I was offered a book of short stories from a Portuguese author for Christmas. I had never read any of her books, and wasn’t particularly interested, but I have to say it was a pleasant surprise. I really enjoyed the stories, stories about women and their loves, struggles and achievements.
The story in the book
One story reminded me of you. Actually, there were two stories, or rather two sides to the same story: that of a mother who, at a certain point, makes the dificcult choice to leave her children with her parents and go away. Rings a bell? In one of the stories the mother writes to the daughter; in the other the daughter writes back, and it really shows us there are always two possible points of view – two sides of a coin.
While the daughter tells her mother she felt abandoned by her, the mother explains why she left. After the separation from her husband, she had found someone else who truly loved her, and who was offered a job in Mozambique, a Portuguese colony at the time. She had left Lisbon with him, with the promise that her children would join her after the end of the school year. But their father, claiming the mother had deserted them, got their custody and they were never able to join her, except for holidays.
I found so many similarities between this story and ours. In our case it was the other way round as we lived in Mozambique, and when you and Father separated you decided my brother and I would be living with our grandparents (your parents). You left for England, to do a master’s degree, and we came to Lisbon after Mozambique’s independence. When, years after, you came back to Portugal, you found a job, not in Lisbon, where we lived, but in a city up North, 400 kilometres away. I kept dreaming that one day you’d be coming to live with us, but that never happened. You always came and went – you never stayed for good.
I admired you so much, back then. You were the independent woman, with a successful career; you always had a multitude of admirers orbiting around you and, even when they became more than that, it would never last, because, most of all, you were a free spirit, like a bird who cannot stay on the ground but needs to spread its wings and fly.
Something changed inside me when I became a mother. I did not want to be like you. I wanted to be there for my children all the time, even if I also had a career which meant a lot to me. But I believed in conciliating those roles – and I did. And after a certain time, I suppose I started being critical of you, thinking about the things you hadn’t done for us, thinking you had never sacrificed anything, not an ounce of your freedom, for the sake of your children. And I resented that.
When you grudgingly retired, I convinced you to come back to Lisbon, thinking we could recover all the lost years and begin anew. But I was so wrong. We were not the same people of thirty years ago. I regretted your absence, and you expected too much, and resented whatever lack of attention you were not getting from me. And who were you to speak of lack of attention, when I felt you had abandoned us for so long… once, during a bitter argument, you told me you had thought we’d be better off with our grandparents, rather than with you. That you had done it all for our sake. At the time I didn’t believe you – I thought you had done it out of selfishness, out of that need of freedom always so present in your life. And bitterness grew, on both sides.
A change of heart
When I read those mother and daughter letters, I saw us reflected in them. I have come a long way from that bitter daughter who accused you of not being there. I have finally accepted the fact that you did what you did because you truly thought it was best for us – to live with our grandparents, who could give us the stability and discipline you couldn’t. I know you also did it because you didn’t have the courage to take us away from them, because they doted on us as if we were their own children. In any case, this abandon I had felt was caused by altruistic feelings on your side, not egotistical as I had thought for so long. Now I realize that you renounced to your role as a mother to keep us safe and happy; even if took me a long time to get there.
I wish we could still have a proper conversation. I would tell you that I am no longer angry with you, nor do I feel bitterness or resentment. But in the state you’re in I could not possibly do that. Old age and disease have turned you into the poor shadow of the vibrant woman you once were. Isolation brought by the pandemic has done the rest. Although you still recognize me and remember things, you have withdrawn into your little world and very little interests you from the outside. I only hope you can understand from the tone of my voice, from the way I speak to you or touch your hand, that no bitterness remains, only love, and sorrow, an immense sorrow to see you like this.
I close my eyes and travel back to the days of my youth, when you were still a fairly young woman – people thought we were sisters, remember? – full of life; how much fun we had! Even if we didn’t live together, you often came, and we talked for hours, we went shopping, dancing, to the beach, on holidays. We had such complicity; you were the ideal mother of a teenager, because I could tell you all. You were like an older sister, rather than a mother. And I loved you all the same, and despite the distance.
And I still love you. Let’s leave behind us the bitterness, the harsh words, the tears. Let me hold your trembling hand in mine and tell you, without any words, that, after all this time, I understand.
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