A little Self-Pity to End the Week

My entire family is now gathered in Buzios, Brazil, for a cousin’s wedding.  I am not there. For many reasons (financial, new job) I was not able to go, and now I wonder if any of those reasons was really good enough. This Sunday is also the 9th anniversary of my father’s death, and I wish I could be there, with other people who knew him and miss him. Whine, whine, whine. I am not too pleasant to be around today.

Last night I read my girls a book about immigration, part of their ever-growing collection from the PJ Library. Ages 7 and 4, they related to the story in totally different and age-appropriate ways. D, the younger one, searched in the pictures the elements in the narrative that she was hearing, and was interested in the idea of Zissie doing something “naughty” and getting away with it.  7-year-old L, as always, had a million questions about immigration. Starting with “what is an immigrant?” This is treacherous territory – at what point, in a Jewish child’s childhood, must we reveal that large groups of Jews adopted new homelands because they were not exactly welcome or well liked?

I am a strong believer in the idea that when a child is old enough to ask a question, I have the responsibility to answer, hopefully in a clear and non-threatening way. When L asked why Zissie’s family were participating in a fundraiser to bring their loved ones from Poland, I gave her my basic answer: “Jews were not treated very well in Europe at that time. They wanted to have a better life here in America, where they would be safe and free. But it cost a lot of money to come, sometimes they had to leave everything behind.”

“Oh, so they were poor when they got here, like in the Emma Lazarus poem?” she asked. L relates every immigrant story to me: “Mommy, where you alive when this was going on?” Gasp. “No, honey, I was born in the 1970’s.” After she recovered from the shock of her old mother having been born in the “19’s,” she asked: “If people weren’t being mean to you in Brazil, why did you move here?”

This morning, through my bout of self-pity, I recalled this conversation and felt ridiculous. I had the luxury to move here in search of better educational and professional opportunities, and a lifestyle that suited me better. I was not escaping persecution, poverty, hunger, or oppression. It was my choice, which I would probably make again. I will try to keep the self-pity and whining to myself.

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What is home?

“Mommy, you are like Sophia the First,” stated my 7-year-old, triumphantly. “How so,” I asked, eyebrow raised high. “Well, she left her village and joined a new family. And you left your home and now you are in this family.”

Oh. My daughter, a sensitive type, feels excluded whenever I express nostalgia for Brazil, where I grew up. My husband grew up in the New York area, and the childhood memories my daughters are creating every day resemble their Dad’s much more closely than mine. I’ve lived in this country for a long time. In many ways, I am a lot more American than Brazilian. I spent my childhood in Brazil, but my formative years here. Home is here and there. Everywhere and nowhere.

Is it possible to be homesick for a place that is not your only home? I miss so many things. There are obvious ones, like people. My family travels a lot. We go to Brazil every year and a half or so, my Mom visits several times a year. We take advantage of Skype and other technology to see each other in between visits.

When I was in college, we wrote letters. Email was brand new, and while I had a school account (I had to go sign up for it in the basement of the school’s IT building, that’s how old I am), my family in Brazil certainly did not. Once they got dial-up service, it was less than reliable. For most of my college years, I still put pen to paper, then stuffed my scribbles into envelopes. The letters took a week to reach their destination. Most of the time, whatever turmoil I had written about would be resolved and sometimes forgotten by the time my Mom tore the envelope, read my words, and formulated her thoughtful response. There were weekly phone calls too. They were expensive, and any additional calls were saved for IMPORTANT THINGS.

Technology has made living abroad undoubtedly easier. As annoying as Facebook can be – and I could go on and on here – it is sort of a miracle to be able to keep up with friends from middle school, see photos of their children, know what kind of career they have chosen for themselves.

Still, there are so many things I miss. This kind of nostalgia is not helped by technology, quite the opposite. They are the sensory memories: the smell of barbecue permeating through the air on a Sunday morning, as hundreds of families light up their grills for churrasco. Grilled sausage to be eaten inside a fresh roll, with potato salad and steak. Tomato and bean salad. Simple and fresh, all year, not just during the summer months.

I miss a completely different kind of flora, the landscape of my first decades. Trees that don’t lose leaves, and a majestic pine tree that is the symbol of my home state. I miss birthday parties with brigadeiros and guaraná, and people clapping along to “Happy Birthday.” Yes, you can buy brigadeiros and guaraná here, but they are the exception, not the norm. Birthday parties here are pizza and juice boxes, and “Happy Birthday” is not percussive.

I miss the flavors and sounds of my original home because they were the colors of my childhood. I am homesick for a place in the past. Even if I were to move back, some of it would be impossible to recreate, or not as sweet. I explain this to my girl, and try to share my language, my extended family, my history with her and her sister. I tell them about the beautiful city that I left (not a village, not even close), which they have have visited several times, but hardly know. I tell her that one day, she will feel a similar feeling, warm and sad, about her childhood, about today, about hearing my stories about a place and time far, far away.