What Does Avó Think?

Is this dress okay? What should we make for dinner? Is my life on the right track? While my Portuguese grandmother and I don’t speak the same language, something deeper than language binds us together.

Photo Collage of six photos with ripped paper details on the border. The top left is inside a church. The top middle is a grandmother and granddaughter sitting on a bench. The top right is the Portugal flag on a flag pole outside. The bottom left is a handwritten note in Portuguese. The bottom middle is the grandmother and granddaughter with their arms around each other. Bottom right is an eight year old girl in her first communion outfit outside a church.

 Listen to this story:

It’s 11:00 p.m., and my mom knocks on my door, looking flustered.

“I can’t find a sub for tomorrow. Can you please take Avó to her eye appointment?”

I don’t have anything going on, but I’m reluctant to agree. Avó and I can’t communicate. She only speaks Portuguese and knows very few words in English. I know even fewer words in Portuguese. I can barely understand her without my mom around to translate. The thought of taking her to the doctor by myself stresses me out.

After my mom leaves, I’m anxious. My mom is a full-time high school teacher and my grandmother’s caregiver.

The following day, I drive to Avó’s house to pick her up. “Hi, perfeita!” she greets me — her joy and excitement at seeing me calms my nerves.

She needs an injection in her eye every three months for glaucoma. I’m scared of needles, but it’s a routine procedure.

As the doctor prepares for the procedure, I look down at my phone to avoid seeing a large needle going into my grandmother’s eyeball.

“Alda, I need you to lean back and open your eyes more,” says the doctor.

She doesn’t react. I realize she doesn’t understand. I walk over to her and try to tell her she needs to open her eyes wider. 

“Open eye,” I tell her. I know she can understand basic English words in short sentences. She still does nothing. I put my fingers to my eyes and gesture to open them wider. I gently move her head back as well. She eventually understands and the doctor finishes the procedure. Avó looks just as stressed as I am.

After the appointment, my mom tells me Avó is grateful to have a caring granddaughter who takes her to the doctor, but she wishes it had been my mom — or that I knew Portuguese. 

I wish I could speak Portuguese too. I often feel a deep responsibility to uphold Portuguese culture within my family. I dutifully go to church with my mom and Avó and do my best to preserve our family traditions, but there is a divide between me and Avó that is hard to bridge.

My relationship with my avó is complex, even challenging at times. She is ever-present, but the language barrier means she is also out of reach. Despite this, I often assist her by taking her to things like medical appointments. As I get older, I’m realizing that language isn’t the only barrier. We also see the world in very different ways. In moments when these differences are revealed, I’m forced to grapple with my identity, my connection to my heritage, and the complexities of our relationship. Sometimes seeing how different we are is painful and confusing, but I know deep in my bones that alongside our differences is a deep love and connection that transcends language and culture.

In the early 1960s, Avó Alda and Avò (grandfather) João immigrated to Winnipeg from Ponta Garça, São Miguel, Portugal. It’s a small farm town located on the biggest island of the Portuguese Azores archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. João arrived first in Winnipeg, and two years later, he brought his wife and son to start their new life in Canada. My mom, who was born one year after they arrived, was their first Canadian-born child. They eventually had three more kids to complete their family. 

Avó doesn’t understand English because she never needed to learn the language. She only socialized with her own family and other Portuguese immigrants from her hometown.

Despite spending more than half of her life in Canada, Avó deeply values her Portuguese culture and traditions. While I know my Avó wants me to carry these traditions on, I can’t have a direct one-on-one conversation with my grandmother. I always need my mom to translate. As I get older, I’m questioning what this culture means to me.

As a child, I simply followed what my mom and Avó did.

From kindergarten to grade two, my brother and I went to Avó’s house every day after school. My paternal grandmother, who worked at our elementary school, would drive us there until our mom picked us up after work.

When I was at her house, she would use short Portuguese sentences to give us instructions. If she said, “não se meche!” I wouldn’t touch it. If she said, “casa do banho,” I would use the bathroom.

Although she hoped this would help me learn the language, it didn’t happen. When I was eight, my family moved to a different neighbourhood, and we didn’t see them as often. My best opportunity to learn Portuguese was gone.

A grandmother and granddaughter standing next to each other on a summer day. The thirteen year-old granddaughter is standing on the right. On the left is her grandmother looking down and smiling at her granddaughter.
Avó and I after church in 2013.

Now, as an adult, I wish we could have deep one-on-one conversations that didn’t have to be mediated by my mom. I can’t tell Avó the details about my life. I can’t share directly when I receive a good grade, or ask her opinion about my outfit or hairstyle. We can’t have regular conversations. 

Many other second-generation immigrants have similar experiences with their grandparents. Tanya Nakamoto wrote about her experience in a multilingual family and the language barriers often accompanying such diverse backgrounds for Yo! Magazine.

