At times like these, when you stand in awe of the vast changes reworking your life, and you ask yourself whether you’ll ever get back so many of the things you took for granted, it’s inevitable to hark back to the good old days and wish for a time machine. It doesn’t matter how kind life has been to me, how much I love my sons, or how much fulfilment I’ve found in my career — nothing compares to youth when love and excitement hang in the air like the scent of a thousand cherry blossoms.
Teresa, the protagonist in my book, is my age, and our lives are chronologically entwined. She grew up in the late seventies and early eighties, as I did. I wonder how 17-year-old Teresa would feel about the world today. At first she’d probably hate it. She’d just turn around, travel back to 1980-something and never leave the amber of her fantasy existence. But then I think about how much progress we’ve witnessed, and how so many obstacles to Teresa’s happiness and autonomy have fallen by the wayside.
In the late 1970s, Portuguese teenagers had to rely on an arsenal of lies and stratagems just so they could relate to their friends like normal human beings. They had little to no privacy. Families would usually have a single, stationary phone and they’d place it somewhere central to the house, where anyone could eavesdrop on your conversations. Imagine not being able to text your friends or your crush, having to tailor every communication to the expectations of the adults around you. They came up with fake girl names for our boyfriends. God forbid a grownup should find out you had some kind of intimate relationship. They’d only step up their demands and surveillance.
Parents and guardian figures often overlooked or disregarded boundaries; they would rifle through your diaries and letters, looking for evidence that you’d “crossed a line”. That mostly meant intimacy-related trespasses on propriety.
The sanctimonious habits cemented by five decades under a dictatorship were slow to crumble. Girls were supposed to save themselves for marriage and those who didn’t got “talked about” and that black mark on their reputation was an object of contempt even among the young. Sex was dangerous territory, where desire laboured in darkness and fog. Unwanted pregnancy, a Sword of Damocles over girls’ heads, spoke of two dreadful outcomes: letting your family know, and suffer as your life came undone, or hiding the pregnancy and looking for a backstreet abortion among thieves, beggars and prostitutes. Women of dubious repute and more dubious experience would perform the deed, which, more often than not earned you an ambulance ride with your legs painted red and a scream tearing your throat.
So many things were forbidden to Teresa in her teens. Even going out for coffee with friends, at first, or catching a movie on a Saturday afternoon. There were ways around the old folk, though; Teresa had an older cousin, Vera, trusted enough to drive her to house parties and back. Thanks to the myth of parental supervision at these house parties, Teresa was able to enjoy a bit of harmless fun. Slow dances, first kisses. Oh, if only her grandparents knew.
Those days were good, yes, even wonderful, but I see them through rose-tinted glasses and with the benefit of hindsight. Only the good moments stand out. The world today with all its issues is more authentic and transparent in many ways. As parents, me and my generation remember how lies and deception and subterfuge harmed us and the people who raised us.
So when I had two sons of my own I wanted things to be different. I’ve always encouraged the boys to tell the truth and speak candidly with me. And it would never cross my mind, as a mother, to invade my children’s private space, regardless of their age. I’ve never gone through their phones or their drawers because I’ve always trusted them completely. Back in Teresa’s day teens weren’t trusted by their elders.
My boys have never had to lie about girlfriends, or worry about bringing them home to stay the night. Sex is now a natural development between young adults who love each other; as for abortion, the young now have access to quality information, reliable contraceptives, and avoid unwanted pregnancies in the first place. Even if you do need an abortion, it is no longer a crime. While I don’t think terminating a pregnancy is to be taken lightly, or wish to trivialize it, it’s still good that you can do it a state-run hospital, in a safe, hygienic setting, surrounded by professionals who care.
Last but not least, they have a degree of autonomy and boundaries that neither I nor Teresa could enjoy. Smart phones have become the hubs of people’s social lives and so it is for my boys and their generation. They text and make video calls from the privacy of their bedrooms. Such facilities would have been a godsend forty years ago!
When I think objectively, without nostalgia clouding my mind, we’ve made great strides. My children are after all lucky to live in this day and age, despite the daunting pace of the world. The more I peer into the jewelled picture of my youth, and the lessons I learned, the more I realize the only way forward is through honesty and trust.
Did you know I have a book coming out soon? It tells Teresa’s story, and reveals how she navigated all these secrets and prohibitions. How she managed to communicate through a landline while every one of her conversations was within her grandparents’ earshot, and how she overcame the taboos planted in her subconscious mind and learned to live on her own terms. If you would like to learn more about her, her family, her friends — their lives, loves and struggles, their fears and their many mistakes and failings, but also their attempts at redemption and resolution, keep watching this space. I will let you know when the book is out.
Edited by Jorge M Machado