Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The rise of the Bene Gesserit

They're already here

The phone next to Dad's recliner rang. He picked it up. After saying hello he switched to Portuguese for a few sentences. It was probably family. He switched back to English:

“It's for you.”

That was a surprise. I had recently “gone away” to college. Who knew I was home?

“It's your cousin Maria,” added Dad.

Oh, like that was a big help.

“Which one?” I asked.

I wasn't kidding. If you're Portuguese, then all of your female relatives are named Maria (or Mary or Marie). There's no help for it. Maria may be their first name, middle name, or confirmation name, but it's always in there somewhere.

“Maria Anna,” he replied.

What the heck was she calling me for? I couldn't keep track of the family bloodlines like some of my relatives could, but I seemed to recall that we had grandfathers who were first cousins, so Maria Anna and I would be third cousins. Anyway, what did she want with me? I took the phone from my father.

My cousin and I chatted in English. Her Portuguese was more fluent than mine (she had lived in the Old Country for a while), but her English was fine. She came to the point quickly:

“There's a Grand March the night of the festa and I need an escort. Would you go with me?”

Think fiesta when you see festa and you'll be all right. You won't pronounce it right unless you've heard someone say it aloud (or unless you're Portuguese) because we say it as if it's spelled feshta. (Don't ask me why.) Portuguese communities like to have a festa or two each year (there's always one near the time of Pentecost). There'll be a big informal banquet and perhaps a parade. Sometimes a dance. The Grand March was a kind of processional that preceded a dance.

“I wasn't planning to go, Maria Anna. Can't you get someone else?”

The negotiations began. She was obviously scraping the bottom of the barrel if she was resorting to inviting blood kin (although, when you get right down to it, all Portuguese seem to be nth cousins, sometimes m times removed). There would be goodies at the festa, including massa sovada and filhozes. Yum! Then the deal clincher:

“You don't have to dance with me. Just escort me till the Grand March is done and then you're on your own.”

Anyway, it was a good deed for my loser of a cousin. I felt virtuous.

A few minutes later the phone rang again. Dad picked it up. A moment later he yelled for my kid brother:

“Tim, it's for you! It's your cousin Maria!”

My brother yelled back from the next room: “Which one?”

This time it was Maria Amelia. She's Maria Anna's kid sister. She made exactly the same deal with my kid brother as her sister had with me. My brother and I were both roped into going to the Grand March, but we were allowed to cut loose the moment it concluded.

The Coven

Tradition is persistent in Portuguese communities in the U.S. It lingers today and it was even more robust in the 1970s. Portuguese women encase themselves in black when their husbands die. Mourning becomes their vocation for the rest of their lives. They travel in packs, too, like a murder of crows. There's nothing like a festa for sightings of the black-clad flock.

Portuguese velhinhas (little old ladies) or viúvas (widows) cluster in little groups in the corners of the hall, muttering together. Some of them compulsively click rosary beads, but all of them are watchful. They love festas because their principal hobby is matchmaking. Widowhood frees them up to spend time swapping information about family bloodlines: His father has a drinking problem; he's no catch. Her family's dairy is failing; no dowry there. She has a twin brother; no doubt she'll be infertile. That one is the town whore, but she might be good enough for him, since he's the fourth son in his family and has no prospects at all.

They gossip with their heads together, occasionally chuckling quietly. All the heads snap up when fresh flesh appears on the scene. I created a bit of a stir. Although I had grown up in the county, I had never been to a Grand March before. Who is that boy with Maria Anna?

As the couples strolled in, arm-in-arm, the anemic little band struck up the only tune they knew that they thought was a march: When the Saints Go Marching In. They played it several times while the procession snaked about the hall and eventually everyone was inside and had paraded in front of festive family members and friends. The parents of Anna and Amelia beamed at us. The heads of the little old ladies swung back and forth, checking out the teens and tweens. Eventually they pegged me.

Aha! See the boy with Maria Amelia?

Sure, sure. Timoteo. He's the grandson of Old Man Ferox.

