Saturday, September 19, 2015

"Yes, I Will Try"

Tacos are
the recipe that inducted me into the cooking hall of fame--in the corridors of my imagination, at least.

I was reminded of this when I recently heard, for the first time, a story of an "aha" moment in my Grandma Rosa's life, a moment related to her "fame" in the annals of her cooking history, too.

In the late fifties, it wouldn't have been called such a thing, but oh YES, an aha moment it was.

It started with my grandma's widowhood. A young mother of four children, she lost our grandpa to an automobile accident when he was just thirty years old. Grandma was just thirty, too. Left to raise her little ones alone, Grandma's horizon loomed daunting. She was a Spanish-speaking immigrant in California, a product of her upbringing, raised to believe in marriage, home and family, and the husband who would provide it all.

She depended on the man in her life for livelihood, and her job was to keep the home fires burning.

In the maelstrom of grieving and shock, Grandma couldn't immediately imagine what to do, where to turn.

Another man in her life stepped up to the plate. A relative with his own family took her, my dad and his three sisters into a tiny, earth-floored shelter in his own back yard. He helped them with food and the basics as he he could, and arranged for the little family to go north each summer for grueling months of agricultural picking.

My dad was five years old when my grandpa passed, with a toddler sister and two above him by a few slight years. In 2015, I have a five-year-old granddaughter we shelter from an hour in the sunlight, with sunscreen slathering, a water bottle, and little to no exertion. Back in the day pampering like this was unheard of, but knowing that still hardly tempers the reality my grandma and her little family knew.

In fact, after a few seasons of this, Grandma suffered an excruciating injury. She didn't go back, and neither did she allow her children to. Instead the family pulled together and made their way into the ensuing years, all the way to adulthood. My dad eventually joined the Marines, and my aunts, one by one, married.

Their coming of age proved a mixed-bag of emotions for Grandma. Yes, they were grown and a worry lifted. But together they were a team, forever her help and more so as the years went by. Now that they would have their own families to put first, the day came she asked aloud, "What am I going to do now? I have to do think of something I can do for myself. I have to come up with a plan."

In that day and place, "Cordelia" Knott of the now-famed Knott's Berry Farm was selling chicken dinners to the locals, at amazing pace. Grandma took note of this, and the light bulb in her head sparked her "aha" moment. She said aloud: "If Mrs. Knott can sell chicken dinners, I can sell tacos!!"

An adventurous and intimidating thought, all at once.

Grandma told herself, "I think I can do it." And then, "Yes, I will try."

Grandma by then was a property owner, and so she went to the bank to borrow money. She moved into a house behind the house she raised her children in, and the work began to transform the family home into a restaurant.

Early on, Grandma was overwhelmed with the commitment. Her girls pitched in, but babies were being born, attentions were being spread thin and exhaustion setting in. For a time, "cooking" literally got shoved to the back burner, while Grandma pondered that maybe her plan wouldn't work, after all.

Grandma soon found she had little room for pondering. Bureaucracy reared its imposing head, when the city notified her that her building, now commercial, would have to have business conducted within its walls, or its walls would have to be torn down.

In a scramble, Grandma pulled it all together. Her sons-in-laws kept their day jobs, but agreed to devote after-hours to promoting and building up "El Rosal", my grandma's namesake. All three of her daughters, Bea, Nina, and Cecilia, contributed the very best of their work ethic and enthusiasm toward the venture. They put together a substantive menu, chockfull of favorite family recipes for traditional Mexican dishes, as well as many American standards.

One false start almost led to two, until a popular, long-established local diner decided to shut its doors. Then, that eatery's biggest customer base, the "Auto-netics" factory, was suddenly impelled to give El Rosal a try. Very soon, addicts akin to modern-day "foodies" teemed on the doorsteps of my grandma's restaurant, in numbers too big to ignore. On the weeknights and days, couples and families filled the place, and every weekday (except closed Mondays) a combination of all spilled out onto the generous patio.

I came of age at "El Rosal," working there from the time I was twelve years old (my Social Security application just affirmed this!), ceasing about the time I got married. Working with my cousins, aunts, uncles, and siblings wasn't just a good WORK experience, it was the best, happiest mesh of many diverse memories.

Just before I got that Social Security card, I was an eleven year old in my own family's home. My "aha" moment, like Grandma Rosa's, centered on TACOS, and it too, led me to believe I could and should open up a restaurant...but way later.

It all started with the "Jamaica" (pronounced "Ha-my-uh-ka"), a churchyard festival, oriented to the Mexican culture, in a Santa Ana neighborhood. My dad LOVED to go there, for the tacos. He loved to order a waxy cardboard "boat" of them, sit at a picnic table and savor every juicy, drippy, spicy bite. He always reserved a corner of a tortilla to wipe up at the end the juices and shreds of lettuce or melty cheese that got away.

