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It’s that time year again. The ubiquitous call
across the local grocery store, “hot, tamales,
get your fresh hot tamales!” There are
ever-present strangers wanting to know what
I have planned for the holiday season, with
emphasis on the season reaching well past
the first of January. And the more than occasional
tug on my hair, as if they were compelled to touch
and fondle the long strands.
Growing up, I spent a lot of time across the street with our neighbor Susie. She proudly identified herself as Mexican and Apache. Her tamales were a work of art, perfectly seasoned with a balance of meat to homemade masa. One January, she walked across the street to my parents’ house, and proceeded to take over the kitchen for an impromptu cooking class to show my niece, nephew, and my young son how to make tortillas, her way.
I spent many hours sitting on her porch, listening to her stories while we watched as Gato, her huge cat, lazily eyed the birds in the yard. Surprisingly, he never bothered any of her caged birds in the house. I asked her about that once, and she simply replied, “I told him no.”
When I began dating, she was often outside when my date would arrive, and never failed to give me her opinion, good or bad. For a woman with a limited classroom education, she was very astute, and up to date on everything and everyone. When I cried as a child, that my hair was not black like my mother’s or grandmothers, or even hers; she asked me, “what is your favorite thing other than your animals and rocks?” I replied immediately, “Dirt. I love dirt.” She told me as of that moment, my hair color was dirt, the rich soul of the Earth, the soil that grew our food and all her precious plants flourishing in the yard.
She went on to tell me, when people wanted to touch my hair, perhaps they were jealous of my connection to the Earth.
She often gifted me with plants or cuttings from her gardens, reminding me not to thank her, with nothing more than an intense look. Instead, I would say something about how beautiful the plant would look or that it was a good share. It’s common among gardeners to hold this belief, and when I share cuttings, I extend the same reminder.
I felt at ease at Susie’s home, welcomed, understood, and valued. She was there through my childhood, graduation, my wedding, and at my side when I divorced and returned to our small town with my baby boy. She adored him, and he loved sitting beside her on the same worn porch steps, marveling at the plants and waving at anyone who walked or drove past. He had his own peach tree in her yard, one thatSusie named after him.
We talked about birds and plants often, and on one visit to my home, she mentioned many of the plants in my yard were the same as the ones growing in my Papaw’s yard. Honoring connections. I honor these connections, with the plants I surround myself with, the tools and items gifted to me of multiple generations, the food I choose to eat, and how I prepare it, the offerings I give, the stories I share, and the memories I hold close to my heart.
I visit occasionally with the couple who now live in my Papaw’s home, enjoying a cup of coffee in the living room, in front of the fireplace. I have only vague memories of our family ever using the room.
Nonetheless, the house is again a home, filled with their laughter and memories that spill over me like a warm blanket. When I leave, I look next door at the rock house nestled among the oak trees, my childhood home, and I nod. Susie’s house sits across the street, and in my mind, I hear her talking to
Gato, and she hands me a tamal, nestled in a homemade tortilla and my heart is full.