They came from Texas to Utah, and wanted to stop by the rehab center and see Dad. They had met each other in 1972 in São Paulo, Brazil, and had met Dad then, too, when they were 21 and he was 36, the President of the Brazil South Central Mission, their President. They were serving as volunteer youth missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (misnomered “Mormons”), preaching the Gospel of Jesus and of faith and repentance and baptism and of Christ’s Church restored in 1820 through the prophet Joseph Smith. They met me, too, in 1972, but I was only eight. I had met Steve and Dorothy and the others many times at mission reunions in Mom’s and Dad’s basement great room, with their name tags and paunches and gray hair (or no hair), with a taste for mousse de maracujá (passion fruit mousse) and guaraná (Brazilian soft drink) and feijoada (Brazil’s black-bean stew), and with love in their hearts for Mom and Dad and for the people of Brazil, and with still-vivid memories of their formative experiences with a benevolent personal living God. Dad served a mission to Brazil in the 1950s. I accepted a mission call to Portugal in 1983. And my children were sent to Oklahoma and Florida and South Korea and Mozambique and Brazil. Missionary service is not compulsory in my Church, but every young man and woman is invited to serve. We dedicated two years of our time, energies, and resources to share our convictions about God’s plan for the eternal happiness of humanity. Covid-19 ended Mom’s and Dad’s annual reunions, and we felt a new emptiness, one of numerous new voids compelled by the pandemic. But Larry emailed the group, and a Zoom mission reunion was conceived. Mom and Dad sat at their kitchen table, looking at my laptop screen, as dozens of thumbnails popped up, of their beloved former missionaries, with whom they had labored, with whom they had been reviled, with whom they had formed strong bonds of caring, who now listened as Dad declared his convictions, evoked their common tender memories, and expressed to them his love (as did Mom). And at the click of an icon they were gone, and we sat on the sofas, Mom and Dad and me, and reminisced about Brazil, and about how at mission reunions I had led them all in the old Caymmi songs: Maracangalha (1957): a young man so excited to attend a party in the next town; Coqueiro de Itapoã (1959): a youth missing the sand and the waves and the coconut palms and the beautiful morenas of Itapoã.
The two Brazilian women had invited us to dinner at a Brazilian restaurant where we looked forward to reminiscing on our many tender connections to Brazil. They run a small housecleaning business and work very hard scrubbing toilets and mopping floors and scouring sinks and vacuuming carpets to make a passable living. I had planned to pay for the group, but in the order line they whispered happily to me that they were paying for the group. I felt grateful for their generosity and mortified by their sacrifice. I mumbled a feeble protest, not wanting to hurt their feelings or draw attention. “Não pode ser,” I said—This cannot be. Would my dad be angry? they wondered. How could I say that Dad and I would both feel embarrassed without embarrassing and hurting them? Instead of explaining, I offered a compromise: they could pay for themselves and for Mom; I would pay for myself and for Dad. They accepted without hurt. But no one expected what followed. Dad’s steak and onions came out timely and well (medium), then Mom’s seafood stew. While Dad munched on his steak and Mom hunted for shrimp, we reminisced over avocados the size of cantaloupes, the colors and smells of the traveling street market feiras, neblinha fog rolling in from the Atlantic and over the big city of São Paulo, the fine falling garoando mist-rain for which we do not have an English word, and the cheerful generous people of Brazil. And Dad cannot simply resist telling about how when I was born the world had only cloth diapers and he had to wash them out by hand and how they strung ropes across the apartment to hang my drying diapers, but in the cold June humidity they would not dry so he pressed them dry with a hot iron, and I was beyond embarrassment and simply dumbly smiled. We spoke mostly in that most pleasingly musical language of Brazilian Portuguese. But our food never came: Solange and Ana and I had ordered several favorite Brazilian appetizers for our meal—coxinhas, bolinhos de bacalhau, esfihas, pasteis, kibe—and they never came. The owners were vacationing in Brazil, half the cooks and servers had called in “sick,” and the remaining two teenagers ran around overwhelmed and frantic. We checked with them several times on our orders. Several times they brought us the wrong orders, meant for other frustrated customers. Solange pilfered some white rice and black bean feijoada from the buffet, but the rice was only half-cooked—al dente would be kind. At nearly the three-hour mark, the frenzied young manager came to our table, apologized profusely for the problem, refunded some of our money, offered us free brigadeiro cake and vanilla pudim, and begged us to give them another try on another day with another kitchen staff. We thanked him. We laughed at our experience. We could have vented angry frustrations, but we laughed. We laughed because we had enjoyed such wonderful conversation, memories, impressions, and stories (even if they were about my cloth diapers). Solange’s and Ana’s meekness and cheer and forgiving positive spirit made anger and frustration impossible. And they had received no dinner at all! But the five of us together for three hours relished company and conversation, generosity and kindness, and had the best bad restaurant experience of our lives. Solange and Mom hugged a rocking dancing hug, smiling and laughing, and Ana jumped in. Dad received abraços, too, though he is not a hugger. And I did not complain at being embraced by two pretty ladies from my birth country of Brazil.
