christmas. For the first time we talked about getting married in a few months. Waldir talked about the apartment we’d rent in Copacabana and how wonderful it’d be to live in the marvelous city – Rio de Janeiro. I tried not to get too excited.
Christmas Day! I woke up smelling the sweetness of cinnamon. Lica must be frying the French Toasts (rabanadas). Christmas breakfast was delicious! Home baked bread and cookies and the famous rabanadas. I also could sense the more pungent smell of the bacalhau (cod fish), a Portuguese tradition. Christmas wasn’t Christmas without the thick chunks of the cooked fish that I loved to take apart in my plate in slivers, like scales. We’d eat it with potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, collard greens, great big green olives, boiled eggs, all well infused with Portuguese extra virgin olive oil, right off the press. Then there’d be golden milk pudding swimming in burnt sugar syrup, as well as boiled chestnuts, and walnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts, to be cracked and eaten with dried figs.
Later in the evening the whole family would be together for the evening meal. We both looked gorgeous – me in my new dress that I had sewn myself, Waldir in his nice navy blazer, white shirt, and a suspicious smile in his emerald eyes.
I was amazed when his whole family showed up to celebrate with us. How wonderful!
“I suppose the roof caved in at my house…” Waldir commented, facetiously.
A few minutes later, I was called to the living room, where everybody sat, chatting. I stood there, perplexed.
“What’s going on? Why is everyone staring at me?” I asked, blushing now.
My mother spoke out, with glee:
“You and Waldir have been given in marriage, my dear! You’re engaged!”
They had done it the old-fashioned way. Waldir’s father, Senhor Mario, had asked my Grandfather if they would accept Waldir’s proposal to espouse his granddaughter. The answer was positive.
I, as in a dream, glared at the shiny pair of gold rings my mother was holding in the palm of her hand. She, ceremoniously, slipped one in Waldir’s finger and he picked the other one up and turned to me.
“Will you marry me, Heleni?”
My eyes were moist with happiness as I affirmed:
“Oh yes, my lord and master!” as he slipped the golden ring in my finger. Applause, as we embraced lovingly and he kissed me chastely on the lips.
The piano burst into the Chopin’s Polonaise under tia Neusa’s fingers.
I woke up next morning thinking it had all been a beautiful dream. But then I looked at the golden ring on my finger. It was real. He was mine now, this wonderful man I loved so much!
In a few days he was gone again, and I was left, in tears of despair. Only my long talks with Jesus would calm down my restless heart. The long weeks of separation were unbearable,but I was pleased to know that I had received my first full-time appointment at Izabella Hendrix to teach a first grade class.
Saint Sebastian Feast Day
One of my greatest pleasures was to babysit for my little sister Lucia. I loved her so much, and thought she was the most wonderful little girl in the world. We had fun playing games. She was so good and obedient. I just feared that when she stayed with Grandma that she’d be seduced by her religious ideas. And I prayed that Jesus would protect her from being seduced.
Another great pleasure was to finally participate of one of our great church celebrations – January 20th, the day of St. Sebastian. I told Grandma I was going to see a movie with Waldir’s sister Vanda…
When we got to the church it was almost full of the faithful. The church was brilliant with lights and flowers. The vestments of the Brothers of the Holy Sacrament, the veil of the Holy of Holies, were bright red, amid the profusion of red carnations, the color of the martyr’s blood.
I was transported to that baby church in the Roman catacombs, pure and worshipful, when we sang the Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabbaot to me the most solemn moment of the liturgy, when we fall on our knees in worship of our great and wonderful, infinite God. “I love You, I adore You, I worship You, my Lord and my God!”
And I looked at Him, sublime, divinely glorious, yet in the form of a tiny host, the supreme miracle of the infinite love of a God who limited himself to physical matter to come live in our hearts. I prayed that His precious Blood would wash my soul of every stain of sin. And the sacred chalice, lifted up on the hands of the celebrant, shone with profuse scintillation from the fragile candlelight, and I thought about the Precious Blood that had been poured out for us on the cross and now hid in the form of wine to keep us remembering the transcendent mystery of Emmanuel.
Dominus, non sum dignus… but because of your great love, come make your home in my heart, Jesus!
Agnus Dei qui tollis pecata mundi…miserere nobis… melting in my mouth, filling my soul with peace… Anima Christi …
And then, St. Sebastian was carried in triumph on the shoulders of soldiers, like him, in the procession that left the church to go through the streets of our Barro Preto neighborhood, with the applause and acclamation of the faithful to their patron saint.
I walked along, as in a dream, hardly believing the gift of being able to participate of such splendid festivity. My eyes on the dark blue sky, full of brilliant stars, by the light of a silver moon, I followed slowly amidst my fellow worshipers, the triumphant march of our Saint Sebastian. Fireworks cracked and music poured forth from the brass band. It was all true, I was participating of a spectacle of faith and exuberant joy, one of the happiest days of my life, in a very long time. A dream come true, all with the help of my friend and future sister-in-law who walked hand in hand with her boyfriend José.
Next day was my little friend St. Agnes day. She had no feast, but I went to visit her, and talk to her about this anniversary of the day when she had heroic and selflessly given her young life, her pure and immaculate life, in holocaust, because she loved Jesus.
I looked at her, with her innocent face, her long hair falling on her shoulders, the white tunic and the Princess diadem of precious stones, walking to martyrdom, without hesitation. It was because of this that I loved her, because of that amazing faith that caused her to reject human love for the love of Jesus. That faith and that love that caused her to offer her tender neck to the ax of the executioner rather than reject her Lord and Savior. Thus she united her blood to the blood of all those young martyrs that became the rock foundation of our church.
I looked at Agnes, my little friend, with that delicious little smile on her lips, and a surprising serenity on the beautiful eyes that looked at me, kneeling at her feet. How beautiful was the soft little sacrificial lamb she carried in her arms, pure and innocent, to be immolated , like her! In her other hand she carried a green palm — attesting to her martyr’s crown. Pray for me, Agnes, and for all young girls in this world, that we might follow your example and never fear those who can kill the body, but cannot kill our soul. Help me to be like you were – faithful to Jesus unto death.
Sojourn in Pitangui
I was suddenly assailed by a strong desire to go to Pitangui to visit my good friend Aparecida. Having asked and been granted permission from my Grandpa to go alone for a few days, I was ready to revisit that sacred place of my childhood, to breathe the fresh air of its mountains, to walk the old streets full of tradition, overjoyed to see my beloved friends once again. Not to mention the opportunity to be very near my Lord now that I needed Him so badly.
I missed Waldir terribly. I knew I loved him tenderly, that he was my enchanted prince, yet, there was this nagging feeling in my soul, that I was alone in loving so much. I kept reminding myself of the many times he had said he loved me, of the ardor of his desire when he would hug me and kiss me, of the lovely letters he’d write, telling me how much he missed me. But… I could not beat that nagging, insecure feeling. Thus I hoped that this sojourn, this retreat away from everything and everyone, would help me see clearly if he loved me enough to espouse me, to take responsibility for our future together.
My arrival was sensational. All my dear friends greeted me with great joy. And every stone I stepped on in those centenary streets, awakened in me sweet memories of that wounded fourteen year old that found great consolation and spiritual direction for her life among its people. How much I missed my little spiritual homeland!
At the colonial Our Lady of Pilar’s church, tears came to my eyes, taking in everything that was familiar to me – the long nave with its tall columns, the simple dark wood altar enthroning that beautiful statue of Our Lady smiling at us. Here I had truly learned to love Jesus and to make him the Lord of my life.
I wrote in my journal: “The sun sinks slowly behind the towering mountains, coloring the white clouds in rose, blue and pale orange. Positively, the sunset is a marvelous sight to behold in Pitangui. Shadows grow over the silent city. In some homes the first lights look like fiery stars climbing the hills. The great incandescence of the sun disappears behind the mountains making the clouds— now silver blue — look like great banana trees against the horizon.
The church bells ring out six in the evening. The celestial echoes of the Ave Maria sound over the rooftops, reminding us of the Angelus – ‘the angel of the Lord announced to Mary…’ faced with such beauty, I lower my head, and my soul soars toward the throne of my King.”
Next day the sky was a clear blue, transparent, brilliant, without any clouds. In the distance the great imperial palm tree of Lavrado was shaking its centenary palm leaves in the tepid morning sun. The day was wonderful. In Aparecida’s words, it was like little angels had washed, scrubbed, shined the skies during the rainy days to make them look so limpid this morning.
On my knees in the old Saint Francis church, I prayed for wisdom and discernment to find out without a shadow of a doubt if marriage was the right thing for me and Waldir. I asked to be free from doubts about God’s plans for our lives.
With humility I faced the root of my insecurity. The fact that Waldir himself had told me many times that he wasn’t absolutely sure that he loved me enough. Perhaps he felt that he could not love me as much as I loved him? Did this show his insecurity about the commitment of marriage? I needed to know. I needed to understand.