Her father’s side is Japanese and Peruvian, and her mother’s is Brazilian. She spoke English, Portuguese, and Spanish growing up. But as she got older, she spoke less Spanish and slowly lost her grasp of the language. Her grandmother mainly spoke Spanish, so conversations with her became more difficult. 

Because of Tanya’s lack of confidence in speaking Spanish, she and her grandmother could not have a traditional grandmother-granddaughter relationship. She regrets that the language barrier prevented her from asking about her grandmother’s life. She talks about a part of her family story that her grandmother never shared.  Tanya missed the chance to establish a stronger connection with her grandmother — I worry I might have too.

Even if I have missed creating a stronger relationship with my grandmother, it doesn’t mean we love each other any less. I try to show my love through acts of service. This means taking her to the doctor, helping her put on her slippers, and knowing just how she likes her coffee.

Going to church is an essential part of Portuguese culture in my family. Like 80.2 per cent of the population in Portugal (as of 2021), we are Catholic. 

Every Sunday for as long as I can remember, my mom, brother, and I have gone to church. I never got to sleep in on a Sunday morning, even after a late night out with friends. In our family, there are no exceptions or excuses. We go to the Portuguese mass because my Avó has been staying with us most weekends since my grandfather passed away 15 years ago.

On Sundays, I roll out of bed and get ready in 10 minutes. By 10:30 a.m. we are on our way down Main Street to Immaculate Conception Parish. Most weeks, it’s the last place I want to be — a church where I don’t understand a word being spoken.

Eight-year old girl looking at the Virgin  Mary statue inside a church. She has her hand together praying with a rosary.
After my First Communion at Immaculate Conception Parish in 2006.

We get to church, and the three of us sit down. I am immediately annoyed. I’m bored, uncomfortable (thank you wooden pew), and wish I was back in bed. Even if I wanted to pay attention to the mass, I wouldn’t be able to understand it.

But Avó looks so content as she reads through her Sunday missal and listens to the priest. My mood changes. Church is her happy place.  She looks back at me and grins. She doesn’t say it, but I know she’s happy I’m here with her. I regain focus and attempt to understand the few Portuguese words I recognize.

The older I get, the more complicated my feelings about church and religion have become. Some of my opinions and values don’t align with the church’s beliefs.  

One Sunday in 2023, my mom, Avó and I attended an English mass at a different church. I was willing to learn and listen since I could understand what was being said. However, the priest began his sermon by saying, “People who kill themselves are fools, and women who have abortions are fools.”

My jaw dropped to the floor.

As the sermon went on, he told the congregation he would love and take care of every baby who was aborted. It took everything inside of me not to storm out of the church. I am faithful and believe in God, but I don’t believe what this priest was preaching.

If I stopped going to church, my avó and mom would be disappointed. They always say, “It’s one hour of your life every week. If you can make time for other things, you can go to church.” 

But if I go because I feel forced to and get offended there, how is that helping me? More often than not, I don’t feel a genuine connection and leave feeling like I’ve learned nothing.

Throughout my childhood, my mom brought my brother and me to church weekly, but my dad (who isn’t Portuguese) stayed home, only joining us at Christmas and Easter. I’m one of the few cousins whose parents are not both Portuguese. I wonder if I would feel a stronger connection to my religion if I attended church with both parents, like my cousins.

According to Statistics Canada, religious disaffiliation is widespread among individuals aged 15 to 30. This research also indicates that 32 per cent of individuals born between 1980 and 1999 are less inclined to view their beliefs as essential to their lifestyle choices.

I hope I don’t reach a point where I’m pushed so far that I stop attending and identifying with my religion. I don’t want to lose that part of myself or disappoint my family.

When I was younger, I attended church with ten of my cousins. Now, only about 2 or 3 of them attend regularly.

According to research, about a quarter of young adults stopped going to church because of their church’s position on social and political views. People from younger generations report feeling unwelcome in the church setting, or that the church does not approve of their choices.

My cousin Monica and I relate to this.

Monica’s parents raised her to attend church every week, but they didn’t explain why it was important. If the value of it was explained to her, she might feel like she could’ve created a stronger connection to her religion.

Now at age 26, Monica wants to skip church but feels guilty. In her family, if you don’t attend every week, you’re a bad Catholic. She asks herself: “Do I want to stop going to church, and how do I form my own opinion about my religion if I don’t feel connected to it?”

The loss of our traditions is one of Avó’s greatest concerns. She sees and notices fewer younger people going to church. She says it’s terrible, but they will still end up in heaven.

Seeing me taking the initiative to attend church fills her with joy. But this joy comes with a lot of pressure. If I don’t go to church, will she think I’m a bad person and bad Catholic?

I recently sat down and asked my avó about it directly.

“I’m 88 years old. Attending church, I learn new things that help me live my life positively. As I am aging, it helps me come to terms with my death,” says Avó through my mom.

