e never had a real tree, but the artificial Scots pine in our living room looked beautiful with all the trimmings. At night, we kept the room lit only by the blinking bulbs, and passersby could see the lights through our window.
We didn’t spend much time in this room. It had a sophisticated elegance with the right touch of warmth—wall-to-wall carpet in a burnt umber shade, and the windows draped in a dark olive green. My father had paneled the room with dark, heavy wood. The baroque-style sofa had silk upholstery in a mint shade of green. The coffee table had an antique marble-top. There was the usual crystal chandelier, but my mother’s pride and joy was the nineteenth-century Louis XV-style display cabinet embellished with foliate and shell carvings. On top of it were pictures in gold frames. Throughout the holiday season, this room was welcoming and cozy. It was where memories lived, and I could hear the voices of the children we had been.
The Christmas I was eight, Robbie tried to convince me there was no Santa Claus by showing me the toys hidden in the master bedroom closet. Though she generally kept the door locked, my mother sometimes forgot.
I was in awe of that forbidden room when I saw it—rosewood and dark walnut furnishings ornately carved with brass pulls, key escutcheons, and cabriole legs. The garden-facing windows had gold pinch-pleated drapes with sweeping valances. The king-sized bed had an ivory-colored tufted headboard and a footboard framed in gold. My mother adorned it with regal lace jacquard bedding, gold and beige cottons, and silks. Her bureau looked elegant and pretty with a Victorian-era vanity set and snuff perfume bottles. The gilded mirror had deep crests and scalloped edges. She displayed numerous dolls here, ones that wore frilly dresses and bonnets. Her portrait, in a gilded frame, sat upon the bureau’s crocheted ivory lace. She’d looked like a porcelain doll at only nineteen. Upon the armoire, there was a similar gilded portrait of my father at twenty, looking every bit the movie idol.
When we had peeked in their closet that day, I saw an endless row of plastic-protected garments and a gazillion boxes of shoes. Most of them were hers. There were toys, but the blue Schwinn Sting-Ray we had seen in the window of the bicycle shop, the one I had begged for, wasn’t there. Of course it wasn’t. Where would it have fit?
I’d been restless that Christmas Eve, lying in bed. The house was quiet. When I heard the shuffling of footsteps in the corridor, I had hoped it was Santa, but it turned out to be my grandmother. My parents had gone shopping, and she’d come up to check on us. I fell asleep for a while then awakened once more in the dark. I scampered out of my room and tiptoed down the stairs to the living room. There were presents under the tree but no bike.
In the morning, I heard my mother’s soft slippers before she peeked in the doorway of my room. Since I was obviously awake, she put an index finger to her lips and waved me on. The hushed footfalls must have reverberated throughout the house because, one by one, everyone gathered in the living room, and, to my surprise, the blue Schwinn Sting-Ray from the shop was under the tree.
“I thought Santa forgot,” I said.
“No, he didn’t forget,” my mother replied, seeming to enjoy my incredulity.
“But … the bike wasn’t there when I peeked in the middle of the night, and all the other toys were there.”
“That’s because Daddy was down in the basement for hours putting it together,” Robbie quipped. “I am surprised he got any sleep!”
“Be quiet,” my mother said with a wink. “It was Santa. I saw him leaving.”
My eyes fell upon my father, and I could believe by his smirk that he and my mother had had their own romantic mall adventure, after which he’d stayed up until the wee hours assembling our toys.
Every Christmas would be the same. Whatever gift we wanted most would be there under the tree on Christmas morning. It was one of the many reasons I didn’t fully understand Robbie’s criticisms or his anger. I felt blessed to have such a wonderful family. My love for them knew no bounds, and, at times, overwhelmed me.
We also had an extended family of affectionate people with sweet, loving natures, all of whom had welcomed us with enthusiasm. All we had to do was look at them and they’d smile. My mother’s family, in particular, seemed to share the sole purpose of keeping us reassured of our beauty. After a while, if I knew they were expected, I would make a beeline to the mirror to make certain I was still cute, lest they be disappointed. I wanted nothing out of this deal except to not disappoint.
I liked seeing my mother with her family. I loved her incessant Spanish chatter with them. It was the only time she got to be Grace Nayara Alves.
My father, on the other hand, didn’t like her siblings. We all knew that. He and my mother were arguing this very night, a week before Christmas, because her brother had invited us to a holiday gathering.
“Grace, you know I don’t like to eat in somebody else’s house,” my father complained.
“It wouldn’t kill you,” she said. “It’s nice to have some of the things we used to have in my country.”
“What, when you make paella, don’t I always eat it? And the—what do ya call it—the plantains? Don’t I eat it?”
“Whenever we go there, I tell you they’re going to have lunch for us, and you insist we eat at home first. Then they offer you something, and you say you already ate. That’s not nice. If someone invites you to eat, you eat with them, or you stay home.”
