Crafting Memories

grandparentingYesterday, when I should have been working on the quilt Falling Leaves, I felt compelled to make a new blankie for my little granddaughter. I’d bought pink Dora the Explorer fabric months ago and had been debating how best to use it.

When I spread out the fabric, I was surprised to find I’d bought two yards. Inspiration hit. I folded it in half, trued it up, and started stitching. I decided it would be a simple, light blankie.

As I sewed she hung around, enthralled with a new creation for her collection. I smiled, thinking of the memories I was making for her. Little-girl memories I’d not been given.

I never knew my father’s mother; she died before I was born. And before I was old enough for school, I was given one fading memory of my mother’s mother, shortly before she died.

But when I turned ten, fate would step in and give me a surrogate grandmother. It happened when my older sister married. Rosa was nineteen, her husband not much older. But his mother, his adoptive mother, was old enough to be his grandmother.

She and her husband had long been childless when an acquaintance of theirs became pregnant with an unwanted baby. Both jumped at the chance to raise the child and lovingly brought him up in a tiny little house. When he chose to marry, they did not hesitate to move to an even tinier house in back.

They lived down the street from us and I took to visiting my sister frequently, but it was really her mother-in-law Antonia I wanted to see. Afternoons, Antonia would sit outside under a large mesquite tree and crochet filigree edgings onto white cotton pillow cases. She’d edge dish towels and place mats that she’d first embroidered with colorful flower bouquets. All destined to be gifts, she’d patiently pedaled them into being on her treadle sewing machine.

Her crocheting intrigued me. My eyes strained to follow the slim silver hook as it flew in and out of the cloth with a speed that practically made it invisible. Varicolored purple and pink edgings materialized where before there’d been none. Her head bent over her work, she’d tell me stories about growing up in old Mexico, but I barely listened.

“You want to learn how?” she finally asked one day.

“Yes,” I said, drawing closer.

“Here, hold it like this.”

And with that, the work was in my lap, my fingers fumbling with the steel crochet hook. Its needle-sharp point hurt when I stabbed my finger instead of the cloth. But with her infinite patience and soft voice, she coached me along until single crochet and double crochet made perfect sense.

The day came when she would adopt a second child, a girl on the cusp of teenage-hood. Mothering once more took up her time and the quiet afternoons were few, but by then I was well on my way to crafting my own simple creations.

When I turned eighteen I married and moved far away, but I took Antonia’s teachings with me and built on them. I learned about treble crochet, and countless other stitches. I bought my own sewing machine and took a sewing class, then delighted in making clothes for myself and my child.

Those days are long gone, nothing but memories now. Time has moved away from that human-powered sewing machine of Antonia’s and even from my first plain Singer. The machine I now own is not even a sewing machine; it’s a sewing computer.

I’ve lost count of how many afghans I’ve made, and half-forgotten many of the intricate stitches I used to make them. Most of those blankets are scattered hither and yon across the country, gifts sent from my heart.

My crafting time now spent primarily on quilting, I only crochet during the moments I sit down to watch TV. A blue and white canvas tote, given to me at a writer’s conference, sits on the end table next to my spot on the leather loveseat. Within it snuggles my current project, as it is never emptied of yarn.

Though my work area differs greatly from Antonia’s, I still feel the calm I knew then every time I pick up my aluminum crochet hook. Sometimes, I imagine I can see Antonia, her white hair parted in the center and pulled back tight, as she bends intently over her work in the south Texas heat.

It was she who instilled in me the love of crafting, and the joy of giving, under the peaceful shade of that mesquite tree. Thank you, Antonia. May you rest with the angels.

 

Four Little Letters

I’ve never liked my name. Never liked the sound of it.

I pronounce it Erma, and many people try to write it that way. But it takes an I, an I that actually sounds like an E, as in eerma. But even then, it’s not correct for it lacks the trill, eerrrrma.

It’s a wonder how four little letters can be so misconstrued.

In many families, a name appears more than once. My mother and her only sister were both name Maria, with different middle names. But no one in the family had my name. I wondered if that was because nobody wanted it. Not until I married did I end up related to another Irma, with the same last name to boot.

