My Father's Home

It’s midnight, and sleep will not come to me. My parents are frantically searching for my father’s green card. My father, a carpenter, has a habit of hiding important documents in random spots in our garage and then forgetting where he placed them. He swears he remembers putting his green card in an empty paint can. He just doesn’t remember which one. At about 2 a.m., after much pleading to St. Anthony, the document is found. We are ready to leave.

We are headed to Tras-os-Montes, a remote corner of Portugal, nestled between the Geres Mountains and the sun-baked fields of Galicia. I visit a village called Doñoes, a place where the fall potato harvest is the year’s high point and hot showers are rare, thanks to the lilliputian capacity of the water heaters.

Every three years, my father takes my family back to Portugal, which he left in 1980. As I pack, the usual resentment arises. “Why should I waste half my summer in the boonies of the Iberian Peninsula?” I think to myself-only for a minute, though, because there is no time to waste: drive to New York, stand in line, fight with the clerk about our overweight bags. “And don’t forget to hold your sister’s hand!” exclaims my mother as she walks away into the bathroom. Finally, the plane takes off, and the madness that is JFK Airport shrinks into the distance.

I know we are landing when I hear the chatter of Portuguese women, grasping their rosary beads and praising Our Lady for preserving them on the flight. The pilot welcomes his passengers to Oporto. From there, we take a four-hour drive into the mountains. Our rented Peugeot is bursting with its cargo of American-sized luggage and passengers.

At last, I step out onto the road in front of my father’s childhood home. I look to my left: cowpies and cobblestones. I peer to my right, already knowing what’s there: cowpies and cobblestones. I have arrived.

I know that my extended family is at the kitchen table, sipping wine and chewing sausage, waiting for us. The kitchen is hidden at the end of a long hallway, whose opening on the street resembles the black holes on posters in science classrooms. I know the black hole well. I walk inside, aiming for the kitchen. I am half blind entering the darkness from the sunny outside. I know I am going the right way, though, because I smell the potent odor of potatoes.

That stale, earthy aroma I know well. It’s like the Yankee Candle Scent of the Month for Portugal, but all year long. The smell conjures up memories of past visits. One year, I noticed my grandmother struggling to hang her wet laundry on the clothesline. She had no dryer, so my father bought her one. During one of my stays a few years later, I looked in the dryer, and saw that it had been converted into a potato holder. “I love my dryer!” exclaimed Grandmother. “It keeps them fresh.”

I pass the potato dryer, regaining my sight in the dark, and see a bucket of freshly picked lettuce. Oh, the stories I can tell about lettuce. I recall a time when I volunteered to help my aunt cook dinner for the field workers. “Here,” she said, in the stern way all women in my family do when in the kitchen. “Go wash this lettuce.” I walked to the sink, turned the handle, but was stopped by the smack of a wooden spoon on my wrist. “Not there,” snapped my aunt. She took the lettuce, walked out the door, into the road, and splash! The lettuce was having a swim in the cow trough. Along with the fish. And the frogs, and the moss, and the cow drool. She collected the green leaves, put them in the bucket, and winked at me. I ate no salad that night.

Now here I am again at the doorway to the kitchen, just to the left of the lettuce bucket. A statuette of Our Lady of Fatima stands over the doorway, beckoning me. I enter. I see my grandparents and my uncle, seated at an aluminum card table against a wall tiled in Moorish-style azulejos. My tearful grandmother gets up and gives me a hug that makes up for the years between the visits. I sit beside my grandfather. He says, “My God, I’ve missed you.” I want to reply, but can’t say a word, because if I do, I might cry as much as Grandma. It feels good to be back. I love these people-the people who raised my father, the man who struggles with paint cans. It’s nice to know that even thousands of miles away from home someone loves you.

“Julia!” yells my grandfather to my grandmother. “Start peeling some potatoes. This boy is too skinny!”

Published in the 2008-06-20 issue: 

Antonio Reis, a graduate of Masuk High School in Monroe, Connecticut, will attend Wesleyan University in the fall. This piece is adapted from the personal essay Reis submitted with his college applications.

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