“Ay, I’d be happy to stay home,” he said. “They invite me there on my only day off and make wisecracks. Didn’t you hear your brother’s crack about the meatballs last time we were there? As soon as I got in the door, he asked me, did I bring my meatballs? What kind of crack is that? I gotta drive an hour and a half to Framingham, Massachusetts to be insulted by him?”
“He was joking! He didn’t mean anything by it. They know I always cook Italian for you.”
“Come on, Grace! If you wanna know the truth, I never ate a meatball until I came to this country. I don’t even like meatballs! My mother never made meatballs in Italy!”
She clenched her teeth. “Whenever we go there, he always goes out of his way for you.”
“Oh yeah … out of his way. Hah! He served me beer in a plastic cup! Who the hell gives you beer in a plastic cup?”
“Who cares? Why are you always making fun? You know my brother doesn’t have a lot of money.”
“You mean to tell me you can buy plastic cups to throw out every time you use them, but you can’t afford to buy a glass? I see he smokes cigarettes, so he buys cigarettes. And he bought a TV. You can buy a TV, but you can’t afford to buy a glass? Come on!”
“They don’t think like you do, that it’s such a big deal what kind of cup you put beer in. He just wants to make you happy. You don’t understand.”
“I understand, all right. But you say your brother’s joking. Think about it. Use your head. He implies, because I’m Italian, I eat meatballs, and I like meatballs. I can’t do anything except what Italians do. And to say I would be so rude to bring my own meatballs, so I would not have to miss them, even for a day.”
She waved her hand, dismissing him. “He was playing with you. You don’t have to take everything so serious.”
“Another time, he offers me a beer. I say, ‘Okay.’ Then he says, ‘Lemme run to the store. I’m all out.’ I said, ‘Forget about it, thank you. Don’t go to the trouble.’ He insists. ‘Come on, it’s no trouble.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ Guy goes to the store. He buys one beer, a can. He comes back, says, ‘Here ya are, Luca.’ I said, ‘Thank you.’ Then, when I finished the beer, he says, ‘You want another beer, Luca?’ I’m thinking, You gotta be kidding. What if I say yes? He’s gonna run to the store again? I mean, how cheap can you be? Unbelievable! I said, ‘Don’t worry about it, I’m good.’”
“Shut up! That’s all you do is criticize. You exaggerate everything. You make him out to be a bad guy, and he’s not. Give him a chance.”
“I did give him a chance! I gave them all a chance. I mean, he’s waving Brazilian and Spanish flags over there. This is America. You don’t see me waving my Italian flag. If I’m gonna fly any flag, it’ll be an American flag. Okay?”
“The flag is in his living room. On the Fourth of July and other holidays, he puts an American flag in the window. He’s very grateful and happy to be here. Stop it. They don’t have what you have, but they worked hard for what little they have.”
“Eh, who doesn’t work hard? I remember what it was like when I first came to this country. I had a little apartment, same as you. We were both were more than willing to take any type of work that paid the bills.”
“My brother works whenever he can.”
“He wants to do construction. I could have gotten him other jobs. You take what you can get, Grace.”
“His English is not that good.”
“Nothing wrong with his English when he’s talking about my meatballs—”
“He’s a good man. They all have good hearts. You are not going to make me ashamed of my family.”
He seemed to soften. “I don’t say you should be ashamed of them. I say they can make a better life. We did. I know it’s not easy, so don’t say I don’t understand.”
“You don’t. You grew up with everything. You can never understand.”
“Sorry. I’ll keep my mouth shut.”
“Yeah, please … keep your mouth shut.”
I intervened to lighten the mood. “Mommy, did you miss Brazil when you came here?”
“What’s she gonna miss?” My father chuckled, but I could see sadness in his eyes and in his smile. “They had nothing, her family.”
“I wish Abuela could have come here before she died,” I said.
In photos we’d seen, my maternal grandmother was gaunt, frail, and tiny, with brittle gray hair. She clung to rosary beads and never smiled.
“You met her,” my mother said. “We took the bus to see her in Santa Rita, where she was staying with my sister.”
At one time, she had said we were sick and couldn’t go to meet her while we were in Brazil. Now she was saying we did meet her. I never knew what to believe.
“What about your father?” I asked. “We never saw any pictures of him.”
“Nor did I,” she said. “I was about four or five years old when he died. They say he was very good-looking, but I don’t remember him.”
I then realized the shame my mother felt, and it was becoming apparent that everyone in both extended families hid some kind of shame. Those who instinctively tried to make us feel good did so because it was how they wanted to feel. I was coming to believe Robbie resented my parents because they were never able to make him feel anything but ashamed, though I knew it wasn’t intentional, and he needed to get away from them to feel whole. I had been feeling increasing pressure to look good and fit in, all the while becoming more and more self-conscious. After Phil and Sergio, the self-consciousness had become manageable only when I was intoxicated.
Deadly Veils Book One: Shattering Truths was originally published as Deadly Veils: Book One: Provenance of Bondage copyright © October 2015 by Kyrian Lyndon. The revised edition, Deadly Veils: Book One: Shattering Truths was published in December 2016. Cover design by KH Koehler Design.