Rosa Rei

When my grandmother, Maria Eulina Vieira Cabral, was 85-years-old she would still have her weekly ritual of getting a manicure and pedicure. You would think that someone her age would pick a neutral color for her finger nails and toes. But the only color she used of Colorama, the leading brand of nail polish in Brazil,  was Rosa Rei, a screaming bright pink.

Elegant and gracious, Eulina was a charmer, always sending thank you notes and boxes of chocolate. From the bank manager to a doorman she would generously recognize a job well done. A refined host she served elaborate meals using tablecloths embroidered with gold and silver treads she made herself. Just as generously, she would distribute good laughs with her stories. And there were many.

She was born in the caustic heat of Pernambuco in the northeast of Brazil in 1903. The only daughter, in a household of 7 brothers, she was the center of attention. Her father owned a sugar-cane plantation but after WWI, the stabilization of beet sugar production in Europe eventually led them to loose their farm and riches. But the early prosperity of the family allowed her to have a wealthy upbringing. She told me that as a kid, during long trips on railroads, she would drop gold bracelets while on the train just to listen to it’s sound dangling down the tracks. She was sent to a boarding school for girls. Her mother’s way to protect her from having too many men around her. It didn’t help. While in school, she managed to date the nephew of the school’s principal. By age 15, she was a teacher in her state’s capital, Recife. A much less discussed subject was the use of slaves as the workforce on the family farm until Brazil’s declaration of the abolition on May 13th, 1888. Ironically, this date would be part of her personal history.

At the age of 16, she sent her photo to be part of a beauty contest in the neighboring state of Paraiba. She won the contest and as a prize her picture would be displayed on match boxes. But that didn’t go well with her fiancee. Valdemar de Oliveira didn’t approve that her beauty would be on display. “I declared my freedom”, she would say. She broke up the engagement on May 13th, 1919 saying: “Slavery was abolished on this date more than 30 years ago”. A prominent doctor infectologist in Recife, he would become a famous professor, lawyer, composer, theater director, art critic and writer. And some compositions and lines on his books would be dedicated to my grandmother. Only 16 years after her first proposal she would get engaged again. At the age of 32, she married another Waldemar. My grandfather.

With her brothers and parents, she moved to Rio de Janeiro in the 1920’s. Single at the time and still declaring her independent nature, she shared a room with a friend while working as a secretary at the Office of Justice, in Rio de Janeiro. A city she would adopt in her youth and later in her life. But the exotic fruits of the north of Brazil would be forever missed by her palette: mangoes, star fruit, jackfruit and, a more rare one called, fruta-pao (bread-fruit). If we passed one of these trees, not typical in the southeast of Brazil where I grew up, she would always point it out and even convince some of the owners of the rare trees to give her one of its fruits. She would crave these even more when, in July 1946, she embarked on a ship from Rio de Janeiro to the NY harbor.  Now, married for more than ten years, she arrived in the United States with her husband, a 9-year-old daughter, Gladys, and pregnant with her second child, Franklin.  A month-long journey of seasickness and longing. One of the photos she kept in her belongings was taken from aboard the ship, looking down at the small figures of her family. She didn’t get to visit Brazil many times while her parents were still alive. But letters were always exchanged. As well as boxes full of her craved fruits, carefully wrapped, that would be shipped to Staten Island – her home for the next 20 years.

When I was growing up, she would look at me and say: “You are just like me.” But to me, a clumsy girl, with glasses and pimples on my face, as shy as I could be, hidden behind my books, there was no resemblance to be seen between me and this charming lady. She would openly tell me: ” I want you to be with me when I die.” And at 13, I somehow happened to be the only one by her hospital bed when she passed. Proof that she always got things done her way.

Once in a while I wear screaming bright pink nail polish. Wishing deep inside that the resemblance she once told me about, shows up, somehow.