Representations of Home Creative Journal

ROAM - Summer/Autumn 2023 - ROAM 3


Maria Valle Ribeiro



One of my favourite occupations as a four or five-year-old was visiting my grandmother – Avó Kika. It conjured up unending treats – steak and chips, ham sandwiches, gooey cakes, watching television and dressing up in her natural silk wedding dress. The latter had been preserved since 1922 in fine, pinkish tissue paper, that is, until my sister and I had managed to shred it during the numerous wedding processions we staged up and down the corridors of Avó Kika’s sprawling 1st floor apartment in Rua Voz do Operario. A building built by Avó Kika’s father, who had more money than sense, to house his numerous daughters as they got married. The block was just next to his own house, by all accounts a non-descript mansion that was torn down after he died and before I was born.


But the highlight of visits to Avó Kika’s house was being on the sitting room verandah, perched over the steep cobbled street and directly in front of the Cathedral of Sao Vicente de Fora.  Even today, the church continues to cast a knowing shadow on its surroundings, just where Graça becomes Alfama.  It has withstood the Great 18th century Lisbon earthquake and the many other schisms – natural and otherwise — that have shaken the city over the centuries.


Most of the time, the verandah was a viewing stage for the banal comings and going of the Rua Voz do Operario. There was – and still is – the now iconic 28 Tram as it clanked down the steep street.  There were no tourists then, but a conglomerate of people – from hatted men in grey suits, red-lipped, tight-skirted ladies. The cries of the multi-skirted, grey faced women selling fish, fruits and vegetables, and everything else you might think of that provided a continuous buzz through the torpid air. 


Occasionally, people gathered on the shiny footpaths to enjoy various solemn and more profane events … the Good Friday processions with the bloodied face of the Senhor da Paixão draped in purple or the carnavalesque Santos Populares. I don’t remember seeing many children.


But my favourite events were the Saturday morning wedding shows. Avó Kika would bring out the red-velvet Art Deco stool for me, so I could get a better view. Depending on the occasion, she and one or two of her sisters who lived on other floors also came out. But sometimes, they were too busy and then Olinda, the cook, would come and peel the potatoes beside me. 


On those days, a narrow red carpet would sweep from the heavy doorway of the church down the uneven, worn steps of the church, to the square below where  shiny bridal cars and guests would mingle.  


One particular Saturday, I realized something was amiss, The red carpet was there. But there was no usual bustle announcing an imminent arrival of a bride. There were no men in morning suits or stilettoed ladies, climbing the steps with trepidation. Though there were two silvery cars parked at the bottom of the steps.


The heavy oak doors creaked open in synch with the peels of the noon bells and out came the bride and groom and their guests. They made their way down the red carpet and stopped halfway for photos, surrounded by family and friends. Unusually, the groom and the other male guests wore dark suits. And the bride, well, she wore a long, huggy white sleeveless dress with a red sash around her waist. Though she did have a short veil covering her garconne blond hair. 


The general consensus from my grandmother and grand-aunts was that the bride had to be English, or maybe American. A foreigner, no doubt. Olinda opined that the poor boy had obviously been misled by a Protestant.  Avó Kika surmised how plain the bride looked, giving  a knowing smirk about the red sash. I don’t remember the comments from the street, but can only imagine they were even less cottoned. 


The image of the sleeveless white dress and the red sash remains as vivid today as it was then. And the comments on the foreigner stayed with me. In the Ireland of the sixties being Portuguese was considered exotic and evoked questions like if we wore shoes and lived in houses. 


Later-on I discovered that red is indeed a colour of nuptials in India and other places and white a shade of mourning for Muslims, Jews and indeed Catholic queens. And weddings the world over are bitter-sweet.


I never married but still enjoy weddings. I wonder had I walked down the steps of Sao Vicente wearing a red bridal dress with a white sash would I too be described as an American Protestant.


Maria Ribeiro



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