My father-in-law is born in 1915 into a poor and broken family in Montenegro, a tiny Brazilian village of German immigrants. Wrongly branded as illegitimate, he’s shunned by his father’s Italian family. He spends the rest of his life overcoming these wounds, clawing his way into Brazil’s middle class. His boyhood school is the street, where he learns self-reliance.
He becomes hard as steel, with penetrating eyes and emotional depth -- a gaucho warrior. For him, the four great Brazilian passions -- soccer, samba, carnival and song -- are distractions, emblems of the poverty he has worked all his life to avoid.
He’s my superior in every way -- age, employment, wealth, social rank, will power, and belly size. We have almost nothing in common.
I am comfortably middle-class and know nothing of poverty. In Minnesota, I meet his daughter and we get married. Two years later, at age 30, I arrive in Brazil with no keys, no status, no tangible skills, no job, no home, no car and no children. In his presence, I feel soft as Silly Putty. My Harvard degree in English literature feels trivial, a butterfly sunbathing on a jackhammer. I’m a shallow scribbler in journals, and a vegetarian – a dishonor to him, his family and meat-loving gauchos everywhere. I thrive on solitude, which he considers an illness. He contains the strength of authenticity; I suffer the weakness of incompleteness.
The chasm between us deepens. His oppressiveness peaks when he rejects the name of our firstborn son, demanding that his own name be given. For 18 years, we remain at odds. Then one day we see a girl lying dead in the street from a traffic accident. For the first time, he begins to talk about his childhood, allowing me to sense, also for the first time, his frailty and struggle. We grow closer, and, at his death, I discover we’ve been deep companions all along.
Harvard College graduate; Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, West Africa; secondary school teacher in the US for seven years; university professor in Brazil for three years; professional writer and editor for 27 years; author of feature stories in several Minnesota-based magazines; married, with two adult sons; have traveled to Brazil 27 times; fluent in Portuguese. Retired in 2005. Interests include tutoring children; photography; piano; swimming; golf; reading; travel; wintering in Brazil; and playing with grandchildren.
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