My paternal grandmother, Louisa Maria, was known in the village as “Louise Marie”. She had four children – Virgina, Elvira, Rosario (my dad), and Irene.  We called her “Mãe” (‘mother’ in Portuguese).

Mãe never went to school and could not read or write. But she had a good grasp of arithmetic and was very astute in negotiating deals.

Mãe couldn’t read the time on a clock. She woke up when the rooster crowed at the break of dawn, and lit up the fire to cook conjee. (rice gruel). A short while later, the pôder (baker) would call at our door with his basket of kankon (bagels), poi (puffed flat bread), and undó (buns). Mãe would buy a poi that she would soak in her tea before taking a bite.

40asignofthetimesWhen the sun rose, Mãe used her own version of the sun-dial to tell the time. To the west of our house, separated by a narrow lane, was a stone block wall about five feet high that was all that remained of a derelict building. The ridge of our roof cast a shadow on the blocks – a shadow that kept dropping the closer it got to noon. Each layer of blocks represented a time of the morning to Mãe, and she would organize her daily chores by the position of the shadow.

 Back in those days, it was not necessary to know the exact time of day. The only part of the daily routine that was important was to know when to go to the local market to buy fresh fish and vegetables, and return home in good time to cook curry for the noonday lunch. On Sundays, it was important to be punctual at mass. But a watch was not necessary to help you get to the chapel on time; the chapel bell would ring at four separate intervals starting one-and-a-half hour before mass, and this ensured that nobody slept in.

40bsignoftimesMãe never needed a clock, and I don’t think she was handicapped or lack of any modern forms of communication either. She had her own version of e-mail – the crow. She rated the crow the smartest of all birds because of the special signals they sent her. Whenever a crow cawed from a certain spot on the roof of an adjoining shed, she’d predict that the mailman would deliver a letter that day. And more often than not, the letter would arrive.

The crow was Mãe’s equivalent of today’s “you got mail” squawk. The crow worked well for her, and she didn’t have to worry about SPAM.