I had made a pact with him to be in a church, wherever he’d be at 7:00 p.m. so that we’d both be in prayer at the same time. I prayed that God would bless us both with understanding to follow unreservedly His will for our lives. I offered our hearts – so full of problems, of doubts, of insecurities. I asked Him to take our weakness and make them into a stronghold of faith and dedicated service to one another. “Lord, I put my life into your hands. Take it, and make it into that which is pleasing to you.”
Later I met with Pitangui’s saintly parish priest, Padre Guerino. He recognized me as the young teenager that he had helped years ago. We talked first about my dilemma with my grandparents. I did not want to get married in the Methodist church. I wanted a beautiful Catholic Wedding Mass at St. Sebastian’s. My grandmother said that if I did that they would not attend, not even the civil ceremony, and that they would not give me anything, not even the traditional trousseau – things that I had made myself, as well as gifts and things for the home, collected through the years. Waldir and I didn’t really care about that, but I did feel guilty about what they called my ingratitude. I felt for them, including my beloved Aunt Neusa, about making them suffer, because of their incomprehension.
As for my insecurity about being sure that Waldir loved me enough – as I dialogued with Padre Guerino I tried to be honest with myself. I recognized that Waldir was a very complicated and indecisive person; at some point I tried to convince myself that he did love me indeed, and was just not sure enough to tell me clearly and unequivocally. But he mentioned this uncertainty so many times, that I had started having doubts about the wisdom of marrying someone that was so ambivalent about loving his future wife.
Padre Guerino was surprised at this, and counseled me to have a real heart to heart talk with my fiancé about his feelings for me. “Ask him to be honest with you. After two years of this relationship, he should have a clearer notion of his love for you.”
And then I mentioned my own uncertainty about my vocation – marriage or the religious life? I was reading Fulton Sheen’s The Miracle of Love and he asked what had been my reaction.
“Doubts!” I answered. “A great interior struggle; many times I feel that being a wife and mother is the best way to serve the Lord; then I am filled with joy when I think how wonderful it’d be to live totally consecrated to His service, dwelling in the house of the Lord forever! And I am filled with doubts, and don’t know what to do…”
Padre Guerino gave me a little book to read The Secular Vocation. He told me to trust God for wisdom and discernment to know which way to go.
I went back to the church and fell on my knees and asked God to have pity on his poor child. I had opened my heart, confessed everything that was bothering me, but now, feeling so small and humble, and even impotent facing such great problems, I really needed to have His powerful hand to guide me. Like Mary, my mother, who smiled at me, blessing me, I repeated her words: “I am your servant, Lord. Let it be done to me according to your will.”
I had a dream that night. Waldir had arrived without telling me. When I found out he was home I went looking for him, humbly, and he didn’t even look at me. My suffering was intense, and I woke up in tears, feeling the pain of rejection, as if it had been real. Was it a sign? An answer to my prayers? An omen of things to come?
Marriage or the convent – the Call
“My darling, I’ll be home Friday. A thousand kisses.”
Who can understand a man’s heart? What did I feel when I read his telegram, sent to Pitangui where he knew I was? Joy? Sadness? Confusion? I wouldn’t know…
I looked up to heaven and asked – is this a sign?
I had just arrived from church where I had asked the Lord for his help, for I felt terribly alone and uncertain. Deep in my heart I wanted to believe that this was the answer, but I remained unsure.
Padre Guerino recommended silence, prayer, and contemplation.
My last day in Pitangui was sober. It had been a wonderful week, full of hope and love. It had been a preparation for the future and a test of my faith. Surrounded and upheld by the love of my friends I should be ready to return home and take the next steps on my journey.
I returned to the sad reality of my family life. No more towering palm trees, hills covered with vegetation, the baroque architecture contrasting with the humble white washed homes. I left behind my beloved palm tree of Lavrado, and Our Lady of Pilar.
That last day, when I looked one more time over the beloved city, I wished to keep that remembrance forever engraved in my retina for I already had it in my heart. The sky was overcast when Aparecida and I walked to church for the last time, and during Mass I thanked God for the wonderfully peaceful days he had allowed me to enjoy, with my dear friends.
I stayed there a few minutes, looking sorrowfully at my Lord, and then we left, perhaps forever, the beloved church. It started raining then. Heavy drops, like the tears that rolled down my cheeks.
“The clouds are crying for you, my love,” said Aparecida. I hid my head on her shoulder.
“I am so afraid…” I sobbed.
“God will be with you, always at your side. He will straighten up the way for you. You will be very happy. Remember I will be here praying for you, always!”
I stepped out of the bus in Belo Horizonte with a bitter taste in my mouth. I felt I was walking toward the gallows. In Pitangui I felt that I had an aura of protection against evil, against temptation, against sin, all around me. Here I’d have to fight to the end. But a plan had formed in my mind. I was ready for it.
The next morning I woke up with a hymn of love in my lips: “Jesus, I love you!”
How wonderful it was to go to sleep in His arms and wake up with a song of praise in my lips!
Before going to Izabella, part of the plan came to my mind. “Look for the Superior of the Saint Anthony Orphanage and talk to her,” Padre Guerino had recommended. Here was my opportunity. As the bus rolled through the streets full of people coming and going, I felt like I was going to heaven.
Arriving at the Orphanage I came through the iron gates and knelt at the feet of St Anthony. I asked for his help.
“Can you tell me how I can speak with the Mother Superior?” I asked the attendant at the door. She told me to ring the bell at the back door. I was about to do that when the door opened and a young woman stepped through.
“I’d like to speak to the Mother Superior,” I repeated.
“She’s not in today, only her assistant.”
“All right, I’ll speak to the assistant then.”
She asked my name and I told her I had come on the recommendation of Padre Guerino, from Pitangui.
She ushered me to a waiting room. I sat down, and looked around. It was a rectangular room, with portraits on the walls. Pius XII, an older priest, perhaps the Archbishop, and in the center a beautiful painting of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I felt a great peace, as I waited in silence. This was an oasis amidst the tribulations of the outside world, a little piece of heaven in the hell of the mundane life. Suddenly I felt an intense joy, so great, tears came to my eyes.
I was trembling, though. I had no idea who that person was that would come to talk with me. And what should I say? I was so lost… But I looked at His portrait, looked into His eyes. He was there, with me, there was no doubt. Jesus, you know how much I wanted to be all yours, with all my heart and soul.
You were smiling at me, with your divine kindness, calling me to be not your servant, but your friend, forever living in your house, your spouse, your child; all I had to do was to say yes.
Then she came in. She was beautiful. With that radiant beauty that came from deep down a pure soul. Dressed in her Franciscan brown habit, she came toward me with an angelic smile on her lips, such a heavenly smile that made me feel totally at home. I offered my hand. She took it between her soft ones.
“Good afternoon! Praised be our Lord Jesus Christ!”
“May he be praised forever!” I answered.
She sat at my side. Suddenly the words poured from my mouth with an unexpected clarity:
“Sister, Padre Guerino from Pitangui told me to come talk with the Mother Superior. But I heard she’s not here today?”
“Yes, she went to Rio, but I am the Assistant.”
“Then I will tell you…”
I thought that it’d be very difficult to express my need, but the words poured out of my mouth, sweetly, as if I was saying the most natural thing in the world:
“Sister, I want to be a nun…”
I was expecting a face marked by years of work and prayer, and I saw before me a young woman, not much older than myself. I was expecting indifference and rejection and I found solidarity. I was expecting a negative, and found a warm and loving welcome; I expected a somber countenance, and I found a joyful one that looked at me with affection and excitement. She irradiated love, happiness, holiness and purity. She was my ideal, what I wanted for myself, that young nun so beautiful, so happy. Her smile was divine as she asked:
“How old are you?”
“You’re still a pure little soul!”
When I asked how old a girl had to be to enter a convent, she answered:
“You can, right now, my daughter, even today… Since 15…”
“Well… I wish it’d be so easy!”
I told her everything then. Everything I was suffering for my religion. I told her about my family, my early vocation. She listened, lived with me those episodes of my life, like a confession, attentively.
She calmed my fears, that even if my family decided I was a minor and tried to rescue me, the sisters would take me in, and help me, support me all the way. She ran inside and returned with a novena to St. Francis and a tiny satin heart she said was a relic of the Pascal Candle at the Vatican, called Agnus Dei. She said all the nuns had one.
“Keep it close to your heart, Heleni. An eighteen-year-old beautiful girl like you, in this city, and coming from another religious background, you are here because you have been chosen by our Lord. Pray at all times, keep your heart centered on Jesus, ask Our Lady to protect you. Certainly she wants you for her Son!”
I asked her to keep me in her prayers as I went back into the fray. She held my hands in hers:
“I am going to consecrate you right now to Our Lady, Heleni. I was also as old as you when I was professed, and I feel as happy today as I felt that wonderful day. Everything will work out, you will see!”
I said nothing about being engaged to be married. She didn’t notice the ring on my right hand. She accompanied me to the door, and I turned back to see her sweet smile.
