Daughter of God

Sometimes, Grace Kolenda Deters dreams in Portuguese. Ordinary dreams are of her daily life in Nevada, her home five hundred feet above Lake Tahoe, with its shore-to-shore views. Or scenes from past decades spent in Minneapolis: graduate school, therapy, her daughter’s ice-skating lessons, snow.

 

Less often, she dreams of lilies. Or of the boils that infected her body that first year in Brazil, the deep pits that now remain. Poisonous coral snakes coiled on the outhouse seat, jararaca snakes dangling from the darkness of banana trees. Raw sores on her mother’s skin. Tropical lice. The twelve-inch roundworm—a pale, headless snake that crawled out of her intestine in the night and lay placidly beside her in bed the next morning.

Graceann Kolenda was five years old when she first disembarked in Rio de Janeiro in 1939. Her father, John Peter Kolenda, was a missionary preacher in the Assemblies of God church—an evangelical denomination based on a literal belief in the Bible, and an acceptance of the Holy Ghost manifesting itself through converts speaking “in tongues.”

Grace and her husband Bill lived and raised their three daughters in Minneapolis until 1998, when they sold their business and moved to Nevada. Between family and business ties, they still visit the Twin Cities often. When we first met in March to discuss writing her life story, she looked many years younger than seventy-two, despite growing up under the tropical sun. She keeps an incredibly busy schedule in her retirement, traveling often and returning to Brazil every five years or so. She still plays tennis every day, and gambles several times a week in the casinos—an irony that makes her smile.

Grace wanted to record her story for her children and grandchildren, and for herself—the grown-up version as well as the girl she had once been. By the time of our meeting, she had already spent many months typing her memories and transcribing her parents’ copious letters. The stories that follow—scenes from Grace’s early life, lived under the close watch of a harsh God—are based on interviews, letters, and her extensive historical notes. —J.O.

My father, John Kolenda, was a missionary preacher of extreme passion. He passionately loved my mother. He passionately loved my sister Dorothy. And he passionately loved me. But most of all, he passionately loved Jesus, and the godly mission to win souls for the Church in Jesus’ name. From my earliest days, I understood that my father’s life work was about serving God as he saw fit—and my job was helping him. It was simple enough, and impossible. But I was determined. So when my father volunteered my services as pallbearer to the locals, I willingly obliged. I would carry babies to their graves.

The babies I carried lay still in their open caskets, their smooth skin oddly dry in the damp heat. White calla lilies lined the boxes of fresh-hewn pine that dug into the flesh of my fingers. Lily petals grazed the babies’ cheeks, and a floral scent rose thick as bread dough. It was the summer of 1942 in the tiny village of Coqueiros, on the outskirts of the small town of Florianópolis, Brazil. I was seven years old, bearing the weight of life and death in too-close succession. Death dressed in clean white cotton, resting in a bed of flowers. I thought the scent of lilies would press down my throat and choke me.

Always the funeral processions for the babies wended past my house, with its wide veranda and lush garden, set in front of a banana grove dotted with papaya and avocado trees. Malnourishment was rampant, and I was the tallest, strongest child in our village. It was my job to help carry the casket of every baby who succumbed to the meanness of poverty. It didn’t matter if I knew the baby’s name, if I had ever held her while her heart still beat, or if I had ever even seen her alive. Mostly, I had not.

My sister Dorothy, six years older, was beyond this task. By thirteen, Brazilian girls were marrying and becoming mothers themselves. Tradition demanded other children carry the casket of an infant. That meant me on one side of the wooden box for the entire three miles to the cemetery, and a rotation of village children on the other side, trading off to rest their aching arms.

Usually, of the twenty or so children walking the casket, I would recognize two or three. We all dressed for the occasion. I wore my Sunday best, colorful cotton skirts that swished across my suntanned knees as I stepped, and white embroidered blouses. On my dusty feet, I wore tamancos—thin wooden-soled shoes with a leather strap to hold them on.

