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Sounds of the Past

In a <i>StoryCorps Historias</i> interview with his mother, editor Carlos J. Queirós learns of her sacrifices, heartaches, and joy.

En español | It's a crisp, sunny day as Mom and I head into New York from New Jersey. The real destination, however, is the past. We'll be recording an interview as part of StoryCorps Historias.

We reach the perfectly rectangular StoryBooth in Foley Square across from the U.S. Courthouse and are greeted by Veronica Ordaz, the StoryCorps New York City site supervisor who will guide us through the recording process. It's warm inside the booth, so we hang up our coats. Although I told Mom there was no need to dress up, she's wearing a brown-striped blazer adorned with a butterfly pendant, a necklace looped several times around her neck. I'm wearing a brown-and-gray argyle sweater and realize that we match.

Veronica guides us to our seats, offers us water, and hands us special archival pens to fill out the simple consent forms. She delivers instructions in fluent Spanish, which puts Mom at ease. We both check off the boxes to have our interview included in the Historias project and within minutes are escorted into the next room, two steps away, where the interview will be recorded. We find out that, once we're finished, we'll not only get a free CD of our interview, but that it will be archived in the Library of Congress for future generations.

The room is dimly lit and has a table, two chairs, and sound equipment off to the side, where Veronica adjusts recording levels. Mom and I take our seats across from each other, and if it weren't for the two microphones hovering near our faces like spongy ice cream cones, this would feel just like a cozy kitchen table. I worry that the microphones might inhibit Mom's answers. With sound levels set, Veronica closes the room's door and the suctioning sound makes this moment dip into the magical and sacred. Today has been snatched from time. On a typical Thursday afternoon I would usually be working in front of a computer monitor, and Mom would be taking care of Jason, a one-year-old child, but the child's family is visiting relatives in Brazil.

We are told to begin by stating our full name, age, date, and location. We're speaking entirely in Portuguese; to do otherwise would make us feel like strangers.

"My name is Natalina Queirós. I'm 55. Today is January 7, 2010, and I'm in New York with my son, Carlos Queirós." Mom's voice rings out certitude, clarity, and pride.

I take a deep breath and ask my first question: "What was the happiest moment in your life?"

There's a pause as I wait for Mom to travel the necessary distance into her past. I look into brown eyes framed by rectangular black glasses that seem to shorten the trademark long nose we share. I'm reminded of how beautiful she is, how she always carried herself with dignity, taking pride in her appearance — even now she visits the salon almost every Saturday to prepare for a night of dancing with her friends. As she starts to speak, I'm surprised that the microphones, obtrusive only moments ago, have disappeared. So have the sound equipment and Veronica. It's just me and Mom having a conversation. Nothing could be simpler.

"Quando eu dei à luz a minha primeira filha."  And I'm reminded of how unintentionally poetic the Portuguese language can be as she describes giving birth as "giving light" to her first daughter. "I was 19, and we had recently arrived in Venezuela from Portugal. Your dad was 21 and owned his own butcher shop and couldn't afford to leave it unattended. I felt nervous and abandoned, but then Elika came and I felt I had the world's greatest riches, something of my own."

I imagine Dad, now 59, at this very moment less than an hour away, slicing meat for ShopRite in Elizabeth, New Jersey. As a kid, I remember him coming home every so often with a partially severed thumb wrapped like a mummy. He never complained; it was nada, nothing, just work.

For the next couple of minutes, Mom answers my questions in a straightforward manner with little hesitation.

About four minutes in, I ask, "How do you want to be remembered?"
A slight pause. A guttural voice erupts and eyes shimmer behind her glasses. "As someone who always worked hard for her children," she says, raising her glasses to wipe tears. "Someone who made a lot of sacrifices for her children and continues to, as a good mother. That is how I want to be remembered."

I take a deep breath, shift in my seat, and look down, now bleary-eyed, at my written questions. I resist the urge to take Mom's hand, wanting to give her the space to feel what she needs to. I bring a sleeve to my eyes, take another breath, and try to keep it together.

Her response about the sacrifices of motherhood leads the conversation to Jason, the little boy she looks after during the week. Her face brightens as she describes bathing him, feeding him, leaving detailed notes for his parents. Mom has shown me pictures and told me so much about this child — how intelligent he is, how he smiles when she enters the room, and about their shared days — that I feel like he's a long-lost brother I will one day meet. She ends by saying she loves him very much.

