My Grandfather Miguel grew up on our family farm in the Azores. The term “farm” to describe my ancestral home would be a bit of a stretch. It certainly wasn’t a farm in the American sense, with amber waves of grain to the horizon and a John Deere Combine Harvester.
Grandpa’s farm was more of the subsistence type. The goal was to provide for the needs of the family, with excess production either stored, sold locally, or turned into another product that was used or sold.
For the uninitiated, the Azores is a remote, rocky clump of nine volcanic islands way out in the Atlantic Ocean that belong to Portugal, another piece of geography most people can’t find on an unlabeled map.
My Grandfather likely never heard the term “homesteader,” but when I describe how he and the family lived, it sounds like homesteading to me.
I suspect Mike would have called it, “Just the way life is.” Grandpa was a homesteader.
I suspect a portion of what I imagine would have been Grandpa’s blasé attitude about being a homesteader was more a function of necessity than desire.
Out in the middle of nowhere in the days before satellites brought internet, television, and phone service, the forms of communication and entertainment were slow and shoddy, at best. Airplane service to such a remote location was still fairly new, and virtually all cargo was transported by ship; which explains a long tradition of Azorean sailors, fishermen, and stowaways trying to get the hell out.
A static encumbered AM radio signal or two would skip off the ionosphere from the mainland 1,500 miles to the east, assuming you had both a radio and electricity to power it, but for most people, evenings were quiet and kerosene hued. This probably helps explain Grandma’s nine pregnancies. That, and strict Catholicism.
Limited contact with the outside world also explains tangles in the Cunha family tree like my Uncle-Cousin Jim.
Out of nine pregnancies, three were miscarriages, with one being far enough along to know for certain it was a boy, Grandpa’s fondest wish in life. I suspect he may have been stillborn, since he was preserved and buried with Grandma.
Whether the other two didn’t meet the threshold to keep around for half a century or they were discarded because they were not readily identifiable as boys, is a mystery to me. Grandpa had the capacity to be, and sometimes was, a first-class bastard. According to my wife, it’s the least endearing of the Cunha traits.
However, if you knew the women in my family, you would realize the latter wouldn’t happen. The last thing any of them can be called is a feminist. Rather, each of them understand the deep and profound power of nagging.
Every last one of them harpies knew how to make their man’s life a living Hell until he saw the light.
My Grandfather’s father was a literal bastard. No small handicap in the late Nineteenth Century. After being kicked out by her family and shunned by the father’s family, Great-Great-Grandma found a family willing to hire her as a farm laborer in exchange for letting her live in one of the outbuildings.
Magnanimous Christians to the end, the husband eventually convinced his wife to allow Great-Great-Grandma into the house for meals, instead of passing a plate of food through the kitchen window.
She gave birth behind a stack of firewood. No doctor attended because there was none. No midwife or friend attended because she had none.
She swaddled him up and laid him in the hearth of the bread oven while she returned to the field to work, coming back every couple of hours to check on him. These are the sorts of people my family produces; wild, tough, and ornery with spines of steel.
In the late 1950’s, Grandpa left Grandma and six daughters in the Azores to work on a California dairy for two solid years before saving enough money to bring them over. My generation has a couple of us who left behind family and comfort for hardship and danger in search of a better life, too.
Even after moving into town, where there was a grocery store within walking distance, Grandpa kept a garden, grew fruit trees, and jammed grapes into corners too small for trees. He grew enough grapes to make his own wine each fall. It wasn’t anything great, but it was the fruit of his labor and he enjoyed doing it until his last autumn.
Grandpa also made this concoction that can only be called “hooch,” which consisted of fruit and sugar added to vodka and allowed to ferment. When I think about it, the nearest thing I can think of is Jailhouse Wine made by convicts.
Grandpa never did any hard time, as far as I know, so I don’t know where he got the idea to do this or why he continued after leaving the Azores. At least, nobody ever went blind from it.
He and Grandma kept chickens well into their sixties, but I don’t think Grandpa cared for them because the chickens were disposed of shortly after Grandma died.
I had just turned twelve when she died, so I only have a child’s memory of my Grandmother. However, I knew my Grandfather as a man, which is worlds apart from knowing him as an adult.
Shortly after I left home, I came back to town to visit for the Holidays. Since my mother was in town as well, she went with me to Grandpa’s. Halfway through the visit, Grandpa hops out of his recliner like a man half his age and hobbles out of the room. He returns with two shot glasses and a bottle of his hooch.