Sister Gertrude, you will know in heaven what good that holy conversation did for me!
Back in the chapel, I thought I was dreaming. Lord, I am not worth such wonderful grace! I felt small and miserable faced by such immense love and care poured out on me.
From my diary February 2, 1959:
“Oh Lord! My Lord and my God! I cannot say like Zacharias that I don’t believe in so much grace being offered to me, because I would be doubting your amazing grace. I want to say like your Mother: ‘How will this take place if I am so unworthy?’
My God, I cannot express the state you left my soul in, except by saying that I am happy, so happy, so ecstatic, as I never thought I’d be, ever, in my life!
Jesus, my Beloved Jesus, I have no words to thank you; my human vocabulary is too restricted to express the praise you put in my heart. It is like you have transfixed, penetrated, illuminated all the dark little corners until my whole being is bright as sunlight, my heart sings, sings with joy and happiness: “Jesus, I love you! I love you, my Lord and God!”
I did go to work that first day of classes. My first grade class was wonderful. Twenty five gifted little kids, a joy to behold.
I felt like I needed to talk to someone, and Padre Americo was out of town, so I thought of Padre Marcianno, the chaplain of the hospital where my mother worked. I needed all the support I could gather, and being my mother’s confessor and great friend, Padre Marcianno could help to engage her help and her consent for me to enter the convent. Sister Gertrude had said that if she’d sign a consent, I should have no problems. I did not want to put her into jeopardy with her parents whom I knew she respected and perhaps even feared.
He was available, and heard me with concern. He simply loved the idea, contrary to my fears. And then he said something that filled me with hope:
“Honey, you are not a minor anymore. Being eighteen years old, you are able to make your own decisions, by law and by the Church. You can enter the convent whenever you feel like going, without having anyone’s permission.”
I was some happy girl when I left the hospital. I was ready to run into the arms that Jesus extended to me from the cross. All the obstacles removed, He reminded me of the prayer of that twelve year old girl, full of love: “Lord, make me your spouse! I want to live for you, I want to be all yours, mind, heart and soul, my God!”
And later, after my baptism, in exaltation: “Jesus, if you really want me, until May 31, 1959, I will be all yours.” That would have been after my 18th birthday in April.
Now the way was open, and I would walk in it, or better, I would run into the arms of Jesus.
The final confirmation came from Padre Americo, whom I finally got to talk to, that same night. It was very important for me to get his support. He was my spiritual father, the one who took my hand when I was a little child and gently guided me to Jesus, the one who understood the thirst of that little soul for the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. I could trust his wisdom because he was always there for me to show me he understood, and loved me, and was always ready with his good counsel.
I told him the happenings of that wonderful day. And his response left me astounded by so many graces God was pouring into my life.
“As I see it, my daughter, Our Lord clearly wants you to himself. Fight the good fight, Heleni. I believe this is truly your vocation. A young woman like you, engaged to be married, who is ready to leave it all for the love of Jesus, there’s no doubt in my mind, it is a great grace that he’s giving you. So, talk to your fiancé. Ask him to give you some time to make a decision. Then go back to talk to the Mother Superior, get everything ready. When everything is ready, call a family meeting of your grandparents, your fiancé, and your mother. Tell them sincerely your situation. Explain to them that this is what you want, what you feel is the way you want to go, what you know is your call. I am sure their reaction will be terrible. Stay strong. Trust in the Lord and He will help you. And then, get your things, and leave. You will suffer, for them, and with them, but on the other hand you will have a life full of happiness, of accomplishment, forever. I will always pray for you, my dear. Keep your mind on the lives of St. Therese, St. Rita and so many others that had to fight for their convictions. Since you will need a lot of support, you can come talk to me, any time you’ll need. I am here for you.”
When I left his office I thought I had seen a piece of heaven! My God, please, do not let me wake up from this dream…I prayed.
And this is what my Beloved said to me when I opened my Bible:
Certainly goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will live in the House of the Lord, forevermore.
My little students were lovely. Twenty five gifted boys and girls between six and seven years old. So smart and so eager to learn! They were no trouble at all, except when they’d ask permission to go out and play… Poor things! They were still unaware of the struggles of life!
I was terrified of the confrontation with Waldir. I had no idea what his reaction would be. If he really did not love me, he’d be relieved. I was ready to resist all temptations, and I knew he would find it very strange.
At the school, while I taught my little ones that one little apple plus 2 little apples made 3 little apples, I couldn’t stop thinking how I could run away from this disagreeable situation.
But finally I came by his house and steeled myself, as I entered and found him and his professors in the living room. I went up to him, extended my hand, and asked if they had made a good trip. Dr. Lauro Sollero, his boss, looked me up and down approvingly, and told me how Waldir was totally in love with me, what a good scientist he was turning out to be, etc. I prayed silently for strength.
Although I tried hard to avoid all occasion of being alone with him, I could not avoid his furtive kisses every time he could steal them. We finally parted, and I gave a sigh of relief. The first night was over.
Next day Waldir was sad and quiet. He understood, I thought. Something was amiss. I was different. I sat at his side, saying nothing, but inside my heart something was about to crumble. It’s now or never! I thought. So I took the gold ring off my finger and gave it to him:
“Waldir, I love you very much, you know that. But I made a discovery these last weeks we were away from each other. I found out that what I really want to do is to become a nun. I want to go to the convent, to serve the Lord all my life.” And I told him the whole story. When I finished, he looked at me in astonishment.
“You are not kidding, are you?”
“No, I really do love Jesus, and I think I really have a vocation, a call to be a nun, to serve the Lord full time…”
He was quiet, staring at me with those wonderful, quizzical green eyes of his.
“Well… I don’t think I can compete with Jesus… but what do you think you’ll do in a convent? Set fire to it?” I remembered he had said his same thing when we met at the Praça.
I said nothing, but my heart was melting away slowly.
“Come here…” he said with a sarcastic smile. “I’ll show you how much you want to go to a convent.”
And he pulled me to his side, enfolded me in his arms. Instinctively I surrounded him with mine. I just wanted to be comforted… His head was on my breast, and my lips brushed against the dark curls I loved to stroke…I was sorry I was so weak, and I resisted. And then his lips found my mouth and he kissed me passionately. I knew I was returning the passion, and I hated myself for it. He got up, and did not let me go.
“Come,” he said. “One more time and then I’ll let you go… to the convent.” He was breathless.
I really knew better then let him pull me into his bedroom. When he sat on the bed and pulled me into his lap, I could still resist. Yet, I wouldn’t. I wasn’t strong enough. I knew that I loved him, knew that I yearned for this physical contact more than anything. I still fought him off feebly, and suddenly I burst into tears. He backed off, and his hands were tender now.
“I am sorry, my love. I won’t bring you in here anymore…” His bedroom was our secret place, where we spent many hours of lovemaking — as chaste as we knew how far we could go.
This made me weep even harder. My brain on fire, I clung to his body, thirstily I sought his mouth with mine and drowned in his passionate kisses. We searched each other’s bodies, my nipples in his mouth, our bodies melting into each other as we exploded in our incomplete togetherness.
We let go of each other finally, and lay there, breathless. His eyes were moist with desire. I didn’t want to think about it. I needed to go home. I stood up, straightened my clothes. Silently he took my right hand and pushed the little golden ring back into my finger, kissed it. I did the same to his ring.
“Do you really love me, Waldir? Really and truly?” I asked, solemnly.
“More than anything in this world.” He was serious.
“Say the words!” I insisted.
He stood up, pulled me to himself gently, looking into my eyes.
“I do love you, my darling.” He said, in English.
We said good night with a tender kiss.
Later that week, my grandparents insisted that they’d like to have a meeting with Waldir, and asked me to invite him over to their house; I didn’t ask any questions, and just relayed the invitation.
He came over the next evening. I sat quietly in my end of the sofa, while they explained to Waldir that the situation in their home had become untenable because of my rebelliousness. I was the cause of discord and suffering for the whole family, because of my decision to become a Catholic. Therefore, they thought that the best solution was to marry me off as soon as possible.
To Waldir’s matter-of-fact explanation that to get married right away was not an option, as he was not yet prepared for that; he needed another year to finish up his post-graduation program, and make living arrangements for us in Rio.
Their proposal then was that, if I stayed at home, they’d not force me to go to their church with them, but they’d not allow me to go to “my” church either. If I continued to insist on a Catholic ceremony for the wedding, they’d take care of the civil ceremony, and then after that we’d be on our own.
The humiliation was painful for me. I felt it like a fire that would devour my soul. I fought back the tears that burned in my eyes. The pain of rejection suffered by the two-year-old child whose beloved daddy walked away, and whose mommy gave her away because she had her hands full with her little brother, washed over me like the waves of a storm tossed ocean.
Deep in my misery I prayed: “Please do not abandon me, Lord!”