There were so many dead babies. Sometimes it was the sugared coffee in their bottles that did it—or coffee mixed, for the lucky ones, with a touch of powdered or canned milk when the privilege of the breast was passed over to a newborn sibling. Other times, parasites chewed the babies up from inside, leaving them hollowed out by diarrhea and dehydration. With no medical care to speak of, baby funerals were as common as rain and salt.

Just beyond my house, on the first stretch of our journey, was Praia da Saudades, loosely translated from Portuguese as “Lonesome Beach.” In fact, saudades eludes translation. There are a few words in Spanish and English that brush up against it, that hint at the danger of its melancholy, but ultimately, translations fail to convey the gripping despair. Saudades means to miss something or someone, but so much more. It means to be swallowed alive by an unnamed loss, to lose your mind in the pitch black of hope’s destruction, to writhe with the ripping pain of a broken heart.

You can die from saudades.

Praia da Saudades was the natural backdrop to the agony of the mothers and fathers, grandparents and siblings who accompanied the tiny caskets. Brazilians do not hold back in their grieving. Their cacophony of sorrow would crash with the waves against the rocks.

From Praia da Saudades, the dirt road continued uphill, with the ocean on the right, and on the left, the houses of Coqueiros—Spanish adobe style, of a plastered brick, mostly, and some of wood. They butted their modest front doors up against the street. There was no sidewalk. We marched straight down the middle of the one-lane road, so that when a truck rumbled by, we would step aside and wait while we disappeared in a billow of brown dust. I can still taste that dust.

About one mile from my house, the winding road passed a small Catholic church. There, we would turn left, toward the west, and continue another two miles or so over very hilly terrain, with only a few houses and mostly open fields. Finally, we would arrive at the cemetery, where the fresh-dug grave would gape beneath a cloudless sky. Each member of the funeral procession would toss a shovelful of dirt onto the baby’s coffin.

No one was embalmed in our neighborhood, so bodies were buried within twenty-four hours of death. Since the cemetery itself was small—only about seventy-five feet long—and deaths were constant, graves had to be re-used every few years. Any shovelful of dirt was apt to include a bone or two from a grave’s previous occupant. At one baby burial, I turned over my rusty shovel to set loose a cascade of dry earth and a full set of human teeth, clenched. And at the far end of the cemetery, a squat, stucco building housed a jumble of anonymous skulls and bones of those who’d rested in peace too briefly before being unearthed.

Like the babies I buried, I died in Brazil. And I was reshaped from the dirt and the water of a place that seeped into me in the night, through my eyes and nose and mouth, through my pores. Brazil, like my father’s voice, gripped me and made me in its image. I nearly drowned in saudades, but I came up gasping. It eventually released me, but not completely.

The first time I crawled into bed with Albert Vidmar was at Aunt Martha’s house in Porto Alegre, before my father had established his own mission. Brother Vidmar, a Swiss missionary, had come to visit Mom and Dad for a week, mostly to talk with Dad about taking over Vidmar’s mission territory of Santa Catarina. It was May 1940, and winter was coming. The evening air was already cool.

It was just past dusk when Brother Vidmar came to me, on the first night of his visit. “Gracie,” he said, “if you come to my room in the morning, I’ll tell you a story.” Even at barely six years old, I knew Brother Vidmar was a handsome man. And he was so much younger-seeming than my parents. With his motorcycle and his dashing mustache, Brother Vidmar was my prince from the moment I saw him. He paid me a lot of attention, too. He lavished me with it in a way that my parents never could. “Well, dearie,” he said, tugging my braid. “Will you come keep me company in the morning?”

“Yes!” I said.

“Delightful. I shall expect you, then.” He pressed his face toward mine. I could see the individual hairs of his moustache, gold, brown, a little bit red. He winked, then giggled like a little boy. His eyes crinkled up in the kindest way. I would have died for Brother Vidmar.

