Serenely, I take the first step
on the road to eternity
and leave life to enter history
“Vargas is dead! He killed himself with a shot on his chest.”
She was holding a dark-green portable Bakelite radio; a white towel wrapped around her wet body and another one dressing her head in a turban fashion.
“I was in the shower when I heard the news. I didn’t know if my face was wet from my tears or from the water; it got all blended together. Oswaldo Aranha read Vargas’ will on the phone for Radio Nacional to broadcast. I’ll get dressed, take the ferry and go to Rio.”
That was my granny and this was the morning of August 24, 1954 in a convoluted and mourning Brazil. I was seating on great grandmother’s lap on that huge rocking chair that looked like a throne, the same one I would later dandle my two babies. Her brother was sitting in an armchair next to us, and like most of the time, he said nothing.
Great grandmother put me on the floor and went to turn on a radio that later in my recollections resembled a Jules Verne machine. It was built in a nice armoire and assembled with a turntable. But what fascinated me most was that sometimes they, the adults, turned its needle around to tune other stations, and with a knob, they could switch into other languages; but while the needle was being moved, there was something like a big green eye on its top pulsating according to the reception. All Brazilian stations were now talking about Vargas.
“You should stay home, there may be a revolt and they may stop the ferries. You were the one who called us here because of a possible revolt.”
We lived in Niteroi, the city across Rio de Janeiro’s Bay of Guanabara. Great grandmother and great granduncle lived in Rio, but early in the month, they had decided to come and stay with us and their maids came along. It was all because Major Rubem Váz had been killed and Carlos Lacerda claimed it was a plot to kill him―a climate of revolt was in the air. They decided we should stay together in Niteroi, which would be safer than staying in Rio.
Great grandmother said nothing else. She didn’t like Vargas since his own coup d’etat in 1937, and she was all for Carlos Lacerda, Vargas’s archenemy. Grandma believed Lacerda was the cause of Vargas’ suicide.
Later, I tried to understand the charismatic, and to me contradicting and polemic Getulio Vargas by reading a little of this man’s own history, the Brazilian history of that period and world history as well. Son of a general who had been a Paraguay War hero, Vargas demonstrated strong military influence and, according to great grandmother, it was enough to shape his autocratic philosophy as dictator. He had a law degree and considered himself a nationalist; however, he would sail wherever the foreign winds blew.
To this day in downtown Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilian capital then, one can see the Fascist architecture influence in the monumental government buildings built in the 1930s Vargas Era. Leader of a Catholic country, he saw Pope Pius XII befriending the Axis and repudiating the Bolshevists and the protestant Anglos; he had been aggravated in 1935 by the “Intentona Comunista” ―The Red Revolt― organized by Luis Carlos Prestes to overthrow him.
Years after the monarchy was over in Brazil, the country still remained divided between the rich and the poor, and other classes apart, such as Blacks and Jews. Vargas deported Olga Benário Prestes, the seven-month pregnant Jewish wife of his political enemy Luiz Carlos Prestes, to a concentration camp in Germany, where she died.
But when the winds started to blow towards the Anglos and the United States offered to build the Volta Redonda Steel Mill, Vargas surrendered to the pressure of the Brazilian people mesmerized by the Hollywood war movies. In 1943, Brazil joined the Allies, sent troops to Italy and won over the Germans the Battle of Monte Castello.
People used to call Vargas “the father of the poor” because he executed and implemented the first labor laws in Brazil. He also favored tenants with renting rights, and great grandmother―who had properties rented―used to say ironically, “Father of the poor, stepmother of the rich”. But right now, all she wanted was to be sure that her daughter wouldn’t be caught in a riot; and I overheard her saying:
“I lost my own mother when I was only 11 years old, practically because of the Naval Revolt led by Saldanha da Gama and Custódio de Melo in 1891. I don’t want to lose my only daughter now, in another revolt, sixty years later.”
Grandmother came out of her bedroom dressed in black. Her hat had a small polka dot tulle veil barely covering her eyes, her gloves, purse and high-heel shoes were all black, and a string of gray pearls accented the seriousness of the attire. She left immediately. Even then, I could tell her appearance was not of a grandmother, although she was totally fit for the role and completely committed to it.
Great grandmother tried to stay calm and spent good part of the day buying food. She called the grocer’s and ordered enough to fill the whole pantry. I still remember seeing a large bacalhau, our traditional dry-salted codfish, standing up in there, and that I liked to pick at the edges and eat it raw. She also called the butcher to order many kilos of beef and commented that with the new electric refrigerator we could store the meat for a few days. One of the maids went to the quitanda to buy a few dozens of eggs, lots of vegetables and some live hens. The intention was to make it last, at least, one month without us buying food if there were a revolution.