I was only a little abandoned child, but my abandonment was not total. I felt a Presence with me. They did not notice, but He was there with me. I could feel his Sacred Heart beating with mine, his strong arm supporting me. “I am here with you. I will be with you until the end. Remember what I said: when they’d take you to be judged, do not fret over what you’d say. I will always be with those who love me, with those who confess that they are mine.”
I had a choice, they said. Stay with them. Obey their rules. After all I was the “princess” of the house, they stressed. They’d do all for me. One year wasn’t much.
I could live the farce, I could be a hypocrite, I could deny the faith that had been the bright light that guided me since I was a little kid. I could be nice to my family, my blood, my flesh and bones.
“Those who want to follow me and will not leave parents, brothers and sisters, for love of me, are not worthy of me…”
The struggle within me was raging. I could have said nothing. Accept whatever was their pleasure. It is also a great sacrifice, this obedience.
Jesus’s arms were open to me, as were my grandparents’. Who would I prefer?
And suddenly, as I had done 4 years before, on a beautiful day in May, I ran into my Savior’s embrace:
“And where should I go, if I have to leave here?” I asked, suddenly tearless.
Grandma hesitated a moment, but then spoke coldly: “To college, or to a pension for girls.”
“I am sorry to have caused all this pain, and I am really grateful for all that you have done for me. I do love you very much, but I cannot deny what I believe, cannot avoid the spirituality that is a gift from God that made me what I am.”
Waldir put his arm around my shoulders when I stood up.
“You don’t need to leave now… We’ll talk some more tomorrow,” said Grandpa in a conciliatory tone of voice.
Waldir said good-night and I left with him, in silence. At the front gate we said goodbye with a kiss, and I went back to my room, quietly.
The next morning I ran to St. Sebastian’s to talk to Padre Americo.
With his tender solicitude, he comforted me, and got on the telephone. He spoke to the Mother Superior of St. Therese’s pension for girls, and asked if she would have a place for me. He took me there, in his own car, to make arrangements. I loved the white house with green shutters on the windows, the great room where visitors could be entertained, the welcoming nuns, everything! I could be happy there, I thought. That place represented freedom of expression, a chance to really grow into the person God wanted me to be.
But I felt I needed to tell my mother about these new developments. Waldir accompanied me, and we told her everything that had come to pass. Mother thought the pension was a good idea, but she thought that, in her opinion, it’d be best for me to go live with her, because after all she was my mother, she loved me, she could take care of me, take care of the church wedding. She said she’d speak to her parents and Francisco.
The next morning I woke up with bells ringing, fireworks exploding. Alleluia! Christ is risen! Death could not keep him and he has triumphantly broken its chains. The sky is bluer, nature is rejoicing. There are flowers and lights on the altars. No more pain and sacrifice. Jesus lives and reigns eternally – King of Kings and Lord of Lords!
We don’t ever need to give in to despair. After the tempest, comes the sun. After Good Friday comes Easter Sunday. Alleluia!
After the family meeting of my grandparents and their daughter Aura, it was decided that I could continue living with them. For some reason, they could not part with me. They promised to be more understanding, and more lenient in the religious matters.
I would have preferred to go either to the pension or to my mother’s house, but I knew my grandparents were getting old, and being there for them another year was a good deed on my part, especially since they were willing to relax their religious intolerance. And that they did, allowing me freedom to go to daily Mass, not obligated to go with them to their Methodist church.
Because of this newly found freedom I was able to realize one of my dreams – to become a Legionary of Mary! When Padre Americo asked me if I’d be willing to become a legionary, I immediately said yes, I’d be honored to serve my Lord under the banner of his precious Mother!
Since I had decided for marriage, for Waldir, against my other call to be a nun, I felt I needed to find some opportunity to serve, to work in Jesus’s vineyard, winning souls for God, helping to care for all those around our parish that needed to have a clearer vision of His holy and infinite love. Our mission to go together with our partner to visit every person and family in our parish, looking after their needs — physical and spiritual, telling them about what their church had to offer, and sharing with them our love for Jesus and Mary, seemed to be a great opportunity for apostolic work.
At the Acies of the Legion of Mary I looked up to the face of my Mother Mary and told her:
“I am all yours, my Lady and my Mother! Everything I have I give to you. Use me in the service of your Son and your faithful ones!”
And I asked her, who is a holy wife and mother, to help me in the way that I had chosen to pursue. I wanted to follow her example to love and serve Jesus all the days of my life, through the joys of giving birth, of seeing my children grow, as well as through sorrow and pain, when difficulties would arise, never giving up, but remaining faithful, looking to the supreme joy of meeting them in heaven, triumphantly.
Padre Americo married Waldir and Heleni at St. Sebastian’s Church on the 5th day of September, 1959.
I will keep forever in my mind the memory of that wonderful day in September. I can’t say it was a beautiful day. No. The sky wasn’t blue and the doves looked down from the church’s eaves into the grayness of the fog that had covered the city overnight. But to me, it was a marvelous day. This was the thought that came to my mind as I opened my eyes and looked upon the cloud of snowy organza that was my bride’s gown. And then, all that beauty ritual took on sacramental proportions. I made myself beautiful for my bridegroom, as in the Song of Songs. I wanted to be the most beautiful of brides, to make him happy.
The day before, the Justice of Peace, Dr. Delfino, had joined us in matrimony according to the law. For the first time I signed my new name – Heleni Marques Pedersoli. It took place at the Pedersolis, since my grandparents chickened out and left town.
My mother and her helpers assisted me in fitting inside the beautiful dress, the layers of white tulle that was my veil, the diadem of orange blossoms, and the bouquet of cascading white and rosy rosebuds I should carry; I had something blue (a garter) and something borrowed – the gown itself had been given by one of my mother’s friends.
As in a dream, I waited, in prayer, for ten o’clock to chime in. And then I left with my mother, Francisco, brother Helcias, and sister Lucia to the Church where we arrived at the same time as Waldir.
The smallest details are imprinted in my memory: Mother giving me her blessing; leaning on the arm of my sponsor and good friend – Dr. Clermont Teixeira; walking into the church.
Lucia, dressed in the fanciest rosy dress, and Rubinha in baby blue, walked in front of us, scattering rose petals on the carpet. The sounds of Brahm’s Nuptial March woke me from my reverie. I had been using my piano playing skills to be the church’s organist when needed, and they were all there, our little choir, to please me.
My eyes searched for my beloved groom, and found his smiling countenance, waiting for me at the altar. I focused my eyes on Jesus, hanging on his cross, and suddenly tears choked me at the thought that I was forever renouncing the glory of being His bride. But then my human Bridegroom was extending his arm to me to take me to the altar where Padre Americo waited to give us Jesus’s body and blood in the Blessed Sacrament. He encouraged us to love one another with the love of Christ who would bless our union, and remain with us to the end of our days.
Then he asked Waldir: “Waldir, do you want to receive Heleni, here present, as your wife, through the rites of Holy Mother Church?”
“Yes,” he answered firmly.
When the same question was put to me I answered with my heart and soul. We exchanged our rings, properly blessed, and over our hands held on the wrap of his alb, Padre Americo pronounced the sacramental words that united us forever in joy or sadness, in pleasure and pain, in success or defeat.
Then he raised his hands over our heads, praying for the blessings of God over our union.
Lord, you know the sincerity of my heart when I begged that you would make me beloved as Rachel; prudent as Rebecca; faithful to old age as Sarah. Chaste, modest, strong in faith, pure, knowledgeable of the heavenly doctrine, fruitful, honest and simple in living.
My beloved Bridegroom was given the blessing and the grace of Him who said the man should leave father and mother, and be united to his wife, to be two in one body.
“Thus shall be blessed those who fear the Lord. May God bless you from the heights of Zion, that you may see the prosperity of Jerusalem, all the days of your life, that you may see the children of your children, and the peace of Israel.”
Then my husband lifted up my veil and kissed me, lovingly.
As in my dreams, we left the altar at the sound of the Magnificat by the choir that I had sung with and played the organ for, that last year. Truly, my soul magnified the Lord, and my spirit rejoiced in God my Savior, as the Virgin of Nazareth had taught me to pray.
Waldir looked wonderful on his navy blue 3-piece suit; his eyes looked greener, more brilliant and more beautiful than ever – to me, at least. Could I believe that I was truly his wife, now? Was there greater happiness than this?
The pleasure of seeing our relatives and friends, including my friends from Izabella celebrating with us was such joy that I could ignore the absence of my grandparents, who had left on a trip to Portugal.
Later in the afternoon, after changing our clothes for more comfortable ones, we departed with my cousin José for the trip to Rio in his car. My mother cried a lot, but I was too happy to feel the separation. I was thankful for the loving care with which she did all she could to make this day memorable.
In the arms of my beloved, I rode dreamily, toward a life I trusted would be the happiest on earth. His arm around me, my head on his shoulder, I was in and out of a sweet stupor caused by exhaustion and the champagne I drank at the wedding feast. Once in a while his lips would kiss my forehead, and I’d wake up and think I was hallucinating. Was this reality – me riding united to the man I had loved all these years, now to have and to hold forever, till death do us part?
