Grave

Visited his grave last Friday. More or less where I remembered it. Took some finding. The large Gesta, Scotch Broom they call it here…. I’d remembered it from my last visit. Was that ten years ago? Gone. He’s surrounded by his cohorts: Duarte, Sousa, Dutra. All have plots nearby. I grew up with their children. How many of them will end up beside them?

A polished granite headstone. A clot of lichens sprouts from his name, Casimiro.

Always wondered why he had a Slavic name. Hungarians back there somewhere? Never knew what it meant: Casi: destroyer, Mir: peace. Cas-mir, Casi-miro: destroyer of peace. A heavy name.

Always a difficult name. Kids would ask, “What’s your father’s name?” Or their parents. I would answer, “CAS-e-ME-roo” And hope they’d drop the subject. No idea how difficult it really was….

How do you name a child, a newborn, your second son, Destroyer of Peace? “Oh, that was my great uncle’s name. Always liked him.” Or, “The world is hard. He needs to be a warrior. Let’s call him, Destroyer of Peace.”

Seems a crime.

He grew up in what must have been such a loveless house. Houses, in Brazil and Portugal. Raised by housekeepers mostly. I remember my grandmother in her last years. What a piece of work! Even at eighty-seven, eighty-eight. Small, fiery. So hard. So hard.

Never met his father. Died before I was born. Only the briefest resume: Wealthy.Dealt in lumber in Brazil and Portugal. My father worked for him as a young man. Drove trucks. Was his chauffeur. Not out of need. Not for the money. For the love of machinery and the mastery of the road. Back when the roads were all rocks and ruts and mud. His father went bankrupt. Beat the rush. Still in the Twenties, before it became fashionable. Cheated by a devious, un-named partner. Died of stomach cancer.

Grandmother was like a Dickens’ character. Lived on in suspended-Victorian-animation amidst dark, faded Art Nouveau opulence well into the 1960’s. Hard, holding onto whatever she could. Nothing too small to risk being magnanimous! She ran her family by force of will, wielding fearsomeness and threats, withholding any promise of inheritance long after there was any substance left to bequeath. Like an extinct volcano she dominated those around her long after everything had gone cold.

My father confessed to us, when I was still quite young, in a matter-of-fact manner, “I was an alcoholic at eight years old.” This fact, distempered my image of his childhood. A foppish five year old, Little Boy Blue, garnered from one of his stories. Five years old, arriving from Brazil. Proud of his brand new Panama-hat, gibbering away in his Brazilian Portuguese. The hat stolen by bullies on his first day of school. Jeers and taunts at the way he spoke. He recounted this in a faltering speech. His hand over his mouth. The way he said everything. The stutterer’s standby, gaining the confidence to make the words by receiving a human touch. Even if only his own.

Another of his stories related how stupid the family housekeeper was. She made hot chocolate for them after school. Carved great slivers of hard baker’s chocolate from an oversized bar, dropping them into an enormous pan of cold water set atop a massive kitchen range. His exaggerations, arising from his reminiscences of childhood memories half a century old, absorbed by my own childish view of an out-sized adult world.

As I listened to these stories and a few others: the sinking of the Titanic, the outbreak of World War I. I would do the arithmetic in my head, That happened in 1906, or 1912, 1914. The span of intervening time weighed heavily on me. It was palpable. I would jerk back, reeling. These stories from history were his. This old man sitting across from me with those wrinkled hands. Ropey veins rooted in his fingers, climbing his arms….

I was his son. Not a grandson. Not a nephew or a neighborhood child.

His son.

Had he snuck a drink one afternoon? Falling asleep in a pile of hay in the loja. This Destroyer of Peace. A sad, lonely eight year old boy. His father a man of affairs. His mother, counting her possessions, seeking and guarding her advantages. The sad-sack housekeeper.

Was she old? Young? Stupid? Unattractive surely. And by his mother’s design. His father, following the template of his times, a man of means in a loveless marriage. All she could control was that he would have to look outside her household for his pleasure.

This lonely, displaced boy. A stutterer. Pretty. No demands on him but that he fear his mother and stay out of the way, sleeping-off a queasy drunk from a flask of pilfered aguardente? A crystal carafe of the house-red? Straight from one of the barrels in their cellar.

Peace, a measure of solace wrapped in a dizzy sleep. Numbed to the cold hard stone by drink. Cradled in perfumed hay? Lying in the shadows. A ray of sunlight catching his eye? Alerting him to hurry back. Get presentable in time for tea.

All he was after, surely, a little peace? Branded with that moniker as an infant. A sprinkle of holy water. Some forgotten cleric, crossing himself, intoning over the crying infant, “I name thee Casimiro.” Destroyer of Peace.

He never found peace. Kept looking in the only places he knew. At the bottom of his last bottle he found his stomach cancer.

A barbaric, technically astute, clinician pronounced the diagnosis to my mother, my brother, and me: pancreatic cancer. The three of us sitting in a knot around his desk. Surrounded by diplomas and prints of nautical watercolors. He had updated my grandfather’s metaphoric death sentence. Casimiro was not devouring himself to death from the inside as his father had done. His leaking pancreas was digesting him from the inside. An image of a garbled Prometheus. Hounded, unable to find peace. Destroying himself through misplaced appetite, a misdirected digestion.

 

A Photograph

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