UNDER THE ALMOND TREE | A tribute by Algarvian.Life editor Mel Ve | The following story is one I have been wanting to tell for some time now, but knowing how to render the details with sensitivity, has meant that I have had to wait for an appropriate time. This story may mean nothing to anybody else except me, for the sentimentality I share for the details disclosed herein, are my joy and my burden all the same.
When I moved to the Algarve in July 2017, I became aware of the abundance of Almond trees that scatter the landscape. Although it may escape the eye as to just how prevalent Almond trees are, it is in the month of February that their prevalence in these parts becomes most noticeable, as the Algarvian landscape is awash with pink and white flowers. When the petals fall to the floor, they cover the ground completely. The story goes that these Almond trees were planted by a Moorish Prince, out of love for his Nordic Princess wife. It is said that the Princess became sad in February, as she missed the snow so much. In a grand gesture of love, the Prince had Almond trees planted all over the Algarve, so that when their blossoms fall, it would look as if it had been snowing.
I had never seen an Almond tree before moving to the Algarve, and I had never picked Almonds straight from the tree, I had never eaten them straight out of a freshly cracked shell. During our first year in the Algarve, Beach Farm was full of Almond trees, and we picked plenty, making Almond milk, tarts, desserts, and breakfast porridge for an ailing elderly lady. Many a morning, I would feed this elderly lady, whom we affectionately called Mama, her almond porridge.
Beach Farm belonged to Mama, and had been in her family for over a hundred years. Mama was in very poor condition when I arrived at Beach Farm, and unable to care for the farm, due to various ailments and the onset of Dymentia. Mama was in nappies, and could not do anything for herself. She had to be bathed, fed, changed, medicated, and kept warm by others around her. On warm days, Mama would sit outside under the shade of the Almond tree, the one that produced the sweetest almonds on the farm, standing just outside the family kitchen. At a certain point, I gifted a hammock to Beach Farm, which was strung up under the Almond tree, and Mama used to spend many peaceful hours peacefully swinging in the hammock. Indeed, I do think it was when she was at her happiest, under the Almond tree.
And so it came to pass that I ended up spending much time over that year caring for Mama in various ways. It became obvious that her immediate family were struggling with the severity of her condition, which in the end, left her with very little dignity and quality of life. I watched with a heavy heart as they did the best they could to care for Mama, as we all accepted the inevitable reality that she would soon be leaving us. I put much of my own work on hold, to help give Mama love and comfort, and to assist where I felt comfortable, in the daily grind of taking care of a dying woman. It was probably one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, but I did it, delaying my book publications by a year, in order to assist in caring for a dying woman. Mama always knew when I was sad, as I could see the concern in her face, even though she did not speak much at all, and my Portuguese was / is limited. Mama would express joy with a slight giggle, especially when she would hear my voice, and this is how I knew that, even though we could not communicate, we had become good friends. Being there to give her a little bit of love and gentleness in her fading moments, was met with an energy of such gratitude from Mama, which were expressed in subtle nuances, a look in her eyes, which I learned to understand in the absence of spoken word. The darker side however, was having to live day after day, watching Mama in pain, crying out constantly, often throughout the night, wailing in agony. Many times we would find that Mama had thrown herself out of bed, or our to her wheel chair, and she was always covered in heavy bruising and thick scabs. Seeing this little old lady’s face black and blue, became became a common site, and always a tough one to endure. At one point, I just burst into tears in front of her, not able to deal with how battered Mama was, and how much pain she was suffering, as she smacked and bashed herself, constantly falling, as her body functions faded.
Nobody could ever imagine just what one can learn from a little old lady, who can’t talk or do anything much, but it was from this little old lady that I had the opportunity to gleam some of the most important lessons of my life. One of those lessons, well more of a reminder than a lesson, but significant none the less, was to never take anything for granted. Life is so fragile, and is it up to us to make the most of it, whilst we are still physically able. I also learned the value of the family bond. Having lived away from my family in South Africa for 20 years, the magic of the family bond is something which had faded from my consciousness over much troubled times. Seeing the unity and love of Mama’s family, reminded me what life is really all about, and that none of us can live in isolation. We all need each other, and no matter how different any of us are, we should unite on our common ground, being the pursuit of a better world. The other insight I had the great fortune to learn from, is the much ignored struggle of the aged, who often suffer indignantly and in silence, as they are too fragile to fight for the basic necessities that our our human right. The revelation came to me that, a truly evolved society is one that cares for the aged, the sick, the weak, the vulnerable, instead of relegating them to the status of “useless eaters”. This is possibly the greatest and most obvious failing of our society, is the neglect and the abuse of the aged and severely ill. This is something people tend to ignore, but they should not, because we will all die some day, some will go young, many will go when they are old, and we may also suffer similar circumstances before we finally go. So why do we continue to ignore the plight of the aged and severely ill, when that could be us one day?
On 7 October 2018, Mama left in the early hours of the morning. She passed peacefully in her sleep, with her only son and her only grandson on the premises, both being in the farm house at that time of her passing, just as it was meant to be. Mama’s passing was foretold by the sweet Almond tree under which she used to sit, as that Almond tree, wept that summer, and I do mean wept. There was a constant raining down of sticky water droplets from the tree, as if it was weeping, weeping as it watched over Mama, who sat underneath it all summer, slowly fading away.
The last time I saw Mama alive, was sitting under the Almond tree. I came in and gave her a big hug and kiss as I always do, and she laughed as she had done many times before, in happiness that I was there. I knew then that Mama was close to the end.
I was walking my cats on Cavoeiro Beach when I got the message on my phone that Mama had passed. I relieved, as she had suffered in pain for long enough. It had been hard to watch Mama ebb out during the last year of her life, and even harder to watch as the family struggled with the reality of Mama’s condition.
The funeral was beautiful, and the entire family paid a weepy tribute, with Mama’s family flying in from Austria for the occasion, and Mama’s eldest son Domingo, singing a touching tribute on his guitar. Although I was happy to see Mama looking peaceful and pain free, as she lay peacefully, surrounded in flowers in the church, I too wept a little, watching the family struggling to come to terms with their grief. I was not sad to see Mama go, rather I was happy for her that her pain and suffering had ended. As for me, well I guess my role is to tell this story, that there was a lovely old lady, whom we cared for, whom we watched ebb out, and whom we loved. I will always remember the last time I saw her, sitting under the Almond tree.