"Are there things you do with Jason that you wish you could have done with us?" I ask, curious about lessons learned from raising three children.

"I watch him for up to 12 hours a day, see his every gesture, the veins in his neck as he breathes, each time he moves each of his little fingers. That's something I couldn't do with you children. I always had to work. And I have come to know that these people who watched over you children," Mom pauses, then chokes out these last few words, "didn't always treat you right. I feel so—"

"You did the best you could," I interject, before she can travel any further down this regretful road.

Mom later talks about how hard immigrant life was for the family. In Portugal they were poor but could eat from the land. When they arrived in Venezuela, and then in the United States, they sold the only thing they could: their labor. For Mom, this meant piecework as a seamstress, getting paid anywhere from  five to 12 cents per garment. "I'd skip lunch so I could sew more pieces," she recalls. "The bosses liked me because they could count on me, but the other ladies called me a crazy Portuguese lady. I was full of hunger, but for work."
Eventually Mom wore out the cartilage in her right knee — like brakes in a car, she explains — and the doctors refused to let her go back to pumping sewing pedals. Until she started cleaning houses, she was sure being a seamstress was the toughest job. "At least with sewing, you're seated," she says. "But with cleaning, you're going up and down stairs with heavy vacuums and cleaning dirty bathrooms and ovens that never stay clean."

I recall that no matter how many times Mom showered during those years and sprayed perfume, a faint smell of bleach always clung to her; and her fingernails, despite wearing gloves, were always deteriorating from the cleaning chemicals.
I attempt to steer the conversation to a lighter place. "What's your favorite memory of me?"

"There are so many, I can't choose, but one of the most painful was…"

I consider interrupting, but this interview seems cathartic for her. Once again there are few, if any, pauses in her answers. These events are what made her life meaningful, and I sit in rapt attention and, yes, some sorrow.

"The most painful was when you came to pick up your mattress at home after you graduated from college and said you were going to live in New York. I had that large kitchen table for all five of us, and each time one of you left I removed another leaf. That night I removed the last leaf and sat across from your father at a table that was too small but felt so large. I couldn't stand it. I had to take a tray and eat at the sofa." Tears start to flow freely on both sides of this table.

As with other painful aspects of her life, Mom had chosen to keep me sheltered from this because she believed I needed a tranquil mind for the kind of work I do as a writer and editor. She never told me how difficult it was to reconnect with Dad without the distraction of children. Somehow reducing Mom's sadness to an "empty nest" doesn't work when she's sitting directly across from me, weeping. She has fully let down her guard, allowing me to shoulder past pains with her.

I try again: "And what about a happy memory of me?"

Now there are joyful tears.

"There are so many, but if I had to pick one, it would be when you recently graduated with your master's, and I felt that no matter what happened to me now, you would be able to fight for a life worth living."

I tell her how important that day last May was for me too. I looked out over the audience at the graduation reading of my fiction (based partly on my grandparents' deaths) and saw the faces of my aunts, uncles, cousins, sister, and fiancée. I dedicated the reading to my grandparents because I miss them dearly and wanted to honor the sacrifices that allowed me to stand before my family, knowing this accomplishment was also theirs.

And now the interview becomes a reliving of heartwarming memories. Mom is five years old, and her father is returning home from Lisbon where he has been delivering milk. She sees him across a great expanse of forest. "Look, there comes your father!" her mother tells her. Father and daughter run towards each other with open arms. She is 16, linked arm-in-arm with her mother, helping her haul 100-kilo corn meal sacks onto a donkey cart. She is 26, and I'm born — a healthy baby boy — and the entire family is gathered in celebration at Saint James Hospital in Newark, New Jersey.

After the interview, Veronica snaps a couple of photos of us to archive with the CD. When the flash goes off, I'm finally holding Mom close and already reliving the experience. Veronica hands us the CD, and Mom clutches it to her chest before placing it in her purse. Once outside, the sounds of New York flood us, but we're both quiet while hailing a cab back to the train station.
Tonight we will gather around a CD player and listen to the interview in the kitchen. Dad is nearby, rubbing his eyes the entire time. The phone rings, but no one moves to see who it is.

"I don't even remember saying all these things," Mom says, tears brimming once again. "It was like I was hypnotized."

The CD ends, but Mom continues: "If you were to ask me again what one of my favorite memories was, I would have to say today."

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