Grandmothers

My Grandma Eutilia, my dad’s mother, was a tiny woman. She always wore a house dress, with stockings and comfortable shoes (I don’t believe she acknowledged pants as appropriate for herself). Most of the time, she had an apron on, too. She had a designated chair at the round table in her kitchen, but she rarely sat in it for long. Most of the times I was at her house, it was for family gatherings. Regularly, throughout my childhood, it was a Sunday afternoon after church. Her children and their children would gather together. My aunts and uncles and countless cousins all descended on the tiny house in a remote little village nestled in a valley in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Northern New Mexico. North of Taos along the highway, then off onto a dirt road that lead further up into the hills. You’d mount the tallest hill along the road, and the valley would reveal itself from the height briefly, then disappear again as you descended down into it. Following the dirt road further, we’d turn at the house that had belonged to my grandmother’s father. My dad would point it out every time, with some amount of pride that it was his grand dad’s. It was a humble adobe house with a sharp pitched roof, un-inhabited, with its windows boarded up. The turns down the subsequent dirt roads lead to dirt roads narrower than the last. You could tell in this way that motorized vehicles were definitely not what the roads were designed for. We’d pass the village church high on a hill, where contrary to how it looked, Mass was surprisingly regular. The cemetery behind it: the final resting place of many of our ancestors and family. Past the school house, where I’d always presumed my father had attended at least part of grade school. I didn’t realize it as a child, but I’ve always been in love with the place.

We’d wind through the roads and finally arrive at our destination. It was on a small plot of land that, like most of the places in the village, had an acequia running through it (an acequia is defined as a community-operated watercourse used in Spain and former Spanish colonies in the Americas for irrigation). The irrigation allowed the residents to grow all numbers of things, and water pastures. To me, this place was a tiny oasis. There were chokecherries, peaches, plums, apricots, and apples growing in an orchard next to the house. My grandfather grew a garden, I remember standing next to the chicken wire fence that surrounded it. Giant stalks of corn well over my head, but I don’t know what else was grown past them, no kids were allowed in there.

We would be greeted outside the door by any number of people. In my earlier years, it was my grandfather. He’d take to the porch to sit in its cool shade on hot days, or to play craps, or maybe it was both.

“Come in, come in,” he’d say.

Inside, the kitchen would be the center of all the action. Grandma, busy cooking. People talking, joking, eating. My aunts often assisting Grandma, or cooking as well. Greetings would range from hugs to handshakes, and in a house full of people, it could take some time. I always had the urge to squeeze my grandma, to hug her, but never for too long, I was never sure if she really liked it. But she was so little! She probably hadn’t been much of 5 feet tall to begin with, I’m sure that as she aged, she got littler. Whether she liked it or not, she tolerated my affection, and I was grateful for it. “Come in! Eat! Eat.”, she’d say. Of all the things she said, I’m sure encouraging others to eat was the most common. It was a rare treat to see her do it, though. I’d spend the my time in the kitchen, watching her. Her hair must have been very long, but she always kept it rolled up in a bun at the back of her neck. It was always out of the way while she stirred the beans or made red chile. I observed her skills with making perfectly round flour tortillas. She’d ball each one in her fists, then roll it flat with something like a rolling pin, but smaller, no handles. It looked like a short section of a wooden dowel. I wonder how many tortillas she had to roll before mastering the art of making them so circular. She’d roll them one way, then the other, then flip them, and roll them again. Satisfied by her rolling, she’d pick up the circle of dough and toss it from one hand to the other a few times, then stack it with the others. They’d be cooked stove top, often on the wood burning kitchen stove. They were delicious. You could use them almost like a utensil, scooping beans and chile or fried potatoes with them. But they were good all by themselves, not like the ones you find in a grocery store.

I’d try to have conversations with her, asking questions. But between her broken english and my lack of Spanish, it usually required my dad explaining things to me. Regardless, I liked her, and I think she liked me. Gifts weren’t common, but occasionally, she’d give me something, and I held each one as something sacred. There was the yellow and white baby blanket she’d crocheted for me when I was a baby. Long after babyhood, I’d drag it around with me, for naps and on camping trips. It was cozy. Not too hot for summer afternoons, and just the perfect size for impromptu tea parties/picnics on the shabby patch of lawn in my front yard. The bright blue crocheted house slippers. They had fuzzy pom-poms. I wore holes in them. Then there was a gift that was rather exceptional: first, because it was purchased, and second because it was pretty for the sake of prettiness.My grandmother was practical, and this gift had no other use than being pretty. It was a necklace. A glass pendant in the shape of a triangle cut as a prism on a chain. If I held it just so into a beam of sunshine, little rainbows reflected from it. I wore it every day until it broke from the chain.