Soon after the weak light of earliest morning washed through my window, I stepped out of bed and crept through the small house. Brother Vidmar’s room was across a short, wide hall from mine. I paused briefly at the end of the hall to examine Aunt Martha’s foot-pedal sewing machine, a black Singer. I pumped the treadle first slowly, then faster and faster. The bandwheel made a pleasing whir as it spun crazily. But I thought it best not to risk waking Aunt Martha, or my parents. Reluctantly, I turned back toward Brother Vidmar’s room and knocked softly on the closed door. It was painted the color of heavy cream, with large chips and scratches around the tarnished brass doorknob plate. Many layers beneath the cream, the paint was blue, like the sky. This color streaked through where the door was most scarred. I knocked again, louder. I heard a stirring behind the door, then Brother Vidmar’s voice. “Come in, I am waiting,” he said.

I opened the door and stepped across Aunt Martha’s rag rug to Brother Vidmar’s bed. He smelled odd, but good, like something in the shade of the woods. He lifted the faded quilt, with its cut-square pattern of yellows and browns, and beckoned me under it. The bed was musty and warm with the heat of his body. “Do you know about the Indians, Gracie?” he asked, patting my head. “There are savages in the interior, and in the south. Let me tell you a story.” His soft voice was so unlike my father’s clipped, staccato speech. Brother Vidmar’s words were liquid glass, utterly smooth.

My father found himself quite taken with Brother Vidmar, too. He readily agreed to tour Santa Catarina with Vidmar, and to visit his cottage in the tiny and beautiful village of Coqueiros. My father was impressed with what he saw. Next, my mother accompanied my father on a trip to survey the area, and finally, all four of us, with help from two of Aunt Martha’s sons, made the trek to relocate our family from Porto Alegre to Coqueiros.

Eventually, Brother Vidmar would venture permanently southward to found new missions in Argentina, leaving his Coqueiros cottage to us as our private family home. In the beginning, though, we all shared the tiny dwelling, which Brother Vidmar had painted entirely white except for the light brown wooden planks of the floor. The windows had bright blue shutters on the outside, but no curtains indoors. The cottage’s best feature by far was Nero, Brother Vidmar’s faithful German Shepherd. When Brother Vidmar traveled—which he did frequently—Nero would predict his master’s homecomings twenty-four hours in advance by howling mournfully toward the horizon.

Until my father finally built an addition on the cottage, we were limb upon limb there. My parents placed their rubber mattress in the only bedroom. They bought twin beds for Dorothy and me, and arranged them in the room that had been Brother Vidmar’s study. Brother Vidmar slept on the couch, or sometimes, on an army cot in the front entryway. The couch was gray and utilitarian. It did not open into a hide-away bed, but still, it was quite comfortable. The cot, on the other hand, was dreadful.

I never lay with Brother Vidmar on the gray couch—only on the cot in the front entryway. The couch was in such plain view. I’m sure Brother Vidmar worried about what my parents might see. As it was, we had plenty of company from the lagartixas—small green lizards that climb up and down the walls, especially at night. There were dozens of lagartixas in every room of our house.

The front entry where Brother Vidmar kept his cot was an unusual space, almost like a small room. It was long and narrow, with one window and two doors. One door opened up to the porch and the outside, and one led into the living area.

This narrow space was where my father would lock up a schizophrenic young man and attempt to exorcise the boy’s demons. It was where he would one day beat me bloody with a wooden hanger. But that came later. In the beginning, it was the room where I crawled in bed with Brother Vidmar.

Brother Vidmar traveled constantly, and I missed him when he was away. I loved how, when he was home, he always had a smile and a wink for me, how he made time for me. And I loved his stories. I’d wake up at sunrise and knock on the door to his entryway. He’d let me in, and I’d crawl into his nice warm bed. We’d press our heads together under the thin gray blankets of his cot, and he’d whisper to me of his adventures in Argentina and Uruguay. I’d ride with him along the currents of his warm breath deep into the Amazon, with the crocodiles and the brown-skinned Indians with exotic shards of polished bone stretching the soft flesh of their ears and nostrils.

Brother Vidmar asked so little of me when weighed against all he gave. I had only to rub his big toe, which was always hurting from an old wound. Brother Vidmar’s toe was not like my father’s, which was bony and calloused with a sprouting of dark hair beneath a thick nail clouded with age. The toe that Brother Vidmar slipped into my palm in the darkness of his cot was completely smooth. It was always warm, and sometimes, damp and slippery. I wondered why this was so, but feared that asking would be rude. Finally, as I rubbed and rubbed one morning, I could no longer resist. “Brother Vidmar,” I said, “why does your toe have no toenail?”