Scott came to the house to help Mom and Dad prepare their tax returns. Dad had all their documents ready. Fifty years ago, Scott served as a young missionary in São Paulo, Brazil, for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Dad and Mom presided over the mission for three years, becoming much beloved by the 200 missionaries. And here was Scott, five decades later, their bonds of affection intact. From my upstairs office, I could hear the tender tone of their conversation, their occasional laughter, and place names in that most beautiful language of Brazilian Portuguese: Piracicaba, Juiz de Fora, Itapoã, Rio Grande do Sul, Curitiba (some of their fields of labor). They remembered fondly old friends like Helvécio and Saul Messias and Camargo. After an hour, Scott drove away in his black BMW sedan. “That big BMW was part of Scott’s required profile at Price Waterhouse Coopers,” Dad explained. “Now he teaches at the University. It was very nice of him to come see us.” Dad has spoken to me many times about his own “profile” as both an international corporate attorney for Johnson & Johnson, wearing the compulsory navy-blue pinstripe suit, one identical suit for each day of the week, while also being a lay minister for the Church in New Jersey. As part of his ministry, he visited many people in poverty, and he decided his car should be as humble as theirs. He drove to work and to church and on family vacations in a 1970 Dodge Dart, in which I learned to drive, with “three on the tree,” meaning a three-gear manual transmission with the shifting lever on the steering column. That clutch was touchy and stiff, you can take my word for it. But I mastered that clutch, and did not roll back on the hill into the shiny new black Trans Am with red racing flames. Later in his career, Dad upgraded to an Oldsmobile 98 (hardly a luxury Lincoln or Cadillac), which he drove one evening to the projects in New Brunswick to visit a fraught Church member. Upon leaving the squalid high rise, he found a gang surrounding his Olds, the gang leader sitting on the hood. “Hello,” Dad said pleasantly. “Can I help you?” The gang leader sauntered over, opened Dad’s suit, and removed his wallet from the lapel pocket. “Thank you very much,” he sneered and swaggered away. Dad spoke up: “I am a minister. I have just been visiting Sister Morales, who is a member of my Church and my flock. She needs help, and I was seeing what I could do for her and her children.” The gang leader turned, handed back the wallet, and said to Dad, “Have a nice day, Minister. Thanks for coming.”
(Very nice photo of very nice 1970 Dodge Dart courtesy of Hemmings, used pursuant to the Fair Use Doctrine.)
Dad’s hobby is reading. He is the smartest man I know, reading biography, theology, philosophy, history, fiction, science, etc. He indulges his hobby from 10:30 p.m. until at least 2:00 a.m., every night. One night’s literary fare may be the Book of Mormon, the Bible, or other scripture. Another night may be The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels or Rumpole of the Bailey stories. Often he reads the World Book Encyclopedia, the next day telling me everything he learned during the night. Did you know nectarines spontaneously appeared on a peach tree in China over two millennia ago? Other days he reads books his children gave him for his birthday or Christmas, when book gifts are a sure thing. During those late-night reading hours, Dad listens to the music of Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, particularly his Bachianas Brasileiras (my translation: Brazilian musical pieces after the manner of Johann Sebastian Bach). Having been a missionary, post-graduate student, minister, and international lawyer in Brazil, he loves Brazilian music. And he loves the Brazilian people. In 1971, while finishing the sweat equity on the new Baker house in New Jersey, a cassette tape of the Bachianas kept him company. At a particular point in Bachiana No. 7, an electrifying sensation suddenly swept through him, a visit from a spiritual plane, and he knew somehow that he would be asked the following year to take his family to Brazil to oversee the Church’s missionary work. The impression came to pass, and our little family went to Brazil for three years— I was eight years old. I, too, love the Brazilian people, and the food, and the language, and the music. Villa-Lobos—what a cool-sounding name—and it has a fun meaning as well: city of wolves. Heitor City of Wolves. Bachiana No. 7—at counter 16:55 in the Tocata/Desafio. World Book Encyclopedia: N for Nectarine. Two a.m. and all is well.