Oh, how he loved those tacos. I did too, and we didn't have them often enough; the festival was a seasonal thing. My mom made good tacos, but for some reason they paled next to the vibrancy of the "Jamaica" ones, even though no one I knew (then or now) could surpass her in any other delicious thing she ever brought to the table.

One evening I asked her if I could try to make supper. "Are you kidding me?" she asked in return. "I cook for eight kids and your dad every day of the week, do you really think I'm going to mind if you make supper? Please go ahead."

I was always observant of my mom's cooking. Eleven was too old to "Captain Crunch" or "Franco-American" anything, and so serious tacos it would be. Using what we had on hand, I kicked it up a notch with the juices and the spice, mostly. I pulled my tastes buds back to their immersion in the tacos at the Jamaica, and I put in every single thing and more I thought those tacos had.

When my Dad tasted his first taco that evening, his eyes popped wide and beamed big. Not one to gush, he gushed. I was afraid my mom would slap him (or me)up one side the head, for his near-swooning, "Luisa...these tacos taste JUST like the ones at the JAMAICA!!"

Not a lot of reaction from Mom, but at least we had our heads left. Despite her toned-down response, the moment was like a passing of the "taco torch", to me. I made them many more times in the future, and other meals, too. Mom caught a break now and then; what wasn't there to like about that?

How Dad reacted to those tacos said a lot to me. Tasty food doesn't just subdue hunger for the body, it enlivens the spirit. It is not just about fuel, but about fueling anticipation, and joy. A good meal doesn't just vanish off the plate, it stays in the mind and spurs the senses into wanting to revisit, time and again. Even while resisting excess all the way!

Decades later my taco-inspired "aha" moment played on me much as Grandma Rosa's did for her. In my time, I thought: "If Grandma Rosa could sell tacos, I can sell....chicken salad."

Chicken salad was a specialty of my mom's, very simple, very delicious. I wasn't in California anymore, I was in the Midwest, with a more "bread basket" audience, and so really yummy chicken salad on bread, and later on in a "fold", otherwise known as a thick homemade tortilla, it was.

But it didn't start out chicken salad. It started out everything-typical-Midwestern fare, with a little "Mexican" thrown in. It started out, as it did for my Grandma, overwhelming from the git-go. In a very short time I was retreating, wanting to dig a hole and throw myself right in.

I did pull back, and let someone else take it over. That didn't last either, and just when I was lolly-gagging,taking my time to think things through, bureaucracy reared its imposing head. "Insurance" told me I had to get in there and do something, or "Insurance" would UN-insure me.

Oops. New plan. New enthusiasm. New resolve. I served the chicken salad, and the chicken-salad-thing worked out.

Very recently, my aunts Bea and Nina, now in their eighties and nineties, were interviewed by the Placentia, California library. A PBS segment on the history of the town is in the works, with my Grandma Rosa and "El Rosal" a part of it.

Oh, how I longed to be there. For days, I reflected to my husband my happy thoughts of Grandma, the restaurant, my aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings. Finally he said, for heaven's sake, can't you call your aunts and at least tell them what those times meant to you?

Yes, I think I can do that. Yes, I will try. One night of conversations, one night of reflecting on many years. If it can be said, I wore my heart on my sleeve those phone calls. In the end, my aunts KNEW how much I wanted to be there, and what those years meant to me.
And one new, amazing "aha" moment: I never knew I had relived (a very small part) of my Grandma Rosa's history. I didn't know it at all. I only knew I loved the times I spent with her, aside from the restaurant, at her home, spending the night, going to an ice cream parlor, taking a Sunday drive. I cherished my "alone" time with her, as I know my cousins and siblings did theirs.

I remember so many things about my grandma, but there were things I couldn't know, either. How enlightening to me that we had a little bit of shared history. I am so grateful to the graces above I did not suffer some of her darker experiences, but I love the "unity" of knowing now we were once in a uniquely similar circumstance, and we each came out alright with our resourcefulness.

It occurs to me that Grandma knew about this shared history before I realized it, only lately through this public interview. I don't know exactly the workings of heaven, but it just may be that Grandma's experience influenced mine, through her intercession on my behalf.

At the very least, I know now she was the force behind the whisper..."I think I can do it. Yes, I will try."

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

There Once was a Girl

There once was a girl named Darlene. For as long as she could remember, she loved God, but hovered in the kitchen.

She knew God only as her church relayed, from well-intended lessons in a Sunday School courtyard, shallow in depth but rich in doctrine too complex for her to absorb.

And yet she knew Him, praying to Him in earnest, every day and most especially in the nights, under the covers, full of hope. She prayed for a most big thing, and let all the little things go unmentioned. If only the big thing came to pass, all the little things would fall into place.

