Patrícia's Stories*

The Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions

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By Julie Rattey


Patrícia, 10, was sitting in her accustomed spot behind the altar, hands folded tightly on her white altar server’s robe. Mass this Saturday night was just the same as always, and yet for Patrícia it could hardly be more different. Staring at the pew where her mother used to sit with the rest of the family, Patrícia felt a sharp pang again in her chest.

No more goodnight kisses. No more dancing together to the native music they both loved. And worst of all, no more stories. Mamãe was gone. Dead. Yet outside of the church in Patrícia’s home of Amapá, Brazil, at the rainforest-laden mouth of the Amazon River, the palm trees were still vivid green, the orchids in the field still fiery orange. To Patrícia, these colors now felt too brash, too loud. As she stood to help prepare the bread and wine, her legs wobbled beneath her. She felt like a house on rickety stilts; it was too heavy a burden to bear.

After Mass, in the sacristy, Patrícia covered her face. Tears poured out from under her hands, streaking her lovely, delicate features. Suddenly, two familiar arms came around her shoulders in an embrace, and a warm, loving cheek was pressed against her own.

“It’s OK,” whispered Kelly, Patrícia’s 12-year-old cousin, who was serving with Patrícia that day.“ I promise we’ll take good care of you.” She gave Patrícia a comforting kiss on the cheek. “We’ll be like sisters now.”

Patrícia’s lip trembled. She knew she was fortunate to live with Aunt Rosa, and her five cousins — especially Kelly. Her brother Patrick, 8, was with her in the house, and her half-brother Railson was close by. But Patrícia couldn’t help but think of her half-sister Flavia, who had been sent to live with her father in Macapá nearly 200 miles away. Would they ever see each other? And Mamãe…

Patrícia buried her face in Kelly’s shoulder, and they both wept. The girls huddled together in thegrowing darkness, like two little brown birds in an empty nest.

***
Patrícia stared at the blank canvas in her hands. It was months after her mother’s death, and she and Kelly were walking home from their first needlepoint class. Like service at the health clinic, the extracurricular class was paid for by a foster parent program organized by foreign missionaries who preached and worked in Amapá. Aunt Rosa worked on several of the missionary programs, helping mothers take care of their small children and teaching catechism at her home on Saturdays.

Kelly was chattering excitedly about the pattern she would make, but Patrícia had a hard time picturing how her own empty canvas would become something beautiful. And besides, what was the point?

She was still contemplating the canvas with a frown later that night as she sat cross-legged on her bed with her brother Patrick.

“I wish we could play outside,” he complained.

“You know Aunt Rosa said it’s not safe for us to play in the streets.”

Patrícia is less and less fun these days
, Patrick grumbled inwardly. He thought for a moment. “I know!” he said brightly. “Let’s play school! I’ll be the student. You can be the teacher.”
“I don’t feel like it.”

“But you always play the teacher. You’ve got to practice before you actually become one like you always say you will. And Mamãe said you’d be a great teacher.”

Patrícia’s face crumpled, and Patrick bit his lip. He hadn’t meant to mention Mamãe. “Sorry,” he mumbled.
“It’s OK.” Patrícia lay on her side, holding the canvas in front of her. She tried to imagine a floral pattern like Kelly would make. Instead, all she could think of was Mamãe, and all the wonderful folk stories she had told. How the beetle had won his beautiful iridescent coat. How a maiden had brought night to the earth from the sea. How a hummingbird helped put out a forest fire. Patrícia closed her eyes, her heart aching for the sound of her mother’s voice.

When Patrícia awoke early the next morning in the gray light, her mother’s stories were still swimming in her head in blazing color. Patrícia’s heart beat quickly as she reached for her canvas, for her needle and thread.

Slowly at first, and with a few pricked fingers, she began to stitch. I will recreate all of Mamãe’s stories, one at a time, she thought excitedly. With her mother’s voice warm in her memory, Patrícia stitched. As the sun rose red and golden in the sky, the colors on the canvas also came to life.

***

“That stitch we learned in class last week is impossible.” In the bright sunlight outside of Aunt Rosa’s house, where the two girls were attentively stitching, Kelly put down her canvas with a groan. Patrícia laughed and leaned over to examine her cousin’s work. “Let me watch you do it again,” Kelly said.

Taking Kelly’s needle in hand, Patrícia easily demonstrated the complicated stitch. Kelly watched her cousin closely with a smile. As the days and weeks had passed, and as Patrícia’s slender fingers moved more swiftly over the canvas, Kelly had noticed a change in her younger cousin. She smiled a little brighter now, spoke with more confidence and self-esteem. Patrícia knew it, too. She loved the sense of calm that filled her body as she set down to work. She loved to watch the needle flash its sleek silver head and nudge the threads obediently in and out of the canvas. She loved shaping stories with her hands.

As Patrícia resumed her own stitching, a beetle, his coat of armorgleaming, landed on her work. He trundled forward, paused, then flew away. Patrícia rose to watch him disappear on his errand. Her legs felt strong beneath her. Yes, she thought. This house will holdCD

* based on the story of Patrícia Freitas da Silva

Research for this article conducted with the assistance of Father Dennis Koltz.


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Managing Editor Julie Rattey

Julie Rattey is a Boston-based writer and editor. She is the author of If I Grew Up in Nazareth, available from 23rdPublications.com.