Growing up, I didn’t give my name much thought. I figured I was bound to it regardless of how I felt. It wasn’t til I began searching for names for my own children that I wondered about my own name’s significance.

According to this site, and several others I’ve searched, it’s German, Spanish, English, among others. I wonder now if that’s what prompted me to study German in high school, though back then I had no clue as to its origin.

Its meaning, whole, universal, gives me pause.That is such a responsibility!

But I suppose I am whole and universal to my family, my children. The youngest of which was to be named Amelia, so that all would have names starting with A, and be written the same in English and Spanish.

Alas, when my husband called his father to tell him of her birth, his father heard “Emilia,” which was the name of his recently deceased mother. I grumbled, but didn’t have the heart to tell him he was wrong and disappoint him by refusing to name her after Grandma. I caved, and my baby’s name soon was shortened to Emma.

Emma was quick to make herself known as a focused overachiever and when she reached high school she insisted on studying German. She disregarded my pleas to study Spanish, as I could help her with that language. I’d never told her that I had studied German myself, since by then the only words I still recalled were mach schnell, hurry up.

Nonetheless, she hurried up through high school and went on to university to fulfill my unrealized, but unbeknownst to her, dream of studying journalism. It turned out my little Emma was another me, but better. And I’m not in the least surprised to learn that the name Irma is related to the name Emma.

My Father Came To Me

My father came to me last night in a dream. He looked as he did at my age, robust and strong. I was as I am now, as he gently escorted me down a busy city street to a night class. Traffic boomed all around us, headlights ablaze, and he did not speak as we walked amidst many others. Before leaving me, he pointed out the building I should go into as if I didn’t already know, and then he held me in his arms and kissed me on the cheek, his stubble rough against my skin.

Though I don’t often dream about my father, I still feel him with me these many years after his death. He was a simple man who put family above all. He believed in paying his way and if he couldn’t pay, he would do without. And we did, do without. Yet, I never went hungry or lacked a roof over my head. And it was only long after I’d left home that I realized how poor we truly were.

” Writing is a struggle against silence.” – Carlos Fuentes

Rescue Doll

Her eyes lit up when he walked in the door.

“Papi!”

His face broke into a tired grin. His eyes met hers and she could see the love in them. He seemed to stand a little straighter, though he looked bone tired. Without a word, he held out the prize.

Her hand stretched out for it slowly, never knowing if she merited a gift, if it was truly meant for her. Sometimes she even wondered if oxygen was meant for her.

He stood there waiting for her hand to make contact with the doll. Silently, it transferred from his hand to hers. There was no need to speak. She knew he held her in a special place in his heart. And he filled hers, causing it to overflow.

The doll was naked, her hair a tangled mess. Someone’s discarded Barbie rescued from the trash on her father’s sanitation route. She knew that, but it mattered not. The doll was whole, and it was hers.

Green Treasure

The dull roar in my lower back forces me to rise; my hands instinctively reach around and press on sore muscles. The sun beats like a golden hammer making it difficult to draw breath. My head boils under the wide-brimmed hat, but I dare not take it off. Sweat trickles along my forehead and into my eyes. I do my best to blink it away as my fingers dig deep, massaging the ache. I tip my head back, arching to relieve the pain, and the earth tilts as the broad expanse of blue disorients me.

Eyes closed, I wait, hoping for the slightest breeze, but there is none. The scorching heat envelops me, flowing down from the heavens and up from the soil beneath my feet. There is no escape. I will my skin to breathe in the heavy clothing I wear, long pants and long-sleeved shirt. They are my shield against this semblance of desert heat.

But, I am in no desert. I am in a fertile field surrounded by others. Others who are bent to their task, unyieldingly. I know I can’t stand too long. I will be noticed. The sun is directly overhead and soon they will call the break.  I can rest then, but not now, not yet.

I glance around for the foreman, not truly caring if he sees me idling. He is nowhere to be seen, probably sleeping in the comfort of the cab of his big, red cargo truck. The truck that ferries us all every dawn, standing upright in its large, enclosed bed; the truck whose undercarriage provides the precious shade during the midday break. It is parked off to the side, shimmering in the glare.

