Once again I’ve been stirred by my niece, Cassi Maria to write about mi apa, her Tata. Claro que si! She didn’t have to twist my arm, it’s always a comfort to me to share these memories. Reader, do you know the cancion que dice “Rosa Maria se fue a la playa”? When Cassandra was a wee little girl I loved singing that to her, por su puesto que I changed it to Cassi Maria, she recently told me that she believed it was my own created melody, confession is good for the soul.
When Cassi visited her Tata and me, she always loved to watch me prepare breakfast for him. She said that he got ‘special treatment’. Pero, I will clarify that at the time I didn’t believe it to be special, it was simply the way he liked to eat. He loved a nice hearty breakfast, which almost always included frijolitos bien fritos and tortillas. Sometimes I added meat, otras veces just blanquillos. The eggs would either be scrambled or fried, this did not impress Cassi. Pero, when I made a torta de huevo with all the fixings her eyes would light up as she appreciated my handiwork and she was happy for her grandpa.
I would scramble a couple of eggs and pour them over a hot skillet with oil. Luego, I’d cut up the egg patty, give it a quick and gentle stir fry with slices of onion and simmer it in a roasted tomato and dry chile sauce that mi ama taught me to make. Sometimes, if Cassi came in just as I was simmering la torta de huevo, she’d inhale the spices from the sauce; el comino, the garlic and pepper and the chiles all made her hungry for Tata’s breakfast.
As I’m writing this, I’m picturing my apa at the table, hands laced together, patiently waiting for his almuerzo. First his orange juice with Metamucil mixed in and his pastillas. He would always count them, and say, “Tantas pastillas?” In reality, he actually took minimal medication, compared to most 90 year old people. But still, he eyed me suspiciously. While I filled his plate with the beans and eggs and served his coffee, Cassi chatted with him and watched me, then chatted with me and turned to him. My apa was always one to appreciate a pretty face, and his eyes always lit up when he saw Cassi, almost always saying to her “que guapa” and Cassi would blush and smile. At that stage in his life, dementia did confuse him. The conversations circled in the same questions. He wondered about Cassi’s connection to him, then he’d be surprised that “Chicha” (my youngest brother) was her dad. This might be a good place to explain that cultural habit we Mexicans have of using quirky nicknames. We create funny names and stick to them, maybe it’s just my family? Here’s one version of that conversation:
Cassi:Hola Tata como estas? (Hug and kiss)
Tata:Buenos dias! Que guapa! (my apas eyes always had a teasing twinkle in them)
Cassi:Gracias Tata, si te acuerdas de mi? (remember this generation doesn’t know much about the proper use of “usted” so in Spanglish fashion she wanted to make sure he knew who she was.)
Tata:Parece que tu eres la Senora del Chicha?
Cassi: No Tata! Yo soy la hijadel Chicha (doing everything to restrain her indignation at being called her dads wife and not daughter ☺)
Tata: Su hija! A pose deveras que ando mal! (embarrassed that he made such a blunder, he’d blame his memory loss)
Cassi: It’s okay Tata (and Cassi would quickly forgive him)
When breakfast was served, my apa always waited til we were all seated so he could pray. I can still hear his wonderful prayer resounding in my ear like a sweet melody:
Recently I’ve heard two stories about older people dealing with the difficulties of aging . Ray Bradbury’s short story: “A LITTLE JOURNEY: and “Rewinding The Big Picture” from the Adventures in Odyssey Library from Focus on the Family. Each story immediately brought me back to those days when we would experience the most peculiar conversations with my apa and still, even now that dad is resting in peace, that confounding dementia grabbed my emotions! It shook out more tears and unnecessary “what ifs.”
How was it that we were always surprised when dementia showed up? Most times it came at sundown, but slowly it creeped in more and more at random times of the day. Aver, see if I can share my story without offending.
My father was a darn good looking man and well groomed always. He prided himself in looking sharp. It was a very humbling thing for him to face the fact that his teeth were weak and deteriorating. Still, it took a lot of convincing, to get him to agree that it was time for him to replace his own teeth with dentures, at this point he was well advanced in age. Eventually he adjusted and included a careful cleaning of his teeth to his morning grooming routine.
Keeping His Independence
Then the season of caregiving began for him. We manipulated our lives and the hired caregivers to accommodate his life as much as possible without taking all his freedom. My apa who was in his 90s, fought to keep his independence. He insisted on having his space to do things on his own, especially his morning routine. On days we weren’t present he could manage by himself, most of the time. On those days we were “on call” for any emergencies that came up.
One morning, Marina was making her daily morning call to dad. That morning I happened to be visiting her for her birthday. He didn’t answer. Ok, no problem, maybe he was out of bed and getting ready. She dialed again, but he still didn’t answer. We went through the drill, keeping ourselves calm. She called relatives in town or his neighbor across the street to check on him. Meanwhile I kept trying. Finally he picked up the phone.
Case of the Stolen Teeth
“Apa! Que pasa?” He sounded agitated and I could tell he didn’t have his teeth in.
“Pues anoche vinieron los rateros y se llevaron mis dientes!”
“Que?!” He proceeded to tell me in colorful language that during the night two thieves had entered the house and had taken his teeth!
“Esos, M—- buenos para nada! entraron a media noche y se me dejaron sin dientes! Y de que les sirvió hacer eso?! “Those good for nothing rats came in the middle of the night and took my teeth! Why would they do that?!
At that moment I held my chuckle since he firmly believed his conclusion. I wondered at his reasoning. How could he understand that stealing someone’s teeth was a useless and stupid thing to do? Yet he absolutely believe it happened to him, while he was sleeping. His teeth had disappeared. Not on the nightstand, nor in the bathroom on the counter or on the floor, vanished. When the caregiver arrived to make and serve breakfast for him she found him still in the bathroom, angry and looking very much his age without his teeth in. Marina got on the phone with her while she looked again for his teeth, she went as far as checking under the bed but did not find them. Her time was ticking, she hurried to make him breakfast. Avena, Cream of Wheat should be easy to eat without teeth. Dad didn’t eat, his whole morning was ruined. The entire morning he sat in front of his tele, very conscious that his mouth was sunken in. When the caregiver returned, he asked her to get his teeth, forgetting they were lost. Dementia played those tricks on him, instead she tried getting him to eat something soft.
Meanwhile over at our end we too fretted over the missing teeth. Dad had to eat something other than jello. We brought the case to the God of the Universe. Asi es, we had been desperately praying, asking God for his help in this matter. The caregiver came back again in the afternoon determined to help us find my apas teeth. Did someone take those teeth? Marina was once again on the phone coaching her to look in the oddest places. Quien sabe, maybe, just maybe they’d appear in the fridge, or in the kitchen sink. She meticulously searched in the medicine cabinet and found them sitting in a white suppository container. It was exactly the same color and shape as the one dad used for his teeth. Mystery solved, case closed. But it wasn’t. We were confronted with the reality that our apa was losing his independence and so were we.
