To say that I was nervous to meet my maternal great aunt would be a bit of an understatement.
One of the greatest downsides of being a first generation Canadian is that none of my extended family lives here. Everyone is either in Portugal, or in Africa, or in Brazil, or in other parts of Europe. It sucks that I haven’t even met a lot of my family, and that I rarely get to see the family I do know and love dearly.
So when I was living in Scotland, and planned a trip to Portugal, I was hit with the sudden realization that I would get to meet some of my family, and it was, well, overwhelming.
My maternal grandma lived with my family from the time I was five years old until just last year, when she and my grandpa had to move into a seniors’ home due to mobility issues. I knew that it would make her entire life for me to meet and spend time with her sister, A.K.A. her BFF. They were so close in age, and were notorious for looking alike and sounding almost identical. When my mom and her cousins were kids, they often couldn’t tell who was calling them in for dinner. (When I spoke to my great aunt on the phone for the first time, I got what they were talking about – it was uncanny!)
So anyway, I was nervous.
I mean first of all, my Portuguese sometimes falters, especially when I’m stressed or nervous, and it would be just she and I, so I worried that we may have a miscommunication, or that I may not be able to explain myself, or answer all of her questions eloquently every single time.
Secondly, I’m gonna come clean with you all: older people tend to make me nervous. Throw me in a room with like, 10 kids and I know I’ll be fine. I’m weird. I’m loud. I’m naturally (well, at this point, it’s natural) colourful. Kids love me! Throw me in a room with 10 seniors, though, and I will stare at them like a deer in the headlights. I think this is mostly due to the fact that older people tend to be the ones who judge me the harshest, think I’m a hoodlum, hate my tattoos, etc., and they aren’t usually afraid to voice it. So I always get stuck in a “what are they thinking?” panic.
The beginning of my day with Tia Milu (Auntie Milu) got me off to a panicky start.
The night before, we made our plans to meet up over the phone.
“Okay, what you’re going to do is take the train to the _____ stop, and then just get off and wait for me.”
“Okay, Tia Milu.”
“When you get off the train, DO NOT go through the pedway and cross to the other side, okay? I’ll do that. I’ll come find you.”
“Okay. I’ll just sit and wait.”
“Yes. If you cross through the pedway, you won’t find me. DO NOT cross through the pedway, okay? Just don’t. It’s too complicated. You don’t know the way. Just get off the train and WAIT.”
“Okay, I will.”
“Do you understand?”
“So you’ll get off the train – ”
“I’ll get off the train – ”
“And then I’ll just WAIT.”
“Right. NO CROSSING OVER.”
“Good. See you tomorrow.”
SIDENOTE: I wish you could hear her harsh, no-nonsense, Portuguese way of speaking. Tia Milu was not a lady to mess with.
So the next morning, I took the train to our designated meeting stop, I got off, and I waited. I did NOT cross through the pedway – heaven forbid – and “get lost.” I sat down on a bench and waited.
After about half an hour, I noticed there was a little old lady who had been sitting almost directly opposite to myself on the other side of the tracks for almost as long as I had. The distance was great, but she looked somewhat like my grandma. I started to wonder.
Had I misunderstood?
No. It was literally impossible to misunderstand the conversation we had had the night before. Tia Milu was so adamant. DO NOT CROSS THE TRACKS. I waited a bit longer.
The little old lady was still sitting there. I pulled out my mobile phone and dialed Tia Milu’s number. The little old lady across the tracks reached into her purse, pulled out her phone, and answered.
“Tia Milu? This is Andrea.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m on the other side of the tracks.”
“What are you doing over there?!”
“It’s okay, I can see you – I’ll cross right over and come find you.”
“I told you to come find me on the other side of the tracks!”
“I’m coming – just a minute!”
I jogged down the stairs, through the underground pedway, and back up the stairs on the other side of the tracks. Tia Milu was still yelling at me into the phone, but I had zoned her out to focus on speed. I ran across the platform to where she was sitting.
Tia Milu turned to me with a very serious look on her face and said, “Just a minute! I’m trying to find my neice!”
“Tia Milu, it’s me. I’m here. I’m on the phone? This is me. I’m Andrea!”
“Oh! I found you!” she yelled into the phone, “I’m going to hang up now! Goodbye!”
And then she turned to me like I was a new person – not the person on the phone – and we started our day together.
I more shakily than she.
We took the train back to Algés, where she lived, and went for lunch at a really nice vegetarian restaurant. The entire time, she chided the waiter for not bringing her a steak, and questioned how anyone could eat vegetarian food.
I’m not gonna lie: at this point, I was pretty certain my great aunt hated me.
But then we both started to relax a bit. As we were talking through town, she started joking about how her poor balance and depth perception had paid off when she tripped and fell into the arms of a very handsome young man about a week prior.
“Oh yeah?” I teased her, “Way to go, Tia. You’ve gotta start scheduling those “falls”.”
I admired that Tia Milu walked around by herself as much as she obviously did – her eyesight was on a constant downslide, and at the time we hung out, she was very nearly blind. She was so old and so tiny, and yet she stomped across town with me like nobody’s business, and told me about the courses she had enrolled in at the local college, just for fun.
We walked all the way to the Vasco Da Gama aquarium – probably 20-30 minutes from where we started.
“Okay,” Tia Milu announced, “Let’s sit here. I love these fish.”
We found a bench right in front of one of the gorgeous Koi ponds that fill the front yard of the aquarium.
And then we sat.
Occasionally, we would exchange words. Tia Milu would ask me small questions about myself, and I did the same. We took a short break from sitting to feed the fish from a 10 cent candy machine filled with Koi food.
“They’ve gotten so big!” she told me proudly, “Just look at them! And they know when you’re coming! I swear these fish see me and know – there’s the lady with the food! ”
I watched her coo at the fish, totally in her element. I wondered how well she could distinguish them, or if she just appreciated the colour more than anything.
And then we sat again. After a while, I realized that I was completely relaxed, and I felt like Tia Milu and I were old friends. The silence was warm and comfortable between us.
I feel like I could go on forever about that day and how much I learned in just a few hours with my Tia Milu. I learned a lot about her and her life, and I learned a lot about the town’s history, its aquarium, its college, etc. But I think the most important thing I learned from spending time with her – something that I am lucky to have learned more than once during the two trips I took to Portugal that year – is that there really is an invisible bond between family. It’s there before you know it.
Also, it’s often the simplest things – like watching Koi fish swim around a pond – that bring the greatest pleasure.
Okay, before I sign this one off, I have to tell you how Tia Milu said goodbye to me, because it’s too fucking hilarious to leave out of the story…
After a lovely afternoon together, Tia Milu walked me back to the train station in the centre of Algés and asked me if I knew where I was going.
“Yes, I know which train to take and how to get home, no problem.”
“Great. Well, it’s not coming for another 30-45 minutes, so we’re going to have to wait.”
“That’s okay, I don’t mind.” I promised her.
We stood in silence for a second. I thought that we were going to wait for at least a bit longer before saying goodbye, but after a very short moment – like, literally less than two minutes – Tia Milu turned to me and said, “Well, I need to buy bread, so I’m gonna go.”
She gave me a hug and a kiss and stomped away like a lady on a mission.
I waited by myself for the train before going home to my aunt’s place in Parede.
Blunt old people, man. So funny. (And a little scary.)
RIP, Tia Milu. I’m glad we got to meet!