Sadly, the big thing never came to be. She prayed and prayed many years, coming to a conclusion: the world was just so big, with so many prayers being said all at once, by people more appealing than she, to a God who loved some more than others, no matter what any Sunday School teacher said, ever.

Rejection taken. Comfort sought--where else to go but the kitchen? Not so much to eat the food there--although her mother's cooking was lovely, indeed--but for the distraction. The distraction of her own food creations, the appreciation for the creation by the consumers of her "art", the pleasures served to all.

Without a backward glance, the comfort of the kitchen assumed her loftiest goals. What could be better, really? You feed the people you love with the finesse of a "craft", she thought. They love you for it. They give you strokes for it. It tastes good. It feels good. It nourishes body and spirit and it is not the worst thing in the world to be remembered for.

And so she cooked for the "home folks" first, her mother and father and siblings. Then for the man she married, the two of them alone in a sweet little apartment, and eventually the children they raised together in a sweet, bigger home. She cooked for the neighbors and for friends, and she sought lonely people too, who had no urges to cook big meals for themselves but whose eyes lit up one hundred watts when she came bearing a plate.

Eventually she even cooked for the masses, if the subdued masses she could tend to with the loving attention-to-detail that mattered all her life. She made a small business of it, but carried it out as if it were for the family she loved the most. Because she so loved doing what she did, it had to be done in the same earnestness, whoever she did it for.

And so the girl didn't learn much more than to cook well, and she never really cared. It and its reverberations fulfilled her. No good person ever pointed out to her the drabness of her life, and no good person ever purported that her life should represent further fruition in more significant ways.

But for all the self-assuredness her joy in the kitchen brought, it elicited little for confidence in love from her God. In this she still felt small, a meek, insignificant being. From this, she derived He might still love her later, with the intensity of eternal love, where and how it counted the most. For this end, it was well and good to be insignificant now. It was well and good to believe and trust, and not to dwell on any one thing lacking in the here and now.

A life in the kitchen, thought Darlene, also exemplified her acquiescence to isolation. It quenched a thirst to be away from the world-at-large, in its simple satisfactions with her small hub of humanity. It separated her from serving in worldly capacity, but she never struggled with the humility of loving God and accepting His will for her life. He caused her to love her life, and even to believe fully that other women who lived very worldly lives also loved theirs.

Ah, but from the beginning of time, the world comes to all doorsteps, in one way or another. Stuff happens, and the distraction of a comforting kitchen at times played second fiddle to other facets of Darlene's reality. A loved child's circumstances and other adversities with the home and family made assembling a grilled cheese sandwich almost too much to contemplate. For these times, she asked, "Okay, so what now, dear God? I wasn't made for this stuff, this facing-down-the-world stuff. I always just wanted to stay in the kitchen."

At that, she felt God nod His head and say, "Yes, I made you for the kitchen. It's good if you always found the kitchen a comforting place to be. Now you just have to figure whether you can retreat to the kitchen and call these matters good, or if you need to get out of the kitchen so that you can get back to it in peace."

In peace? Darlene wondered. Does peace mean retreat? In a sense, she had prided her life on the humility of retreat. If she had confidence in her life, it was in knowing her place for the here and now, in her patience and willingness to await the greater glory of God later, eternally. How would she figure NOW that her responses should be anything BUT peaceful and retreating?

And so, she stepped back from her woes, much as the little girl did long before. She ventured to settle back into her routines, only to list as a sea vessel lists in waters overwhelming. She grappled to right herself, stunned by the need to leave the kitchen, to not retreat and sink.

The causes that took her from the kitchen had nothing to do with the kitchen. Swept out of her comfort zone, she buoyed herself in treacherous, unfamiliar waters, a being hardly knowing how to swim. Each time, she likened the wildly floundering chaos to a childhood experience of nearly drowning with her older sister, Cindy. The two, on a family day at the beach, innocently waded into erratic waters, carried unto thrashing panic, saved by two strangers, unafraid and appointed by God.

Motherhood and more brought the world knocking at her door, bringing its maelstrom of discomfort to her. But these things brought more too, love unlike any she'd known before, a sense of un-self, and longing for justice beyond her inner borders. She found her outside-the-kitchen calling.

How now, Lord, do I answer this calling? She appealed to Him as when a child, with a new, and almost-young, extended self. How do I still these quaking knees, slow my racing heart, calm the churning flutter of my insides? I was not cut of cloth for this, she thought, but you have woven these threads, these people into my life, and I need to cloak them in the love You made me capable of.

Somehow, she muddled through, one angst at a time. Along her way, she said, I do thank God for one angst at a time the magnitude of which is bearable, for I know of people broken by many angsts all at once, who do not bear up at all or who in their tumult put me to shame with their faithfulness in His intent.

