My mother’s grandmother, Vovó Alice, was our family’s guardian angel. When Vovó Alice came back from the dead she always wore white. Around her emanated a strong odor of lavender.
Of all the people Vovó Alice visited after her death she visited my mother’s younger brother the most. Like the time she showed up at a party my uncle was having when he was eighteen. A friend came up to him in the midst of the throng of drunken teenagers and said “Hey! I thought you said your parents were out of town!”
My uncle laughed and said, “Of course they are!”
And his friend said, “Who is the old lady in the the white dress sitting in the hallway then?” and described Vovó Alice. She was a large woman who had a distinctive nose that would be difficult to mistake for anyone else. She was sitting in one of the armchairs in the foyer just inside the front door where my grandfather’s patients would wait for their appointments.
Then there was the time he was racing through the fog that blankets the mountains between São Paulo and São Sebastião, driving drunk as he always did, fighting with his with his second and most beautiful wife who was begging him to slow down “pelamor de deus” (for the love of God) and the car filled with the scent of lavender. When our aunt told that story she said if it wasn’t for Vovó Alice coming they would have died that night for sure. They would have died the way Tio Ton’s best friend Carlos had died when they were both eighteen. In fact it was the spirit of Carlos that came back into my uncle’s body and made him wild and violent when he drank. The angry spirit of his best friend who died in a car crash on a night my uncle was supposed to have been with him but for some reason didn’t show up. Vovó Alice was that reason. For sure. None of us doubted that.
But in this life Vovó Alice was a manic depressive and would sink into catatonic states and have to be taken to a mental hospital where they would give her shock treatments. My mother always said her grandmother had been her best friend when she was growing up, her chaperone when she was a teenager, going with her on dates because young women weren’t allowed to be alone with men until they were engaged. But sometimes her grandmother would have to be hospitalized and my mother would have to go visit her. My mother wouldn’t talk about those visits very much and I only found out about Vovó Alice having to be hospitalized for depression after the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest came out and we went to see it. My mother was so upset afterwards and wouldn’t watch anything Jack Nicholson was in after that. At around the same time she told us about Tia Zenith, one of my grandmother’s sisters who had become schizophrenic in her thirties. How her husband packed her bags up and dropped her off at the big house on Rua Avaré telling my grandparents he couldn’t deal with her anymore and either they had to take her in or he’d take her to a mental institute. My grandfather would talk about how she would sing and dance around in circles in the foyer where years later her mother would return from the dead and frighten a bunch of teenagers. I was in Grade 8 when I found out about all of this history of mental illness in my family and I wrote an essay about schizophrenia that I got an A on. I found a picture of people dancing in a circle and included it, labeling it “schizophrenic people dancing.”
The ‘ghost’ stories were told over and over mainly because we took such delight in them even while they chilled us to the bone. My uncle loved to loosen the lightbulbs in the bathrooms before we went up to bed knowing we’d go in there to brush our teeth. Because when spirits came back the lights would always flicker. The house on Rua Avaré was dark and shadowy and the lightbulbs were bare so when they flickered like that it really scared us. But then he would laugh that low laugh of his “harharhar” and tousle our hair and we would laugh too.
Then there was my grandmother’s youngest brother, Tio Ernani, who was a medium through which spirits of the dead relatives would attend family celebrations. Suddenly, usually towards the end of the evening after spirits of a more earthly nature had been consumed, he would start to jerk around uncontrollably. The spirit of one of the deceased relatives was entering his body and soon he would begin to speak in a muffled voice. At one of my birthday parties two of the aunts started to fight over whose dead husband was in Tio Ernani’s body. We kids had been sent upstairs to go to sleep, only we didn’t go to sleep but were lurking at the top of the stairs listening to the grown-ups down in the living room. Suddenly we heard moaning and people yelling “Ernani, Ernani! O que passa com você?” “What’s happening with you?” “Você está doente? Are you sick?” Everyone was talking at once. Above all the other voices we could hear Tia Daisy and Tia Nair, their voices shrill and loud. We were on our way down the stairs when our mother burst out of the living room, slamming the heavy door behind her. She yelled up the stairs at us to get to bed and that the aunts were fighting over whose dead husband was in Tio Ernani’s body and that we were not to have any part in the nonsense. She didn’t go in for spirits coming back from the dead.