Charcoal smoke billowed into the kitchen, making my grandmother nervous. She fussed about the room, alternating between shooting a disdainful glare to the bombeiros, the firefighters she’ll never meet, and dousing holy water on the numerous and (presumably) already holy figurines and rosaries of Nossa Senhora de Fátima decorating the room. She looked out the window, probably thinking of the farm nestled near the heart of the fires. Her fingers quaked with worry. She needed a distraction, needed something to do with her hands.
Outside of my grandmother’s home, the world was licked in flames—or so it seemed. A recent drought had turned her teensy Portuguese town of 700 into a hotbed of kindling. Nearby cities had already been consumed by forest fires earlier in the summer, and many had lost their personal possessions and homes. Looking outside the window, it seemed as though her town and her home were next.
To distract her, I asked her to do something menial instead—to sit down at the kitchen table and write out her name in the book I was reading. With a practiced hand, she pulled out a scribbled card from her wallet and traced the inked roadmap of loops and curves that someone else’s hand had already traveled, copying her name into the latest book I was reading. She squinted, adjusting her glasses so that the freckles bridging her nose danced a bit larger behind the glass. When she finished, she inspected it, moving it both closer and farther away from her face. There, she says to me in Portuguese, satisfied, handing me the pen. Here you go.
“Obrigada Avó”—Portuguese for “Thank you, Grandma.” I thanked her and took her hand, squeezing it tight.
I knew she didn’t know how to read or write. I knew that she was pulled out of school young to help tend to the family lands. I even knew that this was the same fate that befell her husband and my Puerto Rican grandparents as well, capping their collective traditional educational experiences at the eighth grade level. I knew all of this before she picked up the pen.
So when my grandmother spelled her own name wrong, I was surprised by how much I was surprised.
Through the window we could see her neighbors lining up in the alleys between their homes, looking over miles of orange-tiled roofs and slopes of green towards a sooty blob morphing in the horizon. A yellow helicopter whirred around the fire, trying to squelch the flames; nevertheless, the smoke persisted. Ash collected on the sill. The air felt heavy. So did the book in my hands, inscribed by one Maria Madalera Marqres Perlira—someone whom I’d never met before.
My grandmother, who was both this stranger and not, got up from the table. She began to pace around her kitchen. A frame of the first picture her family took when they immigrated to America in 1975 hung over the door. To the right were her cabinets, filled with coffee cups and china we inexplicably never touched. The stairs leading out of the room were wainscot in faces, family members stretching from Portugal to the U.S. and back weaving their way around the walls of the house. Upstairs, the couches sat pretty and untouched, hanging under an old-timey chandelier. Nearby, a LusoAmericano article about my acceptance to Harvard was tacked to the wall. She’s never read it, but velhinhas I’ve never met recognize me out on the street all the same.
She was surrounded in her home by 70 years of things she bought and worked for without ever learning how to read. Without ever needing to know how to read.
Maybe I was was caught off guard because my life is nothing without words. I’ve spent my life trying to string together what I thought it meant to be successful, try and hold it in my hands, feel its weight and how it reflects in the light. To me, success was bottled inside a pen: I saw myself smoldered onto the page, sculpted in shades of blue and black ink that attempted to trace the silhouette of who I was. Trying to picture myself without words was foggy, almost impossible. But to her, words were ornamental. She held life with both hands, felt its vibrancy through her rosaries, the grape vines in her farm, the photos of her family in her home that reflected in her glasses wherever she went. She didn’t need to read or write down her legacy to feel it rooted within her.
As I watched her fret around her kitchen, holding a book too atheistic and too pretentious for a room veiled in holy water, the thought dawned on me: I could never share this with her. I couldn’t show her how a lilt in a sentence made my heart swoon, or explain why a piece of paper could make me giddy or grimace. I couldn’t articulate how putting pen to paper made life all the more tangible. To her, these pages meant nothing.
The view past them, however, was everything. She drifted back to the window, waiting for the forest fire to drop itself at her doorstep and swallow her legacy whole.
After a while, the whirring of helicopter blades outside subsided. The bombeiros must have put out the fire. Soot clung to the tiles on the facade of her house. Her neighbors went back into their own homes, closed their doors but left their curtains drawn so they’d see when the sky opened up again. My grandmother, restless with worry, wandered back over to me.
She needed to find something to do with her hands. Absentmindedly, she picked up my book, flipped through the pages, and just as quickly decided to put it down. She settled instead on cutting some chouriço and queijo, creating a dish sans recipe; her family was coming home for dinner soon.
Putting away my book, I began to help her. I turned on the stove and a fire sparked to life, the flames dancing under a pot as I watched her put together a meal from memory, never needing to read how much was just right.
—Associate Editorial Editor Jessenia Class can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.