A Letter from a Distant Cousin

Sometimes one digs into one’s family history a bit and discovers the most fascinating stories.  John and I may have met, as he says, in Brazil in the mid-forties, but our paths have never crossed since that time.  How amazing therefore, to receive his interesting letter after more than seventy years, written in response to my inquiries re ‘Lost’ family members.  This is what he wrote.

Dear Ronnie,

As far as I remember, we met briefly  on Fazendas Três Barras as children, where I ate mangoes and rode along the Rio Grande with your father.  Now that we are of an age when we might have enjoyed these recollections our health has slapped us with a peremptory No!

But let’s make do with what we still can.

Regarding the Dawsons, I am sure I know nothing Barbara does not know better. So I’ll tell you a little about our mother’s German family – the Beckers. Grandfather Franz Richard Becker was born in Erfurt, Thuringenand and became a painter at Weimar. He married Marie Sophie Fischer and they had two children – Kurt and Johanna (Hanni) Charlotte, born on May 4, 1908.

In World War I, Franz – an ecologist at a time when this word was as yet meaningless – became a stretcher-bearer, for he wanted to save, not kill until he was wounded.  His dream was to emigrate to Brazil, which he only accomplished in 1922 because Germany had no ships left after its industrial park was taken over by the allies for war reparation. 

The Beckers broke open a farm of meagre success in the jungle of Dona Emma in Santa Catarina, where Marie was bitten and nearly killed by a bothtropic jararaca snake while a jaguar sneaked around their provisory hut after baby Erich, whom they had adopted and brought from Germany.

After painting a portrait of the wife of Indian protector Eduardo Hoerhan, Franz lived with the Botocudo Indians, whose pictures brought him fame. 

Meanwhile Johanna, now a teenager of considerable beauty but barefoot and often hungry, became the object of gossip when she got pregnant of Rolf, born on April 19, 1929.

Dr. Goebbels’ war propaganda did not impress Johanna, who set out for São Paulo, where she began to work for the English at Frigorífico Anglo. Here she got pregnant again, by Cyril Charles Coningham, who left her for South Africa. This affair resulted in John, born on September 2, 1935.

Then Johanna married Frank Leigh Dawson, who bought a farm near Cotia, São Paulo, for the Beckers to take care of. 

Here Barbara Jane (my first cousin) was born.

This farm was haunted, believe it or not, which was probably why Frank found it cheap. Ours was the only family who did not suffer a tragedy here. The two babies of one family were out in the patio one evening when a servant threw a fluttering lamp from inside the house, which exploded upon them. The teenage girl of another, got her arm caught in the buzz saw. The son of the new owners after us – a priest – drowned in the lake where I used to fish. 

Of our family, Grandpa Becker was caught in the pasture by the bull and hurled into the air, saved only by Grandma clubbering the animal resolutely on the horns with a tool handle; brother Rolf was hit by a car and squashed against the street-car on the step of which he was travelling; baby sister Barbara nearly suffocated of diphtheria. Rolf ran on foot to fetch a taxi from Cotia, and Barbara was operated promptly upon arrival at the hospital. “Just in time”, said Dr. Warren. But I was by far the most persecuted by the Evil: at age two I fell into a pond, the bottom of which consisted of glass shards from broken bottles – I don’t know how I got out; at three I was run over by a break-away horse pulling a sled loaded with maize, left leg broken in two places, plus lesser wounds all over; at five I was bitten by a jaracaca and suffered a tremendous allergic reaction; at seven I was hit by a car. Fortunately in those days cars were slower.

Then Frank sold that farm and bought another, wilder one in Embu south of São Paulo, where nothing ever happened.

Next we moved to Santos. Meanwhile Rolf had become a pilot. I joined the Army, first the Coast Artillery, then the Cavalry in Mato Grosso. After six years I left the military for my nine-month motorcycle trip across the Americas, after which I got married and went to work for Winchester (“The Gun that won the West”) in Connecticut. Later Fazenda Bodoquena in the Pantanal, Trans-Amazon Highway building bridges, etc. and became a writer.



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