David Fernandes
Producer, Director, Writer

Archive for the ‘memory’ Category

Love beyond sentimentality

Mon ,23/03/2009

The back is bright white, like some fine, unfired porcelain, and it makes a dense, glassy sound as I run my fingers along its ultra smooth surface. The front is a dull, off-pink colour chosen from the muted palette of 70′s kids paints. Like some fossil from another time, a child’s handprint is embalmed in the plaster, sunk into the middle of the six inch pie plate that molded it. On the back, ‘David’ is printed in pencil by some unknown adult, but the date is my father’s scrawl: 16-06/79. I was six years old.

My father brought it up from his basement last week, his cheeks already sullen, his clothes baggy, his speech slurred from the morphine. “I want you to have this,” he said matter-of-factly. 
It’s a reminder that we lived together once, before the marriage broke up, before he left – before things got complicated.
We lived close to my elementary school, St. Anthony’s. I could walk there in about a minute and would come home for lunch daily, tearing across neighbours’ lawns and leaping off the small hill next door; peanut butter and banana sandwich with a side of the Flintstones on channel nine.
When school was done, I would play for a bit, anxiously awaiting the return of my father from work. In those days he managed the LCBO store at the top of our street. Whenever I heard the car pull up, I would run to one of my two hiding spots, between the back of the front door, or inside the closet, and then scare the piss out of him as he entered the house. I got him every time.
When he left home he didn’t take much with him, grabbing his tools, wine-making gear and a couple of antiques he’d refinished: a pull-down desk, and a tea cart, both relics from the school teacher my parents bought their first house from. He wants me to have them now.
They’re beautful old pieces, but the desk – the desk is evil. Whenever I got a fever as a kid, I would hallucinate. The oval patterns on my curtains became eyes. I’d see a mouth opening and closing in the air, or feel like I was in the booth of a vast court, being judged by some presence sitting at the top of an incredibly high tower. I felt small and vulnerable, perfect prey for the hungry desk in the next room. The desk with the animal feet, waiting patiently for a moment when my parents were asleep and it could waddle over to my room. Its mouth, the folding desktop, snapping up and down, swallowing me whole until my mother would burst in and pull me out. 
The tea cart I found less menacing. I would insist on pushing it around when we had visitors, making as many trips back to the kitchen as my mother would tolerate.
This past weekend my father also gave me his ring, the one he’s had since before time. His mother gave it to him as a gift, the day he left Madeira Island. It’s a chunky thing with gold art deco styling and a giant red, rectangular ruby in the middle. My six-year old hand might have fit two fingers in it, but today it is snug. She gave it to him as a reminder of her love. And he gives it to me as a reminder of where he came from, and as a hint that he won’t be here for much longer.
The hand it once fit is old now, spotted with age and discolored by jaundice, swollen with fluids from a number of medical complications. His organs are struggling as his body eats itself for food. 
I cried on the car ride back this time, not knowing if it’s the last time I’ll see him. Not sure if there’s anything I need to say or want him to know. I’ve always been a bit quiet around him, but I don’t think there’s a lot left to say. I’m happy just to be there as much as possible, watching him while he naps, getting him a glass of water, accepting the trickle of gifts as he takes inventory of his things and finds new lives for them. 
A desk; a cart; a ring; a plate: worthless things without the memories that give them purpose, give them meaning. 
My hand dwarfs the imprint I left, but my father returns it to me now not because it was mine, or even because it was made by me.  Despite its age, the plate with my six-year old hand print looks new, like it was kept in a vault. There is no dust, no dirt and hardly a chip. For thirty years he treasured it, kept it safe. And more than any sentimentality its return conjures up, its condition shows me something else, so simple and so powerful. 
He loves me. 

Madeira is a garden… with a lot of condos.

Sun ,27/05/2007


There’s a saying here that Madeira is a garden – it’s even a lyric in the unofficial national anthem – and as much as it is a place of intense greenery, flora and beauty, it’s also a place that is very quickly loosing it’s soul. I’m feeling that on a really personal level these past two days.

Yesterday, my first full day here, I got to visit the site where my dad grew up (now a massive seaside hotel), the place where my dad’s grandfather lived (still a banana farm, but about to become apartments), and also the site where my dad was born (now a half torched and rotting banana farm, soon to be massive apartment development).

Basically, all the places my parents and their siblings grew up are now or are in the process of being resortified. This is beyond gentrification, this is wholesale demolition and reconfiguration of the whole landscape, to a point beyond recognition. It’s actually quite shocking. And it’s all made more poignant since I am staying with my mom’s sister – my Tia Rita (a true gem) – who’s home is a window into another era – worn down and original in almost every way, with no way to access it but a very steep, winding footpath.

