A window opens when you learn the vernacular and sacred languages of a new culture. Homey’s are more than just friends. Vale la Pena has a significance that embraces the church. Understanding the subtleties of cheeky, sleazy, funk and F-I-N-E give you a new credibility as an interpreter of your borrowed language. Rituals bespeak the essential nature of the hosts who carve the turkey and divide trimmings, jump brooms, dance limbo and cook Caruru for twin saints.
Being brought into the ritual experience marks the crossing of a cultural crossroad or hurdle. Cooking with Mae Stella at her Terreiro in Itaparica or living briefly at Terreiro São Bento made me turn a corner and pay a different kind of attention to the experience of Candomble. Listening to neighbors and friends coax and cajole the seven little children, Os Seite Meninos to eat their Caruru at a Festa de São Cosme e São Damião had a resonance that forded centuries. That this cultural retention was followed by Latin prayer songs with handclapped and acapella accompaniments’ for a female only Samba de Roda identified the roots of Brazilian culture.
Another window opened today. The ritual was both universal and unique. Unfortunately it was not an experience I had sought out. Junior, aka Arroz the key player in the quintet of Capoeira teenagers who had befriended my group of fellows, lost his mother unexpectedly yesterday. She was just 35-ish. He is fifteen or sixteen. I learned of her passing at dinner time last night.
Here as everywhere a medical certificate is required before the home based vigil can begin with family and friends until the early morning. The untreated body is placed in a simple wooden casket. Just before ten, friends and neighbors gathered taking turns to carry the casket through the town streets, acknowledging their loss to the community and winding up at the cemetery, the highest point in town. The most beautiful view, or jumping off spot. A simple stone chapel, with few adornments save a small wrought iron cross and a cast icon of a skull and cross bones set into the door lintel, provided a brief stopping place.
The coffin was placed on a low table and the congregants randomly sang and shouted cacophonous personal wishes and prayers for the departed. The set screws were tightly secured and we left there as quickly as we came. The townsmen carefully placed the box in the prepared grave, lowering her with long iron rods whose hooks grasped the casket handles. Everyone took the universal handfull of dirt before the men took turns with the shovel. No one was dressed in finery. No priest was present. I am sure that in some circumstances a Mass can and does occur.
Afterwards we began the descent back towards the family home. The people who were too unnerved to enter the cemetery, those standing just outside of the iron gates, rushed forward, embracing the clan and offering their condolences. Most of the remaining people return to their daily chores and activities. Children and friends did not miss school. Whoever could have easily come did. I assume that others not in attendance had participated in the Vigilia the night before.
The dearest of friends and blood relations returned to the home to help begin the seven days mourning. If the family has means, professional mourners will be secured to wail in front of the house. Junior’s family could barely afford to buy flowers. They live as caretakers on an Itaparica upper middle class compound for part time residents.
Before and after the funeral I tried my best to console Junior. Without any forewarning I viscerally recalled my own mother’s passing. In solidarity and in empathy with his situation we hugged each other closely and sobbed together. I was stung by the inequities of our situation. My mom had lived a long and fruitful life. I was not a teenager when she passed. Junior was bereft of comprehension. He often rose out of his sobbing looking for something, an answer or reason. Spent with grief that probably connotes his first and greatest loss, he seemed to beg for that breezy joy I felt on meeting him.
He is such a good young man in the making I know he must be caught in a crisis of faith. Junior and his family live sharing what little they have with the world around them.
I met his mother only one time. She was a sweet and comely woman. They helped me pick herbs, Mastucies, to make a poultice for a twisted ankle that I had gotten running for a bus and finding a pothole. She insisted that I take other herbs, manjerico, hortelâ, etc., for cooking, instructing me how I could lay the cuentro inside of a whole fish, then picking her best Mamão-Papaya, eyeing a Cacao for later. She told him to run in and get a small bag for the baby Berengela's, sleek purple-black eggplants and a few tomatoes. Why him? I have only seen him do good selfless work.
What is this test for? This profound sea change, a boy losing his mom before he becomes a man will inform his whole life. Often these tragedies will stymie his growth, or lead him down a path of destruction. I was and am comforted to know that Omara, his Capoeira teacher and coach was present and will continue to inform and encourage him. Augusto has always had him under his wing as well. I am not one to pray, but in that odd chapel I too sent my hopes forward wanting the best for one of the most deserving people I have met in years.