When I was a child, I was envious of children who had large and close knit families. Although, I had an extended family, the majority of my kin where spread across two continents and did not make any effort to stay in touch. The fact that both sets of my grandparents passed away before I was born made me yearn for that type of relationship.
Like many people, family is becoming more important to me as I get older and the few connections I have to Portugal become fewer and fewer. Besides my own need to understand where my family came from, I feel I owe it to my son to have a detailed collection of pictures and stories to pass on to him and his children.
In 2007, my wife and I travelled to Portugal to scout a location for our wedding. During the trip, we decided to visit my father’s hometown of Viana do Castelo, a municipality in northern Portugal. In a year and a half, we would complement this trip, with a trek to my mother’s hometown on the northern border of Spain in Miranda du Douro and soon after we traveled to Belgium to visit the town, where Heathers grandfather crash landed during the start of World War II. However, our crusade to unveil our past started at a cemetery just outside of my father’s old stomping grounds.
Living in Canada, I was accustomed to cemeteries being large swaths of green grass dotted with marble tombstones and mausoleums. Therefore, I was surprised to see a place directly adjacent to a church that was the size of a square city block and filled with nothing but over lapping grave sites made up of concrete and marble. Entire generations of clans closely entombed in a blazing white slab, meticulously maintained by the families of the deceased.
Besides engraved names, the tombstones featured photographs of the dearly departed. We walked up and down the rows of gravesites looking for a familiar face. Then it happened, my mother spotted my grandparent’s pictures and called us over. The photo was a copy of one of the few pictures we have of my granddad.
The moment was powerful. Instantly, I felt a new connection with the man who meant so much to my father and who indirectly molded my childhood.
Sadly, my relationship with my father’s side of the family ended when I was 5 years old. It was the last time I saw my step aunt, step grandmother and ultimately my father’s extended family.
I sat there for a time, conducting an impromptu conversation with my grandfather, wishing to learn more about my heritage and hoping to connect with my other family. Not that it mattered, time and politics separated the family, and it was doubtful anything could be done about it.
Although, we brought along a bouquet of flowers to put on the gravesites, Heather wanted to leave something behind that would alert family members to our visit. We decided to leave my passport photo and a business card. I placed the items under an urn, and then I left the site with a small prayer, hoping that I would someday hear from a distant relative.
Inevitably, I forgot about the business card and the photo, but all that changed last week when I received a call from my former employer.
I left CIBC two years ago, but I remained a customer, so I was not surprised to see that someone at the branch left me a message. I figured that they were going to offer me a new credit card or an appointment for a financial review. Instead, someone at the bank accepted a package on my behalf and requested that I come pick it up. More surprisingly, they said the package was from Portugal.
Instantly, my wife knew it was connected to the items I left at the gravesite. She guessed it would be a message from a long lost relative who discovered my picture and business card. She was right. The letter came from my step-aunt.
Besides a heartfelt message, the package contained a treasure trove of family pictures. It was a miraculous mishmash of photos of my father as a child, my grandfather in the navy, and best of all, pictures of my great grandmother.
We shocked my father by presenting the pictures to him as an early birthday present. He read the attached message, and we discovered that my aunt sent these precious pictures because she felt I had a right to have them.
We sat in amazement as we listened to my dad tell us about the people and stories behind the pictures. He shuffled through the photos grinning from ear to ear. Ultimately, I do not know who was more excited that day, my father was able to recapture a piece of his childhood, I had something meaningful to leave future generations, and my wife could smile knowing that she helped bring my family together in a way no one else can.