There were just two shot glasses because Grandpa only drank with men he respected, and he sure as Hell didn’t drink with women. To her credit, my mother didn’t say a word as the old man and I polished off about half the bottle of sickly sweet fruit and vodka syrup.
She sat in her chair, smiling, and demonstrated that she did, in fact, know when to shut up. I think my mother was possibly even a little proud of me that afternoon. Not because I tied one on with the old man, but because he wanted to do it with me.
The man I knew was every bit as irascible, obstinate, and independent as family lore portrayed him.
At eighty-seven years old, give or take a year, Grandpa, wearing gray, polyester slacks pulled up to his navel and a white wife-beater tee shirt, wobbled up an aluminum ladder with a bucket of tar in one hand, a package of shingles over his shoulder, and a tool belt around his waist to patch a leak in the roof. Not too long after kneeling down onto the inclined roof, he passed out face down under the noonday sun.
Grandpa awoke to the sun setting, him beginning to shiver, sunburned, and the right side of his face stuck to roof shingles. He had fallen face first into the area of the roof he was patching when he passed out.
And what does old Mike Cunha do? Grandpa puts palms to shingles on either side of his head and does rooftop push-ups until his head breaks free, leaving flaps of grit-encrusted tar hanging from his face.
Once free, Grandpa used the remaining twilight to finish the interrupted roof patch and make his way back down the ladder. In concession to his advanced age, Grandpa pitched the remaining shingles off the roof onto the ground and hung the pail of tar from his tool belt because, as he put it later, his head hurt and he was having trouble keeping grip of things.
After putting his tools away, Grandpa went into the house to inspect the damage. The bathroom mirror revealed thumb-sized patches of tar on his neck and upper chest to compliment the palm-sized patches on his head.
He spent the next hour or so scraping up the edges with a pocket knife until he produced enough of a flap to peel the tar patches off, along with the top couple layers of skin and hair.
The next morning, my Aunts Fatima and Rose visited Grandpa. For reasons that will become important later, I have to mention that Rose and Fatima look and sound like stereotypes of Guatemalan housekeepers. Imagine the housekeeper from the television show “Family Guy,” and you won’t be far off.
After an hour staring and talking about everything except the gigantic red splotches on Grandpa’s face, my aunts worked up the courage to ask. They’re worried that he fell down (literally, something that never once happened) or got into a fistfight with some other old codger (something that did happen every couple of years) or tangled with poison oak (which happened somewhat less often than the fistfights).
Two hours of begging, yelling, and denials later, my exceedingly annoyed grandfather and ultimately frustrated aunts were in the Emergency Room of O’Connor Hospital.
I suppose that after two heart attacks and a quadruple bypass, an unexplained loss of consciousness in an octogenarian might warrant a visit to the doctor.
My grandfather was already pissed at having been harassed into going to the hospital for a minor mishap. My aunts were near hysterical and pestering every nurse in sight as to when Grandpa would be seen. For his part, Grandpa sat in the waiting room with his arms crossed across his barrel chest and mumbled curses in Portuguese.
An odd quirk I’ve noticed in life is that Portuguese speakers have little difficulty understanding Spanish, but Spanish speakers typically don’t understand Portuguese without some training. Mexican prime time soap operas, called “novellas,” are just as popular with Portagees as they are Mexicans. However, the Portuguese counterparts are dubbed into Spanish before being broadcast on Univision.
Both languages are part of the Latin-based Romance Language family (along with French, Italian, and Romanian, of all things), but I’ve never come across someone who spoke Spanish who understood Portuguese. I figure it’s either a conspiracy to get all us Portagees on board with Spanish as the primary foreign language or none of them Mexicans wanted to listen to a gabacho prattling on in their tongue.
I told you all that so you understand when I say: not a single fucking person, who was not related to me, in that entire God-damned hospital could understand my Grandfather or act as translator.
You may ask, “Why couldn’t one of your aunts translate?” And that is a perfectly reasonable question. Let’s put on our Investigator Hat for a moment and review the circumstances.
An old man who speaks broken English is brought to your hospital emergency room by two middle aged women, whose accents remind you of your maid, claiming to be his daughters. He is clearly upset to the point of Old Man Belligerency and mumbling to himself in what the women claim is a language neither you nor any of your colleagues speak. However, even a Spanish 101 student would recognize several of the words uttered by the old man. There is just enough that is understandable in what the old man says to think they’re full of shit.
