Your birthday was on the 4th of April.
You were born on a distant day of the year 1918, in the city of Lourenço Marques, in Mozambique (nowadays Maputo, a name you hate, I know).
You were the third child of Manuel de Freitas and Marie-Agnès Grabowski, what we would call today an “international couple”: he was Portuguese, born and bred on the island of Madeira having emigrated to Mozambique in his early twenties in search of a better life; she was South-African, born to immigrant parents from Switzerland and Poland, as one might conclude by her surname.
He was a tall, handsome, fair-haired and blue-eyed man attesting to his most than probable British descent, which was not unusual in Madeira; she was a beautiful girl, with silver-blonde hair, as fair as a princess in a fairytale.
When they met he was in his thirties, a businessman owning a few hotels and nightclubs, and she a naive sixteen year old, who was easily swept off her feet by her dashing suitor.
Soon they were married – I still remember your showing me photos of their wedding day, that unfortunately we didn’t bring along with us from Mozambique with all the others – and they made a striking couple. They had four children – the eldest Manuel, then Isabel, then you and the baby of the family, your adored younger brother António.
Alas, they did not live happily ever after! Your father was too much of a “bon vivant”, a ladies’ man, and your mother’s romantic dreams were soon shattered. She still tried to keep up a façade but in the end she was too miserable and they separated – something very unusual in those days.
Strangely – and you could never explain why – when they separated they split the children and, after a few years in boarding school, in a place called Middleburg, which you hated, you were sent to live in your godmother’s house, Paulina like you (or rather, you were named after her), who was married to a well- off businessman, Mr. Boras. They lived in Lourenço Marques, so back there you went after the years in boarding school in South Africa.
There lived your cousins, the children of your Aunt Maria do Carmo, of which the eldest was the slim, dark-haired and brown-eyed boy with spectacles called Afonso João. He had three younger sisters.
From a very young age you were a scholar. Even with such dramatic changes in your life such as the separation of your parents you always had brilliant results at school, and you were ambitious. Maybe because you had seen the sad story of your mother, a separated woman without means to raise her children, you wanted to study and have a career – you wanted to become a doctor.
Unfortunately for you, your time was not an easy one for women with such dreams, and your going to live with your godmother, an ignorant woman who could neither read nor write and clearly resented your intelligence, did not help. She bluntly told you you’d have to work to support yourself. Even if she and her husband had no difficulties whatsoever – and soon you had to leave school and found a job as a secretary, one of the few jobs available to women in the thirties.
And then you understood that your dream was not to be, and that the only way out of that house was marriage.
As you were a truly beautiful girl – people called you “Greta Garbo” as you bore a strong resemblance to that actress – you must have had many suitors, but somehow your heart decided for your cousin Afonso, who had been in love with you forever, it seemed. For several times he asked you to marry him and you said no, until you finally accepted him. Did you love him as much as he did you? I could not tell, because he really worshipped you, but the fact is you had a long, happy marriage for the rest of your lives. You were a formidable team and one could sense an incredible complicity between you two.
The first years of marriage were hard. Afonso was the sole provider of a family of women: his mother, his three sisters, now his wife and soon a daughter, Miriam – instead of the boy you had longed for. Money was short and your relationship with your mother in law – and aunt – was never easy, as she never accepted the idea of her darling son marrying!
Then you suffered the most terrible loss when your younger brother died of a broken heart, and you were plunged into a deep depression that lasted for years: you’d stay in bed for days and nothing would cheer you up. Only the constant love and care of your husband brought you slowly back to life.
And then Afonso’s career took off: after working hard for several years, always studying to better himself, he was offered partnership at Mr. Boras’s company and, as he was a brilliant businessman, soon the company was growing and your family’s fortunes changed. Your daughter – my Mom – could now buy the books she so loved to read and that were inaccessible to her before (many times she told me that as a child she would look at the bookshop’s window and dream of buying the books she wanted) and, in addition to the books, many other things. When she was a teenager Afonso had a beautiful, large house built for your family, and when Mom celebrated her “debutante” party she looked like a fairytale princess in her pink chiffon dress. And you were the beautiful, poised, regal hostess, the happy wife of a successful man, who adored you as always.
Then it was time for your daughter to come to Lisbon to study (there was no University in Mozambique and she did not want to go to South Africa). You were always a strict mother to her and she was closer to her father, but the three of you were a close-knit trio and she absolutely worshipped you – how could she not, when you were so beautiful, so aloof – even somewhat mysterious?
When she told you and her father that she was in love, and wanted to marry a handsome doctor she had met in Lisbon, you gave her precious advice about marriage, running a house and how to be the perfect housewife, but you forgot that your daughter was exactly what you had dreamed of being but could not: a career woman, a modern woman that would not fit into a traditional role – not at all.
In fact you were always very much a housewife, a “homemaker”, however bright and intelligent you were. You only accompanied your husband to official events – by now he was a prominent citizen, a member of the Portuguese parliament representing Mozambique in addition to his successful life as chairman and shareholder of his company, also being very much involved in the political life in Mozambique – when it was mandatory to do so, and on these occasions you would look stunning and he would be so proud to have his beautiful wife on his arm.
Then your daughter was married and soon you became a grandmother. You were 44 when I was born, and three years and a half after it was the turn of my brother. From the first moment you and Granddad took to us in an incredible way – as Mom and Dad were living in your beautiful house we were practically raised by you, because you were at home.