Arriving homing from work, I observed Mom ironing white linen handkerchiefs. Not knowing people who use handkerchiefs, let alone iron handkerchiefs, I inquired. She told me that when I was an infant in Brazil—(Dad was a post-graduate Fulbright law student at the University of São Paulo)—she would push me in the stroller down the noisy urban streets to the American consulate to retrieve their mail and to check out books from the consulate library. On occasion, just for the fun of exploring, she would board the street car and ride it to the “fim da linha,” the end of the line, to see what there was to see. Hearing of women who sewed lace, she rode to the fim da linha and walked to the little lace shop. Beautiful hand-sewn lace lined shelves and graced tables. With little money for nonessentials, she chose several thin white handkerchiefs into which were embroidered white vines and leaves and flowers. Nearly 60 years later, she held them with care and ironed them free of their wrinkles. Some of the stitching has come out, but still left are the needle holes and impression patters of where the lace used to be. Beautiful things made by beautiful people so long ago at the end of the street car line.
Caymmi crooning How sweet to die at sea, singing the anguish and longing of the fisherman’s widow and mother and child. On the green waves of the sea. Painting with his guitar. Sculpting with song. He sings the good souls of the penurious pescador, fishermen, uncut gemstones, too often squandered at sea – singing the unsung. He made his bed in the bosom of Iemanjá, the great sea goddess of African Candomblé. Take a four-logged Asian jang, add logs five and six for a Brazilian jangada, a poor man’s fishing skiff. Launch at sunset into the surf and the curious sail hauls him out 75 miles, six logs and a sail and a fisherman, inconsequential specks on an unending ocean, under starlight, under storm. The ocean wrenches his soul toward fishing. Watch over our pescador, Lady of the Sea. Bring our boy home. His name is Chico Ferreira e Bento – my Chico. Bring his jangada home. And the storm arose and the ocean swelled into roiling liquid mountains and that little flat raft bobbed and dipped and splintered and flung Chico into the bosom of Iemenjá. And his jangada, the Pôr do Sol – Sunset – tumbled to shore two days after, with no Chico, with no Chico. When the fisherman leaves, he never knows if he will return. His mother kneels in the surf, Crying as if not crying. Logs fastened with hardwood pegs and hemp fiber lashings and an upstretched sail of stitched cloth. The fisherman has two loves: One on land, and One at sea. On a plywood square a student poured glue and meted colored gravel carefully for a sandy surf and a tumbling blue and that creamy sail turned upward to the sky, wind-bent and heavy, and the brown fishermen working nets and lines and paddle and sail. The glue and the gravel lie fixed but I hear the water flowing and the sand shifting and the men whistling about the big fish they will heft home for their Chiquinha and Iaiá, their children, to eat, and the big fish they will sell for food and school books and a trinket or two on their birthdays. I went for a walk one day, and every path led to the sea. He who comes to the sea will never wish to forsake her. Sail home, Chico: sail your jangada home.
Artwork above by my father, Owen Nelson Baker, when a post-graduate student in Brazil.
Caymmi released his LP Dorival Caymmi E Seu Violão in 1956, each song a story of the hopes and griefs of poor Brazilian fishermen and their loved ones, and of the ocean’s capricious waters, both treacherous and divine. I still have the old vinyl LP, pictured here. These songs have stirred my soul longer and more deeply than any other music. The italicized lyrics in the essay, above, are my translations from the Portuguese. You can hear some of Caymmi’s folk songs here:
(Photo by Elizabeth Mills)
Having lived twice in Brazil (including the occasion of my birth), I have come to adore Brazilian music. Though Brazil boasts many greats, like folk artist Dorival Caymmi and bossa nova pioneer Carlos Antonio Jobim, my favorite Brazilian vocalist is Ceumar. This lovely woman’s lovely name means Sky and Sea. Smitten by her silky, perfect voice, and inspired by her versatile repertoire, I wrote her this poem.
where ocean touches sky,
blue on blue,
often tender, assuaging,
at times roiling and violent
where the boundary
always is unclear,
where always I hear
music: of earth, of water,
I messaged this poem to Ceumar through Facebook, and she responded with grace and appreciation.
My favorite of all Ceumar’s songs is “Jabuticaba Madura”, which she composed herself and sings solo while playing acoustic guitar. (You can watch her on You Tube.) In the song, Ceumar compares the small, brown Jabuticaba fruit to a lover’s eyes. Here is my rough translation of the lyrics. (I apologize for the loss of nuance and rhyme.)
Ripe Jabuticaba fruit,
not yet fallen underfoot,
hovers shining in the tree,
giving me the desire
to know what it is.
Thus are your eyes.
Who can resist
discovering their dark secret.
Let me be that woman.
Let me climb up to you.
Let me choose you.
Let me taste your sweetness.
Let me lose myself in you.
Blackberry, plum, guava,
none can compare.
Let me give you a small, dark piece
of the fruit of my heart.
In her music, Ceumar combines quintessential Brazilian sounds and rhythms with the instruments and styles of their European and African roots, including the clarinet, mandolin, accordion, and violin. Her repertoire avoids shallow pop in favor of mature, deep, moving, and fun music and lyrics. In my opinion, Ceumar is a genius of Brazilian folk and popular music and culture. And her voice is nothing short of heavenly.