Chapter 5 - The Chacara

The Chacara

Anastasia at her bedroom at home.

 Chapter 5 - The Chácara

“A wise traveller never despises his own country”

- William Hazlitt

 

“The ache for home lives in all of us,

 the safe place where we can go as we are

and not be questioned.”

- Maya Angelou

 

“When you finally go back to your hometown,

you find that it wasn’t the old home you missed

but your childhood.”

- Sam Ewing

Period of time covered: 1945 to 1987.

Location: Belo Horizonte. 

            I decided to call myself Anastasia Persephone. I must explain that I never planned to be a writer, but I did want to pass on the interesting stories heard from other people, such as my maternal grandmother Teresa, and my own observations of the world about me. As a result I became becoming a writer quite late in life, long after I had realised my dream of going into business like my father. But this literary venture began at a time when I was terribly afraid of exposing myself to the world. I therefore thought it best to hide behind a pseudonym. But time changes everything. It calmed my fears.

            My early life in Belo Horizonte was a time of perfect happiness in the bosom of my family, of which I thought I was the centre, for that was how it felt for many years. In that world there were no clouds, no fears, no threats. Such horrors emerged only later in the outside world, which was to prove cruel, and where we would never be fully accepted.  My private world did not change a great deal as I grew up, or while I still lived in Belo Horizonte.   

             I studied Business Administration in a university in America. A little later I learned to fly little aircraft in England so that I could go the country often for work, as my father did. But suddenly everything changed. My father changed, my mother, poor thing, she changed too, and so did I.

            After all these years I am still administrating my own business and trying to make a success of it to prove to myself that I can, while hopping to show that I inherited this trait from my father. But I also think that this persistence is part to my old compulsion to imitate him. He was my idol.

            I have always guided my own life with very strong hands. I made day to day decisions determining what was right or wrong for me, never allowing myself to be diverted from my chosen path. My philosophy may be summarised thus: to be strong and to be in control of one’s life.

           When I was born the war was still waging far away in Europe. But this distant conflict did not make much difference to the lives of most people in our valley just north the tropic of Capricorn where my life began. Indeed, the war years passed mostly peacefully and uneventfully, and my arrival into the world certainly had much more impact than a distant conflict on my immediate family.

            The end of November is in the rainy season, which heralds the coming of summer in our corner of the southern hemisphere. So it probably poured while I was being born, though no one ever told me for sure. I once asked my mother about the exact time of my birth and she just brushed me off saying she could not remember, but it must have been at a very awkward time as I had always been so difficult! I was furious and stomped off to my room in a huff. She never bothered about details, but they were very important to me. I always loved detail. Every little tiny aspect of a story interests me, and I find the to-ing and fro-ing of action and reaction fascinating.

            As soon as soon as I was able to understand anything about my surroundings I thought I lived in heaven consisting of wide green expanses in which to play in the shade of many kinds of trees, their leaves fluttering in the gentle breeze, their fruit easy to puck, where flowers bloomed throughout the year. A variety of animals roamed about, as if for my amusement, birds chirped and tiny armadillos turned into little balls at my touch. This private haven was, and still is, known as the Chacara.

            Our home was situated on the outskirts of Belo Horizonte, the capital of the mountainous state of Minas Gerais.  This city is surrounded by a great wall of mountains, which previously might have served as protection against intruders. Consequently, its early inhabitants did not like outsiders!

            It is said that our reserved temperament is a consequence of our encirclement, or perhaps the visual limitations of our horizon encourage us to look inwards.  But this trait is probably the result of the isolation in which people lived when travel could only be done on horseback, with mule trains carrying cargo from the main cities along the coast.  

            It was only in my father’s youth that railways were built, and eventually roads for the first cars were cut through the softer hills and circled the iron mountains. My father always said that he had lived through the time when access to many areas on the western hinterland of the state had switched directly from horse to plane, with nothing in between. So his means of transport over some of these wild expanses, where there were no landing strips, was a light aircraft called the Piper Cub. He used to tell us it could land almost anywhere.

            After I was born he would fly us off to holiday in these distant western lands where we had farms and plantations. We would go in a four-seater Cessna, with me sitting in front with him, and my mother and brother behind us. As soon as my sister was born she came along too.

            During flights I would pretend I was helping my father fly the plane, a game he encouraged to my mother’s horror as she was a little frightened. But I always wanted to learn how to operate the levers and he pointed to the dials as they showed changes of direction or altitude. As I always wanted to imitate my father, as soon as I was sixteen years old I started to have flying lessons. But this turned out not to be of any use to me.

            In Brazil a chácara is a house surrounded by a large orchard, usually just outside a town. This word does not exist in Portugal and I could only find it, with the same meaning, in Goa, where in a Luso-Asian dictionary the word xácara is said to derive from Sanskrit.

            The same word appears in Quechua, which is an Amerind language originally spoken in the Inca Empire and still spoken by about eight million people in South America. In the Canary Islands chácaras are a type of castanet. This is a percussion instrument, which consists of a pair of concave shells joined by a string. In the region it is believed that the word may be related to the word šakar, meaning hoof, in the Berber or Amazigh languages and dialects indigenous to North Africa.

