As some of you may know, my dear brother Nicholas Ditaranto passed away one week ago. I am heartbroken and very much in shock. I am still trying to pick up the pieces and adjust to this brand new world, but I wanted to post something. I haven't been able to write much in the past few days, but I have been thinking a lot about an essay I wrote about visiting my grandmother's grave in Brazil. The faveiro pods featured in the story can be seen in the photograph above. Coincidentally, my mother brought some back for me on her last trip to Brazil.
Eventually I know I will be able to write about my brother, but for now I hope this essay is enough.
It was a long drive to the cemetery, so I tipped my head against the cool glass of the window and lazily stared out of it as the Brazilian countryside flashed before my eyes. Rows of coffee plants were followed by a field of sugar cane, then a herd of horses or white cows, and then another field of sugar cane or coffee plants. Sometimes the highway cut through a hill and walls of reddish dirt rose and fell around the car, obscuring the view only for a few moments. Other times we would be driving along the brim of a valley filled with varying shades of green and creeks that crisscrossed through the patches like a cracks in a ceramic bowl. And if I squinted, I could just about make out the brown and white specks grazing in the field.
While my mind drifted around the bowl and out over the horizon line, my mom and Vovô, my grandfather, filled the car with Portuguese. At first, I tried to pay attention and from what I could understand they were talking about someone in the family, probably one of my forty or so first and second and third cousins who was either getting married or getting into trouble, and by my mom’s sharp intake of breath, it was probably the latter. While she asked questions, Vovô answered her calmly and matter-of-factly. It’s been a couple of years since my mom’s last visit home and per usual, there was a lot of gossip to catch up on. But it was too complex a conversation for my semi-fluent ears, so I let familiar tones and syllables fill up the car around me and floated in it while I stared out the window. I gazed until I grew bored and when I grew bored, I shut my eyes. I didn’t open them again until the cracking began.
Popping noises, not so loud as firecrackers, but loud enough to rumble the car, made me shoot up with sudden confusion and curiosity. “What is that?” I could see we were rolling to a stop in front of the cemetery and as we slowed down, so did the popping.
My mom mimicked my question in Portuguese and Vovô answered, beginning, “Árvore de Faveiro.” I understood the first part, Faveiro tree, but the rest of his sentence did not come through.
“It’s a type of tree,” my mom said turning to look back at me. “It drops the dry, uh…” I waited while she searched for the word, “they’re like peapods, but for their seeds… ” I nodded, “Anyway, the trees drop them in the street and when cars drive over, they crack.”
When I got out of the car, I could see the little brown clumps that littered the road beneath the shade of the Faveiro trees. I liked the way the word sounded, looping around my mouth before shooting off of my tongue. I examined one of the pods closely; it looked like a shriveled up piece of bark. I lightly placed my heel over top of it, and then I stepped down with my full weight. CRACK. I broke a couple more, each crack more satisfying as the last. At the height of my cracking addiction, I heard more pops coming from behind me and looked over to see my Vovô with his head down, cracking the pods beneath his feet. My eyes fixated on him for a moment. In his thick glasses and a windbreaker, this was my grandfather, a man I’ve only met a handful of times and with a language barrier in between us. I barely know him, I thought, but there we were standing in the road cracking pods together.
My mom, finally emerging from the car with a bouquet, came up behind me and placed her hand on my shoulder. “Are you ready?” she asked.
I nodded. It was time to meet my Vovó, my grandmother.
The air was quiet as the three of us walked through the steel gate and the soft patting of our footsteps against the dirt path echoed. Instead of typical graveyard with headstones aligned in rows on a grassy field, like tabs keeping order of the dead, this cemetery was filled with tombs suggesting the full length of the buried coffin and jutting above the ground. The colors of the stone varied from pink to black and each headstone was carved in its own elaborate and unique style. Many had photographs preserved under glass, beneath or beside their name. Many had two names and two photographs. Many only filled up half the headstone with one name and one photograph with an empty waiting space on the other half. We passed rows of these tombs, each clashing against the next, some more elaborate with shining names engraved in stone and others plain slabs of gray concrete with a simple name plaque and a serial number painted along the side. Later mom told me those were the people who couldn’t afford better, but there was no discrimination. The concrete graves were scattered intermittently between the graves of granite and marble.
Vovô turned and we had to slide through the narrow space between graves to reach hers, rubbing our shins against the stone. Her name was engraved in silver against the dark green granite, Anna Garcia Miranda. To the side was her portrait. It was a single grave, cold stone with hard edges. “Here she is,” he told us.
At the base of her headstone was an empty vase and my mom bent down to place the flowers in it. Vovô, the cemetery, and I were silent as we watched her. The paper around the flowers crinkled as she took it off and the glass clinked against the stone as she placed the vase down and tried to set it straight. So much noise in this quiet place. “Para você, mãe,” my mother said softly. For you, mom.
The three of us stood there wordlessly and I clasped my hands in front of me. My palms were growing sweaty and I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. I settled my stare on the oval photograph affixed to her headstone. She had short hair, like my mom’s, a stern smile, and a mole on her cheek.
Her face I recognized from the picture at home, the one in the silver frame on the side table. In her arms she cradled me, a baby swaddled in a pink blanket and looked up towards the camera, smiling. It was the only proof that we ever existed together. Just for a brief visit, then she went back to Brazil and died a little more than a year later. I never knew her at all, not even barely.
My memory skips, because suddenly I was standing away from her grave, in the middle of the path that led to the entrance of the cemetery. Mom and Vovô were still standing by her, praying their last prayers. As I waited, I began to read the names and look at the photographs more closely.
For every name and photograph, a ghost emerged from the stone and their lives flashed before my eyes. I saw their first kisses, their long workdays, and their morning cups of coffee. I saw long illnesses and sudden deaths. I heard the cracks of the pods as their families pulled up to the cemetery. I saw them making the solemn walk to stand where I stood. I saw their tears falling at my feet and drying in the dirt. I felt my own tears beginning to rise. I saw the blank plaques next to the name of a lover, already gone. Their eyes looked across towards the empty spot of stone, waiting, waiting, waiting.
I thought of Vovô and his wife that lay cold in the ground. Was she waiting? She had a single grave and Vovô had remarried, but maybe. I looked at the two of them standing side by side. Waiting for him? And waiting for her, my mother?
At this, my imagination had become an unstoppable object, rolling down a hill and increasing in speed. It picked up the dark shards of shattered thoughts scattered in the badlands. Thoughts so sharp, they cut me up from the inside. Everyone I know will die, even me, even her. It wasn’t my first time facing these thoughts, but usually I would be lying in bed alone, moments from sleep with a pillow to catch my tears. This time I saw I saw my mom standing right in front of me and lying still in her deathbed and the crying came. How much longer did I have until I was standing at her grave, whispering prayers I wanted so badly to believe she could hear?
I rubbed at my eyes, trying to stop the tears, but I was caught.
“What’s wrong, baby?”
“It’s just a sad place, I guess,” That was the best I could say, a poor translation of emotion.
She hugged me and said soothing things. I buried my face in the nape of her neck. She was soft and warm and smelled like home. Her own mother, just a few yards away, was a cold rock with hard edges and smelled like nothing anymore. I hugged harder, sniffling against her neck. How much longer did I have until she turned to ash in my embrace?
“You ready to go?”
As we drove away the dried pods slipped between rolling rubber and asphalt. The shells collapsed beneath the tires and expelled the waiting dust inside, like an uproar of a thousand last breaths.