Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Aunt Anna

John, Singer and I went to visit my Aunt Anna and Uncle Kent and their family in Illinois this past month. They live in a really adorable little farming community, and John and I fell in love with their easy breezy lifestyle. It was a nice change of scenery from the whizzing whirling summer in the city.

Aunt Anna is my mother's youngest sister, and in my opinion, she is the sister most like my late Grama Frieda. Even their hands are the same. Anna's spirit is so much like my Grama in the way she offers such loving advice, and the way she laughs and listens, and even the way she cooks (mmmm Paella!).

In honor of my Aunt Anna's hospitality, I'd like to post a short story that I wrote for her about a year ago:

Mis casas son sus casas (My houses are her houses)

The first things I unpacked when we moved from our tiny Texas town to Philadelphia were my grandmother’s Spanish houses. I have three of these treasures, all made of clay and hand-painted to resemble the houses in the Canary Islands. These houses hang on the wall, but not just any wall. They hang on the kitchen walls of all the women in my family. My mother hangs them, her sisters hang them, I hang them, and my sister hangs them. My grandmother started this tradition decades ago, and before she died last year, she passed her houses from her wall to mine. The houses represent so much to me; the strength of the women in my family, the comfort of being home, and the beauty and simplicity of tradition. Most importantly, however, these houses represent my grandmother. And I will never forget the first time I realized that I was no longer a child. When my grandmother passed her houses to me to hang on my kitchen wall in my home that I will make for my husband and my future children, I realized I am a grown-up.

Most of my memories with my grandmother are set in her kitchen. It’s as if my grandmother’s kitchen was the backdrop of every scene I ever had with her. I naturally gravitated to the kitchen when I was at my grandparents’ house, I’d pull up a stool at the breakfast counter, and my grandmother and I would talk. Sometimes, she would laugh so hard that she’d cry, which always made me laugh until I cried. Then, my grandfather would peek his head in to see what all the commotion was about, which made us laugh harder.

The earliest memory I have in my grandmother’s kitchen was when I was about six or seven years old. My mom, my little sister, and I traveled across an ocean to get to my grandparents who were living in Madrid. We climbed several flights of stairs to their apartment, and when my grandmother opened the door to greet us, the warm scent of pecan pie flooded out into the hall. Now, I know that pecan pie is not a traditional Spanish dessert. But, my grandparents were from the U.S. and had lived in Spain for thirty years while my grandfather was working for the Foreign Mission Board as a pastor in a Spanish church. Their apartment was so tiny, and their noisy African Gray parrot named Mr. Chips filled every nook and cranny with song. But, my grandmother had created a small “room” out of a folding scrim and silk scarves for my sister and I to sleep in. I remember thinking it was a magical princess palette --probably because that’s what my grandmother called it. In the morning, we dangled our little legs from the breakfast counter stools, and my grandmother served up our first experience with “egg-in-a-cup”. Really, they were simple soft-boiled eggs. We, however, had never seen an egg in a little cup that you eat with little spoons! And we really felt like royalty.

My grandparents retired and moved back to the states when I was about ten. Christmas at their house was always magical. Having lived in Europe for a long time, the two of them had such a different way of celebrating, and I remember feeling lucky that my grandparents were so cool. We’d gather around the piano while my grandmother played and sang Spanish Christmas carols. She would pretend that she didn’t know any songs in English, just so we would “teach” her our favorites. My grandmother and her daughters (my mom and my two aunts) would spend all Christmas Eve making a huge Spanish paella dinner, but they still had time to bake the all-American apple pie, pumpkin pie, and my grandmother’s famous pecan pie. I would watch them work from my stool, and I’d think about what it must have been like when my grandmother’s daughters were little girls helping in her Spanish kitchen. They probably made American pies every Christmas.

I only saw my grandmother really cry from sadness once; it was in her kitchen. I was in college, and I had stopped by for some dinner and pie, and free use of their washing machine. My parents had just announced that they were getting a divorce, and my mother was having a hard time dealing with the loss of her husband of twenty-three years. My grandmother asked me how my mom was doing, and even though I know she had talked to my mom probably three times a day since my father left, she wanted to know how I thought she was doing. I told her that my mother’s heart was broken, and my grandmother began to cry. She wept softly for a moment before drying her eyes, looking at me, and saying, “I love you girls so much. When your hearts are breaking, my heart is breaking. All our hearts are breaking.” Everything clicked for me in that moment, and I realized how unshakable the bond was between the women in my family. We were all intertwined, raised by the same woman, and deeply connected. When one of us hurt, we all hurt; just the way it should be between sisters, mothers, aunts, nieces, and grandmothers.

Last year, my grandmother died. She had lived a year without my grandfather who had passed the year before, but her heart was broken, and being disconnected from him was too much. She came to my wedding in a wheel chair, watched me walk down the aisle, and I’m blessed by the photographs of her smiling as John and I said our vows. When I went to see her a few weeks later, she was in an assisted living facility, and her kitchenette was a tiny tiled square with a sink, mini-fridge, and a cupboard. But, hanging by her sink were the Spanish houses, there to greet her every morning and remind her of home, happiness, and her women. Her shaking, feeble hand weakly removed the houses from her wall and passed them to me. She said, “These are for your kitchen, now.” Right then and there, I knew that I was no longer a child dangling my feet from the breakfast stool. I was a grown woman, raised tall and strong by other women.

Maybe some day I will have a daughter of my own, and I will tell her what the Spanish houses mean to me. I will tell her that no matter where your house is, you will always be home because your family knows you and loves you. And I will raise her the way the women in my family raised me: connected.

This one is for you, Aunt Anna.
I love you,

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