            My father bought the chácara, where our home was situated, along with its old farmhouse, in the early 1940s. It was then located on the outskirts of town, separated from it by the river Arrudas and by a swamp where toads croaked at night. I am not sure if I really remember this or if it just my imagination.

            In time the city encircled us, and only much later, after almost twenty years of peace, part of our park was cut off to make way for a new road. But it still remained beautiful, especially the garden that surrounded the house. It is now more splendid than ever, as the trees have had many more decades in which to grow.

            However, I do remember the early years there, picking fruit, watching flowers and playing dolls, as white storks bathed in a nearby pool, and birds flew around inside a very large bird sanctuary next to the house. Colourful macaws and green parrots displayed their plumage, larger birds like seriemas and mutums paced about pecking edible scraps off the ground while smaller birds fluttered about in a structure large enough to house fruit trees and a pond.  For five years I was an only daughter and enjoyed every moment of it. My mother made sure I was always comfortable, my father gave me everything I wanted, and I was accustomed to rule the world, or so at I thought.

            I recall the time, before the birth of my brother and sister, when the entrance to our grounds was towards the front of the house, to the east and slightly uphill, in the direction of the Rua Patrocinio as it is now called. At that time the lane that led from the outside gate to the original old farmhouse was flanked by flamboyant trees, with their little red flowers and leaves trembling in the breeze.

            To the left of the old gateway there was a little house, and it was there that Madame Marguerite Richardson, my mother’s godmother, came to live. She had accompanied my mother’s family when they moved from Diamantina to the capital, and when my father married my mother he also became responsible for Madame.            

            In 1950, more than five years after we had moved to the old farm house, my father had a larger house built on the same site. As time went on he bought more and more land around the original grounds, so that it eventually became a very large park indeed, with many other outbuildings and a wood to the northeast.

            His final acquisition was a beautiful area to the north, in other words to the left of our home as you looked from it. This land, on which was a number of houses, had been the main facility of an American Petrol company, which had had to be relocated to the city’s new industrial estate, outside the extended perimeter of Belo Horizonte. The exit from our home was then repositioned in the Rua Conquista, where it still is.

            The main house of this new area added to our grounds became the home of my grandmother Teresa’s home, She lived there with her unmarried son, my uncle Lauro. This pleasant two bedroomed house stood surrounded by some jaboticaba and guava trees about 250 metres from the main house. This arrangement proved to be especially beneficial to us. We enjoyed having Teresa close by while we were growing up. I often went to talk to her as she sat on at her favourite sofa doing crochet. But her presence there also caused our chácara to be, the favourite meeting place for all the members of my mother’s family at the weekends.

            But if we walked from our home to the right, in the opposite direction to my grandmother’s house beyond the aviary and the swimming pool, a trail led towards the southern boundary of the property. There this central pathway ended abruptly on a natural platform, from which we could view the city beyond the Rio Arrudas. In the foreground to the right of this natural stage the ground subsided drastically, providing a ramp on which to slide down towards the high protecting wall marking the end of the cliff and the beginning of the plain along which ran a railway that skirted the whole of our western border.

            But to the left of our central platform the land rose sharply all the way to our higher eastern border, where our circling walls again rose protectively. The heavy summer rains, always followed by a scorching sun, formed deep crevasses in the slope. I saw these as mysterious caves, which I loved to explore with my cousin Sandra.

            The best part of our home, as far as I was concerned, was not the beautiful outdoors, but my bedroom. This was a spacious chamber furnished with some lovely items that my mother had specially made for it when the new house was built. The woodwork was delicately carved in pleasing curves and little flowers, which were painted in subtle hues, while matching soft carpets and curtains completed the picture of peace and comfort.

            An important feature of this room was its view of a large Bontax tree that rose just beyond the two wide windows. As it was on the first floor, I could look directly into its wide branches, and I could see the birds in their natural habitat, and the exuberance of pink flowers in spring.   

            My bedroom is the fical point of my pleasant childhood memories of home, and on into the thirty years or more that my family lived there. After I went away to university at the age of nineteen, before each holiday I looked forward to going back to my room. And it was there that I later took my children on our long yearly visits.

            We lived in this big white house until just before my mother died in 1987.  Leaving it marked the end of a long chapter of our lives after which I had no home in that city, and felt like an uprooted tree. It had been our paradise, our place of peace, and it is the house I describe in the poem.

 

Chácara

 

Iron curves and contours adorned our views

From wide windows protecting us

In peace and calm, surrounding us within

A bubble of robust harmonic shapes.

 

In my enchanted room, silk drapes

 Encircled carved baroque curves

And flowers in delicate hues sprouted 

From soft rugs over parquet floors.

 

At night only echoing beat of raindrops

And the sound of dancing leaves

 Swirling in the rhythm of the wind

 Disturbed our tranquillity of sleep.

 

Outdoors gentle shadows walking

In the shelter of the night, hidden by darkness,

 Glimpsed in moonlight, guarded us

 From the unknown world outside.

 

Meadows shaded by eternal trees

Where flowers bloomed in every season.

Birds, macaws and peacocks, flew and   

Strutted and drank from limpid ponds.