I can get through one tumult at a time, she said, and she did. The Lord saw her progress, and bore her up. He began to show her His sense of humor. He placed a donut shop in her way, one she least expected, on a "lost" path, a dreamed-of donut shop she'd given up hope of ever seeing, for a reward of "following through" in crisis. He placed a man ahead of her in line at a counter, whose telling of his story provided her a "light bulb moment"--the insight she needed for an adversity she was contemplating solution to. Her Lord God gave her signs and words everywhere, too many to count, too many to talk about.

But talk about them she would, for this was a part of His plan. It is really true, she finally absorbed, that God is here for me, for everyone who turns to Him and who believes, in the good times and the bad. We will have courage to share His words and to meet our ends, because we turn to Him in need. We will open up His Book, searching, and each time, the page we land on will say something just for us and our moment.

With each happy day and each unhappy day, His grace seeped deeper into her being. He did not chastise her for the years she retreated, the years she acceded to others who maintained and sustained their faith as children, who never weakened and only added layers to their foundation.

She loved a time especially, when, opening His Book to "land" on a page she needed, came to the stories of the disciples who followed and faltered, followed and faltered in their faith toward the Son of God. A miracle a moment, they seemed to need. Jesus said as much, asking in essence and in exasperation: What is wrong with you people? How many times do you need proof of what I can do??

These were the days of healing and miracles, of feeding multitudes with five loaves of bread and two fish, of calming an oceanic storm to soothe panicking men. On and on Lord Jesus performed convincing feats, and on and on the impressions proved fleeting.

Darlene read this last, in her own moments of backtracking in faith and trust, over her trial of the time. These words indeed were meant for me to land upon this day, she thought. To think, His words have always been here, and instead, for so many years I read cookbooks.

Cookbooks in retreat, but going forward, not so much....

"Footnote" to this entry...the very day following Darlene's "landing" on Jesus's chastisement to His disciples for their lack of more sustained faith, she was driving a country road home from town, listening to a CD. Almost home, it hardly seemed worth changing out its "wearing thin" songs, so she just flicked it over to the radio. The song playing? Just enough time before pulling into the driveway,
to hear in entirety, "Have a Little Faith in Me." Bon Jovi singing, perfect words straight from the whisper of God.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

"Going Home"

Don't be so sure that "you can never go home again."

It's very true that some memories are better left alone--as they stand, vivid and as in technicolor as the day they occurred, untouched by the ages.

On a recent trip "back home" I erred in a wish to revisit a time and place of my past, the site of an early childhood remembrance.

The setting was a small Catholic Church in southern California. The "event" was my dad's design and creation of an outdoor shrine for his community to pray at, or to light a candle at in memory of a loved one.

The tiny church in Atwood, a "barrio" of Orange County, still stands in 2013, but the question had to be asked: Is this really the place I remember?

In my mind, St. Teresita was a quaint study in worship--a tiny building suffused with the character of the time, the mid-fifties. I recall golden sunlight beaming through leaded windows here, heavy pews of mahogany, and a humble altar that my dad sometimes knelt at in special prayer before mass started. I remember that my dad served as usher for the masses, a prized position that he held proudly.

If I'm really honest, I would have to say that the years have played tricks on me. I have to confess to thinking this church was made from stone, possibly brick--either one a fantasy material for the dream material of the home I'll never (?) live in.

It's not crafted of stone. It's made of wood, and dark stained wood at that. This is so far from my memory that I have to wonder if the original structure began to crumble, and was somehow re-fashioned with this sturdy, practical material.

The rudest of awakenings with this played out in the courtyard adjacent to the church. There WAS no courtyard. Only a narrow strip of concrete walkway with a modest overhang in tones of the same stained wood, bordering a dusty field that housed an ancient oil "horse," a relic I do happen to remember.

What happened to the HAVEN imprinted in my mind? Where did all the flowering shrubs and trees go? What about the stone floor and the primitive tables lined up to conduct catechism lessons at? Most importantly, where was my dad's carefully built, much-used shrine?

I was with him when he worked on that shrine. I witnessed the gentle heart he put into it, and I played as a seven-year-old girl does when she tags along with her dad. I know that beautiful setting existed, and not just from my memory, thankfully. Twenty-something years previously I had taken a picture with my children in front of it....but do you think I can FIND it??? (No, still looking...)

Of course I'd prefer not to have this new image of St. Teresita infringe on the much more precious one I have held dear for so long.
But I think it won't, because I WANT to remember the favored image and so the favored one it shall be.

So what is it that makes me feel I DID go home again, anyway and despite this experience? It was the PEOPLE, of course. My mother, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces. Yes, we're all changing, every year. Time has taken its toll on the numbers, but not when you realize that young families are growing, too.

With living, breathing human beings you can always go home again. You can talk about the old times, and you can catch up on all that's new. You have ties that bind; you're as comfortable with each other as the last day you talked--even if was ages ago. As for AGE itself--who cares how old we are? We've just lived more, have more stories to tell, and have absolute intentions to make more stories to tell!