My gaze settles on the one man whose opinion does matter to me. He is unrecognizable, but I know it is him. Covered from head to toe as I am; his green khakis blend with the neat, straight rows of low foliage he is methodically moving through. Rows that seem to go on forever, the distance between them narrowing as they disappear into the horizon.

Bent forward at the waist as I should be, his hands move quickly, first to one side and then the other, and then back again. Each time his hands reach out, they immediately pull back and into the beige canvas sack at his side.  Though he has pulled far ahead of me, I can clearly see the strap of the sack digging deep into his shoulder as he leans first one way and then the other. I stare in wonder as he unceasingly works two rows at once. I know his back is screaming louder than mine, but I also know he will not complain. He will not give in to it as my teenage self does.

When the whistle blows, he’ll turn in his bagful of green treasure, and then crawl beneath the truck to eat a meager lunch and catch a nap before the whistle blows again. My mother will tend to him as she takes her own break. Later in our one-room cabin, he will solemnly eat his dinner before taking early to his bed to get what rest he can, while my younger siblings play a few feet from where he sleeps.

My eyes fill once more. Only this time, I don’t blink away the moisture as I bend and reach for another cucumber.

 

Stolen Sweetness

I don’t know where I am, but I know we are going home, albeit to a temporary one. I’m at the front of the truck bed with my father. I feel safe because I am with him and I move closer to him.

He stands as do all the other men. He keeps one arm around me to keep me steady. With the other, he grasps the front of the truck bed enclosure to keep his balance as the truck shifts and lurches down the road.

Long, narrow benches run along each side of the truck bed walls. These are reserved for the women.  There are no signs or discussion. It is understood; the women sit. Some of the children sit on their mother’s lap. The rest for whom there is no lap, sit cross-legged on the floor.

Though my mother’s lap is available, I prefer to stand with my father.  At times, he lifts me up so I can see the gray strip of road as it flies by underneath the cab of the truck.

It is evening, but still light out. We are passing beneath some trees. Looking up, I notice there is something hanging from the branches.

“Papi, what is that?”

“It’s fruit. Something to eat.”

“Can I have some?”

Without responding, he reaches up and wraps his hand around one. The truck’s forward motion rips the fruit off the branch. He hands it to me.

I hold it in my hands. Its delicate yellowish-green skin is translucent.

“Try it,” says my father.

I take a small, tentative bite. A shockwave of sweetness accosts my brain.  My father looks down at me with his tired smile.

I reach the fruit up to him. “Have some,” I say.

“No, Hijita,” he says. “You eat it.”

***

Though I’ve searched through many produce sections over the years, I’ve yet to find anything that tastes as sweet as that stolen pear.

Brushed With Love

The egg, fresh from the refrigerator, feels cold as it passes over my face. Instinctively, I scrunch my eyes closed and lie still, flat on my back, ramrod straight, on my little twin bed. The room feels hushed and dark. The world has fallen back, away. I hate this, but I submit; I know there is no escaping it.

My mother holds the egg in her skinny brown hand and whispers prayers as she makes the sign of the cross with it over my face, my hair, my chest, my belly and even my legs. She takes her time, doing it several times over before moving on to the next spot. It tickles as she dawdles over my ribs, but I press my lips tight to keep from laughing.

Annoyed, I wonder. Where are my bratty sisters and brother? Why aren’t they making noise, making trouble? Why aren’t they distracting her so she will leave me alone?

I can’t make out the words she is whispering; all I can hear is the susurrant voice, the S’s seemingly magnified within the darkness behind my eyelids. She is intently focused on her task. For she believes I am the victim of the evil eye. And this evil eye must be exorcised.

Once done brushing me with the egg, she gingerly breaks it into a bowl of water, careful to keep the yolk intact. This she sets beneath me on the floor. It’s to stay there overnight to draw the evil out of me, through the mattress, while I sleep.

In the morning, before I’m allowed up, she reaches under the bed for it and keenly scrutinizes its contents. Tempted, I rise up on my elbows to peek into the bowl she holds reverently in her hands. The egg appears like any other egg to me. The floating yolk, surrounded by its albumen, resembles an eye. I think that’s funny, an eye for an eye.

