What is left of me in that house I grew up?

The house I grew up in São Paulo was sold. I can now see how presences become ghosts and how spaces once filled with life lose their spirit. We grow up, we leave the house, our parents get sick, die or need to move and the house which once was a castle, a shelter, a place of belonging becomes a memory of entire lives, a close-distant place, a landscape filled with moments that made who we have become. Like a polaroid that freezes many years together, the shiny picture loses its color and gives space to something else.

I lived there for 27 years until I moved to Massachusetts to be a pastor of undocumented immigrants with the Presbyterian Church. I was the 4th child to arrive in the house. I had a joyful childhood as it was also very difficult financially. That house knows everything about me, all my secrets, my fears, my dreams. Oh, all the prayers I prayed there, it was as if I had to write my own book of Psalms to celebrate, to lament, and to cry for myself, for many people and the world. My dad gave me a small globe with the world’s map once and I used to cry over it praying for the world’s salvation.

I had that long corridor to play soccer with my brother and friends. My uncle didn’t like it and always threatened to take our soccer ball away. Sometimes we would lose the ball. That corridor was literally my playground. My dogs would run all around as well. The distance between the door of the house and the street gate was long and that in-between space held a delightful space from the moment of knowing who was at the gate and the moment we would meet and hug each other.

Inside of the house I remember trying to comb my hair in my mirror trying to straighten it out. I remember driving my mother’s sewing machine as if I was driving a Formula 1. I had socks in my hands to feel like gloves! I remember getting nice new shirts during my birthdays but my mom would save it inside of the box wrapped up in plastic for the special occasions. But I would grow up and almost never used them. New clothes had to be saved and when used, it had to be used first at a church event. That gesture of saving clothes stayed with me. I still keep new clothes from being used too soon or too much. I just don’t need to use them first in church anymore.

That house had all the inventions of my father who created games for the grandchildren. In a pizza box he would literally create 35 games! All simple, all so creative! When we, the kids, moved out of the house, one of the rooms became the “Geppetto’s Room” for my father’s inventions.

The house didn’t have books besides the Bible and a few old foreign cheap novels. The one good book I remember was Alexandre Dumas “The three Musketeers.” I don’t think anybody has ever read it. But the house had music! My father had a violin, a guitar and a harmonica. One day he sold all of his 78 rotation LP’s and got a projector and four films: Two Charlie Chaplin’s movies, one Laurel and Hardy and one of a Circus. Oh, I remember the night when we all sat down on the floor, with the neighbors and family visiting us for the premiere of the movies. It was the first time I saw a movie and I was absolutely enthused by it. I immediately fell in love with that man with a little mustache and a round hat.

One Saturday, I came back home from my final soccer game of the year and was qualified to go play at my favorite soccer team: Corinthians. I was beyond myself but my mom said that I had to start working full time on Monday and I had to go do my 7th grade in the evening: 7 to 11 pm. I was 13. I was desolated! I remember giving my mom my first envelope with the money inside. She opened it in front of me, separated the tithe for the church first, gave me the money for monthly tickets for the bus and the rest was to take care of the house.

I remember the loud Sunday lunches with friends and church people coming to eat my mom’s food. My mom is the best cook in the world! I remember bringing my friends home and spending the night watching the Brazilian version of Lucha Libre. I remember when Toki my black mutt dog, died… It was so difficult for me that my mom decided not to have dogs in the house anymore. I remember seeing her body in a blue plastic bag and being so sad.

I remember the day when I arrived home and I thought nobody was there. However, from the distance of the gate I saw a passing figure inside of the house and thought it was a robber. I went to the neighbor’s house immediately and called the police. When the police arrived, I realized it was my father inside and he was mad at me. Kind of mad, my father was never really mad at me. My father carried a Buddha’s smile on his face and was an incredible man. He had an accident, hit his head and had to stop working right when I was born.

My mom worked so hard. I remember her doing laundry, cooking and cleaning for other people. She also sold perfumes. I loved when she arrived home, it was like God arriving at the door. I loved it so much I still have this thing that arriving home for me is so important.

I remember I planted a lemon tree in the back of the house when I was 11 and it grew so beautifully and so fast! It was a glorious tree! However, it had to be cut because the yard was too small and the tree was breaking the floor and “invading” everything around it. I was so sad with the cutting of the tree. I remember my mom singing her hymns to her plants and talking to them every day. I remember the visits of crickets and locusts in my room and being scared to death. I remember the house getting flooded several times and losing things after things all the time. Once I got a piano as a gift but I lost it in one of those floods. And the cockroaches and the mice and rats with the floods were awful!

I remember sleeping in the same room with my brother. Every night he convinced me to turn off the light. But almost every night, the moment I turned off the light, he would start making scary sounds of ghosts and I would run back to turn on the light. I’d promise never to turn off the light again but he would always find a way to make me do it again. Every night! Some nights my dad, me and my siblings would play games but besides my older sister, nobody knew how to lose a game and we would always have enormous fights. But we laughed soooo much during those nights. When my brother and two sisters left the house I was alone with my mom and my dad. It was a good time. At night I always hoped my father would stay longer watching TV. The lights of the TV made me feel safe for I knew my father was very close to me. I remember I was mugged near the house when I was about 9 and that made me scared of my neighborhood.

I remember all of the firsts of January when the larger family would get together to eat and have secret santa. My father was the funniest MC ever and it was the most joyful, noisiest and wonderful day of the year!

I remember visiting my mother after my father died and we would spend time together. She would always cook the meal I wanted. She would tell me her stories and we would pray together. My last joy in that house was when I took Katie, my kids and my in-laws to visit it. We played soccer in that corridor and ate there with my mother. It was a good way to say goodbye to that place. My mom is now leaving with my sister Mercia.

It was only 5 years ago that I realized all of the trees around the house and paid attention to the birds that live there. There was a major river really close to the house, Tamanduatei (Anteater) and I was always impacted by its presence. The strength of its water, the bridges we had to cross over and the floods, this river truly marked my life. Now the river Tamanduatei was killed. The city put cement around it and all its life has gone away. It is just a dumpster place for human dejects and pollution of factories. It is such a sad story.

Time has come and that tiny house was sold and it will disappear soon for some other “developments.” Capitalism can never keep anything for too long. We need to develop time and again without end. Our memories of place are so often displaced and we can never keep in deep connection with the land. Capitalism is a machine that produces exiles. We got used to not being attached to the land.

Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida, a writer from Angola asks this poignant question: “What is left of us in a place when we abandon it?” What to do after the fracture? Everything seems to be out of place these days. I had the privilege to move to another country. As I think about my house I cannot not think of the homes of so many refugees all around the world. People who once had their own precious homes as well. And now with Palestine, what is it that will be left of them in that land when everything will be destroyed and taken over?

As for me, I am still figuring out what was left of me in that tiny house and what I carry with me and makes me who I am. One thing I know: I will always long for that place. Saudades, as we say in Portuguese. Or, as my friend told me of a poem from Brazilian poet Mario Quintana – “Who said I moved away? It doesn’t matter that they demolished it: We continue to live in the old house where we were born.”