Diverse interests and even beliefs aside, we are connected by shared history. To be sure, the history is not all perfect. Like a churchyard image, we can purposefully elect to recall the good instead of the flawed, and to our dying days extract the best of all that was meant to be. We can "choose happiness" to the best of our ability. And we can allow that, when needed, it is often the ones we share history with who can point this out to us.

END NOTE: For some reason the site will not let me post an image today! If I could have posted a picture to this entry, it would have been of a "molcajete" (a Mexican mortar and pestle). WHY you ask? Well, first because I can't find the photo of my children in front of the shrine, and second because on my recent California trip, a sister (Judy) presented me with this "tangible" prize of our family history. It is a "tool of the trade" for good Mexican salsa, and today my kitchen is sending out the heady fragrances of my mother's kitchen. It is the unit, my mother said, that belonged to my Grandma Ramona's that's old! AND that's "going home" again! (And no Judy, you can't have it back!)

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Summer Platters and all That Matters

The task of dreaming up appealing summer meals this season has me especially appreciative of my mother's own long-ago ideas.

Mom is nearly ninety now, and hardly cooks at all anymore. For different reasons our conversations lately are not prolonged, and this is a loss to me not easily remedied. With almost 2000 miles between us and the advancing years, it is a challenge to keep the talk flowing.

The realization of this loss has somehow borne a connectedness for me with my mother. With each phone call, I try to relate this to her, and I am hoping it is a connectedness she "gets."

Of course, it's not all about the food, but much of it seems to stem from food--as in Mom, home, and apple pie.  I don't know that Mom ever did anything but BUY ready-made apple pies, because lemon meringue was her specialty. And so in our household lemon pie it was.

That tangy dessert was a winner in all our eyes, but it was her savory offerings for summertime that have me in "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" mode today. All this hot summer I have been making the meals my mom made in the summers of my growing-up years. By sharing them often with our grown daughter and her young ones, I am thinking Mom's ideas will "carry on, carry on."

Mom's tried and true favorites? Most were as simple as the apple pie she never made, and so, so good. Except for one, they were downright ordinary; common foods all--except that her trademark "platter" effect took each thing up to a definite next level.

Whatever Mom made, she assembled things onto platters or big plates with colorful, artistic flair. If it was pan-grilled burgers, a big plate was assembled meant to flatter those humble burgers into remarkable. Crisp lettuce leaves (no wimps allowed), thick and crunchy red onion slices, wavy dill pickle rounds, and the most vibrant of tomato slices.

The routine was to mosey our way almost food-line fashion to build our own burgers, add cheese if we liked, plus mayo, mustard and ketchup. I remember the fresh garnishes as snappy-crisp with so little "give" all of our sandwiches were a mile high and completely problematic to eating gracefully.

Mom had a curious tradition when it came to corn on the cob in season. It's one that wouldn't fly with my own family now but sailed true for my mom, and if I could get away with this today I would surely try.

This involved a simple plunging of field-fresh and shucked corn into boiling water, about two dozen ears in a huge stockpot. A deep immersion and a short boil, then a lifting of the cobs onto a platter for a generous buttering and salting. A smaller plate next to offered chunky sticks of longhorn cheddar, as many as we could manage between our gobbling attacks at the corn. That was it--supper. We ate our fill and we enjoyed every bite.

Another silk purse Mom could make out of a sow's ear was in her easy-way-out meal of a "cold-cut" platter, and yes, you would be right if you guessed this to be a glorified lunch meat supper. But Mom chose meats we liked, and added all kinds of things we loved, like sour pickles and olives and cheeses and vegetable sticks and salty seasoned crackers. With a tall glass of icy lemonade, we never minded this meal.

When Mom made cold sandwiches like tuna, chicken or egg salad (mostly for lunch) she cut soft bread diagonally and arranged the halves into a pyramid of loveliness on--you guessed it again--a big platter. Her seasonings and added crunch (where she believed in the added crunch of pickle and celery) were never sweet, but mostly creamy and decidedly flavorsome. Her recipes for her cold sandwiches were so simple but so good I ran a lunchroom café for nearly fourteen years on almost their appeal alone.

A more adventurous favorite of Mom's was not even a variation of a mainstream recipe. Acting on her creative side, she conjured up a wonderful summer salad that fast became her signature dish. I still marvel at her imagination in mixing up spicy pickled vegetables, lettuces and sea-salty abalone chunks. When most salads of the day involved iceberg lettuce and tomato, or maybe Jello and marshmallows, our Mom's salad ingenuity seems amazing. I'd LOVE to make that salad today, but where in Wisconsin could I ever find abalone chunks?

Probably my mom's greatest cooking achievements did not center on the overly simple of the warm-weather meals mindset. She was (still is) a renowned good cook of her Mexican heritage; she excelled at many dishes of a more complicated nature. She enjoyed cooking and like a lot of mothers it was at times her best way to express her nurturing side.

