Exploring a Grandm/other’s Various Identities: Alda Freire, Curriculum Theory, & Life Writing by Justine Sousa for EDU 6460 Curriculum, Culture, and Language

Exploring a Grandm/other’s Various Identities: Alda Freire, Curriculum Theory, & Life Writing by Justine Sousa for EDU 6460 Curriculum, Culture, and Language

Other people’s stories are as varied as the landscapes and languages of the world; and the storytelling traditions to which they belong tell the different truths of religion and science, of history and the arts. They tell people where they came from, and why they are here; how to live, and sometimes how to die.

(Chamberlin, 2003)

Writing can offer a therapeutic escape from the suffocating grasp of emotions and grief. My grandm/other, whom I affectionately refer to as Vavó, succumbed to cancer over the Thanksgiving weekend of this year. She was an extraordinary warrior with unprecedented strength and perseverance in the face of turmoil. A maternal educator, she served as an example to her children and grandchildren as to the importance of family, love, and “generosity of spirit” (Vienne & Lennard, 1999, p. 89). Sharing the story of her life is more than a cheap alternative to therapy; rather her story allows me to navigate through her various identities, while in turn helping to further understand my own. As Goodson (1998) reminds us, “identity is an ongoing project,” reformulated over time through narratives and stories (p. 4). By sharing stories of Vavó’s live(d) curriculum, I am sharing myself and my family relations. “Without the past,” Lane (2004) suggests, “I can’t learn to live in the unfolding present” (p. 117). Writing these narratives serve as a form of healing, as I attempt to keep her memory alive through storytelling.

Identity Métissage

The Widow

Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive; that is why we put these stories in each other’s memory. This is how people care for themselves.

(Lopez, 1990)

On November 3, 1967, Humberto Freire passed away at the age of 41 on the island of São Miguel in the Açores. He left behind his wife Alda and four children, each 4 years apart between the ages of 4 and 16. Alda’s world was turned upside down, as she was faced with the burden of raising her children on her own. She was forced to sell her husband’s business, a tavern, as it was an unsuitable business for a woman to be operating at the time. My grandm/other had the equivalent of an eighth grade education and no ‘employable’ skills. Her village offered few opportunities for employment, thus making it difficult to adequately provide for her family. Her curriculum-as-planned had been completely disrupted, making way for the unplannable, the death of her husband. Nothing in her life could have prepared her for this moment or for the decisions she was now forced to consider.

As she paced along the hydrangea-covered streets of Ribeira Grande, Alda heard stories from neighbours about family members who had immigrated to Canada and they gushed of the opportunities available on the opposite side of the Atlantic. Canada was portrayed as heaven on Earth for newcomers; a safe and welcoming place filled with schools, jobs and prosperity. As it became increasingly difficult for Alda to support her family selling homemade loaves of bread, she explored the possibility of moving to Canada. My grandm/other was dwelling in a “state of liminality,” articulated by Heilbrun (1999) as a position where one is “poised upon uncertain ground, to be leaving one condition or country or self and entering upon another” (p. 3). Vavó saw Canada as a ticket to freedom; a chance for her children to have an education and a future. While she dreamed of the life her family could have in Canada, she remained trapped in a place of “in-betweenness,” between her familiar reality and the possibilities of the unknown (Hasebe-Ludt, Chambers & Leggo, 2009, p. 99).

Alda also had an additional concern heightening her desire to move to Canada: her only son. “To be aware of our historical nature is to be on top of our past,” Huebner (1975) notes, “so we can use it as a base for projection into the future” (p. 218). Portugal’s historical past of war and colonialism factored into Alda’s perception of her son’s future if they remained in São Miguel. The Portuguese military had already drafted relatives and men on her island to fight overseas. The Colonial War was fought between Nationalists in Portuguese African colonies and the Portuguese military between 1961 and 1974 (New World Encyclopaedia, 2009). Alda feared for the possibility that her son would be drafted to fight for the Portuguese military once he was old enough. She did not believe in this fight to maintain control of the African colonies, thus Alda did not want to risk losing her only son for a cause she did not support. After packing up their few possessions, Alda moved her family to Canada on October 15, 1969.

The Immigrant

The threshold was never designed for permanent occupation…and those of us who occupy thresholds, hover in doorways, and knock upon doors, know that we are in between destinies. But this is where we choose to be, and must be, at this time, among the alternatives that present themselves.

(Heilbrun, 1999)

With no knowledge of Canadian culture or any understanding of the English language, Alda surrounded herself with Portuguese immigrants upon arriving to Canada. She built relationships and made connections with other immigrants in an attempt to find work and resources in order to support her family. Such connections helped her find a job cleaning office buildings at night. Although Alda and her family were able to live with distant relatives in Toronto, they were asked to move out after only a month in order to make room for immediate family who had recently immigrated. Hasebe-Ludt, Chambers & Leggo (2009) emphasise that “we cannot escape the pervasive sense of longing, belonging, and not belonging that shapes our relations to the places where we linger and have lingered and might linger” (p. 98). While she longed for her husband and her native country, Alda attempted to adjust to this new environment that she would forever call home, embracing the uncertainty with unwavering hope.

