Photo courtesy of author.


A haunted society is full of ghosts, and the ghost always carries the message—albeit not in the form of the academic treatise, or the clinical case study, or the polemical broadside, or the mind-numbing factual report—that the gap between personal and social, public and private, objective and subjective is misleading in the first place. That is to say, it is leading you elsewhere.1

I had come home two days before, thinking that I had gone there to say goodbye, thinking that goodbye can be said while the body is still warm. The last thing, and maybe the first thing, that she told us was her dream. I don't think we had ever asked what she would have liked to have been, had she not been…

“A sister,” she said, “I would have married Jesus.”

When she didn't wake up from the coma, I thought there was nothing else for me to do there. Work was waiting for me back home. Although I spend lots of time and energy criticizing Capitalism, I failed to see where the ideology of productivity had penetrated so deep as to have made me think I had no choice but to say goodbye to my large family, with whom I had camped outside the hospital during visiting hours for the last week, taking turns to go upstairs. Only two people were allowed at a time to accompany the patient in the ward. I hadn't spent so much time with them since I was a child. We took turns buying sandwiches and water, which everyone shared. Even in a coma, she continued to teach us about love and community building. We sat on the little wall just outside the hospital entrance, exchanging stories, laughter and tears. When I dragged my suitcase onto the plane, I still hadn't grasped her main teaching. That was yet to come, at least for me.

Whose voice is that? Where? There…Lingering in the cracks in the walls.

A few months earlier, sitting alongside her on her bed, I caught a glimpse of Death waiting at the door. Startled, my eyes swept the room and that is when I noticed it for the first time, hidden under the sheets in the bed, in those tiny beautiful boxes she collected, in the cracks in the walls: her story. All I knew was that she had caught fire when she was four and that her mother had saved her by wrapping her in banana tree leaves and egg whites. Half her body was covered in burned skin, including the nipple that was no more and the breast that never came to be.

“What was your childhood like?”

“There was so much work to be done on the farm. Never ending work. Taking care of the chickens, planting food and cooking.”

“Did you ever play?”

“I would make little figures of people and animals out of clay. They were my playmates, but I didn't have much time for them.”

She had been six years old when her mother walked away, and her father gave up. He brought her and her siblings to my great-grandfather's farm and said he couldn't raise them all on his own. My grandmother, who was fifteen years old and who nine years earlier had lost her own mother due to a thirteenth childbirth said, “I'll raise her.” That is what Grandma tells me, anyway. I've never asked Dindinha her version of that day. Did she ever believe she was going to be taken care of or did she know already that she would always be the caregiver? We don't know exactly what the formal agreement was. I don't think it was ever verbalized, let alone written and signed. It was 1934, forty-six years after the “Golden Law” abolished slavery in Brazil and eighty-one years before the “Law of the Domestic Workers” established that a domestic worker is a professional like any other worker, with the right to have a formal contract, retirement, at least minimum wage, working hours and social security.

The paranoia of the white colonizer, who fears being deprived of that which he has robbed, trickles down the generations, materialized in locks, chains and keys.

Several years later my Grandma moved to town to study. She hadn't been allowed to study, but her father in his illness had become too weak to stop her. Besides, he had robbed her of the inheritance her wealthy mother had left for her; he lost it all, including the farm, to booze and gambling. She would have to find a way to provide for herself now. Grandma is obsessed with robbery until today. She keeps all things in the house locked and while she could still walk, she would carry a large bundle of keys on a chain around her neck. Even toilet paper was kept under lock. She claims she can't trust anyone anymore, except Dindinha. On the other hand, my great-grandfather also trusted nobody, except Dindinha. When he noticed Death lurking around his house, he told everyone to leave, except Dindinha. Only she could be trusted with his life. I've never heard her say words of hate, not even about him. I've never asked Dindinha who she trusted but I'm sure she would have said God. I'm sure she trusted God.

The bitter smell of ammonia and denial

Sometime – I have no idea how long – after my great-grandfather died, my Grandma married a quiet, meticulous widower, who embodied the Fado2 he enjoyed, who drank and smoked heavily and who extracted the delicious meat from chickens' necks using only a knife and fork. His hands would finish as clean as they had started. In desperate need of raising enough income to feed seven children, Grandpa, Grandma, and Dindinha, moved to the city. Dindinha and Grandma would wake at 4:00 a.m. each morning to prepare enormous batches of “ammonia biscuits”. There was no baking powder at the time and ammonia was used instead. It gave the biscuits a characteristic scent my mother misses until this day. Grandma would then go to work. She had been able to catch up on her late studies and now taught literacy to adults, selling the ammonia biscuits in between lessons. Grandpa would travel, looking for things to buy and sell in order to bring some contribution for the rent at the end of the month. Dindinha made sure the children were safe, clean, fed and sent off to school. She made sure the house was clean and the scarce food was made to resemble a feast. When asked about their childhoods, my mother and her siblings remember Grandma's triumphant struggles to make ends meet, her punishments for mischief, which today would be called child abuse, but at that time were the only way one knew how to educate. When I ask about Dindinha, they remember motherly affection. Dindinha and Grandma, conjunctly, embodied the Mother. Dindinha told me that my grandma had not wanted my mum to study, because she was too “slow”. The slowness later was found out to be shyness, and my mother became the first in the family to get a university education. Dindinha was so proud to say that Mum had only gone to school because she, Dindinha, had not given up on her, and had made sure mum was given an education after all. Mum says this story was made up in Dindinha's imagination. Grandma can't remember.

