In response to Speaking of Faith’s show about the brutality of regimes around the world and the question of the people who disappear — and their children — I thought I would share with you a scene from my childhood in Portugal during the country’s fascist regime that lasted for almost 40 years and ended in 1974.
I wake up in the middle of the night, as I often do, and walk slowly down the steps of the long staircase. I am eight years old. I come to join my father, who sits in his office listening to a small voice coming from a small radio. The sound is muffled; the words sound detached. I do not understand what it says.
He smiles at the sight of my face peering through the crack of the door.
“So, you’re up,” he says.
That is all he ever says, and I am free to come in or go back. I like that freedom. I sit on his reading couch; the leather is cold to the touch at first, but softening and embracing as I sink into it. Soon he forgets that I am there.
But today he asks me to sit facing him. His voice is stern: “It may be a good idea not to sing this melody outside of this room.”
For brief moments, like now, when the voice that says things I don’t understand stops, a melody fills the air. It is always the same. It is beautiful, and I often carry it into the light of day like a fragment of a dream. Earlier, my mother had given me a concerned look as I left for school, bag full of books, the melody drifting from my lips.
“Not outside this room,” he repeats. “Will you remember?”
I nod, silently. The man’s voice drones on. I stare at the radio. “What is he saying?”
My father looks troubled by the question. “It’s the BBC radio service, in English.” There is a long pause while he chooses the words. “They tell you the truth about what is happening around the world — and in our country too.”
The leather under me goes cold and hard, and my hands curl and cry with sweat. My heart thuds against my chest, trying to fly from the question searing through me: “Will they take you away too, like they took Maria’s father?”
I am looking at his hair; his face is buried in his hands. I want to pin him down and not let him ever leave this room.
Then he looks up. “Yes, that may happen one day. On that day and every other day until I come back, if people ask you, ‘Where is your father,’ hold your head high and tell them. Listen, listen carefully. This is what you will tell them: ‘My father has been arrested because he believes in freedom.’”
We are looking in each others’ eyes now and I see it all clearly: I cannot hold my father in this room, nor can I hold my heart still. I cannot even hold on to me. I watch my childhood leave so suddenly there is no time for remembrance or reckoning.
“Will you do that? Can you do that?” His urgency brings me back. And a voice I do not yet know answers, “Yes.”
Ms. Paulino teaches English Literature and Art History at the University of Winthrop and at the University of Porto in Portugal. She currently lives in Rock Hill, South Carolina and has recently started a personal blog where she writes about “musings on a home in-between: languages, places, ways of seeing.”
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on SOF Observed. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.