“Gracie,” he moaned, pulling my hand off his toe and propping himself up on his elbows. A lagartixa scurried up the wall beside us and froze, its lizard legs splayed and clutching. “The day I lost my toenail was a terrible one, child. I’m lucky to be alive. I was in the wilds of Argentina, saving souls for Jesus in the backwaters of the rain forest. A thick billow of steam rose from the water, unlike anything I’d ever seen. That steam was bewitched—it nearly made me insane. Before I knew what was happening, I’d lost control of my canoe, and next thing I knew I was flailing in the river. That’s when I saw the wicked beast, those sulfurous yellow eyes bulging out of the water. Have you ever seen a crocodile, child?”

“No,” I said, I had not.

“You should hope you never do. I wish I hadn’t. But I’m strong and fast,” Brother Vidmar continued. “I swam hard and was nearly pulling myself ashore when the croc overtook me. He tore off the tip of my toe with his ugly teeth. Good thing I was near the site of an Indian encampment. The Indians dragged me to their village and wrapped my toe in a poultice with special herbs. Those herbs stopped the bleeding lickety-split, and the next morning, I couldn’t believe my eyes. My toe was completely healed.”

Brother Vidmar closed his eyes and sucked in a long breath. “Except for the nail. That never grew back. And the ache. Always the ache.” He pulled my hand away from its anxious twisting of my short braid, and guided it back under the blankets. His toe was hot and throbbing now. “It hurts, Gracie. You can’t imagine how it hurts. Keep rubbing, child. Don’t stop rubbing.”

Near the same time we moved in with Brother Vidmar in Coqueiros, a sixteen-year-old village girl accused him of molesting her. The girl’s younger sister accused him, too. My mother was enraged. “It is inconceivable that such a godly man could have violated those young girls,” she said. Father was apoplectic. “It’s the devil’s work,” he shouted, his voice cracking with fury. “Satan is working through these girls to destroy this wonderful man. We must help him fight back against this atrocity.”

Despite my parents’ efforts, the authorities were unconvinced of Vidmar’s innocence. He served a short stint in the county jail before being released on probation. Still, he was able to travel freely. And Nero continued to predict his master’s homecomings, to which we both looked forward with great anticipation.

As a child, I thought of myself as special. I pitied the unbelievers, who didn’t know Jesus as I did. I was proud to be the daughter of a fine minister, so close to God. I felt especially lucky on the July morning when our maid, Vadica, took me to the market in Florianópolis. We rose early to catch the five-thirty bus into town. When we stepped onto the dusty roadside, the air was cool, and there was a slight fog over the ocean. I was nine years old. The sun had barely risen.

Even this early, Florianópolis was already busy. The market was framed by two red stucco buildings, each the length of a football field. Between them was an expansive corridor, filled with stalls. Inside, vendors peddled meat, bacalhau—or codfish, a Brazilian staple—and shrimp, as well as rich sweet egg breads and toasted manioc. Outside, produce sellers’ carts spilled over with towers of lime, banana, coconut, mango, papaya, pineapple, peppers, potatoes, and corn. Vendors called out over the festive strains of live Brazilian samba.

I loved the Florianópolis market. It still operates today, nearly unchanged, but I’ve avoided it ever since that July morning when Vadica and I heard the screaming from the far end of the corridor. We were twisting our way through the produce carts to see what was happening when a headless man reeled towards me. Blood spurted from the place where his head had recently been. He jerked blindly like the chickens I killed every Saturday for our Sunday dinners. Behind him, his assailant waved a bloody machete. I watched the dying man stagger for yards and yards—though really it could only have been four or five long steps—before his body crumpled to the ground.

My throat buckled somewhere near my sternum and the bile from my empty stomach erupted viciously.