In the afternoon when I called to check on him, I recounted the whole episode to him and he laughed. He was amazed that he had spent half his day without his teeth! He also laughed at me for suggesting that he was blaming a thief, como pues? He just couldn’t imagine the whole silly story was true. “I think that living without my teeth would be quite difficult” He looked at me with eyes that said “Hay Rosalba, the things you come up with.”
Dealing with Dementia
That’s how it was with dementia lurking about, without rhyme or reason. It was incredibly confusing. We faced dementia everyday, equipped with our little ‘tools’ like redirection, counting to ten and using reason to diffuse it, but still It crept in and caused disruption. As suddenly as slipped in it would leave and sometimes we were left trembling with checked and unchecked emociones. That particular episode had worried and checked us, but after it was over and dad was fine, we laughed out loud at the preposterous visual of the tooth fairy quietly sneaking in and taking his teeth without leaving money 😅
La tercera edad can be very difficult, I’m so thankful that we were able to help my apa through it and that we ourselves came through it ok.
Tis the season to be thankful. I take too many things for granted, in these strange and difficult days. Good health and strength is something I’m so grateful for, especially as I’m climbing that mountain. Wait! Or am I…. descending the mountain? A healthy mind to process life does not go unnoticed in my book anymore. I’m recognizing again that we have things for seasons and sometimes we get special one time experiences that a grateful heart will tuck away into the memory, sometimes dormant, until something triggers it. Today was a trigger day.
Usually when things happen they pile up needing attention ahorita mismo! This entire week has been chaotic, as all hands are on deck to plan a baby shower for our 8th, asi es 8th grandchild. As you can imagine everything is a mess, and with the weather being dry, everything is dusty and dirty. De repente, I get notice that I’ll have guests, que exagerada! It only felt like all of a sudden a grenade was launched and I had to get busy to save my life! The room I had to prepare was my apas room. I call it Tatas room. His room has had use, but not often in these past 11 months. I use it and it is not weird or painful to go in it, no mas que ahora I had to do some deep cleaning, and dusting reaching areas that require moving furniture around, ya saben. I had wiped down photo frames with images of dad and family. These faces look right at me whenever I go in, they’re part of the room. Suddenly I was transported back to those initial transition days of taking care of my apa. It was such a confusing and difficult time for him. He said he could do life alone, and he truly believed he still could. He stood his ground, there was nothing wrong with him he argued, he wasn’t stupid and he certainly wasn’t a baby. Dementia was already present but of course he didn’t know it.
The straw that broke the camel’s back, was yet another fall in his daycare facility, a blow to the head that sent him to the hospital. My sister and I scrambled. One of his caregivers was with him in the ER waiting for test results and for me to arrive. I already had a room ready for him in my home.
I’m going to attempt to describe what it is to battle Dementia, or mejor dicho, what me and my sister experienced with our apa. Dementia refers to memory loss and the loss of other reasoning abilities. It is a progressive disease, which when severe enough will alter a person’s ability to function daily. Our apa dealt with dementia of the Alzhemiers kind. It gets into the brain and squashes out memory and spreads until it reaches across the mind. Many sundown experiences put us into a twilight zone episode where we spun around in circles getting nowhere. “Redirect him,” the nurse would tell us, and when we weren’t bound up in frustration and angry emotions, we could manage that. Some of the more successful evening battles against dementia usually involved dad telling a childhood story from his long term memory archives. I tried to always be prepared with my writing tools.
Sometimes the skirmishes at sundown left me confused! Today, deep cleaning this room, triggered a night time conversation I’d had with my apa. That first night in his new surroundings he was uncomfortable and awkward. We had settled him into bed and he wondered where I was going to sleep since he had taken my bed.
Me: No apa, es su cama
Apa: No, mi cama esta en mi casa
Me: Esta es su casa
He chuckled, like I was being polite, you know how we latinos open our home up, “mi casa es su casa.” Que casualidad that he remembered that he wasn’t home. Sometimes dementia made me suspicious that perhaps he wasn’t confused, could he be faking it? Apa was worried about where I would sleep. I assured him that I was going to my room but if he needed anything I would hear him call and come check on him. I had a good monitor that picked up even the sound of his breathing.
Apa: Y Ben donde esta?
Me: Apa, Ben esta en nuestro cuarto.
He chuckled again, looking at me sideways.
Apa: Ese no es Ben! Hijole! Dads long term memory only remembered the young Ben not the… hmmm… mature one 😀
Of course I was offended, dementia or no dementia mi apa was insinuating that another man would be in my bed! Imaginate! I stood up for myself of course and explained and explained again, four or five times, that Ben was the only man for me. I eventually resorted to the redirection trick and it worked. We survived our first night, apenas! Another thing to be grateful for is my flaco who was patient and kind even though his suegro many times thought he was a stranger in the house.
Dementia torments it’s victims and their caregivers. Y por supuesto, my outlet has been my writing. It cages you up sometimes. At times I felt sorry for my apa and other times I was right in the cage with him. We experimented with him living part time in my home and part time in his, but we realized after a few months that it had only confused him more.
I wrote this after a long evening of confusion for him and fatigue for me.
When are you taking me home?
Dad, you are home.
This is my home?
I must be losing my mind.
Your wife died last year.
What? I saw her last night.
I must be losing my mind.
Is my mother alive?
She died a long time ago.
Why didn’t anyone tell me?
I must be losing my mind.
Where’s my wallet?
In your pocket.
Where’s my keys?
I must be losing my mind.
Is my car outside?
It’s right outside.
I can’t see it.
I must be losing my mind.
Tell me about your family?
Your husband repairs tires?
That’s my sisters husband,
My husband paints houses.
I must be losing my mind.
When are you taking me home?
You are home Dad.
Don’t you recognize the pictures?
I must be losing my mind.
Dad voiced those words many times when he couldn’t remember and then he would get confused and plenty of times angry because we didn’t understand him. It was a vicious cycle.
Today, I was sad for a moment about that trigger that led me down to that memory, but then I was glad for the opportunity to have lived it.
I am thankful for those years with my dad and for all the years I’ve had with family and friends. I’m grateful for every year that I have a healthy mind, to cherish, understand and appreciate my loved ones.
I have shared my dream and hope to write and publish a collection of my fathers stories. My sister and I began our caregiving for dad more than 15 years ago, it was quite a journey that ended just last December. I now have a decade and a half of experiences tucked into my journal, where I tend to process everything. A journal is a very inexpensive therapist and a patient listener.
As I moved along in my caregiving experiences I realized that my apa was telling his life stories and experiences, hijole! I am thankful that I started taking notes.
