She was by far the most beautiful girl in the village: tall, statuesque, with thick dark tresses and bright green eyes. She was always the belle of the ball, even if her 1,70 m made her taller than most local boys. But she didn’t mind, as she paid them little attention: she dreamed of one day finding a tall, handsome Prince Charming that would sweep her off her feet and take her away with him to see the world.
She did primary school but if course education was not a priority for a girl born in 1938 in a village of the province of Alentejo, in Portugal. After she learnt to read and write properly her mother kept her at home, teaching her how to cook, to sew, to embroider, to run a house…she excelled at everything and soon she was the perfect cook, surpassing her mother by far.
Ever since she could remember her greatest dream was to become a mother. She dreamed of finding love, of course, but this would be part of the future she wanted for herself, and that rosy picture always included a nice house and several children, with a loving husband and father, of course. She loved children and was always ready to help neighbours and relatives with their offspring. And the children loved her, somehow she soothed them and she was at her happiest when she was holding a baby or toddler, thinking of the day when she would have her own.
One day at a village dance she saw him: tall, with dark hair and light brown eyes, a square jaw, smartly dressed, strikingly handsome, and she knew he was the one. It must have been mutual, as when he saw her he was as if struck by lightning and he immediately tried to find out who she was. Soon he was crossing the ballroom and asking her to dance. They could not stop dancing and talking and when she left the dance she knew she was in love.
He lived in Portalegre, a large city when compared to her village, but in the same province. He was nine years older and had a good job at a factory, so from the beginning he was seen by her parents as an adequate suitor. They married a few months after, and she was the most radiant bride.
Life was very different now: she had a house to take care of and besides her elderly father-in-law lived with them. She missed her family and friends but of course she knew her place was with her husband and she adapted to her new life. When she found herself pregnant she was ecstatically happy, only to find her hopes cruelly shattered a few weeks after when she miscarried her baby.
Her husband tried to console her saying they were young, there would be more pregnancies, but he could not understand the depth of her grief.
Again and again she got pregnant, and again and again she miscarried; she saw a doctor who had been a family friend for years, and he told her that, in order to succeed, she would have to spend most of her pregnancy lying in bed, and this she did, strong in her resolve to have her much desired baby: as soon as she was certain she was pregnant again she asked her cousin to come and stay with her, so that she could help her with the house, and she rested as much as she could.
Months went by and the first, dangerous phase of pregnancy passed. She was now more confident but still cautious. When she felt her baby move inside her for the first time she cried with happiness. She somehow knew it would be a boy and this time she was certain he would make it!
One cold January night she felt strange. She was in pain. She woke her husband but he wouldn’t pay attention, grumbling: “Take some tea and get some rest. It’s nothing”. After all, there were still two months to go before the baby was due. But the pain grew stronger and suddenly she felt a warm liquid running down her legs. Her baby was coming.
Finally her husband got up and ran out to fetch the doctor. She called her cousin and together they waited while her pain became more and more unbearable. Finally the doctor arrived – just in time to deliver her of a tiny baby boy that barely cried. The doctor told her she must be very careful with him, as it was a cold winter and he was very frail. As she held him to her tears of happiness, and worry, and love, and so many emotions ran down her cheeks and she swore to herself that her baby would survive, she would ensure he made it to manhood, a strong, handsome boy who would be her pride and joy.
And so she did. She filled a box with cotton and created a sort of homemade incubator. She placed her baby inside it and made sure he was warm at all times. She only took him out for a change of diapers, and she would lean over the box and breastfeed him. When the doctor came to see the boy he was amazed at how he thrived, and many years later he confessed to her he considered her son’s survival nothing short of a miracle!
Years went by. She never became pregnant again much to her sorrow, but she had her son and he was the joy of her life. Maybe because of her doting on her son – or maybe not – her husband had become more taciturn, always in a sour mood. He was not the loving father she had seen in her dreams, in fact he didn’t pay much attention to their son, but as the boy became older he was very hard on him and always ready to discipline him. She always tried to protect her son and soon they were quarrelling over this and many other matters, and her dream of a happy family began to crumble.
Sometimes during a violent quarrel he would hit her. The first time she had been in shock, and he had apologized, but it became a habit. She would try to conceal her unhappiness but when she visited her family they could see she was not well, they would see the bruises and she would give the usual excuse, she had fallen…he also hit their son, and one day when he savagely beat him with his belt she decided she had had enough. She could not bear to see the terrified look in her son’s eyes anymore. Soon after when her husband was out working she grabbed her son and went back to her parents’ house.
There she was received with mixed feelings. Her mother was harsh – in her opinion a wife’s place was with her husband, no matter what. But her father, to whom she had always been very close, opened his arms and said she and her son were welcome, and he would never let them go back to a man who mistreated them, even if he was a husband and a father.
Of course her husband came after them and tried to make amends. But she would not have him. She kept seeing the anguished eyes of her son and she was tired of being the victim of abuse. She knew she had to be very brave, as nothing in her life had prepared her for this – having to face life without a husband – but she knew for her son she was capable of anything, she would face whatever hardship just to keep him safe and happy.
Without hesitation, she began life anew. She decided to find work in Lisbon, and soon she was working for a well off family as a domestic worker. As soon as she could she sent for her son and together they began a new life, far from their province, far from their family, but together, in a loving environment and, most of all, without fear.
They suffered many hardships as the father never once gave a penny for the maintenance or education of his son. So she worked and worked. First as a domestic worker, then as a concierge, at the same time opening her own small business, a flower shop…she was amazing, with endless energy, and everyone who knew her could not help but admire her, both as a woman and as a mother. Her son lacked nothing – except for a father – and he could now live his infancy and his teens without the dark shadow of violence. And she was not disappointed in her son for he was loving and very much appreciated what she had done for him. They were very close and she was happy, entirely devoted to her son and their life together.
When, one day, after a string of girlfriends he told her he was getting married, it came as a shock. She would be alone! But this amazing lady, where others would resent the person who was “taking her son away” from her, was very generous and welcomed her son’s bride as a daughter instead. She was like a mother to her and never did she utter one unkind word nor have an unkind gesture towards her. And of course she won her heart.
She continued to be a motherly presence to her son and daughter in law. When she became a grandmother she was ecstatically happy and again she welcomed the new family members into her generous heart and loved them with the same intensity she had always felt for her son.
She is now approaching her eighties, but still energetic as ever. She is always on the move, always busy with her son and grandsons, now two big boys who worship their Granny. They know her story well, and they are immensely proud of her, as they should be. Because this indomitable lady is one of the most loving and dedicated persons I have ever come across, and certainly one of the bravest. She is worthy of admiration, because she had the courage to free herself from the life she was destined to live and fight against all odds for the life she wanted for her son and herself. And she was not embittered in the process; on the contrary, she was always generous and kind. A great lady. An incredible mother. The true essence of what a mother should be. The mother.