 

Happy lives! We thrived through decades,

Cherished and secluded in an enchanted land

Surrounded by tall and solid barriers

Rising beyond the extensive gardens.

 

Only seen from car windows, the town

 As yet unexplored in infant days  

By young eyes gazing in wonder at

A fearsome ocean of unknown streets.

 

©ALP Gouthier, January 2012

 

            The school term in the southern hemisphere starts in the beginning of the year end ends before Christmas, when the long summer holiday starts. In July there is also a winter holiday. This is a very pleasant time of year in tropical Brazil, especially along the coast where it is much too hot in Summer.

            During term time on weekdays our home life settled into a regular pattern.  Early breakfast and off to school, driven by a chauffeur and supervised by a nanny, and back home for a family lunch. Lunch was always the main event of the day and my father never missed it. The afternoons were taken up by homework, private lessons, then an early dinner and off to bed for the younger ones. The others could go down to our home cinema to watch a film. As my father owned many cinemas in town, all films were shown to the family at home, often before they were shown to the public.

            Each year in the July winter holidays my mother enjoyed travelling to Rio in a chauffeur driven car. She said they would go slowly, eating in the car as they went. But as the trip took more than seven hours I hated it. But my father thought the roads were unsafe so he would let me go by plane with my nanny, which I much preferred.

            On one of these occasions my father had given me money to buy clothes in Rio, and when I got there I asked my nanny to take me to my favourite shop, Bonita in Copacabana. There I tried on various things and made many purchases, which I left in the shop for the necessary alterations and delivery the next day. We stayed at the Morro da Viuva in Flamengo, in a large property above my uncle Geraldo’s home. He was my father’s brother and he lived in Rio. From our windows we had a view of the ocean breaking over rocks in wide bay. Many ears later this area became a most beautiful park built on reclaimed land.

            On the day after my shopping expedition, when the porters announced the delivery of various boxes, my mother said they were not ours, that it must be a wrong address. But as I was expecting my purchases I quickly made myself heard behind her and said they were mine. She looked inquisitively at me and I announced that my father had given me money to buy clothes and I had been to the shop the day before with Dorinda. I took my packages and went happily to my room.

            Dorinda was a Spanish woman who worked at our house in Belo Horizonte as a dressmaker. After I came home from school I often went to the sewing room to talk to her about life in Spain. She told me about the snow and about black cherries growing on trees, which I found very interesting. Dorinda also made dolls clothes for me, which we hid if my mother approached because she would say that I did not let Dorinda work.

            The ironing for the whole household was also done in this room by some of my favourite people. One of them was old Maria de Lourdes, our passadeira, or ironing woman. That is how we referred to her. She was masterful with an iron, and the only person capable of washing and pressing particularly delicate clothes such as my Christening, First Communion and special party dresses, which were expertly made by a well-known embroiderer called Carmen Marques. Her delicate and priceless creations are works of art. We kept them and they have also been worn by my daughter. Eventually they will be worn by my granddaughters on special occasions.

            At the end of the school term each December, the household got ready for Christmas. My mother gave an annual dinner party on the 24th, to which many of the family came. She knew how to throw a party and the food was wonderful. My father never liked socialising so he never stayed long, but we never failed to enjoy ourselves immensely.

            After Christmas we often travelled down to Carrasco in Uruguay with relatives from my father’s family. Carrasco is an elegant residential area just outside Montevideo that sprang up around palatial old hotel. Those holidays usually lasted a month and they were made more enjoyable by the presence of our cousins.

            Back at home my father was usually away at the refinery at weekends, but he always came back on Sunday afternoons to hear about the events of the previous two days. He was very demanding of his family and was interested in everything we got up to. As he had trained as a doctor he was particularly concerned about nutrition. He classed a number of foods as unhealthy, especially if they were just fattening and in no way nutritious. These he fiercely condemned, so some favourite tasty dishes such as pasta, fried potatoes or white rice dishes, and above all desserts, could only be served at weekends when he was not there. In the field of healthy eating he was definitely ahead his time.      

            Many years later he got the idea that our home was too dangerous and difficult to protect. I wonder if this was because of our particular noticeability, or if it was because of the general deterioration in public safety. But we felt secure there during the day with many gardeners and chauffeurs around, and at night watchmen circled the house and patrolled with dogs. Even so, he wanted us to move elsewhere, but my mother refused to do so. Whenever she made a decision nothing would budge her. She would say “You and your father think you can order me about, but you are wrong. I only do what I want!”

                        These days, when I go back to Belo Horizonte I sometimes go to see the old home. I like to be there alone so that I can think about the past. Just for a while I look around, and in my mind’s I eye see how our life was, there in that place of peace. We were so happy within those walls that separated us from the town outside, the cruel world that condemned us all as deviant or immoral, though we had never done anything to deserve this. We were seen as guilty with no right to a defence. But in those childhood days I had yet to experience that condemnation and did not know yet I was going to be shunned, not invited into many people’s homes or to parties. 

Not that the story need be long,

but it will take a long while to make it short.

                                        – Henry David Thoreau

The Chacara

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31.08 | 03:16

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