I had to have a pen, paper or any available writing tool and surface to record his stories. The most random activities or situations provoked dad’s early memories and I had to be quick with the draw of my pen. Sometimes, I was quick enough to open up my notes on my phone, but other times, napkins, newspaper pieces, scraps of packaging or backs of cartons, asi es, I began to capture his story. Ya se, you’re probably wondering why I just didn’t video him. I did try a few times, but I’m terrible with my phone and it’s camera. Grabbing a pen was quicker.
As life would have it, my apas life, se fue gastando poco a poco. As dad got weaker we got busier with his needs. It was too hard to remember to write notes, I had to focus on the present with him. We had to talk about current things so he wouldn’t forget his children or brothers. He had too many nietos y bis nietos to even try to stick them into his memory. I had to lay aside my yellow folder where I collected my notes. I didn’t realize that those current events would soon also be stories to share.
Closing A Chapter
In those last days as I watched my father close the chapters of his life, I was frantically writing posts for my blog. It was therapeutic, quizas a desperate attempt to hold onto him here on earth. What in the world was I gonna do without my dad? It was rough to turn to the last page of our time with dad. I had a lot of time to plan this moment, it wasn’t supposed to happen asi nomas. Really, I don’t know what I hoped for or wanted to see in this last page.
Since my dad’s passing I’ve kept writing, but his stories had remained in my files barely opened. My yellow folder sat tucked away in my desk drawer.
I have plenty of reasons, excusas, to explain my paralysis in writing the “collection of my dads stories” book. One big one was the lack of information. Many of his memories lack description or have gaps. Could his accounts, his memories be considered a story if they lacked detail? I mean, he did give me all the information he considered vital. So I’ve sat at my desk, many days just twiddling my thumbs, wondering how to proceed.
Out of nowhere, mi prima shared some youtube videos of the history of my apas childhood towns! La Mina del Amparo. It was right there on the world wide web! Pero como? She saved the day, the book, and maybe even the writer.
Esperate, I had researched El Amparo and did have some info already, it was all buried in my files, like the treasures in the minas of old. Something revived in me and I had my vision again. Pues entonces que hice? Unfortunately some things come to us almost too late at times, but I am thankful for whatever I can get. I made plans to go visit with 2 of my apas siblings.
My prima, who is one of the daughters of one of my dad’s younger sisters, helped me make arrangements for a day trip to see her mom, my Tia Chepina (Josefina).
It was time to see dads brother and sister, I hadn’t seen them since before dad passed. I was on a mission to get more information and get a link into my family history. Anything and all things would be written down. I pulled out my yellow folder and opened up my files. I had a lot of gaps to fill. I got organized, hay si,muy professional, I wrote down all my questions. I called my sis hoping she would join me, I needed her back up or support, and she jumped on board . Did I tell you I can always count on my big sis?
One of my dad’s younger brothers, Jesus (Tio Chuy), lives here in San Diego, so I picked him up and we drove to Los Angeles. Mira nomas!, everytime my sis and I looked over at tio Chuy, we saw our apa, unable to describe what happened there in our gut.
A Sea of Emotions
It was day packed full with emotion. My father was the oldest of 9 children, 7 boys and 2 girls. He was 6 years older than this brother and 16 years older than his hermanita. Tia said that there was 2 years between each child and Tio sadly pointed out that there were only 4 siblings left.
Tia Chepina cried so much at the loss of her 2 oldest brothers who died within months of each other. She had been unable to see them or attend their funerals, covid pestilence marred her final goodbyes. In those last days with my apa, I called her so she could at least speak to him.
It was five days before he passed, and his birthday. He stepped into his 96th year and she was wonderfully amazed at his longevity.
Apa: (speaking very loudly) Bueno!?
Tia Chepina: (speaking just as loud) Manuel! Hola hermano, como estas? Feliz cumpleaños? (Tia wanted to make sure he would hear that clear resounding happy birthday wish 🥰)
Apa: (speaking just as loud) Bueno!? No se oye. (His last few years the phone always confused him so he was unable hear it clearly)
A few days later, marque su número, easy to dial when you don’t have to look up a number. I hoped hearing his sister’s voice would spur him on in his new year. She cried and expressed her love for him, he wasn’t responding anymore, but her words did not fall to the ground. My dads sister lavishly gives us the love she had for him.
Now that they are in la tercera edad, my tia is 80 now, they’ve given up their main house and live in a cozy loft upstairs for just her and her husband, disculpa, mi tio Mundo. When we arrived she was busy making caldo de res, imaginate! Que sabroso! I will always put up with L.A. traffic for her cooking. We shared a simple, wonderful meal and I was overwhelmed. While it was sweet, I felt my fathers absence. I rolled my tortilla and gazed across the table to my Tio Chuy, apas little brother. He head bent down, he focused on eating his caldo. Did I mention he is 89 years old, a strong man! Zepeda genes are strong, I’m picturing dad sitting straight up, proving his agility at 95 still.
Some Missing Links
I came away with some missing puzzle pieces. How my parents met, this was a gold nugget! That’s for another post.
I got a very small glimpse of my amas mother and I was left thirsty for more. She too had a large family.
I came away with a better view of when dad came to America. That time line of his early adult days trying to “find himself” como dicen los gringos, I loved my tias description of seeing my father for the first time again since being in America.
Tia: Llego Manuel con su pantalón de mezclilla. Yo y Consuelo no podíamos dejar de mirarlo. Usaba esos pantalones Americanos. She was getting her first eye full of the famous Levi Strauss jeans and couldn’t stop staring at him.
Me: Levi’s? Con botas y sombrero? He had to have been also wearing his cowboy boots and hat verdad?
Tia: Si. Tan guapo que se veía mi hermano. Creo que nos trajo unas muñecas. With a sigh she admired her handsome big brother and remembered as an after thought that he brought them dolls del Norte.
Tio: Si, todos se fijaban con esos pantalones Americanos, eran muy diferentes. Tio was impressed by those jeans too!
Tia: Manuel siempre fue muy guapo. (She was making sure we all knew it wasn’t just the pants that made him so guapo! 🙂
Oh my goodness, my heart pitter pattered at the idea of her seeing her big brother so handsome looking like a cowboy, my brothers Arturo and Hector look alot like him. Of course Marina and I looked over at each other. Claro que si sabemos how good looking he was, some nurse was always shocked at his age because he looked so good. Imaginate, if she would have seen him in his youth, olvidate!
I must say that while I did ask muchas preguntas and they were absolutely in their glory remembering their youth, I left with plenty of questions still unanswered, and many new questions. Each new puzzle piece fills in a piece of my dads history and reveals more still to uncover. I’m not sure if I’ll get much more answers, pero we were all happy to have spent the day together. My sis and I cling to whatever we can of our father. I’ve made plans with my prima to do this trip again.