Ha! He's marching with his cousin!

Yes, yes. So that's probably his big brother Zeno marching with Maria Anna!

The college boy? So that's what he looks like.

The bookworm has come to a Grand March!

Poor girls. With their cousins! Couldn't they find real dates?

No, no, it's all right. Third cousins. Old Man Ferox is first cousin to the girls' grandfather.

That's right! That's right! Still ... not the best.

The band gave up on When the Saints Go Marching In and the Grand March ground to an end. My brother Tim was gone like a shot, Maria Amelia spinning like a top in his wake. I took my leave of Maria Anna more politely and made a bee-line to her parents (where Maria Anna was sure not to follow); I knew I could chat innocuously for a few minutes and practice my Portuguese. They asked about college and I inquired solicitously after their health (which was bad, as I found out in detail; indeed, they lingered in robustly horrible health for decades thereafter and were always happy to tell you about it).

The Bene Gesserit were undoubtedly dismayed that the Ferox boys had gone stag so abruptly, bringing their speculations on degrees of incest to a premature conclusion. Fortunately, there were dozens of other boys and girls in the hall. The old ladies watched as people paired off for the dancing, nodding or shaking their heads in swift judgment of each couple.

After a decent interval, I found my brother at the concession stand, pouring Coke down his throat and hanging out with guys he knew from school or 4-H. Tim wanted to stay for a while and go back to the dance floor once our cousins were out of circulation. We negotiated a deal: He could amuse himself for ninety minutes and then we were out of there. It was approximately eighty minutes more than my original offer, but Tim was actually a rather sociable person and didn't regret being at the festa. I got some munchies from the concession stand and settled in for my vigil.

It was not the greatest ordeal of my life. Not too many people knew me, but a few came over to chat and ask me about college. Was Cal Poly a good school? Yeah, I think so, but I'm at Caltech. Do they have a good ag program? That's up at UC Davis; I'm a math major down in Pasadena.

Good times.

My pact with my kid brother soon unraveled. He returned to me and begged for an extension, which I reluctantly granted. Tim kept going back dance after dance to partner with the same girl. The ninety minutes eventually turned into three hours. Even then I was practically dragging my brother to the car so we could get the hell out of there.

Within two years my brother and that girl were married.

Don't mess with the Bene Gesserit.

5 comments:

Karen said...

How are the Bene Gesserit reacting to the California court decision on same-sex marriage? After all, you've mentioned at least one same-sex couple in your extended family. Maybe the BG could appreciate that this opens great new opportunities for matchmaking?

Zeno said...

The velhinhas are obsessed with breeding. Same-sex pairings just wouldn't have the same kick for them. Besides, they're traditional Catholics and the very idea would have them clutching their rosary beads and crossing themselves.

Junkjungle said...

Brazilian culture reveres the festas much the same way the Portuguese do. It's interesting that I'm able to see the vestiges of Portuguese culture here when I hit up a festa from my family.

That bit about how the velhinhas sit back and matchmake hasn't changed though. There's no lack of criticism regarding my lovelife from all corners of my family.

Karen said...

BG obsessed with breeding... of course. It's been too long since I've read Dune. Duh.

Zeno, I infer from some of your previous posts that you escaped the clutches of the BG. Well done... although that may have impoverished the gene pool. :-)

BTW, there are Bene Gesserit everywhere (though they aren't always consistent about wearing black). A friend who immigrated to the U.S. from England had a family full of them. She declared, after bearing her only child, that she could never have taken up parenthood until she was securely established several thousand miles away from her family. So much for BG-inspired breeding.

Porlock Hussein Junior said...

Don't knock those third cousins. You may have had a close call there. A recent paper in Science showed that third-cousin couples have higher fertility than those either more closely or less closely related. A more recent letter has discussed how the Major Histocompatibility Complex may work to reduce attraction between those too closely related and maximize it where the fertility is greatest. Pretty soon you'll have the BG enrolled in population genetics and biochem courses.