Grandmother finally returned home at around 4:30 p.m. and she had the most fantastic story to tell. When she got to Rio, she took a streetcar from the ferry station to Palácio do Catete, but when she got there, the mob, the police and the army were already in the area. People were shouting, crying and fainting. She felt that she shouldn’t approach the building and headed to a churrascaria nearby to have lunch.
“Then, I felt like Franz Lehar when he ate at the Maxim’s in Paris! I opened my purse and my wallet was gone! I had paid for transportation with coins from my little pouch, but I didn’t notice that my wallet wasn’t in my purse! I realized what happened: I wasn’t mugged, I was just too nervous with the news that, when I changed purses, I forgot my wallet somewhere in my bedroom. Embarrassed, I asked the waiter to call the manager and told him to keep my diamond ring as collateral that I would come back to pay him. The man was very kind and said that he didn’t want my ring, that I could come back after things calmed down, and that I’d better go home.”
“Grandma, who was this Franz Lehar who was robbed in Paris?”
“Well, I’ll tell you a story that actually happened at the Maxim’s in Paris when it was a simple ordinary bistro and why it became so famous. Early in the century, an Austrian couple spending their honeymoon in Paris went there for a meal. When the young husband asked for the check, he found out that he no longer had his wallet. He had no money and no return ticket to Vienna: he had been mugged. The waiter called the owner, who was very kind and said that, someday, he could pay him back, and even gave him money to buy their train fare back home.
This young man was Franz Lehar, a not so famous composer then. Later, he composed the Merry Widow, and a famous piece of this operetta is about the playboy Count Danillo at the Maxim’s in Paris. The operetta became famous and so did the Maxim’s. This way, he paid back more than tenfold!”
“Let’s listen to it now, said great grandmother, she will learn how beautiful it is…”
Opening again the armoire with the radio displaying that green eye, she placed a few records in a fashion to make them look like they were hanging on top of the turntable, so they would drop consecutively. And we heard You’ll Find me at Maxim’s, followed by the Merry Widow Waltz and Vilja, while my great uncle conducted his imaginary orchestra.
They avoided discussing politics for the rest of the evening because grandmother was Getulista (pro Getulio Vargas) and great grandmother was Lacerdista (pro Lacerda).
I loved having great grandmother staying with us. She told me the most beautiful stories of the Belle Époque when she was young in France and Portugal, about Emperor Pedro II and Princess Isabel, and how her father helped to write the first Constitution of the Republic in Brazil in the late 1800s. Besides, she ordered ten jars of hearts of palm from the grocer!
At four years of age ―and forever― the 24th of August 1954 would be the day that Getulio Vargas killed himself, grandmother dressed in black and experienced a Franz Lehar-like event, and we listened to the Merry Widow before having dinner with hearts of palms.
Back then, I thought all families were like mine.
THAÏS LIPPS was born and raised in Brazil, but had a bilingual education since kindergarten at the British School of Rio de Janeiro. Her grandmother Iris Fróes was a writer and introduced her to literature and writing from a very early age.
Later, she was an exchange student in senior high school in Boston, attended Law School in Brazil, and has a Teaching English as a Second Language (TESOL) certificate from the University of Colorado in Denver, where she also studied towards a degree in English and was on the Dean’s List. She has lived in Brazil, England, Wales, France, Oman and, for almost 15 years now, Denver, Colorado is the place she calls home.
She is a professional translator working mainly with English and Portuguese, specializing in legal, finances, literature and masters and doctoral thesis in social sciences. Additionally, she is a contracted court interpreter with the State of Colorado Judicial Branch and also works as a conference interpreter.
Thaïs was responsible for the English translation of her grandmother’s book Imitação do Menino Jesus [Imitation of Child Jesus]. She is now translating Trevas ou luz [Darkness or Light] by Archbishop Dom Joaquim Justino Carreira and working on Monteiro Lobato's O presidente negro [The Black President].
Active in the professional community of translators, she has been a member of the American Translators Association (ATA) for over 10 years, acting as the Portuguese Language Division’s former webmaster and newsletter desktop publisher.
Thaïs is the current vice president of the Colorado Translators Association (CTA), where she is dedicated to improving its members’ professional development, organizing continuing education workshops year-around, and their annual conference. She also served as director for the Colorado Association of Professional Interpreters (CAPI).
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