These past few weeks have been trying times. Sickness hovers over our lives trying to scare us into a corner of not living but existing. Hard times and bad news, make us desperate por tener un momento de tranquilidad. As we hold our breath not knowing what to expect, tears wash out and my heart aches for those loved ones I will not see again until eternity. Not knowing the appointed time, the wait feels endless.
I will not lie and say I’ve sat and “waited” for the day I see my ama again, she’s been gone for over 30 years, but I have longed through the years for that mother/daughter relationship & connection. I have a sister in Christ, my friend who has five beautiful daughters, and oh, I can tell those girls have connected with their momma. Me acuerdo, when I was a new homemaker, “building” my own home. I was barely a few weeks on the journey, I was given a chance to call my ama. I was having a cooking crisis and she rescued me, the stroke she had (a post for another time) didn’t hinder her from coming to my aid.
In her cooking stilo, como todas las mexicanas she set me straight:
Me: “Ama, ¿cuáles son los chiles que se usan para la carne con chile?”
Ama: “Pues ¿cuales son los que tienes? “
I had forgotten those cooking lessons with my ama! The main lesson was work with what you have, but make it work! I wonder if I’ll be able to share with her my mothering experience with my one daughter? Aguanten me por favor, Un poco culeca. Mi ama would see my daughter and fall in love with her immediately.
Y mis hermanas, Patty and Lupe, se adelantaron! They rushed ahead of me and Marina almost 13 years ago and beat us to heavens gates. I won’t pretend that I wasn’t angry. I had quite a few things to teach my “older” sisters and they me. In the middle of my busy life, while we 4 sisters were enjoying and sharing the episodes of life, they finished their race within 3 months of each other. In shock I had to say goodbye for now. Pero sabes, death always feels like that, when you expect it, and while you wait for your loved one to pass, you’re still shocked by it, when you don’t expect it, it knocks you down and takes your breath away.
My apa, no tenia prisa, gracias a Dios , almost took him a century to walk this road on earth. Geographically he was in very small places, almost insignificant, but he broke up much fallow ground and planted many seeds of experience and left quite a legacy of children and grandchildren to carry his name on. Eso! Don Manuel!
He has only just gone home 8 months ago and the void of his departure esta muy tierno aun. In our home our backroom is still “Tatas room”
I will say that I’ve occupied myself with a goal, a hope or God’s plan to see them again.
My Dad’s Prayer of Gratitude
This long season of pestilence has caused me to examine life. What are the things that I’m grateful for? The big things and the minute details of my life that I tend to take for granted sometimes, like my daily bread and the very air I breathe that God gives. It was a solidifying reminder to finds my dads prayer.
For as long as I could remember my apa prayed this prayer at meal times. I can picture him now at our table, ready and waiting to see if he would be called upon to pray.
“Gracias te damos Senor por estos alimentos que no nos hacen falta. También Señor te pedimos por todos aquellos que no tienen alimentos. Ayúdalos y dales la mano, no los desampares. Perdónanos nuestros pecados , pero siempre que se haga tu santa voluntad. Amén”
Sometimes a line or two was switched up, but it had the same meaning:
“Gracias te damos Senor por estos alimentos que no nos pones en la mesa. También Señor te pedimos por todos aquellos que no tienen alimentos. Ayúdalos y dales la mano, no los desampares. Perdóna nuestros ofensas, pero siempre que se haga tu santa voluntad. Amén”
As if someone switched on the lights, I have truly paid close attention to my apas prayer and realized how profound it truly was. Too many times we throw our prayers out to God without any real conviction, especially at mealtimes, were hungry and we’ve been waiting for that good food so were in a hurry. Hijole!Imaginate, as God sits down to eat with us and hears our “Thank you Jesus, bless this food” my fork halfway to my mouth already, I say “amen”. Maybe it’s because I’ve had a good morning in my prayer already that I am careless when I thank God for his provision. Whatever the reason, prayer at mealtimes in my life has been lackadaisical. Once in a while, I whisper in my mind, I really am grateful Lord, y si estoy agradecida! despite my mouthful. My apas prayer has reminded me to be grateful for my life, for the blessings and most importantly grateful for the Blesser.
Aguanta otro ratito while I unpack his prayer.
“Estos alimentos que no nos hacen falta”
Thankful for his provision. These days as many fight for their lives, the very air we breathe is a gift from God. ALL our basic needs are remembered in this simple line.
“También Señor te pedimos por todos aquellos que no tienen alimentos. Ayúdalos y dales la mano, no los desampares”
Thankful that we can approach the very throne of God for our needs and our loved ones. They’re too weak, too tired, too much in pain to ask for themselves, but we can stand in the gap for them. A thoughtful prayer that remembers those that are struggling and asks God to also help them in their time of need. Orita mismo, I can think of several friends, loved ones, and friends of friends that are in desperate need.
“Perdóna nuestros ofensas”
Thankful that God, the creator of heaven and earth graciously forgives our trespasses. I find it interesting that this line for forgiveness is after asking for the basic needs for ourselves and others. Asking forgiveness of our daily trespasses, my apa knew that even while our needs are endless so is God’s comfort and grace. A prayer that humbly acknowledges our sinful state that without God in our lives we would be wretched and lost.
I’m so glad that finally my heart has grabbed ahold of this prayer and I agree with Dad in it and say yes and amen!
Today let these words provoke you into true thanksgiving.
Fathers Day is tomorrow, it has been creeping up and almost catching me unawares.
As I’m sitting here pondering my dad and the dads I know, I’m leaning toward writing about a dad and his girl/s. I wish you could see my son with his 3 girly girls. He’s a tough daddy, a busy guy, but not too busy to take his little ladies on a date. I’ve got a kind hearted nephew who patiently chases after his tough tiny little dynamite Rosalie with her little sister in his arms. I’m not sure what amazes me more, his consistent patience or her endless energy.
Watching my Benjamin and the one little princess who quietly tamed the males in her home and her hardnose mama has been intriguing and sometimes frustrating, afterall I’m the queen of my home…Verdad que si?
Hats off to Dads
I’m so grateful for fathers who put their hands to the plow. Providing, praying, playing, platicando and just plain participating in the lives of their children
From what I can tell, dads have an interesting dilemma in their hands. They’ve got to be generous, gentle, protective and they’ve got to be tougher, smarter and faster than anyone else’s dad, hands down! For the record, my apa was.
The Value of Words
My dad wasn’t a man of too many words. He said what he needed to say and rarely did he repeat himself. He didn’t pull out useless degrading words to accuse us with, but on the other hand, words of endearment for us were not heard from him. That was my norm, it was ok, until I became my Benjamins. I didn’t realize how much I truly did yearn for words of endearment and words of approval, quizás un poco exagerada with my need for them.