Like in Cuba, tourism has become a really major industry here, and as a result, anything at all seems to go. Massive concrete hotels owned by English, German and Dutch chains are eating up the coast of the cities here, and on an island that is only 55km long, with a population of 350K – it’s having a big impact.

So, I’m feeling a bit torn. I’m so happy to be here and to get to see these places and meet these relatives before everything turns into condo-resort-land. But I’m also feeling a real nostalgia for a past that isn’t even mine and maybe isn’t even my place to be holding on to. The things I personally find beauty in are the old places, the crumbling shacks, cracked walls, clay roofs, old people and stories about a much more rural, simpler time. That’s the Madeira of my parents’ generation. But the old people are dying out and the children are selling the farms.

It’s all very strange. I get the sense that average Madeirans resent all this development, and yet, it’s average Madeirans, with inheritances, who are selling off their heritage to develop them as condos and hotels. And there’s plenty of money in it. They’re selling a crumbling old banana farm and turning that into a fortune. Can I blame them? Are young, well-educated, english-speaking Madeirans really gonna toil on a banana farm in an age of online shopping and 24h satellite TV? Would I?

It’s bittersweet. I love being here and spending time with my father and getting to physically experience where he grew up – take tonnes of picture and video to boot. But it’s kind of like taking pictures of ghosts – these places and people are going to disappear very soon and then all any of us will have to remember them are words and pictures.

I’ve taken hundreds of photos and hours of video so far. I’m feeling extra motivated to document things, preserve them in some form – ANY form – because i know i won’t get another chance. My dad’s immediate family don’t own anything here anymore, so what’s left is in the hands of cousins and great aunts. It’s really all quite futile though. I’ll never capture everything, and I know that i can’t. Maybe I’m feeling inadequate with just pictures and video. I want to be able to come to these places 20 years from now and show my kids or something. It’s a selfish thought, for sure.

Anyway. Weather is great, island is as beautiful as ever, and I’ve learned the hard way that one should absolutely NOT, EVER, park a standard transmission car facing uphill at a 40° angle and expect to go anywhere but backwards. Um, oops. No one got hurt. And the tree is ok too. The bumper on the other hand…

Roots, memory and stories

Fri ,25/05/2007

So, I’m off to Madeira today. It’s a sunny and warm day in London. Busy place, kind of like new york, except vaguely more polite – friendlier anyway. I can’t say I’d want to spend any extended time here. If I came back I’d check out a few galleries and bookstores, but otherwise it’s just another big, crowded, expensive city with probably too many very well dressed people in too much of a rush.

I didn’t manage to go out last night, choosing instead to catch up on sleep and write a bit. I did take a stroll through Soho right around the beginning of bar hopping time (which is the second work is over, apparently) – it was already rowdy.

I started thinking about roots and what it really means to be *from* somewhere. I was born in Canada, but I feel a connection to Madeira through my parents and family who were all born there and lived a solid chunk of their life there. I’m thinking about how I know Madeira mostly as a picture, painted by many overlapping, conflicting, and incomplete stories that my mother has told. I don’t know it as much through my father, so this is gonna be really interesting for me how much the picture changes.

I was also thinking about how when people in our lives die, we really aren’t left with much – some pictures, some documents that claim they existed, and maybe if we’re lucky, an old 8mm film or a video or two. And the memories we have change over time. They become less detailed. A little more like feelings and ideas than anything precise or vivd. I feel that way about my brother, who died when i was 13. Luckily i have some audio recordings of him singing and playing music, so I have something to recall his voice by – i think things like that help keep memories more vivid. But mostly he’s a fading ghost for me. I was a kid when he left. And largely, I remember him through the eyes of a kid. He really took on being a father figure when my father left us. He came back from BC and made sure he was present in my life when my father wasn’t. My strongest memories are of playing frisbee in the park or watching him play guitar. He introduced me to music, to art and to nature. And 21 years later, it’s hard to remember all that – events kind of blur into each other, the story changes, I probably make some things up. I remember the things I want to and interpret them in ways that i like.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about memory and story-telling and how the further away we get from something, the more the story changes – I think about that in terms of my mother and her non-stop stories – no narrative – just bits and pieces interconnected like some hyper-active web page with too many links. And I think about that too in terms of documentary and interviewing people about their past – about how people tell the stories they like to tell and avoid ones that conflict with the picture they want to paint. I think about how fallible memory is and how ultimately we tell stories because we have to – it’s the only way we know how to interpret our lives.

Anyway, I’m pretty intense today, but still finding moments to look around and just take things in. It is a very beautiful day.