Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College
Her hands and face were like leather from the constant hard work in the salty air while the sun beat down all day. Born in 1888 on Pico in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, she did not encounter me until 1951. Pico is one of nine islands in the Azorean archipelago, 900 miles west of Portugal. Living on the island, we could always see the towering volcanic peak, which stood 7,000 feet, the highest point of Portugal. My memories of those times are vague for I was a young boy then. The most prominent memory is that she was an extremely hard-working person trying to make ends meet. Widowed at the young age of forty-four, she found life presented a difficult challenge.
There were no modern day conveniences, such as electricity or gas where one could turn a knob or flip a switch to cook a meal for the family. With neither a refrigerator to store food nor a store to grab a snack, everything was done from scratch. If she needed milk to drink or cook with, milking the cow was the only solution. Wine to drink with dinner had to be made at the end of summer and stored in barrels. In order to have meat on the table, the family had to raise and butcher it themselves. It was the same thing with any crops, such as potatoes, corn, beans and so forth. All the things we seem to take for granted these days had to be planted and grown by the family; the only other way to attain these things was by bartering for them.
Typical days in her life consisted of rising at sunup, building a fire in the fireplace or the wood-burning stove, some days both in order to cook breakfast for the family. On other days, in order to earn a little money for the family, she had to grow a crop that would pay off in the end. One crop that provided a little bit of money was tobacco, which had been grown by her husband and now her. Tobacco had to be raised, and when mature it was picked and hung up to dry before it could be used. Once dry, the leaves would be twisted together into a pigtail. Then it was ready for sale. One may be wondering how the tobacco was ready for use at this point; those who smoked would take these twists of tobacco and, with a pocketknife, slice some of it into paper to roll up into a cigarette.
After preparing the tobacco for sale, she would load up a hand-made basket and set it by the door. Next morning she would rise in the wee hours of the morning. At 4:00 am, she would set the loaded basket on her head and begin walking the fifteen miles to catch the ferry to Faial, the next island. The ferry left at 7:00 am, arriving thirty minutes later at Faial.
Once at the next island, the job of selling the tobacco on the streets or door-to-door would begin. By late afternoon, it was time for the journey back home. With whatever money made from the sale of the tobacco, she could now buy clothing or some food to take back home. The return trip arrived at her island at 5:00 p.m. Now, she still faced a 15-mile walk back home. She would arrive between 7:30 and 8:00 p.m. Once home, she would tend to the chores that needed to be done before it was to time hit the hay. I do mean hay because her lumpy mattress was stuffed with hay. Get some rest now, Grandma. Tomorrow at sunup starts a new day.
On this day, after the family has breakfast, it is time to work the fields. She takes a moment to look at the turquoise waters of the channel between the islands. The waters are calm; off in the distance she sees what appears to be the spout of a whale as it lets out air in order to take a breath of fresh air. The crackles of small bamboo rockets are going off like firecrackers in the still air of the morning.
The whale watchers sitting with powerful binoculars in their watchtowers must have spotted those spouts from the whales. When whales are spotted, the whale watchers set off the rockets to alert the whale hunters. My grandmother's neighbor sets his farming tools down and begins running toward the whale factory. All the whale hunters gather, boarding seven to a whaleboat. Now they are towed out to where the whales were spotted. Soon one of the leviathans is harpooned. The sailors hold on for dear life as the whale swims for its life and gives them what is known as a "Nantucket Sleigh Ride." After tiring, the whale surfaces and is lanced until the life-giving crimson runs out of her.
Now, with the killing done, the hunters raise the sail on the whaleboat and return to port, leaving the dead whale to be towed to the factory by the motor launch. The farmers, fishermen, and others return to their chores. Soon the rancid odor of whale blubber cooking down fills the air. There is a flurry of activity now until all the whales caught are cooked down for their various products, mainly oil.
September has arrived and the grapes are ready for harvest. Warm sun, cool foggy, mornings and salty ocean breezes have produced a wonderful crop of grapes. Wine made from these grapes was served at the Czar's table in Russia. All friends and family pitch in to help with the harvest and to make the wine. These days stretch well into the warm nights until the work is done.
Life never seems to stop; there is always something else to be done. The end of the year is upon her now and the holidays are here. It is time for the festivities of killing the hog she raised throughout the year. Over a period of two weeks, the pig is prepared in many different ways and a different part eaten each of those days. These are wonderful times of family and friends gathering to share in the bounty.
Oh, what great memories I have of those days! This is the life I come from; the person I have been writing about was my grandmother. Even though life was unusually difficult, she was extremely happy and thankful for what she had. She was a great inspiration in my life. I only wish I had half the strength that she had.