Once in a while the thought would come to my mind of what awaited us in the next few hours, when we would consummate what we had faithfully avoided in our most passionate moments? When we would truly be one in one flesh? The very thought would cause me to have goosebumps all over my body – the expectation of the unknown pleasures whose revelation I was soon to find out.
Thus, it wasn’t just the cold evening breeze that gave me the shakes when we arrived in Petropolis almost midnight. The Promenade Hotel loomed brightly illumined in the dark night, but I barely noticed its rustic beauty, its majestic staircase, its gardens wet from the steady rain, the forest that encircled it, the mountains.
We said our goodbye to our friends and were led to our room – a great bridal suite with a large bed covered with warm feather comforters.
I continued in a dream state. My mind was a vacuum, I was trembling with the humid cold, breathing was becoming difficult. I went to the big windows and opened them wide. The cold air from the rain forest blasted on my face, and I closed them again. Waldir was busy with the suitcases. I grabbed my nightgown and went in the bathroom to take a shower. I let the warm water massage my body, but I was still too tense to relax. But I perfumed myself for him.
While he showered, I brushed my hair, and was rolling back the covers from the bed when his arms encircled me from behind. I felt blood rush to my head and catch my face on fire. His lips sought mine hungrily. He lay down on the bed and pulled me to his side.
“So now we don’t need to hide anymore, nor be afraid of being caught… You are all mine…”
I had a knot on my throat and could say nothing. Yes, I belonged to him now — my heart, my soul, my body, my very life, as I had always belonged. I surrendered to his kisses, to the touch of his hands all over my body, I was inebriated by the heat and the contact of his body on mine, precipitated in a world of unconsciousness, of a delicious oblivion of everything around me, except those kisses that burned on my flesh, of those caresses that were filling my body with a sweet heat that emanated from my brain and spread slowly throughout my entire body, breasts that would rise toward the touch of his hands, of his lips, my whole body burning with desire now.
Yet, the pain of that first attempt at consummation, made me whimper and shrink away. I did not want to refuse him the gift of my intact body on the night of our wedding, but I wasn’t prepared for this searing pain. Tears welled in my eyes even as I bit my lip, and held on tightly to his arms.
Waldir proved to be gentle and caring. He stopped his attempt and held me gently in his arms.
“Is it this painful, darling?” he asked.
“Yes…” with a little sob.
“For what?” I asked. “It will happen, sooner or later…”
He tried again, but a painful whimper made him stop.
“No, sweetheart. I don’t have the courage. It’s late. Let’s get some rest and try again tomorrow? I love you, want you so much, but we’ll take it easy, OK? It’s my first time too, I want you to know…”
“OK, then…” I said, relieved. I snuggled in his arms, warm and safe under the covers.
I slept for a while, but when dawn was making the panes of the great window bright, I woke up.
Waldir was asleep, but his arm was still around me. Poor beloved man… how could I be so weak as to deprive him of the pleasure of his wedding night?
I turned on the light and looked at my handsome husband, peacefully asleep. Our first night together. He was mine, finally, forever. No more longing for his presence, no more anxiety at the months of separation. I touched my lips to his flushed cheek. He opened his eyes and smiled at me. Suddenly, a crazy uncontrollable desire of his body, of belonging to him, of feeling him inside me, two in one flesh, took hold of me. I straddled him, flung my nightgown away from us.
“I want you, my love, want you inside me, now!”
“I don’t care! I want it now! Now!”
I was in control now, as I came down slowly into his erection. For painful moments that seemed an eternity, I pushed myself down on him, and then, suddenly, the hymen was broken and I felt him enter me, fully, through the painful fog that still engulfed my senses. I pushed down further and we exploded into the sensation we had yearned for and barely avoided all those years of kissing and hugging and making out. My heart seemed to be down there, beating uncontrollably. The last contraction relaxed sweetly deep in my belly. With a sigh of happiness I collapsed over him. My lips murmured at his ear: “Now I am really yours… forever…”
“Yes, my sweet woman, my beloved wife…”
With the blood of my virginity I had sealed my first sacrifice as his woman.
The First Year
The week we spent at the Promenade Hotel was probably the happiest of our married life. Writing in my diary, I was beyond words to describe “the beauty, the splendor, all the happiness of those marvelous days. The resort hotel had the most romantic retreats, deliciously suggestive and cool, gardens, parks, swimming pools, walking trails, rainforest sites, everything one could wish for a honeymoon — a little piece of heaven, hidden among the mountains, full of peace and love.”
There I came to know all the delights, all the beauty of a great love. Isolated from the world, living for each other, our kisses, our mutual love-making, the mutual offering of our bodies and our spirits, assumed the aspects of a fantastic reality, like in the movies.
I could not specify which moment was more precious, because to me everything was beautiful, divine, and marvelous. I could not distinguish between day and night; nothing worried me, except how to make my husband happy.
But everything has an end, and we finally had to come down from the mountain, to our little apartment in Copacabana. We then spent our time – Waldir going to the University to teach and do research, I learning how to be a good housewife, experimenting with cooking and decorating our little apartment.
I had spent many vacations in Rio de Janeiro, thus the city wasn’t alien to me. I loved the beautiful sites, the ocean, the beaches, the colonial architecture, the gardens, the churches, and the great statue of Christ the Redeemer, hugging the city lying at his feet. My home now… I had an adored husband who was as loving and sweet as I had expected him to be. I was madly in love with him, more than I had ever been. We had fun shopping for furniture for our apartment, trying to make it as cozy as we possibly could. And I – contented and feeling loved and wanted — I lived intensely those first weeks of our new life.
This bliss lasted exactly one month! It is still a mystery to me what set it off. It started all of a sudden, when Waldir started rejecting my kisses and my caresses. I felt a letdown in my heart, because I always thought that hugging and kissing was the best way to show how much we loved and desired the beloved. Well…perhaps I was too romantic? Did this fervor stop with marriage?
But then, he did not want to hold my hand when we were walking together. All show of affection came to a sudden stop, as he became strangely more distant. Yes, we would have sex at night, but it was exclusively for his pleasure, or better, satisfaction, as I felt he didn’t care how I felt.
I was terribly disappointed and at a loss to understand what was going on. My God! This was definitely not what I had expected of my marriage. Had I made a terrible, irreversible mistake? The worst problem was that I had none to talk to, no confidante, no help. What was happening to Waldir? I just could not understand. In retrospect, I should have known Waldir was deeply depressed, for some reason, but I was too young, too sheltered from the world to recognize this. I was just suffering intensely at seeing him suffer.
I knew he was doing well in his work. His students appreciated him, and his department head and advisor were very fond of him and admired his dedication and intelligence.
One morning I got up and had to sit down again because of a sudden dizziness. Then my clothes started getting tight at the waist, although I was visibly losing weight. My breasts became enlarged and sore, and I waited anxiously for the end of the month when I’d get the confirmation of my suspicion – I was pregnant.
I was terrified of telling Waldir, because I knew he did not want a child so soon. He had expected at least one year’s reprieve, yet, neither one of us had taken any measures to prevent pregnancy. I waited as long as I could, but when morning sickness had me running to the bathroom, I had to inform him of my suspicions. Even with my concerns about how he would feel about the news, I was unprepared for his reaction. He went absolutely berserk. This was the end of all his plans, of his career in Rio. It was my entire fault. I had tricked him and shown no respect for his wishes.
I was heartbroken. No! That could not be happening to me. I had married this man because I loved him dearly, and expected that our mutual love would be the basis and the firm commitment of our marriage. Because of this commitment, and because we were both Catholic Christians, we were bound to welcome children with open hearts. But each day the terrible truth became evident to my incredulous eyes – I was the only one in love and my love wasn’t enough to make my husband happy.
Suddenly the beautiful castle of illusions and hopes came to ruin. I was the most miserable of expectant mothers those first weeks. I went from totally rejecting the little baby growing in me, as being the cause of my despair and anxiety, to loving him ever more desperately. I spent my day crying my heart out at Waldir’s total rejection. I was suddenly undesirable, as pregnant women were loathsome to him.
After 4 weeks of this, I went into a deep depression, myself. I started thinking that death was better than this kind of life; that I did not want to bring a child into the world under these circumstances. I had rather die together with my child. I had nobody to talk to, and suddenly I could not talk to God. I felt a total failure. I should have heeded my good sense, and the leading of the Holy Spirit, and never had married this man. Instead, I had ruined Waldir’s life, even when I suspected that he did not love me. And then I concocted a plan in my mind. Evidently I was too depressed to know what I was doing, but, at least, I wanted Waldir to know that my hurt was unto death.
One evening, after a silent supper, I went into our little kitchen to do the dishes and clean up. That done, and crying my heart out, I took the dish cloths and blocked all the vents in the kitchen. Then I turned on the gas burners and the oven, and stood at the half open door, ready to flee if I changed my mind. Mostly I prayed that Waldir would come to the kitchen and find me. But then, I was suddenly overcome by the gas and fell, hitting my head on the counter.