After the market beheading, I could no longer decapitate our chickens with a sharp axe, as I had done before. To see them jump about headless was now too much for me. I searched for a faster, more merciful method of killing. The worst I tried was tying the chickens upside down to a tree branch and struggling, while they swayed and clucked, to twist their necks until they broke. Much better was to tie them to the tree and first pluck a few feathers from their necks. Then, I’d use a very sharp knife to quickly slice through the featherless patch of pale skin. This quieted the chickens in only seconds.

Not too long after I perfected this technique, my family visited the farm of our Latvian friends, Brother and Sister Karklis. They lived off the land a hundred miles straight west, in Urubici. This village, folded into a spectacular valley about three thousand feet above sea level, was one of the most beautiful places in the sierra of Santa Catarina. The Karklis family grew their own vegetables and grains, and raised chickens, ducks, sheep, cattle, and, for transportation, horses. They spun wool with foot-driven spinning wheels, and wove their own blankets and sweaters. Urubici gets cold in winter, even snowy. So when we stayed there, Sister Karklis would warm our beds with stones she fired on the wood stove, and I would burrow in between two thick feather ticks. In the morning, the woodstove would blaze in the kitchen, and from my bedroom, I’d smell coffee and hot rolls.

I loved to go milk the cows with Brother Karklis and his son, Wilson. The barn was spotless, but still, there were the layered smells of tangy manure and fresh milk, and the sweet scent of the animals—their skin and sweat, their moist breath. I loved the mooing. I was not afraid, only amazed.

On this particular trip, after the market beheading, I took special comfort in feeding the newborn lambs whose mothers had been killed. Inevitably, I fell in love with one, and Mother took notice. “John,” she said to my father, “why don’t we let Gracie have a lamb? I would be such a blessing for her to forget the bad experience she had at the market. She is such a dear girl.”

My father considered. Whenever Dad spoke, he did so clearly and slowly, always authoritatively. He believed every word he said. “Marguerite,” he answered my mother, finally. “I like that idea. Let’s pray about it, and decide tomorrow.”

The next day, my father announced that the lamb could be my project. I could feed her, care for her, get her fat, and then we’d have fresh lamb to eat. Even Dorothy was enthusiastic.

We made a small box out of wood to haul my woolly baby on the bus trip back to Coqueiros. I named her Becky, for her beauty and girlishness. She was bright white, with intelligent black eyes. I knew she understood every word I said to her, because she murmured back to me with soft baa-baas. Soon, I could tell if her baa-ing meant she was hungry or just happy. I held her on my lap and bottle-fed her several times a day. I loved to curl the tendrils of her wool around my fingers, to bury my face in her softness. She nearly always stayed beside me. When we walked in the woods together, she’d get covered in burrs and dust. Then I would bathe her and comb my fingers through her wet ringlets.

By December, Becky was thriving. She was almost seven months old, with a thick coat of wool. It was Brazilian summertime, so Mother decided to shear her. She used the wool for pillows, and was pleased. Meanwhile, though, Becky was becoming a nuisance. Neighbors complained that she was eating their flowers and bushes, spoiling their yards with droppings. She ate our flowers and bushes, too, but I didn’t mind. She was my girl, my best friend.

My sister Dorothy was six years older, so she and I were never playmates in the way Becky and I were. Dorothy was busy with her own friends and preoccupations. Then there was Mother, who loved me so much and Dorothy so little, for reasons we would only understand years and then decades later, when the secrets of first Dorothy’s adoption and then her paternity by my father’s brother would finally be revealed. But within the shroud of childhood ignorance, such unexplained inequity of motherly love corroded the sisterly bond we might have shared.

With my Becky, love was easy and uncomplicated as it could never be with my sister, or my parents. If I’d have given my life once for Brother Vidmar, then I’d have given my life ten times for Becky.

Even so, I wasn’t scared when I first skipped off the bus that day in May and found that Becky wasn’t waiting, as she should have been. She was almost a year old, strong and healthy. Probably she was just on her way. I called for her as I ran down the dirt road toward home. The noontime sun blazed overhead.

When I reached our cottage, I was sweating hard and my lungs burned from running. I pounded up the stairs and through the front door. Dorothy was in the kitchen, sitting at the table, looking down at her cutting board and smiling with her mouth closed. She was slicing peppers for feijoada, our daily dish of rice and beans.