As an adult, words are my commodity. Bad words and name calling are worthless, so I don’t carry them in my vault, except maybe to call myself a mensa, not good, I’m sure God doesn’t want to hear me calling myself a dummy. Good words of appreciation are valuable to me and I make sure I use them generously as needed. Now, words of endearment are like costly jewels, I do have a wealth of them in my heart and my mind, but it costs me a lot to hand them out. Esperate, it’s not because I don’t want to, I’m just afraid they’ll get thrown or lost in a bin of multitudes of words. I didn’t realize how much I truly did yearn for words of endearment and words of approval, yet it’s when I don’t get them from my loves that I realize I need them, me entiendes? My Benjamin shows me everyday that he loves me by his actions. His willingness to care for me and our kids, his patience to help, ves? But when he looks at me and tells me, “I love you Rosie” Hijole! That cold blooded Englishman steals my heart again and again.
Learning to Appreciate
I’m very thankful for my apa. In his old age and in my “mature” years, I’ve been able to look past the days of trouble and appreciate the earthly father God gave me.
For too long I saw his terrible shortcomings and focused on things that I didn’t get from my apa. Now that my apa is gone, now that I’m not too busy taking care of him, I can look back and see what he did give me and I appreciate him.
I know now that I would have loved to hear these words from my apa “Si hija, te aprecio mucho” It was a bit awkward to even write it. Pero, I’ve also learned that his part in my life demonstrated his love and care and I’ve chosen to embrace the love he offered and put it on like a comfortable mantle.
Now I can look back into my experiences with him and see his love for me. Mira, I’ll show you 🙂
Middle School rite of passage
Middle school was a hard season, hay si! Picture every middle schooler in America feeling my extreme pain right now. Let me fill you in, I was desperately and hopelessly in love with a boy who didn’t even know I existed since 5th grade. 3 años! Then, ALL my friends we’re all grown up, they were real teens, I hated when one of my friends said “Oh my god! I’m gonna die, I started my period today” and another said, “Oh I know, I was so bloated last week, all I wanted to eat was limon and chile” I would roll my eyes, so jealous for those terrible pains. Ya se, ya se, there had to be something wrong with me. I was probably the only 13 year old and eighth grade girl in the whole world that didn’t have a period. It was so humiliating when the girls would look at me and ask me with their eyes if it had come and immediately their eyes would pity me. Sometimes we would discuss the whole matter, describing their first cycle, telling me what to expect and what to do. I didn’t want to hear it.
And so it was that I suffered like this well into the school year. Now that I think of it, my poor ama! 4 feisty lil latinas to raise. Patty & I gave up watching for the possible symptoms.
One morning as I dressed for school I fed my moodiness thoughts about how terrible life was treating me. My red polyester dress pants matched my red angry mood. Argh! And that day, the pants were quite apretaditos. I wanted a reason to skip school, but no, what if today would be the day the love of my life noticed me? I walked to school lost in my touchy thoughts. It turned out to be another long hot unnoticed day.
After lunch, we were back in our homeroom classroom. I could hear my dad saying “Para acabarla de amolar”! And to make matters worse, we were having a test. Hot sweaty, sticky, pero I finished my test and got up to turn it in. When I walked back, my friend whispered that I had sat in something, my pants were wet. I turned around and rushed to the teacher for permission to go to the bathroom. I was ready to die! Why in the world hadn’t I noticed? What did I sit in? Ya saben right? My long awaited visitor showed up. Wow! How could I even welcome her with this mess in my hands? I couldn’t go back to the class, I needed to get home? But how? Everyone would know.
I rushed to the nurses office and told her my terrible dilemma. No catching her breath in an “Oh my” She asked how I felt and started trying to figure out how to get a hold of my apa.Que?! Oh no. He worked for the city, he was busy. They just needed to find my big sis Marina. She would take care of this. Worst case scenario was that since I was feeling fine I could walk home alone, she could lend me a sweater from the lost and found to wrap around my waist. I sat there feeling quite miserable, knowing dad wasn’t gonna come, then he walked in. My apa looked at the nurse and thanked her and didn’t ask her any questions. He looked angry, but then again we Zepedas always look angry. I tried not to look at him, I just got up and walked out with him and hopped into his truck. I was worried he would see my stained pants. We had a 5 minute drive to the house, the longest drive de mi vida! He finally asked “Que paso?” and looked over at me. This very brown girl turned dark pink with humiliation! I didn’t know how to tell him, by this point in my life I was a liar and never had any problem making things up. But the dark pink face told another story. “Se mojo el pantalon” Like my pants walked over to a puddle and got wet all on their own. He knew, and he didn’t look angry anymore. That was it. He dropped me off at home and had to get back to work, his break was short. I was relieved, he knew and accepted my story. I was happy, I was an official girl teen, pimples and feminine napkins and everything else!
My ama was surprised, then worried to see me. The “not talking about your period or any femine issues” taboo talk is probably for another conversation, even now I can hear her say “de esas cosas no se hablan”. Somehow like we “women” do, we communicated with our eyes and she provided what I needed for this very important passage.
I never forgot this moment with my apa, but only these days have I been able to grasp the covering of love my apa gave me that school day, in this small detail, which was HUMUNGOUS for me, with very few words he participated in this growing up passage of my life.
The Gift of Healing
Sabes, he has given me, given us, my siblings too, some more invaluable words and a view of what his heart was experiencing as he transitioned into the very difficult tercera edad.
Very slowly I’ve been gleaning still through his belongings and his paperwork and to my delight I discovered some of his journal pages. Refreshing, like our San Diego breeze.
His life turned upside down at 80, otra vez, I’ll have to tell you in a different conversation about his 80th year. It seems that he tried to cope with the difficulties through journaling. He wrote on his 81 birthday “This year was very hard for me because of the things that happened to my body…Thank God that he helped me so much. Also, I’m very grateful with all my children who all gave me their support and help”
Can you feel what this dramatic latina felt when she read those words of approval and appreciation she longed for? I am shouting on the mountain tops, telling the whole world, my apa wrote, bien clarito, about his appreciation for us.
My apa has given me a valuable gift of words this fathers day, written in his own script.
Feliz Dia de los Padres!!
Happy fathers day to all fathers and men who step in the gap to fill those fatherly needs. A personal hats off to daddys who give a part of themselves to their little girls, press on, don’t let their dramatics intimidate you, hopefully and thankfully we grow up to appreciate our apas.
Mourning has seven stages. The mourning process is a difficult passage that requires time and grace. Mourning will take you to sweet memories and then cast you into darkness. You plan your day, it’s going to be a good one. Then one thing, anything, will trigger a memory. If you’re all alone you’ll find yourself crumbled up in a heap of tears. I’ve walked this road three other times and I still don’t know what stage I’m in today.
