by Connie Hand
The sun was bright under a clear azure sky. The birds were merrily singing on that beautiful Summer morning. As I stood by the country road and stared at the house in front of me, my heart was pounding. I was in Nariz, Portugal standing in front of a house that was typical of the area. But this house was special to me because it was the one in which my father was born. Immediately I thought of the stories he used to tell about his childhood in Portugal and his journey to America.
I always loved to hear about far away places and thought that one day I would travel to Portugal to visit those little towns and big cities that Dad talked about in such a vivid way.
The story of my father, Augusto Silva began on June 8, 1911 in Nariz in the district of Aveiro. He was the second of five children born to Maria and Luis Silva, and it was not an easy life. The family farmed their lands and tried to make ends meet. In 1927, Dad decided to emigrate to the United States, and it was a life-altering decision. He researched what was necessary for his journey. It must have been very hard on both of them when his widowed mother gave him her approval to leave. He told me he vowed to go back to visit this sweet woman, and he did keep that vow. He described that visit with tears in his eyes.
He traveled to Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, and worked there for several months until he discovered that Portugal’s emigration quotas were filled for the next several years. He was advised to travel to France to take up residency in Paris. He told me that he worked in Paris doing odd jobs. I remember Dad telling me that Paris was a huge, beautiful city. He said he saw as many sights as he could, but he really couldn’t wait to get to America.
Word came some months later that he could board the George Washington, a ship that was bound for the United States. He was told to be at the Cherbourg docks by October 31, 1928, and he told me he arrived a day early just to be sure.
The ship pulled into Ellis Island, New York on December 8, 1928. Dad said he was nervous yet excited and ready to start his new life in America. I had a lot of admiration for the young country boy who had the courage to leave home, work and live in strange cities, and head for New York to fulfill his dream of a better life -- not just for himself, but to improve the lot of his family back in Portugal.
After several years he married and ultimately had seven children. He was a wonderful, loving husband and father. And he was a successful businessman who founded his own orchid business which still operates in New Jersey and is run by his two sons. He passed away at the too-young age of 66 in 1977.
In 1978 my husband, Jeff and I boarded a TAP airplane and flew to Portugal for the first time. Right away, I felt close to my father, because he used to tell me that his visits home began the moment he boarded a Portuguese plane. I felt the same way.
When we landed in Lisbon, I headed for the Ribeira market area, because Dad told me he lived on a street there, sharing a room with other men. He said he got a job delivering milk to the Alfama (the old Moorish section of Lisbon ) by donkey cart in the early morning hours. He worked not only to support himself, but to save for his passage to America.
As I wandered the narrow alleys in the Alfama, I smelled the grilled sardines that Dad always loved. I saw the laundry billowing in the breeze as it hung between houses that almost touched. I heard a melancholy Fado being sung somewhere in the neighborhood. I imagined my Father as a seventeen-year-old boy alone in a big city. I wondered if he was frightened. I knew he was home-sick because he told me he was. Did he picture America? I felt very proud of him and my heart swelled with awe and wonder.
We went to Nariz, Dad’s little town. I met my Uncle Manuel, my father’s older brother, for the first time. He took me to the house where my father was born and where he lived. It was on a narrow street, across from the parish church, and inside was the baptismal font where Dad was baptized in 1911. We walked through the parish cemetery where my grandparents and other relatives are buried. I thought “Wow, Dad played here, worked in these fields, walked here. I am walking in his footsteps!” I felt a mixture of emotions: inexplicable grief but also pride and joy. Everywhere I walked in town, every little path or road we followed, I thought, “Dad was here!”
I wept with joy and sadness when my uncle told me stories about my father. Everyone I met (uncles, aunts, cousins, neighbors) couldn’t say enough about how they loved and admired my Dad. They talked about the courage it took to leave his country and his family and to travel to a strange land at such a tender age. They spoke about his visits with my mother in 1947 and 1970 as grand and important occasions. They were very proud that one of their own did well in America.
I was choked up as we said our good-byes, but I knew I would one day return to connect with my father again, in a land he loved as much as he loved America.
When I got home, I could hardly believe that my father had lived, loved, laughed, and worked exactly where I was standing and walking in Portugal. How lucky I was to have walked in his footsteps.
Connie Hand was born and raised in New Jersey. She is a former educator. She has traveled extensively over the years and photographed her trips to many states in the U.S., to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean islands, Europe, and South America. Connie continues to travel and writes about her experiences. She lives in Florida and New Jersey with her husband, Jeff.