I understand from a sister, who is essentially Mom's greatest caregiver, that these days it isn't at all easy to get our mother animated or enthusiastic. I have discovered my best shot at getting Mom to talk is to extract from her the talent she still owns about nurturing through food. This nourishment is about much more than the food itself, and this is the thing I hope she "gets."

To be on the safe side, I made an "impulse" call today. I phoned my mother, and I essentially imparted to her the "good news" of this blog entry.

I remember all the good food you made, Mom. I know what went into all those good meals because I do the same for my family now, and it's about so much more than the food. And not so strangely enough, most of it is all the good dishes you didn't even try to teach me.

You didn't have to. It was the lesson imparted, unspoken--a natural passing of the baton, and to more than one child.

Immeasurable. Thank you.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Grandma Ramona

Grandma Ramona was never a squeaky wheel in the world of attention-getting grandmas.

She was pretty near to perfect, and maybe because she never riled anyone up she rarely got the more positive fuss she deserved.

Grandma Ramona didn't have vast acreage and multiple havens like our other Grandma (Rosa) did. She didn't drive a car and couldn't take you anywhere you might want to go, and she didn't even have the nature to easily let a grandchild out of her sight for more than a few unaccountable minutes.

Grandma was one to thoughtfully measure her words, and always say them kindly. I don't know that she ever uttered a mean-spirited statement, or that any of us ever heard her raise her voice--I know I didn't.

When you were with Grandma, you were WITH Grandma. A widow for all the years I remember, she hosted the occasional grandchild with a nurturing focus, but not obtrusively. She enjoyed your company and you knew it, but she also carried on with her usual routines so that the natural thing to do was tag along and help her if you could.

When Grandma tended her flowers, you learned a little something about how to get the "rosiest" rosebushes and what bugs should not see the light of the next day. When she cooked, you learned to brown your rice in a little oil before adding liquid, and that you can boost flavors by not having that liquid just be water.

Grandma was one little bundle of ethnic diversity. A curious blood-mix coursed through her veins; she remained true to many customs of her native Mexico but gravitated toward achieving American "milestones" in her very simple life. She learned to speak English as well as almost any American, and although she most often prepared the essential meals of a traditional Mexican household, she owned and often referred to her copy of "The American Woman's Cook Book."

Putting meals on her table that she was not accustomed to was pure adventurism, not traitorous and maybe even a little patriotic toward her new homeland. She tried many of the book's recipes and some became customary. From this I know at least one of her daughters (my mother) could prepare as good a meat loaf as she could a pan of enchiladas. And her (my mother's) daughters after that!

When that cookbook made its way into my own mother's possession, I was a budding cook myself. I remember using the book often and being amused at Grandma's markings on a few of the pages--especially that she highlighted  a recipe for "croquettes." Although the dish made use of leftovers, it was putzy and a little ambitious, with a French connotation at that. I've often wondered: did she really try to make croquettes?
I like to think of myself as a venturesome cook (somewhat) but I've never tried making a croquette.

Grandma tended a small courtyard of roses and geraniums outside the front door of her bungalow. I can still conjure up the sensation of the freshness there--the morning mist (or Grandma's watering) buzzing the foliage and urging away bursts of fragrance that filled the morning air. Her watering ritual always ended with a far-reaching and final tug on the hose to more flowers at a backyard arbor, a trellis-y adornment that separated her yard from one belonging to my aunt and uncle and cousins.

The cousins didn't wander over to Grandma's much during my sleepovers, but I'm sure they were good company to her on a regular basis. I remember that she mentioned them often and that I always peered through the arbor wondering if they were home.

All my cousins, siblings and myself were "represented" in Grandma's little cottage in a sweet and unique way. Near a corner of her sofa an end table with a top shelf held a collection of small porcelain angels--each cherub in its own pose bearing near its bottom the name of one of her grandchildren. Every time I visited her I would look for the angel with my name on it, as I suspect each grandchild often did. When I recall that dear collection of hers I marvel at such a precious idea and tradition. Few grandchildren that I have, it inspires me to go out and find three porcelain cherubs today! And I wonder why I haven't done it sooner.

According to many a modern woman's view, our Grandma Ramona lived a very "small" life. If she didn't drive she couldn't get out much, but somewhere along the line she walked into a popular, higher-end department store (the Broadway) and got herself hired as a gift wrapper. When you think of my other Grandma (Rosa) who stubbornly never learned to speak English but somehow stubbornly learned to drive and then own a car, you have to give Grandma Ramona her due credit for landing herself an English-speaking job and (I believe) walking herself to it on a routine basis. She also once traveled all the way from California to Colorado on a bus, to visit my husband and I when we first made a home there.

