She was built like a brick house stuffed with nails. She stood almost 6' in a country of smaller people. She believed equally in God — who gave her the power of righteousness, and science — which kept her hairdo perfectly in check.
She was born in Portugal, in 1916, in a small cobble street town about a hundred kilometers southeast of Porto. She survived two world wars, one civil war, a revolution, two dictators, various scandals, the emigration of her family, and she left this earth 89 years later with no memory of any of it.
This is the story of my grandmother.
I know as much about my grandmother as I don’t. I was an eyewitness to some of her life, although not enough. The rest is contained in stories, told by relatives, which are slowly growing from parables into legend. But any time my family gathers, which is rare, the conversation will turn to my grandmother within minutes. This much is fact: she ran not just our family, but several adjacent families. Being on her good side was not to be taken for granted, and usually temporary. And there has yet to be a hurricane named after her because there hasn’t been one big enough.
And as far as I know no one has yet committed her story to print. To be fair, my family’s primary self-defense mechanism is forgetting what we’ve done in life so we can die in relative peace. This is my attempt to remember her while I can.
There’s the story about how my grandparents supposedly met. My grandfather was a prison guard during Salazar’s regime. And my grandmother was bringing food to an uncle who’d been arrested as a dissident. Within months the uncle had escaped, never to be seen again. Shortly after that my grandfather left his first wife, and married my grandmother. No one in my family will actually verify this story, but no one doubts it. This is my family.
My grandmother’s name was Conceição Gouveia. In a country where every girl is named Maria and has fifteen surnames. Now, this may tell you more about the Portuguese gene pool than I care you to know about, but it’s important to the story. My grandfather’s name was Eduardo Gouveia Monteiro. Her maiden name was the same as his middle name. My grandmother didn’t take his name. She made him stop using his.
When I was born my grandmother got a hold of my birth certificate before it was filed and crossed out the Monteiro. After my parents immigrated to the United States this led to me having to carry around several documents with various official seals explaining why the name on my US ID didn’t match the name on my Portuguese passport. (My father, to her great dismay had adopted Monteiro as his true last name. Probably one of the reasons she made him emigrate. Yes, made him emigrate. But that’s a story in and of itself.)
My grandmother had one child, my father. She was unable to have more. So she called up a cousin who had five, whose husband had recently passed, and told her to send two of them down. She raised them and they called her Mom until the day she died. She didn’t ask for or grant favors. She made calculations. She leveled playing fields with the grace of a bulldozer. In the interest of fairness, as she calculated fairness to be.
She once caught a young village policeman flirting with one of her step-daughters. When she found out he was engaged, my grandmother sought him out and gave him an earful in the town square. The policeman, feeling very nervous, as a crowd gathered ‘round, said the worst thing possible:
“Senhora Gouveia, you have to respect my authority.”
My grandmother ripped the badge off his shirt, punched him in the face and replied “Where’s your authority now?” And then walked to the police station to file a complaint about him.
After we immigrated to America my grandmother demanded I spend the summers with her. On one particular visit I found myself locked out of her house. I asked one of her neighbors if I could sneak in through the backyard, shimmied up a drainpipe to her floor, and pulled myself up to the terrace, which was always open. She got home about a half hour later. And like an idiot, I proceeded to tell her how I got in. She reared back and slapped me harder than I’d ever been slapped before.
“That’s for showing people how to break into my house.”
“But anyone could have figured out how to break in.”
She slapped me again.
“That’s for forgetting you’re smarter than other people.”
Growing up, my family visited my maternal grandparents every summer on the Gulf Coast, where I could always count on two things: The sweltering Alabama heat and a never-ending supply of family tales, as told by my grandmother.
She was a voracious storyteller, the kind that made stories come alive like movies, and I became completely enraptured from a young age. On those afternoons when it was too humid to do much of anything outdoors, we’d all sit around the kitchen table and have a leisurely lunch as my grandmother told us the stories of her life.
She was one of those women who was ahead of her time. She started a career at a time when most women were still staying home to raise families. As a small-town girl from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, she shocked her parents by announcing that she was moving to Chicago to attend nursing school when she turned 18. Naturally, they were concerned and tried to talk her out of it, but she’d hear none of it. Her mind was made up and she braved the big city with a fierce determination. So off she went, without knowing anyone and not even knowing how to drive!
By the early ’40s, just before WWII, she was thriving in her studies and thoroughly enjoying her new-found life as a city girl when she met my grandfather. Their courtship was short (to hear my grandmother talk about it, I’m pretty sure they fell in love immediately), and they were engaged three months later. My grandfather left for the war shortly after, and nine months later, my aunt was born. It would be another two years until my grandfather came home and met his daughter for the first time. My grandmother once told me how nervous she was going to pick him up at the train station that day.
“Will I even recognize him?” she wondered. “Will we still have anything in common after all this time?”
Obviously, all her worrying was for nothing because they celebrated more than 50 happy years together, with three daughters and a beautiful retirement in the South.
When she died in 2002, I not only grieved her death but also the death of all those family stories. Without her to tell them, I wondered what would happen to them. But thankfully, my mom began carrying on the tradition a few years ago, only with a new, high-tech twist. For major holidays like birthdays and anniversaries, she sends around an email with a family story. It keeps these stories alive in a tangible way, and is a great way to spark conversation. As I get older, I’m starting to realize the value of keeping family histories alive and passing those stories from one generation to the next. There’s this instinctual need to know where you came from and how you became the person you are today. Plus, I can’t think of a better or more loving way to honor my grandmother, the original bearer of the family’s history.
Maybe her influence is even part of the reason I became a writer. Stories are powerful. Sharing who you are is powerful. Being brave enough to be vulnerable is powerful. My grandmother was all those things.
Hearing those stories as a kid, I appreciated them simply as a look into my grandmother’s life when she was young. But now, I can’t help but see the sneaky little tricks she pulled on us. She was telling amazing stories, sure, but more than that, she was sharing her wisdom and teaching little life lessons along the way. About finding out who you are. About running full-speed ahead after your passion. About living fearlessly. About falling in love and not looking back. It takes courage to do that, and I’m grateful every day for the courage my grandmother passed on to me. Be brave. Be you. And tell lots of stories.