But, she doesn’t see any humor in it. Her face is serious as she looks into what, to her, is no longer just an egg. It has become an entity suffused with mystery, an enigma that only she can decipher.  Again she takes her time as she peers into this golden eye. And once her scrutiny is completed, she declares me cured. I am freed. Free of the malevolence someone dared lay upon me with the power of a glance. This visual curse has been successfully cast out, lifted, disarmed, rendered harmless.  It is safe for me to go out into the world once more.

I stay up on my elbows and study her face while she studies the egg. I don’t move or say anything when she tells me I can get up now. I watch her as she turns and shuffles out of the room, a woman already shorter than me. I know the never-ending chores and my rowdy younger siblings await; yet still, I lie there for a while and think: My mother loves me.

The Soup of Life

The meat, the meat must be beef shank. Preferable with bone in, it makes a much better tasting soup. Set it to cook in a large pot three-quarters full of water. Add the spices at this initial stage. Salt, black pepper, garlic. The amounts are not measured, taste is what matters.

It must be watched closely at first. The fat will rise and needs to be scooped out, a spoonful at a time, making the broth leaner, clearer.

You let it simmer as life simmers, gently, but persistently. Bringing memories bubbling to the surface.

“Papa, when do you add the vegetables?”

“I don’t know, Mijita.”

You know he does, but you say nothing and instead turn back to the stove. The meat is soft now and curls around its round flat bone. The bone is white as white can be, the marrow nestled in its center. You poke at it with the spoon, breaking it up into pieces, allowing its juice to mix with the broth. Meanwhile, you have chopped an onion into large chunks and added it to the broth in progress. Its layers float to the top, shimmery, translucent, adding their own juice to the ensuing broth.

It is you in the kitchen this Sunday morning. Your mother is sick, a migraine keeping her abed. You feel a deep sense of desperation. You want to fill in for her, but you can’t. You are not her and your father knows you are not her. He walks through the kitchen and steps outside, leaving you to divine the next steps. You know what the soup looks like when it’s done, but not how it gets that way.

With the fat scooped out, you can step away and leave it alone for an hour, or two, being careful not to let the broth cook away to nothing. This simmering will cause the meat to shred, making it so tender you barely have to chew it.

This soup is a staple at your house growing up. Every other Sunday the house is filled with the aroma of its cooking. Your mouth waters at the thought and you are helplessly transported back in time. You see the tall clay pot sitting on the stove, flames licking its full rounded bottom, its flared top opened wide, gaping at the ceiling, its middle pinched in like a waist. It resembles a woman’s shape, you realize, and wonder what the potter was thinking while he shaped it. It doesn’t appear to hold much, yet your mother makes sure everyone eats their fill. You can never figure out how she does that.

Once the meat has cooked through and through, it’s time for the potatoes. Scrub them well and slice them crosswise into thick slices, unpeeled. During the time they need to cook, chop up the rest of the vegetables, carrots, squash and cabbage.

Take the fresh corn on the cob and slice off the tip then shuck the corn peeling back the husk to its core, then with a firm grip, snap off the cornstalk. Under running water, work off the silk tucked into the rows of kernels. Score the center of the corn with a sharp knife and then break it in half.

The corn was your favorite part. You looked forward to it. There seemed to be so few pieces in that pot, but your mother always made sure you got one. Those firm yellow kernels glistened sweetly as you inhaled your soup, leaving the corn for last. There was no need to salt it or add anything to it; it was perfect as it was. You ate it row by row, working your way down the length of it, making it last. When all the kernels had disappeared, you siphoned out the succulent broth from within that cob, again working your way along it lengthwise, making sucking noises that made your younger siblings laugh.

When the potatoes are done, fish them out and place them in a covered dish. Add the rest of the vegetables and continue cooking. In approximately thirty minutes it will all be done.

There is not enough room in your deep stainless steel cookpot to hold all the ingredients at once. It makes no sense to you. It seems so much bigger than the clay pot of your memories. Nevertheless, you set the potatoes aside before adding the vegetables. You’re not sure when you figured out the sequence to this, if you were shown it or if it just came to you, but it matters not, now.