This afternoon at the grocery store I saw a man walking with his elderly father. A frail old man who was being led by his son (at least that’s what I imagine). The son impatiently prodded him from behind to make his father walk faster. The viejito took those tiny steps as quickly as he could. I held my breath as I watched him, ready to run and catch him if he fell. Every step, every movement was a victory for him. I was happy and I was sad for him.
Once upon a time that son was being led by his father. We never think that it’ll happen to us. My dad was too strong to have his body weakened by age. His back was not supposed to give out at eighty years old!
I Don’t Want To Get Old
Once, when I was fifteen I overheard him say, “I don’t want to live to be an old man.” My snotty teenage self thought, “Dad you’re already an old man!” He was fifty-five, didn’t he realize that was more than half-way to one hundred?! Yikes! That’s my age now.
My father hated the humiliation of a weakened body. I hated it too! Every time I lifted his arms to dress him, his skin hung on him, I was sorry for him, I did not like that either. I realize now that I was already mourning.
La Tercera Edad
The english word for a person over 65 is “senior”. My apa was a newlywed for the second time at his senior age of 65! In spanish, it’s calledla tercera edad. Think about it. We carry a baby into the third trimester and at the end of that tercer tremestre that baby passes that birth canal and takes his first breath, a very difficult passage. La tercera edad is like that. Not everyone gets to live on that stage and my dad didn’t even want to be on it. Many times he murmured his frustration that he was done living. I got to the point that I would say “Dad, you need to bring that complaint to God”
As difficult as that stage was, I thank God so much that he gave us these years. Despite the cloud of dementia we managed to get through the difficult conversations and confront past violations. We faced that terrible pride looking kind of haughty as we took it on. It has destroyed relationships and deceived us into a corner of fear and rejection. Many times we were able to push the dementia aside and make sweet memories. Of course the many years of “no relationship” wants to accuse me at times. I do find myself wondering if my apa loved me. He didn’t say those actual words to me, and when I finally said them to him I’m not sure if he heard me.
His tercera edad affected us so much. I cringed every time my big sister called him “daddy”. It made her so vulnerable. We couldn’t be vulnerable, we had to be strong as we helped him get through that dark and scary valley. When we were little and the earthquakes would wake us up at night we would run to my apa and amas bed. There in their bed he would protect us.
Toward the end of last year, I grumbled a lot about the constant repeated conversation “AAYY!” I’d go down the hallway, no longer running because I knew the routine. “Que Paso Apa?” He thought I left him again. It was wearing me down. “Cuando nos vamos a la casa?” “You are home Dad.” He knew he wasn’t home. “Donde esta Lupe?” “Your wife died Dad.”
Why didn’t he ever ask for Chuy? My mom was forgotten to him and it hurt so much to know it. I cried many times over, so conflicted with emotions. I was angry that he did know what he was saying! I mourned my shut up life. I felt guilty that I felt so much, what a selfish daughter I was! I was exhausted.
Then, he turned ninety-six. By this point in his life, his last month he was spending all his days in bed. He was shocked to know he was so old and when he said again for the millionth and one time “ya estoy listo para el arrastre” My usual response was “Well only God knows when you’ll be ready to be buried Dad” But this time, he was. It’s what we were expecting, yet it was so shockingly unexpected. We were barely able to warn our brothers.
Just like that! In a few days, he breathed his last breath and was gone. My nephews drove up from the Valley and missed him by fifteen minutes. He could no longer wait for them.
Suddenly, his cluttered room with all his equipment and endless supplies was empty of him. He couldn’t be gone! Wasn’t it supposed to be dramatic? Shouldn’t my sister and brother have seen that last breath leave his body? How could he slip quietly away, I wasn’t even in the room. He never listened. I had specifically told him that morning “Apa, por favor. I want to be right here with you when you leave.”
Packing It All Up
Hospice took his bed and oxygen tank. Any supplies that they lent us were swept away. My sis and I kept ourselves busy with clearing things out. But now, all the little things that are left fill his room and it feels like he’s there again. I have to finish up his room. I have to move forward. Things are going back to normal, whatever that is. Business as usual.
I got busy with emptying out my fathers room. My plan was to just get rid of everything my sis didn’t take. It should have been easy to do. Bag it up and designate donations or trash.
I didn’t realize I was avoiding the chore. I didn’t know I was deeply missing my apa. I mean, my goodness I am now able to leave my house. I can sleep through the night. I am not anxious, nor is my dad. It was the final stage; la tercera edad and he so graciously and quietly crossed the finish line. You know, he was like that always, quiet smiles when he was happy, quiet firm stares when he had to take care of business. He never had to raise his voice at us. My ama on the other hand, let’s put it this way, I was blessed with her vocal chords.
It’s over now. His room is almost empty. I picked up his keys and I went to toss them in the trash. As they dropped into the can I remembered the arguments we would have about him needing his keys. His car and house keys. Wait! It was my house too! The keys to the house on 511 E. Delta street were still on the ring. I had so much to clear out and keys were stopping me?!
Every episode, any little thing that provokes me I share it with my big sis. I miss her too. When dad left, her week long monthly visits to my house ended. Mourning kind of piles up. So with my apa gone, I miss my ama more than ever. With my ama gone I miss my sisters.
In mourning as you heal, you always water that memory garden, sometimes it is with your tears.
Back to where I left the viejito and his son . I wanted to judge that son and criticize his impatience, then I remembered my recent journey. Trips to the grocery store were a burden to me, but for dad they were his delight. Dementia affected his memory but not his sharp mind. He paid attention to details when we were on the road. He loved to watch all the interesting people almost as much as he enjoyed watching and hearing the birds. I wish I could have told that son to enjoy his apa, because even though you know that last passage is coming, it still catches you off guard.
Mourning comes and goes like the ocean waves. Hope is very key, while they cannot come back to us, I can live my life so that I can go to my apa, ama and my sisters.
Have you lost a loved one? How are you coping with life?
So today, it seems like I really turned the last page of Dad in my present. Is it possible to lose a parent at 55 and feel orphaned? I know, that’s weird, coming from a grandmother of 7. Losing dad seemed to unravel each of us (myself and my siblings). Who will keep us connected now?
In order to stay away from the “should haves” (You know how it is when you look back at something, the “I should haves,” and the, “Porque no lo hice asi mejor? torment”) I’ve been on memory lane, any little thing will trigger a memory, and I’m choosing to bask in the good ones.
A memorial service is a big trigger. We celebrated my dad’s life surrounded by family; my flesh and blood and God’s family.
How do you sum up almost 100 years?
As I prepared for the memorial, I had to figure out what I would stand up and say. I think it’s the unspoken rule that Eulogies must be short and concise. Maybe because people can’t sit for too long, a service over an hour will make people fidgety and they start checking their phones.