But Grandmas are not meant for comparing, and I remember both mine for different traits and talents. My Grandma Ramona spent her later years creating beautiful handmade gifts for all the people she loved, and Grandma Rosa's legacy is probably best thought to be (with her other family members) the establishment of a successful, family-operated Mexican restaurant. My two grandmothers couldn't have been more different from each other, but both made lasting impressions that I treasure and remember again and again.

My Grandma Rosa's "vast" acreage (and her willingness to let us roam) may have furnished a little more on the side of adventure, and her own "nature", shall we say, drew more attention. But neither Grandma ever strived to do anything but live their American lives as happily and best they could. Both lived true immigrant experiences that dramatically helped to smooth the path for their very appreciative descendants.

Thank you, Grandma Rosa and Grandma Ramona!
                                              Grandma Ramona's dress for my daughter                

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Sunday Drive

It might have been any day of the week, but I remember it as a Sunday--the kind that spurs you to just get into a car and start driving.

Or riding. My Grandma Rosa was doing the driving, and my cousin Ralph and I were her passengers. Just a while earlier we had hopped into her 1950's gray-blue sedan, following her mysterious "Get in the car, we're going for a ride" order.

Ralph lived with Grandma, and at about ten years old he understood her better than anyone--both in the Spanish-only language she spoke and in the somewhat "trying" personality she was known for.

Depending on the source, Grandma could be cold and insensitive, unreasonable and unyielding, even insulting and mean. Somehow "warm and fuzzy" adjectives never quite made it as words of description for Grandma, but about this I have to say I sometimes puzzled.

Each time I stayed a night with Grandma, I was ready to soon stay another. I can't say she elicited every opposite of the adjectives she was always accused of, but the vibes between us were pretty darn good. She watched out for me, made sure I knew where the extra blankets were and always welcomed me warmly to the food in her cupboards.

She sometimes even ran a bubble bath for me in her big old-fashioned bathtub, and a really special image between just the two of us is of the time she parked in front of an ice cream parlor and coaxed me across its threshold.

You wouldn't think I would need to be lured into the place, but if I spoke all-English and Grandma spoke all-Spanish--and she didn't usually indulge in Americana like this--I guess I needed a little convincing that Grandma knew what she was doing.

Her smile told me she knew exactly what she was doing. We settled at a table and were presented with a menu, and Grandma motioned to me that I should order for the both of us.  I was about seven years old at the time, and I gotta say the word "parfait" was new to me, too. But the menu photos gave me the gist of things and so I shyly ordered one for each of us.

It literally couldn't have gone sweeter, or better. Grandma was like the proverbial child in a candy (or ice cream) shoppe over that parfait. We savored every creamy layer of our treat and saved the cherry for last, and even in my little girl-ness it wasn't at all hard to imagine the little girl my grandma used to be.

My grandma had her pensive moments, and on the day of our Sunday drive I caught that vibe also. I didn't suspect we were driving to an ice cream parlor at all, and soon enough saw this was a much more serious mission. Peering out the back seat window of the cavernous sedan, I saw that we were threading our way through a hilly neighborhood of newer homes, but that Grandma wasn't intrigued with the houses at all. Instead she pulled over at the rise of an as-yet open field, not filled with housing but taken up in use as a cemetery, one overgrown and neglected.

Stopping the car, Grandma said a few words to Ralph. The two exited and I followed, no questions asked. The three of us walked up the hill, with my grandma beginning an evident search through high weeds and straw-like grass, and dozens of grave-sites abandoned and weathering. Ralph stayed close to her, and I in my puzzlement looked about and wandered nearby, wondering what the search was about.

After a few moments Ralph approached me and said quietly, "She said she had another boy and that he died when he was a baby. He was buried here." (My dad was her only son, as far as we had known) "She thinks they're going to use this spot for more houses, and she wants to see his grave again."

With a little understanding now, I searched also, but even Grandma wasn't sure what to look for. She had become a widow when my dad was just five years old, and this child had evidently had a pauper's burial. There were few stones in this cemetery, and all the wooden crosses and markings had deteriorated beyond  recognition.

I don't know what my grandmother hoped for from that visit, but I remember the excursion almost as if it were yesterday. Did she think she could do anything to preserve the memory and the remains of this lost child? It seems bizarre to me now that she did not, as she seemed willing to do for other matters, seek the help of her grown daughters and son.

So there we were, this odd trio, and when we wrapped up the search Grandma hadn't found anything she was certain of. What did seem certain was that she had completed her mission and that whatever happened now was best left alone. I imagine her thoughts might have been along the lines of other pioneers who went to foreign lands and felt they had to leave some things up to the graces of God.