For as long as I remember being myself you were the most wonderful being in the world, the person I loved most. You were always there for me, holding me tight when I fell, and reading bedtime stories before I slept, taking care of me when I was ill – and what a fine doctor you would have made! Scolding me when I misbehaved but always so loving, so tender…maybe you were not too loving as a mother, but as a grandmother you were the most incredibly loving of them all. To me you were everything. I could not imagine my life without you and when you were angry with me and said you’d go away I would cry my heart out and would not rest until you told me you would stay.
But you were always incredibly strong, with an indomitable character. I could see that in the way you supported Granddad after the revolution shattered our lives. Mozambican born, he would not face the fact that he had to choose Portuguese citizenship, thus “denying” his country. But you knew better, you could see things in your cold, quiet way, while he was too confused by his love for his native land. And when you finally thought you had had enough of his uncertainty and a decision had to be made, I remember your looking at him defiantly and saying: “Afonso, if you choose to become a Mozambican citizen I shall divorce you!” Granddad looked at you dumbfounded, but the matter was closed –the next day you both went to the Consulate and chose to remain Portuguese.
Then the first two years of “exile”, away from our native land, supporting a depressed husband who had lost all, with that inner strength you always displayed in the decisive moments of your life. With your love and support he slowly regained his spirits, and dedicated himself (at sixty he was not able to begin his professional life anew, as it would have been too risky to gamble away the only money he had managed to save from disaster in an uncertain business) to the major task of raising two young grandchildren.
Yes – we had been living with you since the separation of our parents a few months before the revolution. Mom had gone to England to take her Master’s degree and back then children did not live with their fathers, so you and Granddad took care of us. And how well you did that, dear Granny! How you both loved and cherished us – and guided us with a strong hand so that we might become the persons we wanted to be.
In my teens I found you both too strict – after all two generations divided us. Granddad was worse than you; he hated all my boyfriends and would not let me go out as my friends did. You tried to help me many times but you were also a puritan at heart and many times we had huge quarrels. But at the same time I welcomed your strictness when it came to studying and I’m positive that were it not for that I would not have had the same results at university. Both you and Granddad were great educators, great captains of the boat that was our household and even if we disagreed many times never for one moment did I doubt that all was done out of love and concern for me.
When I graduated and found a job you clearly relaxed – your mission had been accomplished, and I was now free to get on with my life. Again you were there to witness my joys, and Granddad proudly walked me down the aisle on my wedding day –with my own father’s blessing.
Then your joy when I had my first baby, turning you into a great grandmother. How you loved the fact that my firstborn was a boy and also when you discovered he was your first descendant with blue eyes like you! And how proud you and Granddad were when we named our baby after him! You came to see him every Wednesday to play with him. He would cry when you left and stayed in the balcony of our apartment in Mimi’s lap, waving goodbye with his little hand…and how happy you were again when my second son was a boy, too, a playing companion for little Afonso.
How supportive you both were of my career, of my life choices. If at first you were not too happy about my marriage, soon you saw the qualities of the person I had chosen. And, years after, when I told you my marriage was over, there you were to respect my decision and to tell me you only wanted me to be happy.
You and Granddad grew old together, always inseparable, always the perfect team. When you had your first stroke, he was devastated, lost. He did not know what to do without you! But thank God you recovered and never was he happier than on the day you came back home to him.
When he became ill you were already quite frail, very thin, with many bone and spine problems, but you rose to the challenge. There was no way he would know how sick he was, you decided. And so it was. You took care of him, with the help of only the maid who came a few days a week, of a nurse who passed by everyday and my brother who lived upstairs. To his last moment he looked at you adoringly and in his last days – you told me this with tears in your eyes – he told you he still loved you very much, as he had during his whole life. How beautiful – I thought – to be in love for 69 years!
Again I found you very brave when he left. You were incredibly sad, but calm and serene. No bouts of hysteria for you. You wanted to come with us to the church and the funeral, and so you did.
Again you were your indomitable self. You wanted to continue living at home by yourself. You needed no one to take care of you, you said. This was your home and you would continue with your life as usual – only now, without your life companion.
Mom came to live in Lisbon and during those years she kept you company, even if not living with you. My brother was very supportive, living upstairs, and I came to see you whenever I could – even if maybe not enough! – and took you out to lunch every week, when I would tell you about my life, boys, etc. When I brought them to see you one could see you were very happy.
We could see you become even thinner, even more frail. You had to lean on my arm when we went out because – still vain – you wouldn’t wear a walking stick.
Then, shortly before the second anniversary of Granddad’s death, I heard you say you were becoming very tired and that you wanted to join him.
And so you did. We celebrated your birthday with a lunch at an Indian restaurant and you really enjoyed it. A few days after it was Easter and I was away from Lisbon, so on Monday I went to see you with an Easter gift and some flowers, and you were in a bright mood and we talked about several things.
The following day you had a stroke and on the following Friday, as you wished, you left to join the love of your life, your companion of 69 years. After two long years apart, at long last you were together again.
As was your wish, I brought home with me your favourite chest of drawers, the one you had always said one day would belong to me, when that day seemed far away in the future. But that day arrived, only too soon. On it are the Spanish dancers you so loved, and also your photo with Granddad during our trip to Morocco. On the wall two special paintings that I had given you both: one, of our lovely house in Mozambique, and another one, of the time when you were the most beautiful girl in the world – at least in the eyes of the one who so dearly loved you, your lifetime companion.
As I finish writing I think of you both, and it comes to my mind that never was a couple truer to their vows (celebrated so long ago): to love and respect, to have and to hold, for better and for worse, until death did you part.