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b. January 9,1891
Penha Garcia, Portugal
Some people have been easy to trace and photograph and others have presented a challenge. Years of production work in a photo studio taught me the patience required to locate many of these supercentenrians. Catarina took three months to locate, validate and arrange to visit. I flew to Lisbon and waited to hear from my contact person who had been patiently translating and calling on my behalf to the village where she lived. When I arrived in Lisbon, however, I was told that Catarina was not feeling well and hadn't been out of bed for a few days. I waited each day at the hotel for a sign that she was well enough to be interviewed. For three days, I heard nothing and then, when I was beginning to lose hope, I received a call at 10:00 one morning telling me that I could photograph her that afternoon. Unfortunately, the translator could not accompany me. It was a four hour drive into the eastern part of Portugal, an arid, underdeveloped area very close to the Spanish border. My girlfriend and I had to rely upon our feeble vocabulary to communicate in a region still harboring resentment from the Spanish border wars.
Finally, we arrived at the village of Penha Garcia, which sat atop a small mountain. After navigating quiet, cobblestone streets with little shade and only a few road signs, we managed to ask for help from one of the only people we saw. The mention of Catarina's name, along with much arm waving and gesturing, led us to her house. Actually, the house belonged to Catarina's son, with whom she lived for a few months, alternating between his residence and her daughter's.
Catarina was born in Penha Garcia in 1891, one of six children. Her mother died when she was very young and her father lived to be 105. She had three sisters and three brothers, all of whom had predeceased her and none of whom had reached the age of ninety.
Her father was a stonemason and owned a windmill. From early childhood,Catarina used to help her father in the windmill. She took the family's donkey and went to get wheat and rye from farms nearby to be processed at their mill, and then returned with the flour. She never went to school and never learned how to read or write.
Catarina was married in 1914 to António Pascoal Nabais, nicknamed the "Avô"– hence Catarina is now called "Ti Catrina d'Avó" which means Aunt Catarina of the Avó. Her husband was born in 1891 and died at the age of eighty-eight in February 1979. He was an agricultural laborer and owned two cows. She helped her husband with the field labor and was a dedicated housewife. She did not have time for leisure and was known for always taking care of everything. She worked with her husband on leased land near Spain, in Vale Freitoso. Catarina has never traveled far from Penha Garcia. She has not even been to Castelo Branco, the district capital, only a short distance away.
Once as a young woman Catarina was caught in Spain with a friend of hers while snatching fruit to feed their cattle. They were arrested and held for a week in Cilleros, Spain. Other than that, one of the highlights (the pun is intended) of her life was when she was struck by lightning. It missed her by a few inches but did strike her hat and left it in ashes.
At the age of 100 she was in very good health and spirits. Now, as she moves closer to 113, her eyesight and hearing are failing and people have to yell in her ear to be heard. Catarina believes her faith has kept her well. She has always been religious, but is now unable to attend mass, or to watch it on television as it gives her headaches. However, she still prays daily with her rosary with the help of her children.
Because the translator didn't come with us, the family found someone in the village that spoke French. So Catarina would answer in Portuguese, the neighbor would then translated into French, and then my girlfriend Cheryl would translate the French into English. It was a little slow, sometimes comical, and at times tender. As Catarina spoke of the wars she had lived though, when there was barely a loaf of bread to share with all her children, her eyes filled with tears and she hugged my girlfriend's arm. As we prepared to leave, she cried again, kissed us, and stood in the doorway waving to us. We were both touched by the experience and sat silently with our thoughts as we drove back to our hotel. Though she was alone, a frail figure in her black shawl, I knew she wasn't lonely. Her life had been celebrated by her family, by her entire village, in fact. Now, years later, the images of that afternoon still return to me. Seeing Catarina made me feel a very personal responsibility to prize each elder. As Madeline L'Engle said in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book Creativity, " chronological isolation is awful and chronological segregation is one of the worst of the segregations." I agree, and I believe that if it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to honor our elders.Click here to view the next supercentenarian's story.
© 2009 Earth's Elders