These remembrances were brought to mind recently when, for a sister's birthday, I posted a favorite story from our childhood on social media. Most of our siblings were not a direct part of my particular story, but they loved it because it gave new history and insight to our family dynamics. Their reactions to that and others family stories in this blog made me realize: we all have stories that were unique to our own experience. My cousin Ralph is gone now, but I feel certain he would remember our visit to the graveyard, and would even have more to many more true stories and perspectives are there out there, untold and destined to a graveyard of their own? Stories untold are like stories unlived--if you have them, tell them!! With discretion, of course!

Note: I've told several stories about my dad's mother and his side of the family in this blog, and I realize also there are untold stories about my Grandma Ramona. Grandma ROSA was for some reason the "squeaky wheel that always got the grease" but Grandma RAMONA was amazing too, in her own way and for reasons related to her own unique life experience. She deserves a turn, next!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

"Enough is Enough"

Even the natives are restless in Wisconsin. Sure, the home folks know a thing or two about an old-fashioned  winter, but the last few have been teasingly mild. We are having the longest, drawn-out winter since the 1950's, statistics say. Except for the die-hard ice fisher-people and the snow-mobilers, I don't think it's a stretch to say the rest of us are aching for spring.

In fact, the calendar SAYS it's spring. Last year this time, the calendar held up its end of the bargain and gave us plentiful days in the seventies and even eighties. Budding and blossoming occurred early and bumper crops of everything seemed likely.

Oh, what a feeling to rise and shine on mornings like those.....every bird delirious with song, every hour filled with the promise of something to do, something to see, a mountain to climb, a day to seize.

THIS March I am looking out my front room window to a trio of yard-long icicles, and not even dripping ones at that. They are frigid and non-yielding, jagged and brutal looking, having long lost their early season charm.

You can only amuse the grandchildren a few times per season with an icicle. Your own fascination at the daggers faded with your own childhood, along with sledding, igloo and snow family building. Winter is a fact of life here; partake of whatever outdoor activities you still enjoy in the cold, but face the fact that much of what you can REALLY enjoy is going to flat-out have to take place inside.

Flat-out being inside doesn't bother me the way it bothers a lot of people, but it's a tough sell to sound convincing about this. When most of your Facebook family resides in California and their posts include repeated images of living life to the fullest at beaches, desert resorts (like Palm Springs) and all manner of sidewalk cafe, it's kind of hard to make repeated images of a cozy night by the fireside seem preferable.

There's a sled buried in here
This life is just another kind of planet life, and they're just not going to buy it.

The California lifestyle is in my rear-view mirror, and I gotta admit a year-round warmer climate would be nice about this st(age)of life. But there's a thing or two this Wisconsin kind of climate has over a West Coast kind of climate: you can't possibly appreciate the change of seasons until you experience the extremes, and these extremes really do bring the seasons in four clear distinctions. There's no blurring (well, maybe this year there is, in a not-good way) between the seasons. When you're in summer you know it and when you're in winter you know it, no doubts and no wardrobe-waffling. Each season is fleeting, and you gotta live in the moment. If you feel like doing something that depends on the weather you don't just hope the weather will hold--it won't for long and you better just get a move on it.

I'll have my opportunity to post enviable outdoor activity pictures soon, scenes that don't just revolve around a wood-fired stove. It'll be awhile, especially around our house, where the woods and a valley fight the sun all day. But when spring finally hits her stride, the colors, sounds and smells will seem more vivid and vibrant than they ever have, all because we know: we gotta appreciate each season fully in its turn. And you can bet that proverbial bottom dollar we do.

So take your turn, Spring! Just a couple of weeks ago I made my best effort to stack up against the likes of gorgeous sunsets over the ocean and tropical happy-hours on sandy beaches. For weeks I'd been thinking that where awesome images were concerned, "I got nuthin'. "  I'd just entered the realm of Facebook after my family and friends have been on it for years, and I had NOTHING. Lamely I offered shots of pretty snow showers, home decorating ideas, the beautiful grandchildren (not so lame) and the new elliptical machine I had to buy after too many lazy days by the cozy fireside.
Not walking in these woods anytime soon!
Then one morning I was presented with a gift. A truly amazing gift--right outside my computer window. Through the glass and across our rural field, a picturesque collection of deer were waking from their sleep in a snow-covered hill-swell of our woods. They had settled in the night there, because after all, what can any natural creature do but curl up and try to be toasty in this too-long lingering snow and cold?
They're staying with us, waiting it out...

The picture speaks for itself, and it brings us all another day closer to spring. So will a hot mocha and an hour at a fireside cafe with my good pal in will holding cooking classes for the locals at (my) little neighborhood shop, so will crafting stitcheries for my Etsy store.........all this kind of stuff will get ME there, I hope, just as anyone's hopeful ventures will get THEM out of these snowy woods and full-tilt into SPRING.

Mmmm--Can't you just about smell the apple blossoms?

Last year this time, nearly
Note: After a break, I'm now building on my Etsy store, "Sterbuck Farm." Check it out!