I didn’t go to kindergarten until I was four. I was an innocent child, growing up in my nanny’s arms. She had dry skin, proving that she was old enough to tell me about life, but not perfect enough to believe in heaven. Discipline was what her eyes were always screaming, kind discipline. My only teacher, making me the queen of her castle every time she allowed me to help her with the lunch, making me her dedicated student. Her lessons were about atoms but also about love: she taught me maths and kindness, how to deal with money and how to deal with emotions. Arminda – her name. Her name, her skin and her eyes meant home. I was the luckiest kid in the world, always with a braid, a dress and big hands holding my little ones: either my mum’s hands, my dad’s or Arminda’s.
Every time that my mum speaks about me as a baby, she almost cries. “I didn’t want to leave you so soon – you were my angel, but I really had to go back to work”. I wonder if she knows how grateful I am that she decided to find such a lovely nanny; I guess she knows. Arminda taught me to ask for the toilet when I was eight months old, and by my second birthday, I was writing my full name.
I can’t remember her house in detail and that feeling is something that she didn’t teach me how to deal with. Missing her – saudades – a Portuguese word without translation, that means the feeling of longing, melancholy, or nostalgia.
During nap time I would pretend I was sleeping and as soon as she went to the kitchen again, I would crawl and hide under the table. Arminda would sit, doing crosswords, playing with her feet without noticing me. The little queen was suddenly just a regular kid, hidden, using her nanny’s shoes as a toy. I knew that soon she would notice, and trying not to laugh she would say: “Don’t make me look like a fool, Marta.” I wasn’t, Arminda.
The kitchen was our entire world; it wasn’t often that we would go to any other room in the house. I know that her room was almost like a secret – her own place. She was the queen of something too, I would think as a kid: the queen of her room. The bed was huge and I lost myself every time she allowed me to play there. Oh, but the kitchen – dark wood and the smell of fresh vegetables from small markets, with a touch of kindness. Portuguese food brings back memories of grandmothers, the generation where women were still the ones cooking, and teaching how to cook. The smell of someone who cares about you. I knew I was home every time she was cooking or feeding the birds. Arminda would try to reach the birds’ cage outside the window on the 7th floor. I was always afraid she would fall. How could such a small woman be so big at the same time?
I didn’t know at the time, but I do know now, that I was the luckiest person on Earth. My parents and my brother were giving me all the love someone could ask for, and Arminda was giving me the same. I was clothed in happiness, all the colours and all the figures. The queen, the princess, the smart and bright kid – the soon-to-be failure, because nothing is forever – and school was about to start.
“Arminda, can my school be here?”
Her eyes were wet, but her face was so sombre. “No, Marta, you need to have a good future. You need to study. Promise me you will study.” She knew I was going to; she and my parents taught me the best. After an awkward silence she would leave, hiding herself like a child; she would clean her face and come back like an adult must – strong.
We met when I was three months and we said goodbye when I was four years.
“They want you to start school one year earlier because you are special,” my mum was telling me, “so you are going to the kindergarten one year, to get used to it, after a year you start school.”
Portuguese law says: kids can only start school when they are six, but I was special, a queen of maturity, of starting everything earlier than the others – and I hated that feeling. Tears were streaming down my face; I was ready to fight, but my heart was asking for a lap to lose myself in.
“Mom, please, I don’t want to be with other kids, you know how good I am when I’m with the grown-ups, don’t make me go”.
My dad would tell me it was going to be good, fun and different. My mum would talk about how I should always give it my best and be truthful to myself and Arminda – oh, Arminda! She gave me all the tools but one: how to be ready to leave her. The last days that I spent with her, the birds didn’t sing, and the smell of the food didn’t make me want to eat it. Silence was the only thing I could hear. Arminda didn’t do her crosswords and I didn’t hide under the table. Why should I anyway? That was not my table anymore. Now I was going to be a kid among kids, instead of the queen of my universe.
This little Marta knew nothing but kindness. Respecting everyone, smiling at the food and never being mean to others: that was the only thing she knew – I knew, and that was about to stop.
“Don’t forget me, Arminda.”
“No, don’t you forget this old lady. Now you have to go. Vamos, anda!”