Reading in bed, Waldir heard the noise, and waited a few minutes to see if I’d say something. Suddenly he felt an urgency to go to the kitchen and check. He found me unconscious, in the gas chamber I had made for myself. He turned the gas off and alerted the neighbors by shouting for help. He then carried me to the street where he asked the first motorist that passed by for help to take me to the emergency hospital. I came to with the wind rushing in the speeding car, the driver yelling “let me pass! There’s a dying person in here!” I heard myself scream, and I passed out again. I woke up in the emergency room, with the oxygen mask on my face, scared and disoriented. We did not speak as he brought me back home. I spent a restless day and night, praying that nothing would have happened to the baby I was carrying. That was my only wish. Waldir blamed me for not leaving a suicide note. How was he to explain my death, especially since I had an awful bump on my head? At that point, I could have cared less.
That week I went for my first pre-natal appointment. The baby was OK, and I seemed to have survived my folly also. Then I went to confession. The priest asked me if there had been any physical violence. Wasn’t the verbal and sexual abuse violence enough? The priest told me I could come and talk to him if I felt suicidal again. Not to do that anymore. It was a mortal sin. I was numb, and felt still mentally anesthetized. Could not pray. It was my fault. God had left me. I had made my bed…
Being an avid reader, I could now understand and empathize with all the women, the characters in the literature that had this same fate. Desdemona, Emma Bovary…
Waldir was subdued also the next few weeks. We barely talked to each other. Then he offered a truce. Let’s be kind to each other. In a few weeks we’d have Christmas break and leave for Belo Horizonte to be with our family and friends. “Our family?” I thought. I had none. I would never be able to tell anyone about the total failure of my marriage.
My only satisfaction was picking up my towel in the morning after he left for work, and heading for the beach where I’d lie on the warm sand, soak up the October sunshine watching the waves crash on the beach, while reading the novels I’d get at the library.
Mid December we took the train—it was called the Vera Cruz — back to Belo Horizonte. Lying awake on the upper berth that night I felt the baby stir in my belly for the first time. Like a little fish swimming around. I smiled contentedly. “João Marcos,” I whispered to him. “I am so glad you’re here. I know we’re going to love each other dearly! I can hardly wait to hold you in my arms! ”
I have little recollection of the vacation weeks we spent living with my in-laws, in the very room where we had delighted ourselves in each other. Valdete lived in the premises, with her husband and her new baby Mario. We talked about our pregnancies, and I helped with the baby, but I could not share my pain with her, or anyone else.
I did write on my diary which was now assuming human qualities of confidante, even though it could not talk back to me.
01/18/1960 – “I am thinking today how our adolescence is full of dreams not always connected with reality. Little by little those delicious illusions are transformed into the bitterest disillusions, which end up in heartbreak. I, for one, do not know what gives me the will to live, or even to believe there’s a life beyond the disillusion.
I believe that there’s nothing worse than to see someone whom you love more than life itself, suffer. My heart is crushed when I think that I am the only one responsible for the unhappiness, for the despair, for the total ruination of another person for whom I’d gladly give my own life in holocaust. Most of the time I cannot see a solution, or any hope at all. I still cannot make myself talk about it, not even with my mother, or Lica.
I’d like to have the magical power to become the most beautiful, the most desirable of all women to woo him back, and I despair because I see the abyss between us becoming insurmountable, when I feel unmovable the ice that hardens his heart toward me.
Oh my God! Only you know my torment, only you know the great love I have for him, which is my ruin and my torture! Forgive me this great sin, my God! Forgive my selfishness, my ambition; forgive me for having unwittingly destroyed someone’s hope for a future full of accomplishments and glory. And I ask – it’s not just that he suffer, Lord. Please, give him happiness, even at the cost of my martyrdom. Give him peace, tranquility of mind, joy of living, even at the cost of seeing my own illusions and hopes reduced to ashes. I beg you, for there’s no pain in this world worse than to see the suffering of the one person I love more than my own life.”
As I felt the deep pain of rejection intensify, a terrible spiritual dryness took possession of my soul. My faith and my confidence in God’s love for me vanished. What separated me from the love of God? Well I knew from Romans 8 that nothing in this world could separate us from His love. I would read and reared St. Paul’s words “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?… No, in all things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Yet, the words would just ricochet from my frozen mind. Why that emptiness in my heart that was always full of joy in the Lord? Why the lack of consolation from what had been the ecstasy of my soul – the Mass, the Eucharist, the singing, the communal prayers? It was a strange sensation of the senselessness of it all, something I had never felt, as if my prayers were unable to rise from earth to the throne of God. Then I’d remind myself of Jesus’s struggle in Gethsemane, of his moment of despair on the cross – “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
Coping with rejection and abuse
We returned to Belo Horizonte in February 1960. Waldir gave up his promising career, the students who begged him not to leave, colleagues that could not believe he’d turn down all that he had accomplished as Professor of Pharmacology at the School of Veterinary Medicine at Praia Vermelha. He went back to being the humble assistant to the Chair of Pharmacology at UFMG, who promised to retire so that Waldir could be candidate to the vacancy. No begging or cajoling would dissuade him of the idea that we’d be better off near our relatives, notwithstanding the fact that Rio de Janeiro was a mere day’s ride from Belo Horizonte, or one hour by plane.
Six months along on my pregnancy, I was slowly getting accustomed to the constant rejection, verbal abuse, (after all I had lived with that all my 18 years!) and the lack of consideration or plain concern for my well-being, while carrying his child. I sometimes felt regret for exchanging my call to the convent for this insufferable marriage, but on the other hand, perhaps there’d be more merit in suffering as a forsaken wife.
Even as I tried to take the role of the abused wife that suffered in silence and without reproach, yet, slowly, a burning anger started settling in my soul. After all, what had I done to Waldir to deserve this? Even as I’d gladly catch the crumbs of affection he’d throw me once in a while, to continue living, I hated myself for the humiliation.
I felt so alone in my suffering! With the struggles I had at my grandparents’ home, I had plenty of friends, confidantes, and Padre Americo, to listen to my complaints and to help me cope. Now I had nobody. I did think of going to Padre Americo, as I knew he’d listen to my woes. But I had a serious deterrent – shame! Burning shame of admitting my failure. Shame that my failure had reached the point where I had forgotten my love for Jesus, had lost my faith in God, lost the treasure He had entrusted to me – my soul – which I was supposed to return intact to my Creator. Shame to remember that I had tried to kill myself because I had lost the desire to live, even knowing that I had a loving Father in heaven, and a child in my womb that I should bring into the world.
I knew that I would feel better, if I’d go to him who had been my faithful spiritual director all these years, and open to him the secrets of my soul, confessing my sins, searching his experience as a consecrated priest of the Lord, as a loving pastor, in order to strengthen my shaky faith in myself and God, seeking help for my mental and spiritual exhaustion.
Would he recognize that child full of enthusiasm and faith that he had baptized, instructed, and guided in the knowledge of the fullness of Christ? Would he recognize the legionary anxious to share with the world the message of salvation and the love of Jesus and Mary? Would he recognize the happy bride that he married one day to a man in order that they’d form a trinity with Jesus to build a home on earth full of love and peace, where His love would be glorified?
How different it all was now. What emptiness in my heart! What a desert in my soul…
I contemplated with regret the righteous anger that grew in my heart as an insidious venomous weed. But as soon as I showed my dissatisfaction, and would withdraw my affection, Waldir would relent, like the proverbial abusive husband, and would turn, at least for a few days, into the passionate lover I craved for. A couple of nights of passion would turn me back into the humble, compliant little woman, at his mercy.
I worried about his state of mind. His unhappiness with everything, his withdrawal from friends and relatives, his anxiety about his work, and anger at his boss who would not make good his promise to retire so that Waldir could have his position. It did not help that the economic situation of Brazil was headed for a depression and a military takeover. It was difficult even for a young couple to make ends meet.
Many times I wished I could just have an all-out fight with him, threaten to leave if his disposition wouldn’t change, demand to be treated with respect. I wished that I could just ignore him, and not let his abuse make me depressed. But I asked myself whether opposition wouldn’t just hurt him more, when I’d see him so preoccupied, allowing himself to be overcome by a suffering that, in my opinion, existed only in his imagination. But then my anger would melt in my great love for him, and all I wanted to do was rock him in my arms, cuddle his aching head in my breasts, as if this would make him feel better!
It never occurred to me that Waldir might have been mentally ill. Deeply depressed? Full of anxiety? Bipolar? I had no idea. This was the early 1960s, and mental illness was something you’d hide, incurable and untreatable, especially on a man who aspired to academic success and a niche in the scientific world. Being 18 years old, isolated and insecure, I could not be of help to him. The only thing I could do was to keep on loving him, and praying that he could be delivered from the demons that afflicted him.