“Dorothy,” I panted, “have you seen Becky?” My sister ignored me and continued slicing. Her knife made a smooth frictionless whish as she drew it against the worn board again and again.

I watched her and thought maybe I should wait until she was finished cutting peppers to ask again. Wait until I could have her full attention, without interruption. But then she spoke suddenly, almost absent-mindedly. “Grace,” she said. “You should look in the refrigerator.”

I obeyed Dorothy automatically, as always. Our refrigerator was not much taller than I was, and heavy, with two large metal hinges on the right-hand side of the door and a large handle on the left, perfectly level with my chest. I had to pull hard on the handle with both hands, knowing too late what I would see. Mounds of ragged meat, red blood pooling beneath it.

There was sudden darkness, and a ripping inside. I was screaming from far away, pushing past the open refrigerator door, past Dorothy, into my bedroom, where I stayed for three days and nights. I lay motionless in my bed, waiting to die.

But I didn’t die. I had to live with the pain, and with the questions it fertilized. Why would my father have slaughtered Becky without even letting me say goodbye?

I didn’t plan my revenge, but I took it all the same. It was the Sunday after Becky’s death and I knew from the moment I awoke that I would defy my father. When I’d finished with my crime, my father was waiting for me in the entryway. It was God’s will and a biblical imperative for him to beat me, whether he wanted to or not. Beside him stood a baby-doll carriage that belonged to me, and from inside it he pulled a wooden coat hanger. He told me to bare myself and bend over. The beating hurt, and my skin welted and then split open. Blood ran down my legs and mixed with the dust and salt on my feet. I was sorry for the beating, and I was sorry for my father, who didn’t want to do it. But I wasn’t truly sorry for what I’d done.

I could not be truly sorry. I’d meant to defy him that morning, even if I hadn’t yet known why. When I’d gotten out of bed, the sun was already hot and the water in our bay was still and calm. I knew it was unthinkable for me, the minister’s daughter, to skip Sunday school. The church was right on our own property! All the same, after I ate my breakfast, I went outside and made my way down the rocky cliff to our private beach. The stones there were dark and hot, and they were covered with oysters, my favorite snack. I used a sharp rock to crack them open, oyster after salty oyster, sucking the meat from their shells until my stomach strained with fullness.

I leaned my head back and stared up at the wide sky. It was not too late to go home. To go to Sunday school. The water lapped over the rocks and covered my bare feet, brown from the sun. It soaked the hem of my dress, cool and inviting. The water was so still, so gentle. How wonderful it would feel to glide across the calm bay in a boat. I began walking down the beach, toward my friend’s house. She was playing outdoors, too. Together, we carefully hauled her father’s boat—a white skiff with green trim and two wooden oars—to the water’s edge. She climbed in first, and I pushed us off. The water was so clear we could see the rocky bottom even dozens of feet from shore.

We sang Portuguese school songs as we rowed, and splashed each other with our oars. Blue sky pressed against blue water until time collapsed; there was no way to know how long we floated, two ten-year-old girls, happy.

But as we paddled and then drifted farther and farther from the beach, I heard my mother’s voice, calling for me to turn around. Sunday school was about to begin. I splashed a high arc of water droplets toward a seagull overhead. My friend giggled. Then I heard my father. “Graceann,” he called. “Come back here, right now.” His voice was measured and certain, as always. I could picture him behind me, standing on the jagged rocks above the shore, and behind him, our cottage, the church, what was left of Becky. In front of me, the shimmering waters of our bay rocked gently onward, spilling almost seamlessly into the darkness of the open sea. A rhyme came into my head, something we children often sang to decide who had to be “it” in tag, or to choose which game to play, or the better of two paths. Softly, I sang the rhyme out loud: Là em cima do piano/ Tem um copo de veneno/ Quem bebeu!/ Morreu! On top of the piano/ Is a glass of
poison/ Who drank it!/ Died!

“Graceann!” my father yelled, louder now. “Turn around!”

I slipped my oar into the water and paddled just a little farther toward the horizon.