If only you could just live inside my body to feel how sad I am. The kids are always screaming; they say bad things about one other, and they don’t like me. Oh mum, don’t leave me here. Oh dad, please protect me. My super-brother, let me hide behind you – Arminda, where are you? What happened to my home? What is this place?
The kids were running, playing football, talking loudly and making a mess with food. I would never think I was better than them, no way, I just didn’t belong there. But how could they know – the ones who love me? They were not living inside me.
I wasn’t the queen and I didn’t want to be.
“You write your name already?” One of the kids asked.
“I do, yes.”
She started laughing and nobody spoke to me until the next day. I didn’t have any clue of what I could possibly have done to her, but I recall she had this angry face, not dry, like Arminda’s; a soft but angry face.
From the day I answered the question that girl asked me, I stopped telling others what I knew or didn’t. I hid my grades like they were the most terrible thing and later got bad grades, so that the kids would want to play with me. Kind at home, kind with the adults, but always afraid when surrounded by people my age.
I would spend my break locked in the toilet wishing I was with my mom or my dad, wishing I could be making lunch with Arminda. My heart was constantly racing, and far from winning. The luckiest kid was now the saddest: not that her life was a misery, or she was a victim, but there was emptiness in that small chest.
The end of the day was the closest to perfection. I would have dinner with my family, and be treated with love. If my mom could only have known how happy she made me. If Arminda could only have known how I needed her. But I didn’t want to bother them, so I would never choose to tell them the truth. For as many years as I could, I just pretended that I fit in.
My dad would tell me it was going to be good, fun and different. My mum would talk about how I should always give it best and be truthful to myself and Arminda – oh Arminda! – she gave me all the tools but one: how to be ready to deal with unkind people.
On the day my mum turned 46, I published my first book – 1001 Cores (1001 Colours). A short time afterwards, I decided to visit Arminda and give her my book: she, more than anyone else, should have it.
How could such a small woman have become even smaller, but still feel that big? Old like a peach left in a gym bag, and lonely like only the aged can be, there she was. My queen.
“Oh, Arminda, look what time gave you – lonely eyes.”
We sat at the kitchen table and spoke for two hours. My hands were shaking, and I wanted to scream from the top of my lungs: you shouldn’t have let me go. But it wasn’t the right time; it was not about me anymore. With her magical hands, she grabbed my book and smiled.
“I knew you would do something big.”
I was already fifteen but near her, I felt like a two-year old again. No achievement is big enough when we stand next to the inspiration for our life.
“Being like you, Arminda, is my biggest goal.” I ended up saying. Her expression changed and she looked at me like I was saying the most naïve thing; but I wasn’t. She just hadn’t known.
The afternoon ended sooner than usual and it was time to leave when all the sadness came to dance with me. With no music on, I was dancing with tears in my eyes and empty arms. I was dancing with the memories of the kid that only knew kindness. I was dancing with the kid that didn’t know how cruel the world could be – ripping our clothes, taking our innocence away and proving to us that we don’t deserve the best. I was dancing with the loneliness and emptiness of an age I didn’t know, only Arminda knew, only my mum and my dad could know. Stripped of happiness – naked, without clothes – I danced while looking into Arminda’s eyes.
“Thank you for making me such a kind person,” I said, before leaving.
I lost count of the hours I spent crying because I couldn’t fit in – and it probably was my own fault, probably I didn’t try hard enough, but if trying hard enough means not being my most honest self, then it isn’t for me.
Time isn’t always good, but it made me a strong woman, privileged enough to be aware of what is rotten in the world and fight to change it. Time wasn’t always kind and neither was I, but I forgive myself and forgive time.
Arminda, mum, dad, brother and lovely sisters: I couldn’t ask for more. I know the real meaning of unconditional love. Sometimes my bones are nothing but sadness, but then I remember I have a lot of places I can call home. Not functioning well in big groups doesn’t bother me anymore; the world needs balance, and all the details that make us living people with amazing souls matter. I was given the tools I needed to love others and to allow myself to be loved, and if in order to love the way I do I needed to dance with demons, I’m glad I danced. Those times I was feeling nothing but solitude, I wish Arminda had been there to tell me: “That isn’t sadness Marta, because you can’t feel all that sadness when you have experienced real love. That isn’t sadness, Marta, it is the happiness of having been taught by the best. It is love. It is life.”