Sunday, March 13, 2016

For unto us a Child Is Born

The travels of my vagabond youth took me to many interesting, famous, and exotic places, but never to South America.  The closest I came to this continent was the Panama Canal aboard the Mercury and the Comet.  Also, I missed going to South America when I joined the General Hoyt S. Vandenberg.  She had shed a third mate in Recife, Brazil, and sailed short-staffed.  I caught up with the ship when she arrived at Ascension Island in the South Atlantic several days later.  And so it was with some sense of adventure and with the excitement of departing for a new destination that I boarded a Tam Airlines 767 at Kennedy Airport in New York on Monday, February 1, 2016.  This airship conveyed me overnight some 4,500 miles southeast to São Paulo, Brazil.  A subsequent domestic flight aboard a Tam A-321 then carried me 900 miles northeast to Salvador.  Finally, an automobile brought me about 100 kilometers to Alagoinhas.

An inland, medium size, working class municipality with a distinctly Brazilian atmosphere, Alagoinhas would never be mistaken for one of the great cities of the world.  Not a crossroads of history, nor a seat of great political power, nor a cultural center with major universities and learned societies, Alagoinhas nonetheless now stands out as one of the most important places on the Earth.  For it was in Alagoinhas that Baby Lydia Elizabeth was born on Wednesday, January 13, 2016.  The future of our family had arrived, and I traveled there to meet her.

Miss Patty had gone ahead of me.  She had arrived in Alagoinhas on January 14.  She now met me at the airport in Salvador, accompanied by our son-in-law Renato Araújo and his father Adilson.  They brought us initially to a churrascaria, a buffet-style restaurant where I had my first experience of Brazilian hospitality and Brazilian cuisine.  Both were most impressive; I was welcomed as an honored guest.  Then, with Adilson driving, the four of us proceeded north from Salvador to Alagoinhas, and on arrival there we stopped in front of Miss Karen’s and Renato’s house on Rua H.  Our girl was hanging laundry to dry on her spacious front porch when we arrived.  Baby Lydia was sleeping peacefully indoors.

Rua H brought back memories for me.  A quiet, narrow, and hilly street in the old world style, it was lightly traveled by pedestrians, motor scooters, horse-drawn carriages, and automobiles.  In the background, the neighbors’ roosters crowed periodically.  Rua H resembled the myriad residential streets and alleys of southern Europe and the West Indies.  The house fit this picture perfectly.  Architecturally a blend of the Spanish Caribbean and the Italian Mediterranean, it sported a beautiful front porch with grated wall apertures, three steps leading up from the street, and three further steps leading up to the front entryway.  Large, light brown tiles graced the floor, red Mediterranean tiles supported by a wooden grid formed the roof, and concrete-covered Brazilian brick painted in a Caribbean pastel green made up the walls.  It conveyed a sense of cool tropical hospitality remarkable in a torrid climate.  I felt at home immediately.

But I had not come all this way just to admire a house.  The star of the day, of course, was Baby Lydia, and I had the honor of meeting her inside.  She looked every inch a South American—all twenty inches of her—with her fair skin, blue eyes, and light brown hair.  A little while later, this brown hair all fell out and was replaced by bright blond hair, which further advertised her maternal Germanic-Celtic heritage.   In the Brazilian state of Bahia, this little girl stood out in the crowd!

For the next week Miss Patty and I helped our daughter with her daughter, and with keeping house—the cooking, the cleaning, the shopping, etc.  One afternoon, in a further expression of Brazilian hospitality, Renato’s parents hosted a large family feast at their house.  It was a wonderful week that passed by much too quickly, a week with long hours, many busy times, and several quiet times for contemplation as well.  Everything I did to help out with the new baby I had done previously with my own children.  I thought of this often, especially as it had involved Miss Karen.  It felt like she herself had been born only about six months ago, and here she was, still my little baby girl, but with a little baby girl of her own!  How did this happen so quickly?  I remembered the many times that I had fed her, diapered her, dressed her, rocked her to sleep, read stories to her, taken her for walks, taken her to the pediatrician, and so on.  Now she was doing all this and more with her own little girl, Baby Lydia Elizabeth.  The cycle of life was demonstrating itself.  I was moving up the scale to grandparenthood, in the second of now four living generations in our family.

Baby Lydia spent many hours sitting on my lap, and as I held her and gazed upon her, many thoughts crossed my mind.  A perfectly innocent and beautiful child of God, she had come into this life to be with us.  She had come down from Heaven—descendit de caelis[1]—and had the look of divinity itself on her face.  “Every child is a gift from God,” as Mother Teresa had so often said, and Baby Lydia seemed to be an exceptionally precious gift.  We, her family, bore a serious moral obligation to treat her well, provide for her properly, protect her from harm, and give her every advantage to succeed in her new life.  All of us would share this responsibility.  As her parents, however, Miss Karen and Renato would bear the bulk of the responsibility, and thus they would have the most important jobs in the family.

Baby Lydia got off to a good start in this regard, surrounded by parents and grandparents who loved her and cared about her.  Her paternal grandparents, Adilson and Eunadia, lived within walking distance in the same neighborhood, and they came to see her frequently.  Also, her three uncles—Miss Karen’s bodyguards when they were younger—now styled themselves “Lydia’s Army.”  Her great-grandparents, now in their 90s and too infirm to travel, had sent their love with us.  They would later admire their new baby via Skype and Face Time and other technological wizardry that they appreciate but don’t understand.  And my mother would again ask her famous rhetorical question, “How can anyone look at a newborn baby and not believe in God?”