Drives back home from the beautiful little valley usually involved me asking more questions of my dad. No one place is close to any other in rural New Mexico, so I could get a lot of information. I wanted to know how many children Grandma had (13, I believe). About the children that had died young, how old she was when her mother had died, how her brother had fallen off of a wagon when he was a boy and sustained brain damage. I wanted to hear again about how he thought he could outrun her when he was a boy, but she had good aim. I imagined that she had to resort to rock throwing more than once. He liked talking about her. “My mama was pretty”, he’d told me. I tried to envision a younger version of her, preparing meals for all those kids or setting about on daily chores. I’d once watched her do laundry with an old fashioned washing machine, pulling the excess water out of a garment through the ringer. She seemed so strong and capable. My dad observed me once, years later, with a shovel as I gardened, “You don’t use a shovel like a woman,” he’d said, “like my mama.” Past the backhanded nature of the remark, I knew it was a compliment.  

I knew my mother’s mother, too. Her name was Nell. I don’t believe now that she was a very tall woman, but there was always something about her countenance and demeanor that made me think she was. I tried to make sure I was on my best behavior when I was near her, because I felt that she would take nothing less. She didn’t live in the same state, so visits were fewer. Sometimes she’d visit us, and a few times as I got older, I’d visited her with my mother. She would send Christmas packages, a big box would arrive at our lowly rural post office. She’d have something in it for everyone, carefully wrapped in bright paper with angels or Santa Claus printed on them. Usually clothes from somewhere like Sears. I say Sears because I think I recall going there with her. Sears must have been reliable for quality clothing to her generation. She’d also include a special treat: a homemade prune cake, wrapped in layers of tin foil and several boxes. I know it doesn’t sound particularly enticing, but it was. It’s a spice cake with canned plums and glazed with a sweet, sticky glaze that soaks through the entire cake. It’s a strange thing to ship, but it was thoughtful and welcome. She kept up with current events, particularly politics and sports. She had strong opinions and wasn’t afraid to express them.

She’d wear permanent press slacks, with a nice matching shirt. Or a dress with a hem just past the knees. She had a rather impressive collection of jewelry, too. Ranging from big, beautiful New Mexican turquoise and silver pieces, to colorful baubles of costume jewelry. She brought an outfit together with jewelry. I couldn’t tell the difference between a real gem and a fake one, so I would often ask her, “Is it real?” Years later, when I was a teenager, she sent me a pendant with my birthstone. She assured me that they were real sapphires.

I recall an afternoon one summer when she was visiting. The older kids must have had better things to do, because I remember that it was just she and I in the house. Always ready for a creative endeavor, I rooted through my mother’s sewing supplies and scraps of fabric. I wanted to make a cat. I carefully cut out my pieces to what I believed would be appropriate dimensions for my vision. Then I took a needle and thread and joined my grandmother in front of the television for “The Price is Right”. I settled in and began the process of threading my needle. I can’t say how long she must have been watching me, or how long I was taking. “Who taught you how to thread that?”, she asked me. I could tell by her tone that whoever it was must have been an idiot, but since no one had shown me, I told her so. I felt that if someone had taught me, they would have heard about it later. As it was, I was simply imitating as best I could what I’d seen others do. She took a moment to show me how it was done, then I carried on with my business. I can still remember my own disappointment with the quality of my work. Sloppy, uneven stitches all around the outside of my cat head. When I was close to the end, I’d hoped to find a small bit of fluffy batting to stuff it with, but there was none. I ended up stuffing it with toilet paper. My first sewing project was a sloppy cat head plush toy filled with toilet paper, overseen by my grandma. She must have had several other tips for me along the way, because I didn’t know what I was doing.

I liked hearing her stories, too. She’d lived in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. Having grown up not far from where I lived, in a community that no longer existed. My tiny town with nothing but a diner and gas station had at that time been a bustling place. I tried to imagine what it would have been like to hear the whistle of a train as it pulled into town, or go to a busy little general store, or a dance hall. I tried to picture her as a little girl, among her brothers and sisters in a tiny mountain cabin with her father and mother. I saw a picture of her mother once. She was a striking woman with high cheekbones, full lips, and thick hair. She had her hair piled beautifully on her head and wore a high collared dress in the picture. I thought she looked like my sister. She didn’t look like the kind of woman I’d imagined. She seemed too pretty for the hard life I’d heard about. Nell was my grandma's nickname, I still don’t know if that’s what her own mother called her, but I’ve wondered.

My grandmother was a bit of an artist, and I related most to that aspect. She would paint with oils. When I visited her house, I was free to peruse her vast collection of oversized paperback how-to books on painting and drawing. Western Landscapes, Roses, Faces, Horses, you name it, she had one. When I was about 12, she sent me several of her books along with my very own oil painting kit. It was a wooden box with a handle at the top. It opens like a suitcase, with a place in the lid for a palette. She included a basic set of colors and some additional tubes of paint, brushes, linseed oil and turpentine, and a set of 3 canvas boards. I took to it, and felt very refined and grown up. The smell of linseed oil instantaneously fills me with that same feeling of pride.

My time with my grandmothers was never extensive, but I gleaned a bit from my time with them. Though they were very different from each other, they both had a beauty in their strength and grit that I admired. As I’ve gone through my adult life, my admiration of these women has only grown. If I could, I'd sit with them again, and just listen.

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