For any of you that have traveled to the Iberian Peninsula, you already know that any home therein in a castle unto itself. It does not matter if this dwelling is an apartment building with gilded arches near the Tagus River of Lisbon, a ranch-style farmhouse within the vineyards outside of Madrid, or a small abode with blue and white exterior tiling along the Atlantic coast of Portugal, these places of residence are always castles.
I have been to the castle of Celeste a few times, but I have never met her. Yet it is though Celeste is there, because her home is adorned with her marking. There are handmade doilies on every surface, red velvet upholstered chairs in her Dining Room, and the photographs of her ancestors line each wall. I have been to the home of Celeste because I know her nephew, Fernando.
On such afternoons when I am in Portugal, I sit in the tailor shop with these locals. My command of the Portuguese language is scanty, to say the least, but I stay there and I pretend that I understand all of the nuances of their talk. I know enough to nod, as I have witnessed women in their eighties riding bicycles down the road, I have watched the pride on the lined faces of the fishermen as their pull in the day’s bounty of their trade, and I stay in the home wherein the tailor married Celeste. The locals nod to me, they raise their chins in a challenge…I might have learned to speak better Portuguese by now, right?
I know of the generosity and faithfulness of Celeste because it is her sister, Deolinda, who has taken over the care of this castle and of the tailor Padrinho. Deolinda never sits down. She wears an apron always, I have never seen her without strings tied around her back, and when she talks, she uses a serrated knife for emphasis. When I ask Deolinda about her sister and what she was like, she waves her knife around, signaling to the exquisite drapes and the stacks of china and glassware which still are used to host the townspeople for many meals a week. But there is more to this sisterhood than Deolinda lets on; I have many sisters, and like Deolinda, I know what the loss of one feels like. Losing a sister is a very distinct loss, one I wish I had never been acquainted with.
Upon my most recent visit to Portugal, the fourth annual funeral mass for Celeste was to be held in the local Catholic church on the coming Saturday. It was only Wednesday when I learned from my boyfriend Fernando that his Godfather had not been to the local cemetery to visit his wife’s grave. This is because Padrinho (the Godfather) uses those crutches that come up to his forearms to walk. They are called Lofstrand crutches, but that is not really relevant to this story. Padrinho had been born with a condition wherein his legs were faulty and weak, and one of them was much shorter than the other.
On the very next afternoon, in the tailor shop and amongst the throng of townspeople, I asked Padrinho if I could borrow one of his tape measures. He laughed at my request, a request that sounded so silly in my horrific Portuguese, and he handed one to me. As he propelled his wheelchair away, I knelt down behind him and measured the distance between the wheelchair rims. Twenty-two inches. Padrinho had not noticed. I rose to my feet and nodded at the people. They were beginning to respect me, though in that moment, I did not know why.
I had Fernando drive me to the cemetery. I do not drive in Portugal. (We all have our limits. Every one drives so quickly and most of the cars have a stick shift). The cemeteries in Portugal resemble those in New Orleans. All of the graves are above the ground. Together, Fernando and I found the grave of Celeste. We could push Padrinho’s wheelchair to a place several yards from his wife’s resting place. But there was only one narrow gap between a row of headstones leading to the grave and his wheelchair simply could not fit.
We need to get him to use his crutches again in this narrow space to walk towards Celeste’s grave, I told Fernando. We can leave his wheelchair over there and you can help him walk with his crutches to see her again. Fernando was not sure this plan would work. I was not sure it would work, and I have been a physical therapist for twenty years. This would be a long distance for an old, feeble man to navigate and the terrain was uneven. We have to do something! The funeral mass is in a few days.
We returned to the tailor shop late that afternoon, just as the locals were leaving. I gave the tape measure back to Padrinho and he placed it on his sewing table. After a fabulous dinner of eel soup that Deolinda had prepared, Padrinho sat in his wheelchair to watch the evening news. There was strife in Venezuela, Padrinho’s futbal team was not playing well, and a new product for acne was being advertised.
Fernando and I helped Deolinda with the dishes, though this upset her, as she did not feel it was right for guests to be helping with housework. Deolinda looked tired. She had been working at a local fish market filleting cod. The industry of this small village relied on the fishing of cod. They were famous for it, though it had not come without a cost. Cod fishing is dangerous business. Fernando had lost three family members to this trade, two had drowned and one had died in a fire on the boat. It had been Deolinda’s husband who had died in that fire. This was years ago, when Deolinda had a one-year old son. She was left to raise a child alone and pine for her lost husband, who looked just like Elvis Presley. I had seen pictures of this young Elvis fisherman around the castle of Celeste.
Fernando and I spoke to Deolinda about our plan to bring Padrinho to the cemetery. She nodded quickly, dried the blade of her knife with her apron and held it in the air. She told us to try. That it could not hurt. Padrinho had to get out of the house, he was driving her crazy with his incessant demands for food and showers. Deolinda asked me for any dirty clothes that she could launder before leaving. I did not want to relinquish them but would have offended her if I offered to do them myself. Later that evening, I could not sleep as I wondered if my ruse would work. There was a statue of the Virgin Mary in the bedroom, a staple of any Portuguese home. I looked at her supplicant gaze and asked the Virgin if I could get Celeste to return to all of us. I am not a Catholic, but I needed all the help I could get. Padrinho needed his wife and Deolinda needed her sister. If only for a moment, a meal, an evening.
I was surprised when Fernando and I were able to take Padrinho to his wife’s grave later that week, and he was able to walk all the way to her grave as he wept and bent over to kiss her headstone. With his crutches! I was surprised that a funeral mass on the coast of Portugal brought people of many ages to celebrate the life of Celeste. I was surprised when the family of Padrinho prepared a feast of fresh sardines and homemade red wine, as we sat together in the backyard, on a tiled outdoor floor, with chopped wood framing the walls, and language was not a barrier for one second. We looked at each other around that table and I knew I shared the blood of these people. Though in looking back upon this memory, I should not have been surprised by any of it.
Deolinda allowed me to clear the table that evening. We washed the dishes in silence. I even wore an apron. The drone of the television was heard in the next room as Padrinho dozed in his wheelchair. Fernando stayed in the yard with the local fishermen and they drank port wine and espresso. Deolinda looked up at me as she untied her apron. She embraced me suddenly, as though it may have been a mistake, but once we were wrapped in each other’s arms, we both knew it was not. She told me that her sister Celeste was here, in this kitchen. Then she thanked me and left.
There are still places in this world wherein such everyday magic occurs. I do not think we need to be in Southern Europe to find it, either. Perhaps none of this story had anything to do with the location, the fresh fish, the statue of the Virgin Mary, or a visit to a cemetery. These things are the extras, the fine details, but they are not what drives the miracles in life. Instead, it is the people that do. Well, I take that back. To honor the country of Portugal, I have to rephrase this and say that what makes life magical is people AND food. People and great food can make any home a castle.
Who are the people that care for us, cook for us, shake their knives at us to make their point? Celeste and Deolinda are such people. There are nights when I fall asleep and imagine Celeste banging pots in the kitchen. Laughing in her apron. Scrubbing clothing stained with red wine, oil from the skin of sardines, and of the saltwater tears of the sister-less and spouse-less. Even if we believe they have left, people like Celeste are still taking care of our castles. And we are fortunate enough to be dwelling within them.