Alda’s sister Lubelia had already been settled in Canada with her husband for a few years prior to Vavó’s arrival, but Lubelia worried that her sister would be unable to manage in this new country. In a twist of fate, Lubelia’s tenant conveniently vacated her upstairs flat just as Alda began searching for an inexpensive place to rent. Despite her initial hesitation to help her sister, Lubelia decided to offer her upstairs apartment to Alda for a reasonable rate. The flat consisted of two small bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchen. Alda and her two youngest daughters shared a double bed in one room, while her son slept on a futon in the kitchen. Alda’s oldest daughter occupied a single bed in the second room; a room she was required to share with Lubelia’s daughter. Even though their living conditions were far from glamorous, Alda and her family remained in this small apartment for the next five years.

Though Alda was a paying tenant, she was extremely gracious to Lubelia for allowing her family to live in their upstairs flat. While Alda’s children may have felt a division between themselves and their aunt’s family, the poor Portuguese immigrants and the fully acculturated and privileged Portuguese-Canadians, Vavó continued to exemplify the virtue of humility. Alda made sure that her sister knew just how appreciative she was for allowing her family to stay in their house. To show her gratitude, Alda would send her second-youngest daughter Helena (my mother) downstairs to help Lubelia clean her house and do her family’s ironing, while she would send her son to do their yard work every Saturday morning.

My grandm/other’s oldest daughter Fatima soon found a job working at a toy factory. Fatima was never able to attend school in Canada, as she took on the burden of helping her mother support the family financially. Many of the factory workers were also Portuguese immigrants, thus providing consolation to Alda that her daughter was surrounded by coworkers who spoke a familiar language. Their shared language served as a “symbol of cohesiveness and belonging” to this community of Portuguese newcomers to Canada (Huebner, 1975, p. 217). Alda eventually found a job working long hours at a jean factory, pressing jeans day after day. The hot steam would flush her cheeks, while the machines coarsened her caring hands. There were few Portuguese coworkers to rely on for help translating instructions from English to Portuguese, thus Alda felt isolated and alone. Regardless, she worked long hours in order to provide for her family.

The Single Mother

Pedagogy is located in the vibrant space in the fold between curriculum-as-plan and live(d) curricula, at times a site of both difficulty and ambiguity and also a site of generative possibilities and hope.

(Aoki, 2000)

Alda was very protective of her children and attempted to remain strong for them at all times. She would hide her stresses and emotional breakdowns, so as to keep her children from becoming fearful of their strained financial situation. Alda would hide in stairwells or on rooftops crying for the loss of her husband and her country, in addition to worrying about the financial pressures she faced on a daily basis. Although she could not provide her family with the elaborate material items her sister’s children were privileged with, she compensated by ensuring that her children always had a loving home. Their upstairs flat was often filled with the aroma of traditional Portuguese meals and decadent homemade desserts on special occasions, reminding her children of the pleasures of their homeland. Alda knew it was difficult for her children to adjust to their new life, but she felt that there were more opportunities available to them now. As long as they stayed strong as a family, Alda knew they could make their new life in Canada work.

Despite her unwillingness to burden her children with their financial situation, Alda was insistent that they reach all major decisions as a family. After paying for rent, food and utilities, any money that Alda and her oldest daughter had left over was saved for a down payment on a house. Buying a house would involve many sacrifices, as Alda knew they would be unable to maintain a mortgage and living expenses with only two minimum wage salaries. Her son left school at the age of 16 to work at a shoe factory in order to contribute financially to his family. As a result, they were finally able to save enough money to purchase a modest house in Toronto.

As my mother recounted this narrative to me, she reiterated that Vavó never asked any of her children to leave school. Once my mother turned 16, she knew that her family was having difficulty paying their bills and their mortgage, so she made the difficult decision to leave school to work as a receptionist. My mother was a dedicated student who enjoyed school, but she knew she had a responsibility to help her family. It broke Alda’s heart to see her daughter drop out of school. Once Vavó realised that my mother could still attain her high school diploma by attending night school, however, she highly encouraged her to pursue this option. Though Alda’s body ached from a hard day of factory work and her mind raced amidst her long list of errands, she would take the streetcar to my mother’s school every night so that her daughter would not have to travel home alone in the dark.

The Cancer Survivor

All stories are resistance stories, and all songs are songs of resistance, pushing back, against the tyrannies of the everyday as well as the terrors of the unknown.