Thinking about my time at church, it’s not all bad. Midnight mass is my favourite family tradition. Every Christmas Eve, we go to the Portuguese mass.  After the service, we visit a different cousin’s house every hour. We open presents, socialize, and celebrate together all night.

Grandmother and her six-ear old granddaughter standing next to each other next to a Christmas tree. They are wearing matching black faux fur coats.
Avó and I before Midnight Mass in 2004.

Being Catholic is a huge part of my identity, but I need to define what it means to me. I want to go to mass with the same mindset as my avó. There might be times when I don’t entirely agree with what is said, but maybe I could look for what is relevant to my life. 

I also asked Avó what her culture means to her, but the conversation didn’t make me feel closer to her. It revealed the disconnect in our relationship. When my mom listened to her respond to my questions, they laughed and bantered. I felt left out of the conversation.

Through my mom’s translations, she tells me in her culture, she has never been taught “bad things.”  Her response takes me aback. I tell my mom to ask her what she means by “bad things.” 

She says she was taught to not go out at night. That you don’t drink, and you don’t smoke. You must always honour your parents. These are all the things that have been good in her life.

I am surprised by this, even though I knew that Avó has traditional values.

“Females are like the neck of the family. I control everything inside the house. I’m like a chicken, and I sit on my chicks to make them grow. If someone is going to bring danger, I will do anything to protect the nest,” says Avó.

I wonder how Avó sees me. I don’t smoke, but I enjoy going out on the weekends and having drinks with friends. 

“Is it because you’re a woman? Or is that for men and women?” I ask.

“The drinking and all that other stuff with a group of girls, they are acting like boys. When a girl does it, it looks worse,” Avó says.

I asked my mom to ask Avó why it looks worse on girls. It doesn’t translate to mean exactly the same thing in English, but she says, “It’s a pity when a guy does it, but it is even worse when it’s a girl. A girl who went out at night was not considered a respectable girl. She was considered ‘ugly looking.’”

I was too stunned to speak. The language barrier comes into play again. I know when my Avó says that when girls drink, they are considered ‘ugly looking,’ she doesn’t literally mean that they are ugly. But hearing these words, I begin questioning how I view myself. Do I not respect myself because I like to drink socially? Does Avó think this of me when she sees me having a glass of wine at dinner?

According to the National Library of Medicine, young women view drinking as a fun aspect of their social lives. However, they encounter challenges when engaging in behaviour typically associated with men. In contrast, this research shows that young women are careful about their behaviour to maintain a positive and respectable image, possibly by distancing themselves from those seen as less respectable.

Young women must carefully balance what society expects from them with their personal choices when consuming alcohol.

I describe myself as a friendly, outgoing person. When I go out with my friends, I have a few cocktails and have a good time. But I don’t think I appear unfeminine.

My avó still holds onto traditional gender roles. She says: “If the mom has one hand on the drink and one hand on her child, it is a disaster.”

My mom has conflicting feelings about my avó’s traditional values. She tries to stay neutral, but it’s hard for her because it was ingrained into her growing up. Deep down, there’s a part of her that believes seeing a girl drunk is worse than seeing a guy drunk. Maybe part of why she thinks this way because she believes females are less able to protect themselves than males.

88 yearold women linking arms with her granddaughter and daughter.
Avó, Mom, and I, on a walk in 2023.

She knows that Avó disapproves of me drinking and silently judges me for it. Up until now, my mom has protected me from Avó’s opinions. She knows it’s over the top and unfair to me.

I find it embarrassing that Avó holds these views, but I love her anyway. I know she will be silently disappointed when I get ready to go for a drink on the weekends, but I know she loves me anyway. When she makes backhanded comments about it to my mom, I will pretend not to not to know she is talking about me.

Talking to my avó isn’t easy, and our views often clash. The duty I feel to carry on my Portuguese culture comes from wanting to make Avó proud of me. Now after sitting down and learning more about how Avó views me, I still want to carry on my culture, but I’m not so worried. While she might silently judge me when I pour myself a glass of wine, she’s also proud of my strong morals and values. Even though we can’t talk without translation, we find ways to show our love for each other.

Most Sunday nights after dinner, my mom, Avó, and I have tea and dessert. My mom and Avó are laughing and talking. I’m trying to pick up what I can. Avó says: “quer ao store ver vestidos?” I know she’s asking to go to the store, but I don’t know what for. I ask my mom. She says Avó wants to go dress shopping.

The next week, my mom, Avó and I stop in at the mall. I try on some dresses for an upcoming wedding. I try on a beautiful floor length gown. Avó looks at me, appraising where she will need to take it in and talking to my mom in Portuguese. As she fusses with the fabric, the force of her love — and opinions — come through loud and clear. We decide to buy it. I like the dress. It feels good knowing Avó likes it too.

Veronica Melanson

Veronica (she/her) loves reading fluffy romance books and talking about fluffy romance books. She aims to find the right mix between not taking life seriously and taking it seriously enough.