Dindinha started to receive a salary only after all the children had grown up. She used some of it to buy colorful things to decorate the house, some of it she would send to her mother, who had saved her and abandoned her so many years earlier, and another portion of it she gave to those cousins and aunts of mine who chose to believe that she had done it all just out of love, as if love had been a choice. When her mother became ill, she left my Grandma's house and travelled 300 miles to go care for her. Ten years later, after having buried her mother, she returned to my Grandma's house, which was her home and home to all the contradictory scents of a society in denial.

The fragility of celebrations built on the bones of a chicken's neck

When as a child I asked, I was told that Dindinha refused to sit at the table for lunch with us because she was indigenous, and that they eat in different ways than us. As if the fact that she had spent all her life eating in the back had no bearing on it. Dindinha unknowingly taught me the forbidden pleasure of eating chicken's neck with my hands and the delightful crunchiness of the food scraped off the bottom of the pot with a spoon, which must be eaten standing up, when nobody is looking. For social events such as weddings and graduations, Dindinha liked to paint her nails red, do her hair, and wear flowery colorful dresses. She loved the pearl necklace she had been given on the occasion of my cousin's wedding and asked to be buried in it. As soon as the ceremony was over, as soon as all the socializing began, when waiters would start serving her, her expression of pride would be replaced with an expression of unease. It was as if, in a coup, she fell into the cracks between dream and ghastly reality, delusion and hypocrisy.

Lock away our colonial ideals, so they can't be broken.

“I'm going to take rat poison. You can hang around if you want!” said Grandma. Dindinha showed her annoyance in her face and with a brusque gesture of the arm.

“Go ahead old lady! I still have lots to do around here.” I smiled. A typical interaction between the two. The joy of bickering about the present and giggling together about the past. Grandma was never one for sugar coating anything. She just says what she thinks. We say they forgot to install the filter when she was born. She is also not one to joke, or to take rat poison, for that matter. I look at the clock on the wall in the dining room. The one I brought back from Isfahan for Dindinha. When I imagine Dindinha's dreams, Isfahan is the image that comes to my mind. The city is characterized by its delicate flowery mosaics predominantly in blue and white, her favorite colors, the colors she chose to be buried in, because they are the colors of Cruzeiro, the football team she adored. Based on the result of the match, we could predict her mood in the following week. She had no patience for the World Cup. She would explain that her team was not Brazil, it was Cruzeiro. The white family could never understand this. She was right. Brazil doesn't play for her, Brazil plays for us.

When Grandma turned eighty, we had given her a beautifully decorated blue and white china set. I don’t know why my family often gave my Grandma presents that were meant for Dindinha. Grandma took one look at the china set, pushed it to the side and started telling us, again, about David and Goliath, her favorite bible story. Dindinha stared at the china for so long it became even more beautiful. The next day Dindinha had locked away the china set so that nobody could use it; there could be no risk of breaking it.

It is difficult for me to write this narrative—this is possibly because it carries a particular mix of private love and public shame that is too contradictory and violent to be expressed in words, and also because words weren't Dindinha's primary form of expression. She expressed herself through the flowers she would decorate the house with, and the particular way in which she would arrange the images of saints amidst pictures of us on her bedside table. She would express herself in the proud tours she would give us of her vegetable garden, always pointing out something new that looked to us the same as before. She would express herself with the eyes fixed on the television showing a woman, always a woman, telling her tragic story in despair, which would be enacted and narrated by a deep dramatic male voice.

David asked the men standing near him, “What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel?”3

When she was buried, wearing her blue and white dress and the pearl necklace, in the white coffin decorated with colorful flowers, I was not there to see the coffin being closed and covered in dirt. Only then did I understand the importance of such a ritual, where we locate and signify our pain. I skipped the funeral and now I can't conclude this open narrative, for I am still haunted with shame, anger, love, duty and mourning. Somehow, by writing this text I'm polishing my own stones, that I carry in my pocket as I stop running away and start walking towards the giant. Unfortunately, this story has no end in sight, but at least it has begun.