(Chamberlin, 2003)

Alda first encountered cancer in 1985, as she was diagnosed with aggressive cervical cancer. The doctor who delivered this prognosis believed that the cancer was too far along for surgery and that chemotherapy would be her only chance for survival. Although she was scared, Alda was prepared to do anything to stay alive. Alda’s children took her to see two other doctors, as they hoped there was something else that could be done. They told her that surgery would be a risky option, but that it was still a possibility. Alda opted for surgery at the age of 59. After undergoing a radical hysterectomy on New Year’s Day 1986, she was pronounced cancer-free. Exactly one month later, she held her first grandchild in her arms. “Where there is power,” Foucault (1978) tells us, “there is resistance” (as cited in Munro, 1998, p. 31). Cancer’s powerful reign over Vavó was met with her forceful will to live and her desire to meet me, her oldest grandchild. Cancer was no match for Vavó, at least not this time.

The Devoted Grandm/other

Our memories might fade, but the stories of the past – the narratives of family, love, joy, hate, regret, grief – are still actively creative in shaping who we are in the present.

(Hasebe-Ludt, Chambers & Leggo, 2009)

I have always shared a special bond with Vavó, regardless of the language barrier that stood between us. With my rudimentary grasp of the Portuguese language and her basic understanding of English, we were able to carry on a very close and loving relationship. We had created our own language to communicate with each other, supplemented with smiles, laughter and the sense of touch. We had created our own bodied curriculum, “a practice of being oriented to others, to touch, to reflect, and to dwell with others relationally” (Springgay & Freedman, 2009, p. 25). We were aware of our “interdependence and interrelatedness” with each other (Hasebe-Ludt, Chambers & Leggo, 2009, p. 130). My grandm/other and I had constructed a space that transcended our cultural, language and age differences; a space where we could explore the concept of otherness in relation to our overlapping currere (Springgay & Freedman, 2009).

When I was a child, Vavó would prepare a family dinner every Sunday for her children and grandchildren so that we could spend time together. The sweet aroma of Vavó’s cooking would greet us at the door, as it wafted through the narrow hallway of her modest house. It was the weekend before Halloween in 1998 and Vavó planned on buying Halloween candies for her grandchildren to celebrate the occasion. As a result, my 72 year old Vavó walked to Honest Ed’s on her own, a 20 minute walk for most people, but a rather difficult feat for my already feeble grandm/other. On her return trip home, she lost her balance and fell on the cold pavement. Her collapse left her with a black eye, a swollen lip and a multitude of bruises. Vienne and Lennard (1999) assert that “it is the sum total of our mistakes…that allows us to learn from, adapt to, and ultimately survive in the most unexpected and challenging conditions,” (as cited in Hasebe-Ludt, Chambers & Leggo, 2009, p. 151). Though her battle wounds marred her facial features, her face still lit up as she watched her grandchildren consume the Halloween candy that she worked so hard to attain.

Final Thoughts

I grieved for the stories I was told but never heard, for the stories I heard but didn’t remember, for the stories I wanted but never asked for. I regretted speaking when I should have been listening.

(Chambers, 2009)

While Vavó and I had a very close relationship, I still regret not asking her questions about her childhood while she was alive and healthy. I would have loved to learn more about her upbringing and her life living in the Açores, prior to meeting my grandfather. I regret not asking questions about my grandfather and what he was like before he fell ill and passed away. As Goodson (1998) suggests, “a story is never just a story – it is a statement of belief, of morality, it speaks about values. Stories carry loud messages both in what they say and what they don’t say” (p. 12). While I have attempted to illustrate a number of Vavó’s various identities, there are many that I did not discuss, including her identity as a devote Catholic, church volunteer, friend, neighbour, and philanthropist. The sum of her identities come together to make up the unique woman that I affectionately call Vavó.

Exploring Vavó’s identities has taught me many lessons about my family history, thus helping to understand my own identity as her loving granddaughter. Pinar (1995) claims that “we are not the stories we tell as much as we are the modes of relation to others our stories imply, modes of relation implied by what we delete as much as by what we include” (p. 118). My grandm/other’s narratives serve to teach many lessons as to the difficulties facing newcomers to Canada, in addition to the financial struggles facing single mothers as they attempt to provide for their families. Her narratives seek to offer solace to those facing similar circumstances, while stressing the importance of community as a form of support. By surrounding herself with other immigrants, Vavó was able to find a support system in this tight knit Portuguese community. While their relationships were rooted in their shared language, they also shared an immigrant culture, as they experienced the trials and tribulations associated with building a new life in a foreign country.

Vavó had incredible strength and integrity in the face of great adversity until her very last day. Her determination to give her family a better future serves as a testament to her dedicated and perseverant nature. Vavó exemplified humility and I admired her aversion to the poisons of gossip in all its shapes and forms. Regardless of the difficulties she experienced, Vavó continued to serve as an example of faith and resilience to her family. Her story is neither glamorous, nor scandalous; but it is one that needs to be told. I will forever miss the smell of her perfume, the touch of her unmanicured hands and the sound of her voice as she would say “I love you Justina.” She is and forever will be a role model to me and I can only hope to be half the warrior that she was.


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