Suddenly Waldir came to the conclusion that the situation in Belo Horizonte, at the UFMG was going from bad to worse, that he had made a great mistake in leaving his position in Rio de Janeiro, and that he would like to try to go back. Yet, the road back would not be easy. He would have to apply for the position and present a paper and his dossier, in order to be accepted. I said I’d do what I could to help. So I set myself up to help with his research paper, searching for information, compiling bibliographies, writing dozens of note cards, loving the tasks that filled out my boring days.
I was on my 8th month of pregnancy when we hired a full time maid to help me. Her name was Piedade (Mercy) and she was an angel to me. I told her that God had sent her because He had mercy on me. Because of her help I could spend all my time sewing and embroidering the layette for my baby.
João (John) Marcos was born on May 27, 1960, after a long and painful labor that almost killed us both. During the delivery I went into shock, in pre-eclampsia, and he had to be pulled out by forceps. I didn’t see my baby until that night, as he spent hours in newborn ICU. But when I held him in my arms – he was a beautiful baby – I thanked God for this wonderful gift and commended him to the Heart of Jesus and to my Mother Mary.
We brought him home to the joy of our relatives who surrounded us with loving care. I was proud and elated to have such a wonderful gift from God. Waldir was proud also, but not very happy about the baby crying all night. The problem was that Joãozinho would sleep all day – it was impossible to wake him up – and then wanted to nurse all night, every two hours. We were both sleep deprived, which didn’t help Waldir’s moodiness. After two months of this, I decided to feed the baby a bottle as his evening meal. He sucked it all up with gusto. That was the first night he slept through until morning.
Our relationship continued to sour. Some days I would love Waldir as passionately as ever, other times I raged against his coldness and indifference toward me, feeling used, humiliated, being treated as a recipient of his sexual needs. Many times I felt like I couldn’t continue living like this, that we should go our separate ways. Divorce was illegal, but legal separation was a choice. Yet, I lived a double life among our relatives. Not even our mothers knew of my abused wife’s struggles.
Everyone thought we lived in perfect harmony, all, except Lica. My grandparents were in Portugal at the time, and Lica was alone in the house, caretaking. Many times I took refuge over there, when I’d find myself at wits’ end. Lica could read me better than anyone, and with her down to earth good sense, she knew things weren’t exactly right between me and Waldir. I never really shared with her the depth of my unhappiness, I was still too ashamed, but the healing power of her unselfish love would be a balm for my wounded soul.
Finally, I mustered enough courage to go talk to Padre Americo. I poured out the sorrows of my heart and he, as always, brought the anointing of the Holy Spirit upon my wounds. He was rather appalled at what was going on with Waldir, but encouraged me to go on being a lover, while at the same time refusing to be abused and disrespected
" Give it time, concentrate on being the best mother to your child, and take refuge on your first love – Jesus." He held me in his arms and prayed for me.
I left feeling like my burdens had been lifted, and I walked out praising God.
“I give thanks for your presence with me, Lord!” I wrote.
For the air that I breathe, the blue sky above, for the green of the trees and the flowers of the fields, for the seeds that sprout, for the hues of the roses, for the beauty of the child You’ve given me – I praise You!
I pray for this man I chose over you. I know you are running after him, you are chastising him every day with discontent with himself, with his life. You set traps for him at every step of his way, but he cannot see, or hear, Lord. He resists the whipping, refuses to surrender to your love. He fights, struggles, and refuses to be helped. Yet, his achievements give him no pleasure as they aren’t shared with you. His victories don’t give him honor; you haven’t helped him to win. He has shut the door of his heart from inside, and only he can unlock it, to let you and your love in. You can do nothing but knock and wait. Please, don’t give up, Jesus!
Because I know, and you know, that behind that closed door, and those shut windows, there are treasures of tenderness, dedication, and love. There’s a strong will, courage, and kindness, a desire for justice, and goodness; a wish to surrender, and survive, to achieve great things for the common good, that you want to bring out of the dungeon, to the sunshine, for your glory! He fights you off, struggles against the goad, but none struggles against you unpunished. You are the strong one!
May 1st, 1961 Waldir received a letter from the Director of the Km47 School of Medicine. Instead of the coldness of an official communication, Dr. Jadyr kindly explained to him that his request for reinstatement had been denied, another person had been hired as acting chair, and the search to fill the position had been deferred until the next year.
It was a blow to his pride, and his faltering self-esteem. He expected a favorable decision, and he crashed from the blow. In his shattered pride, the rejection was the end of his career expectations. His academic future was finished. He was a misfit.
What else could I do, but pray for him? Encourage him to go on with dignity. His career was just beginning; there was so much to work for, to achieve! He could apply to be Assistant Professor at the UFMG School of Veterinary Medicine, which was fast becoming one of the best in the country. Then go on to his Master’s and PhD in the United States.
To his credit, he did just that. Busied himself with his teaching, traveling to conferences, presenting research papers; a rising academic. At least that made life easier for me until…
I found out I was pregnant again, a mere 3 months after the birth of our son.
I was in panic. I couldn’t imagine telling the news to Waldir, thinking about his reaction.
Birth control in the 1960s in Brazil was still Russian roulette. I did my best with the tools within my reach – rhythm (fertile cycle abstinence) and vinegar douches . Condoms were available, but considered sinful for Catholics. I was either too lustful or too fertile, or both.
There was another way – abortion — illegal, but freely available, and most of the time, safe. My mother, being an obstetric nurse/midwife, would perform abortions for extreme cases, restricted to the first 3 months. She had never caused any problems. A device – much like an IUD – was inserted, keeping the cervix open, and causing the early miscarriage.
She was reluctant to do it for me, knowing how religious I was, but I was in the throes of high anxiety. The memory of the painful birth of my son was still too vivid. I couldn’t face Waldir’s rage. I didn’t want another baby right away like that. I would not tell her how I had been abused, how unhappy I was in my marriage, I just could not deal with another pregnancy so soon. I sobbed and begged. Finally, Mother agreed to do it for me.
I went home feeling a pang of regret, but determined to go through with the destruction of the cause of my distress. I tried not to think of it as a baby, an unwelcome child, but just an embryo, an intruder.
I went to bed early, and stayed in bed late, claiming a terrible headache. I waited with trepidation the outcome of the procedure. Nothing happened.
Waldir came home for lunch and I was still in bed, feeling anxious, and nauseated. He walked into the bedroom and lashed abuse upon me. What was I doing in bed at that time of day? With so many women out there, why did he have to fall in such a trap as I laid out for him? Why wasn’t I taking care of João Marcos? Piedade was a better wife and mother than me… and so on.
I buried my face in my pillow and cried my heart out. I grabbed my rosary and kissed the medal of Our Lady. “Mary, Mother of God, have mercy on me, my mommy! I can’t take this! This man does not deserve the sacrifice I am about to make for him… Help me!”
He ate his food and stormed out of the house. Suddenly, a terrible revolt filled my heart and I jumped out of bed, went to the bathroom and pulled out the murderous device. A little blood came out, but I felt no cramps. The baby was safe, I knew, by the intercession of Our Lady of Fatima.
That evening, when I faced him, I was as cold as ice.
“I am three months pregnant, and I hate you!” I hissed. “It’s all you know how to do – make babies!”
He was totally taken aback. Just stared at me for a long minute and went to João Marcos’s room that was also his office. I slept in the sofa that night. When he got up for breakfast I went into our room and locked the door. When he left I got up, took a shower, and ate the breakfast that Piedade had prepared. It was Saturday, and her day off, so she left and I had the house to myself.
Fed by my fiery anger, I bathed the baby, dressed myself and him in our best clothes, and went to my Aunt Neusa’s house. My mother’s only sister, she was my second mother, and best confidante. I could trust her with my secrets, but never really the extent of my unhappy marriage. She knew immediately things weren’t right, and I shared with her the latest blow-out. She understood well. Her husband, my uncle Joffre Lacerda, was a rough Army Lieutenant, and she had to put up with much grief from him, also. She was about to finish setting up the table for lunch, and invited me to stay and eat. She adored João Marcos, and he proceeded to visit all her rooms, crawling around and trying to pull out all the knick-knacks off her tables. My cousin Norton, her only son, who was three years younger than I, came in, and João Marcos flew into his arms.
I told her that I was pregnant again. She felt bad for me, hugged me. “My goodness, Leni! You’ll have two babies in diapers, they’ll be like twins… But that’s OK, we’ll help! I hope it’s a girl!”
“Me too,” I said. “Her name is Miriam.”
“Miriam of Nazareth,” I said. “Jesus’s Mother’s name in Hebrew. Like myrrh, bitter, but sweet smelling, and healing…”
“Also means rebellious…” said my Aunt, looking it up in her baby names book.
“Well, I guess we could use some rebellion!”