I could tell everyone about the bloody grass cutting accident dad had, drama always keeps you listening huh? Ok, I’ll tell you this much. Dad was moving along cutting the grass, I was outside (my favorite place to be, outdoors) the loud noise of the lawn mower chugging along, when all of a sudden! (someone onced teased me, saying that Mexican Americans use the dramatic “all of a sudden!” a lot, when telling their stories, it fits right here) there’s a bang! And a clunk! The machine died, and there’s a wire clear through my dad’s ankle! Yikes! Then, Dad pulled it out, ARGH! with one yank (yes, if you’re grimacing, you should be, it was nasty) blood gushed out like crazy! Then Comadre Chala, who was also outside working on her plants came running, saw the mess and went and brought coffee grounds to stop the bleeding! (I know, leave it to the comadres to come up with the crazy remedies.)
Maybe I would have time to squeeze in some trivia and tell everyone that my dad ran for mayor in our little city of Calipatria! He might have won, not being a politician he wasn’t quite saavy, he was short on campaign funds, regardless,he was a well respected person in the community.
I pulled out memories to share with anyone that would listen, memories are at the tip of my tongue, but, in this moment I had to do it in 5-7 minutes. Which memory would tell the most about my dad? His strength, his good looks, his swag that could easily reveal a twinkle in his eye and a half smile.
When I stood up to speak, I wondered out loud, how do you sum up almost one hundred years of living in a few minutes? Not possible. I wanted everyone to know what a strong man my dad was. They had to hear about the “conejos” that bounced up down inside mi apas bicep? He enjoyed watching our eyes get wide with excitement as we saw his muscles flexing. I wanted them to picture his vigor and sharp stance in his Levi jeans, cowboy boots and hat. I wanted everyone to feel the weight of his life experiences and be amazed at his perseverance.
In those short moments as I spoke, the memory of El Cocoy came forward, like he always did for dad, that victory was unforgettable. El Cocoy was the boy from his childhood, I told everyone why dad remembered him so well, then I forgot to circle back as the eulogy went on. I didn’t tell the story! How did I neglect dad’s favorite story? This story represented one of his strongest convictions.
El Cocoy, The Bully Who Pushed Dad To Stand
El Cocoy was the school bully. He was older and bigger and he was king of the school yard. You know the script, what he wanted he got. In that little mining town with those little boys the most he got was a marble or a taco, but for these little boys it was everything, and they couldn’t stop this punk from pushing them around. Dad was scared of him too, he had lost plenty of tacos and a marble or two to this stinking bully. When my dad told the story, he was like a little kid describing an insurmountable foe, his eyebrows coming together as he frowned at the memory.
One day as the time for break was approaching, Senorita Marcelina (Dad said this teacher was a corajuda, yikes! He didn’t mess with her) assigned clean up of the pizarron to el Cocoy and released the other kids for their break. El Cocoy said “Que me ayude Zepeda” But dad was gone. He had jumped on an opportunity to enjoy the break without Cocoy taking something from him or threatening him, let Cocoy do the work, lazy bum!
There he was enjoying his break, in perfect position to win a marble. Aiming, when all of a sudden, someone shoved him from behind and he went sprawling to the ground. (Dad usually positioned himself, arms pulled back, to mimic the hard shove he got that day) He was mad. That’s too mild. He saw red, and without skipping a beat he stood up swinging. The boys were in a tangled mess, punching and grabbing at each other. Dad saw red again, this time for real, he saw blood and that fueled him on. (He never did clarify if his nose or Cocoys nose was bleeding) He went at Cocoy with ferocious strength. The kids in the yard were cheering and yelling until someone said, “Hay viene la maestra” and everyone dispersed. Senorita Marcelina grabbed each boy to separate them and sent them to the creek to wash up and get to class. At the creek dad eyed Cocoy, Cocoy eyed him. Dad said they were like dogs, with the hair on their necks raised, they almost growled, ready to pounce with any sudden move. They made it back to class and dad never again had trouble with El Cocoy.
That story seared a lesson into his brain that he passed on to us. He didn’t want us going around looking for fights, but he also didn’t want us cowering because of fear. He wanted us to fight for what was rightfully ours. Our position, reputation and our peace.
What Will Hold Us Together Now?
When my mom passed away 30 years ago the ties that held my family together loosened, now it seems as if they have almost come undone.
The day dad passed, I was right there in his room early in the morning, I didn’t know what else to do, I was losing my grip on family, crying, groaning from the pit of my stomach. I couldn’t fix my family and dad was leaving!
Thankfully, God’s not easily offended, he put himself right there in the midst of us and handled my complaint. I was tired and he comforted me as I groaned in sorrow. Then, I felt pressed to make a pact with my dad about my siblings. I was torn and weary, I didn’t want to work so hard for relationship, I wanted to hide behind the wall of pride. But, I went to his bedside, and as I heard dad struggling to breath, the oxygen failed to give him what he needed.
With Jesus as our witness I told my dad between sobs that I loved my siblings, that I did need them, it was so hard to tell them to their face though and I needed strength that was way beyond my capability. I told my dad not to worry, I promised him that I would never give up. Promising to love, pray and reach out to my siblings just as my ama would want, then dad went home to rest that afternoon.
My dad went home on a Sunday afternoon; December 20th at 2:15 (He asked everyday when he would go home). He had just turned the corner into his 96 birthday. I don’t think a short post can uncover much about the life of a 96 year old man, so this is only a snippet of his journey here on earth.
Manuel, my apa, was born just after the Mexican Revolution (The Mexican Revolution! Pancho Villa?! Wow! I was super intrigued to know that his grandfather and father had been in and around the fringes of that dangerous era.) The Revolution had brought government changes and economic changes for some, but in the end, El Pobre remained poor and struggling. In those days Mexico was bursting with riches in precious metals; gold and silver and he always said “Los Americanos supieron como sacarlo” because the Americans had the money and knowledge to invest in those gold mines. In the Central Mexican hills and valleys of Jalisco through the quick response and hustle of the Americans, a mining town was birthed; El Mineral del Amparo. (My dad always said “los gringos”, I discovered that it was the description of all the whites; European and Americanwho lived and worked in the town). He would share his stories with me during our visits and when he splashed history facts I always went home to research them. One day, as he began to tell me another story, I mentioned how impressed I was about his knowledge of history, I thought I was being generous by telling him that his facts were right, according to Google. With a twinkle in his eye and not a little indignation, he laughed and said “You’re double checking my facts on my history?” Yikes!)
My grandfather brought his new wife to El Amparo and here they started their life together, The Mining Company was his way of surviving outside of working in an hacienda. My dad was the first of nine children. (Since most Mexican families were this large, it’s not something to wow over,) As I heard some stories, I have been amazed at the resilience of man. My abuelo worked hard in the mines and my abuela was very resourceful helping ends meet in the home. Tortillas and frijoles, essentials in every Mexican home.
