09/18/2013 11:00 am ET Updated Nov 18, 2013

Making Sense of Legacy and Legend: The Immigrant Daughter Experience

My mother always tells her story so casually. How she was barely a year old when an earthquake destroyed her modest home in the Azores, and three years old when her parents took her only brother to America while she stayed behind with her older sister and grandparents. At three years old, I was fast asleep in the only house I'd ever known and my biggest tragedy to date was when I forgot Barney in our room at Disney World. Not to worry, mom tracked down the housekeeping supervisor and had his staff look through a hotel's worth of linens to find my favorite purple dinosaur. That was my mom, the keeper of my small world.

It took three years for my grandparents to make a life and home in Fox Point, Rhode Island, where a small Portuguese immigrant community had banded together with shared memories of easy summers along Lagoa das Sete Cidades, the Lake of Seven Cities. When we were young and believed in fairytales, mom told my sister and I the legend of the lake, how it was two-toned because a green-eyed princess was forbidden from marrying a blue-eyed shepherd, and their honest tears had given the lake this impossible hue. I wouldn't think of this again until high school, when I was assigned Romeo and Juliet and remembered that my mother had set this fictional precedent for love and longing.

My grandparents sent for their daughters once they had a worthy apartment and some savings. Mom was six, maybe seven. It's her sister, five years her senior, who remembers the stormy night when they said their final goodbyes and boarded a small boat headed to the airport in Lisbon. Then someone asks who was steering the boat or whatever happened to the cousins, they were supposed to go, too, and the story is lost to tangents.

It wasn't until I was 23 that my mother shared a story from her first year here. We were sitting in Starbucks, debating whether the treat we were sharing was more cake or cookie. "It's not always about texture," she laughed, and told me about the time her mother sent her to the corner store for cereal and, betting more on the size and feel of the box than her grasp on English, she had brought home dog food by mistake. She insisted the story was supposed to be funny, but it made me sad and proud at once. This woman sitting before me who doesn't have the trace of an accent.

I think it was all the reading. My first memory of my mother is of her reading to me. She read me stories until I took them in my own small hands and made up new words to match the pictures. Sometimes she'd tell me stories about her parents, how her father walked miles from his village to Povoação, where her mother lived, only to stand outside her window for an hour or two and talk reservedly as my great-grandmother kept careful watch from the living room. Mom always tells the story with rich detail. He never put on his shoes until the last mile because they were his best pair and he wanted them to be spotless by the time he reached her.

She told me that even after her mother died and her father couldn't see well enough to drive anymore, he asked to be driven to her gravesite weekly, where he would leave flowers and his prayers. After, they'd pick up massa from a bakery in Fall River and wait for me in the parking lot of my preschool. I'd climb in the car and reach in the bag for a taste, oblivious to the quiet, lovely ritual that had taken place only minutes before.

That this legacy of Old World love had persisted in my mother became evident as I got older and visited friends whose parents had different relationships. Some slept in separate rooms, some didn't touch or laugh. I acted like this was normal, but with the kind of parents that love to tell their "how they met" story because they're still happy they did, I knew otherwise. My mother never went to college because it simply was not an option, but when my dad met her, he insists he had met the smartest woman in the room. They say if you want to know the measure of a man, look to how he treats the women in his life. But what of the women? There's something to be said about a woman who inspires a man to drive to the bad side of town just to eat Portuguese octopus stew while her foreboding father looks on from the opposite side of the table.

She is smart and good, my mother, the purest form of these simple words. Sometimes I wonder what she might have become had life not been what it was, had her parents told her as mine told me that this place was hers for the taking. But my experience was different. I never had to ask my sister for food when I was hungry because I was too shy to ask my parents, who felt more like strangers. I have always walked into a store and been able to articulate exactly what I came for. No immigration officer will ever crudely push my thumb into ink and call the next name on his list in the same breath. These are things my mother doesn't elaborate on, either because they are too hard or because life is so different now that the memories simply don't make sense.

The before of my mother's story isn't always clear, but I can vouch for the after. There have been 30 years of marriage and two daughters. There was anger on sick days when we had three-digit fevers and my mother still considered sending us to school because education mattered for reasons we couldn't yet appreciate. Later, there were bachelor's degrees and boys and graduate degrees and broken hearts. There was my mother, is my mother, who begins a story about a man without shoes or a little girl bound for another life, and I listen because somewhere in these legends is my legacy.

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