St. Angel’s Fire

During her final years, my mother spent a good deal of time writing her memoirs. She adamantly refused to share them during her lifetime, so when I finally opened the file, two days after she died, I was prepared for the worst: perhaps it would transpire that she belonged to a secret satanic cult, or that I had a set of siblings who lived in Brazil.

But in the end, there were no bombastic revelations. The lack of dramatic events makes the text more shocking, because it recounts the everyday drama of a poverty-stricken European family during the war years of Europe; first the Spanish Civil War, and then World War II.

Very few people in Portugal were well off at that time, and my mother tells stories of her life in those decades in a completely dispassionate way―a physicist reporting experimental results in the aseptic pages of a scientific journal.

She was not given to hyperbole in her day to day, she learned to deal with all of life calmly, with a serene smile. Her account begins with her birth in 1917, telling us how disappointed her father was when he came home from work and found the newborn was a girl. My maternal grandfather died when she was only five. My Rabbit mother doesn’t write about it, but I remember her telling me that all she remembered of her dad was him washing her hands before supper. Hand washing is a very Portuguese ritual, and I recall being shocked when I went to study in the U.K. that no one did that. I too have enduring childhood memories of my father’s big hands cradling mine in the running water, and the soap shooting out into the basin. Little things can make for big smiles. Or fat tears.

The Rabbit tells us that after her father’s death, whenever she had to fill in forms, which the Portuguese administration has a Napoleonic obsession with, she needed to write Orphan of father in the space for his name. I recently had to fill in a form of this kind, and studiously wrote the names of both parents. In combination, they have been dead twenty-one years. My mother writes that as a little girl she was both happy and stubborn, qualities she retained all her life. I’m privileged to share those, and to agree with her qualification.

When the Rabbit was in the 11th grade, and her sister in the 12th grade, both were awarded a scholarship. I can assure you it would have been a paltry sum. My mother describes how much happiness it brought to the small family, since either grant was greater than my grandmother’s salary.  

All in all, her memoir illustrates the struggle for survival that characterized Europe in the last century. A struggle that, despite our current worries about unemployment, recession, and uncertainty, is light years removed from what we face today.

Keeping the home fires burning, EU style

In between the fight for survival, there are occasional snippets about the politics of the time. At that point in Europe we had Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and Salazar. Now we have Merkel, Berlusconi, Zapatero, and Passos Coelho (also a rabbit, curiously enough). Portugal has many people named Silva (a bramble), less people named Coelho (a rabbit), and only a few named Lobo (a wolf). In ecological terms, that’s a nicely balanced food chain. But before Moody’s downgrades us from junk to cannibals, please note I’m only kidding. Mind you, a few more years of sovereign debt

So here’s the thing: although you might not wish to pop out for a bite with the present gang of four, how comfortable would you be if your plans for this Saturday evening featured a quiet meal (pass the wine, Adolf) with the four other chaps? Or a moussaka with the Greek coronels, perhaps?

Maybe you can transport this to everyday realities elsewhere, trading space for time, and grab a bite with Ghadafi, Assad, Ahmadinejad, and Mubarak (on special day release for the event). I don’t want to steal the limelight from Mrs. Vanderbilt, or any other high society hostess, but if you prefer South America, Africa, or the Far East, I could also come up with some party (excuse the pun) suggestions.

According to some sources, during World War II, Three hundred thousand Greek civilians died of starvation. It’s always tough to be definitive with statistical data. Like a bikini, what it shows is suggestive, what it hides is vital. Nevertheless, let me share a few numbers with you, as a refresher course in collective madness. The table is abridged for EU Member-States.

Germany 7,728,000
Poland 5,720,000
Yugoslavia 1,027,000
Rumania 833,000
Hungary 580,000
France 567,600
Greece 560,000
Italy 456,000
Great Britain 449,800
Czechoslovakia 345,000
Netherlands 301,000
Austria 123,700
Finland 97,000
Belgium 86,100
Bulgaria 25,000
Norway 9,500
Spain 4,500
Denmark 3,200

Like the Rabbit’s story, European XXth century history is a chronicle of suffering and death. Lest we forget, my mother ends her book with a reflection. I’ll share it with you first in the original, because it is so beautiful, and then attempt to do it justice.

O passado é como se já não fosse nosso… um sentimento que a pouco e pouco se ausenta, se perde, e que não vale a pena buscar. É o reino das coisas mortas, do espectro das coisas, onde não cabe a nossa presença e onde a sombra do que fomos se dilui e esfuma.

The past no longer belongs to us… a presence that disappears, little by little, and is not worth reaching for. It is the kingdom of dead things, and of their ghosts, where we no longer fit, where the shadow of what we once were becomes faint and then is gone.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.


One Response to “St. Angel’s Fire”

  1. M. Says:

    Thank you for sharing such a beautiful reflection of your “Rabbit” mother. Reading it left me between a big smile and fat tears.
    Very nice post, as usual.


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