Baby Lydia came to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in downtown Alagoinhas with her family on Sunday morning.  She wore the now somewhat off-white christening gown that Miss Karen and her three brothers and my brother and I had worn many years ago.  This garment thus dated to 1949.  It had been selected and purchased by Baby Lydia’s great-great-grandparents in New Jersey, my mother’s parents, Robert Burns and Julia Murphy.  I’m certain that they and many other ancestors and relatives were watching approvingly from their celestial vantage point as Baby Lydia received her blessing and was accepted into the Christian flock.

The church services, of which the christening was a part, were conducted in Portuguese, a language that I unfortunately do not understand.  My mind wandered, then, first to the Latin of Saint Jerome—Parvulus enim natus est nobis, filius datus est nobis[2]—and then with some literary license to the English of King James:

                        For unto us a child is born, unto us a daughter is given:
                        and the government of the family shall be upon her shoulder:
                        and her name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor,
the mighty Goddess, the everlasting grandchild,
the Princess of the Family.[3]

My apologies to the Prophet Isaiah, but I thought these verses fit the circumstances perfectly!

After the Sunday service and amid much picture-taking, felicitous parishioners greeted the family and admired Baby Lydia.  Every day, friends, neighbors, and relatives came to the house on Rua H to visit the new parents and pay homage to the new baby.  Miss Karen and Miss Patty, both preoccupied with Baby Lydia, dispatched me to the front door to greet the guests.  Blatantly deficient in Portuguese, I resorted to the Italian I had learned in my Rigel and Waccamaw days:  “Buongiorno!  Bienvenito!  Vedi mia bellissima bambinetta!”  It had previously worked like a charm in the airports of São Paulo and Salvador, and it did likewise on Rua H.  I learned that providentially, of all the Romance languages, Portuguese and Italian bore the closest resemblance to one other.

When the guests had gone and the house became quiet, I had my moments of communion and contemplation with my new little baby girl.  With my visit so short and the distance from New Hampshire so long, I gazed into Miss Lydia’s angelic face and wondered, “When will I ever see this little girl again?”  I could not answer that, of course, but I hoped it would be sooner than next year.  In the meantime, though, I could look at her to my heart’s temporary content.

It occurred to me that there was something truly ineffable about becoming a grandfather and beholding my new granddaughter resting peacefully on my lap.  There was much to think about, but little to say.  It seemed best, then, to simply maintain a reverent silence, to gaze in awe at this little girl, to contemplate the designs of God, and to pray that his blessing will forever be upon her.

With great melancholy, Miss Patty and I took our leave of Baby Lydia late in the morning of Monday, February 8.  Adilson and Eunadia drove us back to the airport in Salvador.  Renato and his brother Alexandre met us there after work.  After a farewell luncheon together, it was time for us to go.  We boarded a Tam Airlines A-321 for the flight to Rio de Janeiro, where we would change aircraft for the overnight flight to New York.

The same Brazilian hospitality that welcomed me on my arrival in Salvador now had the last word as I left Salvador.

The airplane took off to the northeast and then turned right and flew out over the ocean.  Turning right again, the plane remained over the water and paralleled the coast to the southwest.  This was the first I had seen the South Atlantic since I had sailed on it aboard the General Vandenberg in 1979.  It was just as bright and blue in the sunshine now as it had been all those years ago.  After about an hour, the aircraft turned again to fly overland, and the young cabin attendant noticed that we were admiring the mountain range to the west.

This young man’s name was Fernando.  He had blond hair, blue eyes, and light skin, and he spoke fluent Portuguese and excellent English.  He asked us in English if we liked the view, and then the three of us fell into a lengthy conversation.  In the course of describing Brazil to us, he mentioned that he was of German ancestry and that his grandmother had come from Nürnberg.  At this announcement Miss Patty revealed that she, too, had been born in Nürnberg, and the conversation took on a new life.  Switching to German now, Fernando and Miss Patty spoke hurriedly and excitedly like old friends meeting after a long time apart, and they exchanged voluminous information about their German families.  Fernando’s blue eyes sparkled with enthusiasm as he spoke, and his complete fluency in Bavarian-accented German became obvious.  As good as his English was, his German was even better.  Clearly, he had grown up with it.  He spoke German exactly as Miss Patty’s Oma had, and it sounded wonderful after all these years.

Eventually Fernando had to get back to work, but he took every opportunity to return to us and resume the conversation.  When it was time to land and then disembark, Fernando lavished attention on us and very graciously assisted us off the airplane.

Fernando did two things for us.  First, he took our minds off our sad departure from Miss Karen and Baby Lydia.  Second, he reminded us of the supreme importance of the family.  We had traveled thousands of miles to be with family.  Our daughter, our new granddaughter, our son-in-law, our son-in-law’s parents, etc., were all family.  If this were not so, we would have had no reason at all to go to South America.  In his lively conversation with Miss Patty about their German families, Fernando demonstrated that the family’s importance transcends cultures and nationalities and crosses oceans and continents.

Whether Brazilian, German, American, or a combination of all three, "the family is ordained of God."[4] It is “central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children,”[5] and is “the fundamental unit of society”[6] in every society.  We all agreed on these points, and we shared “a sacred duty to rear [Baby Lydia] in love and righteousness.”[7]  As Miss Patty and I returned home, we felt confident that Baby Lydia Elizabeth was in good hands with a good family.

[1] From the Nicene Creed, referring to the birth of the Lord,  This is usually translated as “He came down from Heaven.”  A more literal rendering is “He (or she) descended from the heavens.”
[2] Isaiah 9:6, Biblia Sacra Vulgata.
[3] Based on Isaiah 9:6, King James translation.
[4] “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, General Relief Society Meeting, September 23, 1995.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.

1 comment:

  1. This is probably your best chapter yet! Then again, I am a bit biased toward the subject ;) Really though, I really enjoyed this one. Thanks for writing it! It is nice to be able to read and understand a lot of your thoughts and feelings regarding the most important person in the world! :D