Dad shared many stories and descriptions of his childhood in this little mining town. Here it is hidden in the valleys, obscure, yet not without culture. He told me of the cinemas and theatres, the large mercado, the mill for grinding maiz, Don Lucios ice cream shop and, the taxi driver (really, it sounded more like Uber, before Uber :D) See the town had to be outfitted for the Americans that lived there and the working Mexicans mostly enjoyed it from afar, but every once in a while with a centavo or two my dad would go right smack in the middle of the town square and partake. There in the center of it all, the boys would enjoy a game of canicas, a time to gamble their marbles. Whenever he described it, it was always with a bit of pride that he too had experienced the rich culture of society; he went to the cinema a time or two and he saw the theatre from afar.
My Dad wanted to see more of the world. He visited his grandfather who ran a huerta and learned about planting and harvesting. For a season he wandered trying to find his place in the world, picking up various farming skills along the way. Then, he heard the call for el Norte and responded immediately. Baja California was the bridge that brought him into Los Estados Unidos de America.
Dad went back home to Jalisco and got married, had two boys and went back to Baja, (Wow! What happened to the love story right? That’s for another post) where he spent a few years living in Mexicali and working across the border. It was probably a good transition time for mom, besides, she was busy having babies! During this time their family grew from four to eight (They were a fruitful couple, and they weren’t done because two more would come, pero, on the other side :D)
He landed in the Imperial Valley and stayed for the next seventy years! He connected with men, patrones that gave him learning opportunities. He learned about agriculture and intricate details of the irrigation system for watering the fields and he also learned about horses and machinery. He earned his way most of his life this way. He worked for the city of Calipatria, he was a night watchman for a cattle company, he had lots of work experience. (You can imagine my reaction when the young man trying to get details on his death certificate said can we write that he was a “farm hand”. All that wealth of experience reduced to that?!) My dad’s favorite experiences were with horses and sheep. One of those patrones hired him to herd sheep in the mountains of Utah. Although it was a lonely job, he loved the whole vaquero swag. His companion in those months out in the cold Sierra mountains was a sheep dog named Cazam. He had already started sporting the cowboy hat and Levi jeans but this season seemed to legitimize his stilo and honestly, it suited him well, my apa was a handsome fellow.
One beautiful sunny San Diego afternoon, I took Dad out to get his vitamin D; sunshine and fresh air. My apa is 96 years old and suffers from dementia and needs full time care. This day he was enjoying the birds and the garden. Right there, in the midst of the birds and the butterflies, all of a sudden, it hit me that I knew nothing about my father’s tamal experiences!
(Ya se, Ya se! I know you’re wondering why tamales are so important. Well because, tamales have become quite relevant to me lately as I’ve discovered “purchasing tamales” I feel your SMH disbelief, for this Mexican American girl, but I’ve become acquainted with Texas Lone Star Tamales, and I’ve tasted and enjoyed the luxury of eating delicious tamales that I didn’t labor over.)
I had to know something about mi apas tamal experiences. How was that possible? Maiz, masa, tortillas, these were an important part of my dad’s daily life. I’m sure there had to be a tamal story in all those memories.
Traigan los tamales!
I threw the tamal conversation out, pushing dad to unwrap those memories.
“Apa do you like tamales? Did your mother; mi abuela Rosario, make them?”
Of course, I knew she had to make tamales, I felt silly to even ask.
Dad drew his eyes away from the chirping birds to answer the obvious.
“Yes I do, and she did.”
He turned his head back to the singing of the birds, I could tell tamales didn’t start up the engine of his memory train, he needed another boost.
“Apa, what was it like?”
He looked at me like I was from Mars. Didn’t little boys or young men pay attention to the details of making tamales? (Probably not) Weren‘t tamales a big deal in his world? Of course they were! Maiz was an essential necessity for survival still, 1930s in Mexico was exceptionally difficult for raising a large family. (Maybe he just forgot the conversation?)
“You know, what was it like when your mom made tamales? Did you help?”
“I don’t really know. I remember she was busy. When she made them, she was up and down, kind of everywhere. Look! Those look like crows, chattering away, busy trying to get their meal. Do you hear them?”
Now what? That was it? If that was the whole tamal story it was pretty bland. What exactly went with all of the busyness he saw during tamal making? Where were all the details? I kept envisioning my own memories, my mother leaning over the olla filled with masa, a huge pot that she was almost too short to stand over. Stirring and kneading as she prepared it. Did the smell of cooking meats fill his mother’s cooking area?
“Mmmm, what kind of tamales did she make?”
Dad stared at the birds with regret, sad as he remembered his ama.
“Pork. Well, I don’t really know, maybe chicken, yes there had to be chicken. Definitely she made pork though.”
Now we both listened to the singing of the birds getting lost in those tamal moments.
“You’re probably right, but maybe she made chicken tamales like my mom did. Which ones did you like best?”
Now, he seemed to be rebooting those long term memories, evoking those images of his mother making and serving tamales.
Tamales Blancos (Does that mean gringo tamales?)
“ Well, I’m sure they were all very good. But the ones I remember clearly are those tamales blancos for sure.
Yes! I struck gold! Oooh, my abuela had her own special tamales.
“Oh yea? White tamales. They didn’t have any kind of chile sauce huh?
My father’s usually serious face lit up with a smirk on his face and a twinkle in his eyes.
“That’s right. No sauce. No meat. Just the masa, (Wow! What would those “masa to filling” ratio police say to that?!) kneaded and prepared with a perfect amount of salt!”
What?! These were mi abuelas special tamales? These are the ones he remembered most?
“White tamales; plain salted masa salted wrapped in the corn husk. Why did she do that?”
The smile remained on his face as he explained.
“Those were the ones mi ama made for us kids, a lot of mouths to feed.”
With nine children to feed and wanting to be hospitable to her vecinos she had to stretch the wealth, Ah! my abuelas tamales blancos, werea practical meal that kept everyone fed.
“ Did you like them?”
Dad looked around and lowered his voice.
“Not really, but I made the most of it. After all, that was what was offered. She would have us line up to get our meal; in this case our tamal, and we’d go off to eat it”
I was kind of feeling sorry for him, imagining that I probably wouldn’t have eaten them.
“Doesn’t sound too exciting to eat a cooked ball of masa.”
“She served them with coffee. (There it is again, coffee for the kids, yikes!) It was the only way I could get it down.”
“Wow dad! So you never had the meat tamales she made?”
Dad’s eyes sparked with mischief and his eyebrows danced as he remembered those tamales.
“I did. A la desquidada, on the sly, when she wasn’t looking I’d snatch a meat one. It was easy since there were eight other kids distracting her for a tamal. Those were the good tamales. Si, they were pork and I didn’t need coffee.”