Next day I went to confession, feeling real sorrow for my lack of confidence in the Lord, for rejecting the child, conceived of a sacramental union, fruit of my love for my spouse. I couldn’t go to Padre Americo. For one thing, his line at the confessional was too long. The priest who heard me gave me a tongue lashing for my grievous sin. I had endangered my soul to eternal damnation. I was throwing away the gracious love of God and the sacrifice of Jesus because I was fearful of offending a man? A man who was demonstrating to have only a lustful passion for my body? This child was a gift from God, and God would provide whatever would be necessary to bring it into the world and care for it with love.
I sat in the shadows of the church for a long time. I asked for forgiveness, but I was bitter. Miriam was definitely a good name for this child, I told my Lord. She was conceived in bitterness. If the baby was a boy, I’d name him Benjamin, like Rachel’s child.
From the depths of my despair and pain, I cried out to God—why? What for? Do I really deserve this misery? Aren’t there other sinners, deserving of this punishment, and yet living in peace and joy? My heart would contract with pain, and I’d feel like a worm, squashed by the anguish that oppressed me.
But I did recall then, that I had offered myself to God at the altar, as a victim of love, asking to join in Jesus’ supreme sacrifice, for the conversion of sinners, for the reunification of His Church, for the peace of Jerusalem and of the whole world, in propitiation for all the offenses against his Sacred Heart.
And then, a holy peacefulness, a sweet joy filled my soul, because I was hiding myself in His holy wounds, reclining upon his trespassed breast. Thus the thorns became less sharp, the wounds less painful, because I willingly accepted my parcel of suffering, for love of Jesus. Anima Christi, sanctify me…
I also started to think that I’d have a way out. Divorce was illegal, but a legal separation, and perhaps annulment, would be possible. My love, my great, pure, sublime and unselfish love would be forever buried in the ashes of my heart. And I’d leave this man, taking with me my children, because anything else would be better than this hell I was living in.
Nevertheless, I found pride and joy raising João Marcos. At 11 months he could already walk, and talk, with a considerable vocabulary, charming everyone with his vivacity and grace. Little Miriam was doing somersaults inside my belly. Too bad her Daddy thought a pregnant woman was so repugnant. I hoped she would grow up to be a beautiful woman, and give us lots of grandchildren.
Barely eight months pregnant, I remained as miserable as ever. Piedade left to a better job, because she herself told me that she could not tolerate the abuse that she was witnessing every day. We hugged and cried on each other’s shoulder.
I struggled to get everything done, take care of the baby, and prepare the meals, so I wouldn’t have to hear the recriminations from my beloved husband. But I was getting very exhausted and anxious. One day there was a blow out. Instead of commiseration, all I heard were recriminations about my inability to do the housework. Perhaps we should end it all and go our separate ways? Instead of agreeing, I broke out into sobs. I suppose it was impossible to get out of the martyr’s role. He left me, mercilessly.
Suddenly I felt a stab of pain in my belly. I ran to the bathroom and saw blood, bright red and terrifying. I spent two days in the hospital with the risk of placenta praevia.; then was sent home to be in bed rest for the rest of the month. Two days later the water broke, and I was rushed to the hospital. We barely made it to the birthing room, and my little daughter was born, into the arms of my mother and the other midwife. Waldir was nowhere to be found.
Miriam Cristina was born on May 24, on the feast day of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, three days before her brother’s first birthday. We brought her home on time for João Marcos’ first birthday party.
But my troubles weren’t over. The next morning I woke up in a pool of blood. Rushed to the hospital again, at risk of dying from hemorrhaging, I had a most painful surgical curettage, to scrape off the piece of placenta left in my uterus, all done without anesthetic because I had lost too much blood.
Lying in a hard stretcher, my head lower than my legs, alone, I sobbed uncontrollably, and wished to die. “Enough!” I said to God. “Take me out of this misery! I don’t want to stay married; I don’t care to be a mother. I had enough of this…”
After a couple of hours of this drama, Waldir came in, and seeing my state, lying there all bloody and miserable, he took pity on me, kissed me, and wiped my tears, murmuring consoling words. But I was numb with pain and sorrow.
Miriam was barely 4 lbs, but healthy, and a very good baby, who slept all night, and rapidly gained weight. She wore doll clothes to her baptism.
A new nanny was hired to help. Her name was Raimunda, a tall black woman who immediately fell in love with the tiny baby. I was left to recover, under her jovial tutelage. She’d make me tisanes of all kinds of herbs, to help me get better, and Miriam thrived under her care. God was truly providing for us. Thus we had a couple of months of truce, in which Waldir tried his best to be loving and attentive.
New Year’s Day, 1962, found me more contented, and hopeful. I took pride in my beautiful, intelligent children, and I knew Waldir did also. I had high hopes that we had turned a corner and could live in peace and love. But I wasn’t well. Listless and anemic, I had a lingering infection that wouldn’t go away. Waldir took me to be tested, and the diagnostic was a badly torn cervix that needed to be repaired, or I’d run the risk of cervical cancer. The surgery was done at the Hospital das Clinicas and the result was an almost complete cervical amputation. Little did I know that this would have dire consequences for me, in the future.
Yet, in February, I went back to teach school, something that I enjoyed very much, and that helped lifted up my spirits and self-esteem. Our relationship went up and down, down more than up. I started feeling a detachment that was scary. Waldir’s neglect and abusive language did not offend me as before. I had other interests, and a very good friend with whom I could share my deepest feelings. She had suffered the same kind of abusive relationship that had ended up in separation. She had custody of her 3 children. This was the first time that I had a real friend that I could trust and who’d understand my plight.
Waldir and I became more distant. We were good parents to our children but my great and all-forgiving love for him was dying. His words wouldn’t hurt me anymore, and I stopped feeling sorry for his woes. I was ready for a legal separation, ready to go my own way, with my children.
I knew Waldir had won a Rockefeller scholarship to go do his gradate work in the U.S. I couldn’t care less.
“I don’t want to sacrifice my life to this man,” I told my friend Dea. “I have nothing but distaste for his presence. His attempts at making love are repulsive to me. He’s harvesting the fruit of the seeds he’s sowed all these years that he has trampled underfoot the unselfish and totally dedicated love I had for him. He totally rejected that sublime feeling. Now it’s too late. I can’t say that I hate him. I just do not feel anything for him anymore. I have for him now the same feeling I have for my father – indifference. And I cannot stand the thought of following him to a foreign country. I refuse to go to the United States. I am staying. I want a ‘desquite’.”
Dea tried to dissuade me. That perhaps going away to a foreign country would be the best for us; to consider the future of my precious children. I remained skeptical.
The showdown happened one cold July evening in our kitchen. I told Waldir that I wasn’t going with him to the U.S. That I wanted a permanent legal separation, that I did not love him anymore, after all that I had gone through all these years of married life.
I saw something in his expression. Panic? Fear? Repentance? I didn’t care. But he seemed different, humbled. He agreed that I couldn’t be happy with the life he had shared with me. That perhaps this chance to go to the U.S. and try a new experience, would help our relationship. Shouldn’t we try, for the children’s sake?
My heart was icy cold in my chest. My God, I thought. How could I have become such a sinner? What had become of my faith, my marvelous love for Jesus, my Savior? Certainly I had lost it all on the way. There was nothing left.
That night he took me in his arms, tried to make love to me, kissed and caressed me as he hadn’t done in a long time. I stayed quiet and passive in his arms, but the ice in my heart would not melt.
In the end, the fellowship that Waldir was expecting did not come through. We’d have to wait another year. But, miraculously, the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois in Urbana offered him a Graduate Assistantship and full tuition. It was the brain drain. Waldir was a promising young academic, and the American universities needed teachers.
August 25, 1962 – from my diary:
We will leave tomorrow for the United States. We spent the last few days taking care of our documents and passports. We had an interview at the American Consulate and the consul informed us that we could go as legal immigrants, with green cards, since Waldir had been offered a teaching position. That was more than he had ever dreamed of achieving.
I have no hope for a better life. There’s no more love, no enthusiasm, no faith in the future; only a cold and dark vacuum that freezes my soul. These are the wages of sin. It’s the dregs of the cup I decided to drink from.
I behold, in front of me, the unknown. What will I find there?
I could be happy now, behind the walls of a convent, loving Jesus and being loved by Him. I myself rejected Him, gave my heart to a man. I have nothing left in this life, except my two children. I don’t even want to carry my heavy cross anymore.
I heard that the wide road is easy, but I miss the light and the warmth of sunshine, the birds’ singing, and even the rocks and the thorns of the narrow way. But it’s too late. I’ve lost my bearings. It may be that the U.S. becomes the Promised Land where we can find each other again, and start over. But I don’t have any hope. I hope for nothing more in this world. Perhaps I’ll find death over there, is my hope.
This is the end, my faithful confidante! Here is the last paragraph of my life’s story that could have been so beautiful, so full of goodness and grace. I don’t expect to ever love again, to live fully again. My heart is dead. Nothing and nobody will ever raise it up again. I’ll never trust another man. I don’t even expect God to forgive me, for there should be no forgiveness for my grievous sin. Nothing is left. There is no more hope for me. Adieu!