When asked the reason for the visit, the women say they think he is having a cardiac event, but the old man is a little too lively for someone dying from a ticker on the fritz. And to top it all off, they have this wild-ass story about a nearly ninety-year-old falling asleep face-down in a patch of tar on his roof in the middle of summer to explain multiple red marks about his head and torso.
Why “falling asleep”? Because that’s what Grandpa said to the nurse in broken English. The stubborn old jackass wouldn’t admit to having passed out, most likely because it isn’t manly to lose consciousness.
As an aside, when I told my wife this story, all she could do was pinch the bridge of her nose between her shut eyes, shake her head, and say, “Jesus Christ, it runs in the family.”
It took about six hours to track down an interpreter who was not a relative and that the hospital would believe was giving an accurate translation. Turns out that he was a fireman with the Half Moon Bay Fire Department, just a few minutes shy of an hour drive up the San Francisco peninsula when there isn’t an accident or rush hour.
On the positive side, my Grandfather said he met some very friendly police officers, paramedics, and janitors, who couldn’t understand much of what Grandpa said, either. He even met some social workers who tried to explain this completely foreign concept of Elder Abuse and Neglect, and didn’t believe him when he told them he could still pick up a sack of cement in each hand and toss them into the bed of a pickup.
The social workers thought he was demented. I had seen him do just that less than a year previous. Oh, Grandpa. If you only had an iPhone and took selfies.
Grandpa told me later, “Neglect, my ass. I can’t get these harpies to leave me alone.”
And Grandpa was right. Sitting next to his hospital bed four years later, there was a seemingly constant stream of people, between healthcare providers and family filtering in and out. I don’t know if it was because he had good insurance from the construction workers union, the nature of ICUs, or dumb luck, but Grandpa had a room to himself.
The foot traffic centered around him, and he hated it all. He knew he was dying, and so did everyone else. He and I were willing to accept it.
Late one night, when the nurse visits died down, his daughters had collapsed on the waiting room couches, and the adult grandchildren, having had enough of feeling uncomfortable under the old man’s gaze, melted away to do whatever it was that was more important, I sat in the recliner next to Grandpa’s hospital bed. He was sitting up, fighting sleep as the heart monitor beep, beep, beeped a slow rhythm.
As I watched his head bob up and down along with his eyelids, the beeping of the heart monitor slowed…and slowed…and slowed.
“Well, I guess this is it, old man,” I thought, as I watched the green, electronic graphic that represented his heartbeat edge closer and closer to a flat line. “I should get the Aunts.”
“Fuck ‘em,” boomed my Grandfather’s voice in my head. “Whoever thinks it’s important should be here, already.”
So, I sat and watched as the graph flattened to a horizontal line and all the readouts ticked down to zeros. I briefly considered holding his hand when it occurred to me that he would probably come back to life just long enough to punch me in the dick for being such a pussy.
I rested my forearms on the bed rail, with my chin on the backs of my hands, watching the last couple of breaths exit.
I don’t know why, but I expected nurses with a crash cart to come hauling ass into the room and push me out of the way to begin frantic resuscitation attempts. Nobody came.
Son of a bitch. Nobody came.
I stood up and started to pack up my gear to grab the next flight home. I had done what I had come to do. The public breast beating and slicing of the scalp with clam shells could be performed by those who were interested in the attention.
While my back was turned, I heard a beep from the heart monitor. And then another. And another. They sounded off closer and closer together until they were back to where they were a few minutes prior.
I looked at my grandfather and saw his chin lift from his chest as he nodded himself back to consciousness. Or as he would prefer, woke up.
Grandpa lifted a liver-spotted hand and shook a thick, gnarled finger at me.
“Almost,” the old man said, in English. “Almost, but not this time.”
He died while I was on the plane ride home, and I was back in San Jose the following week.
You know you are definitely an adult when you are tapped to be a pallbearer.
Being at the end of the casket, I gently jostled one of my cousins aside so as to be the one to give Grandpa the last push into the crypt, where he joined my grandmother and the uncle no one ever knew.
My cousin was put out. He snitched me off to all six of the daughters and anyone else who would listen. They were put out on his behalf, and they joined together to create a fuss. It seems that last push was their last straw.
I haven’t been back to the Bay Area since. I should have gone back one more time, but, like Grandpa was nearly a hundred years ago, I was in the middle of nowhere, halfway around the world.
I suspect Mike would have called it, “Just the way life is.” Grandpa was a homesteader.