It’s the end of harvest season here in New Mexico. For several weeks I’ve been drying herbs and tomatoes, freezing apricots, canning grape jelly and tomatillo salsa. We’ve got several bags of roasted green chile at easy reach in the freezer. These goodies will provide some sustenance in the coming months, but more importantly, they’re a kind of spiritual foot wedged against the door of winter gloom. They’re an attempt to preserve hope and light, until the days start warming and lengthening again.
After Dad died this past winter, we moved Mom into an assisted living facility in August. Mom thrived there, meeting everyone, trying everything, in a down-to-earth “of course!” sort of way. I started calling her a 90-year-old social butterfly. The staff nicknamed her “Smiley.” I often couldn’t reach her in her room because she was taking a class or at a social event in the building.
“I was just watching a movie,” she said one day when I caught her on her cell phone.
“Are you still in the theater?” I asked, preparing to remind her to leave the room before we started talking.
“No, I’m just walking out,” she said, “but I’ll close the door. There’s just one other person in there anyway, some old man.”
“He’s probably telling his friends, ‘There’s just one other person in here, some old lady,’” I said.
“No,” Mom said, without a trace of irony, “there was an old lady in there before, but she already left.” She didn’t see herself as an old woman at 90, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to call her one.
There’s mundane stuff in those recordings too: chit-chat, accounts of what she had for dinner or how she slept the night before, and the generic “no one is available” message on her answering machine. What came through was how she was approaching this new chapter in life — widowhood — with an enthusiasm that none of us could have anticipated, least of all her.
“I had a good life,” she said often in the days and weeks after Dad died. “I was a lucky woman, let me tell you, I was one lucky woman.”
A few months later I noticed she’d started talking about her life in present tense again. “I’m so happy here,” she’d say. “You know, getting old is really pretty good!” — always with a nod to the future, a sense that she’d be seeing Dad again soon, but with an overarching appreciation of her life in the present.
Losing Dad made me so much more aware of the eventuality of losing Mom. So I collected these stories, these words, these feelings, like little petals and berries I might make something out of later, or preserve in the pages of a book, or just save in a jar. Perhaps they couldn’t really protect me from the eventual winter of grief, but maybe they’d help with another kind of sustenance.
One morning in early November, just after I woke up, I heard three voicemails that my brother had left in the middle of the night: Mom had a heart attack.
Just that afternoon, Mom called to tell me about a bridge class at the senior center. “Some of these old people can’t remember how to play anymore, but we let them play anyway,” she said. We joked about that.
That evening, she had been dancing and singing, with her walker, all the way down the hall from her room to the dining room. One of the aides in the senior center tried to get her to slow down so she wouldn’t fall.
“I can’t help it!” Mom said. “I’m so happy!” That night her heart stopped and she died.
I could think for a long time about what this means. Did she have a deeper sense of awareness that she was going to be dying soon, and she was happy that she would be seeing her beloved Mike again?
I don’t know, I don’t really need to know, but those memories of her last moments walking and dancing around on this planet are sweet. It was as if life had given her a fifth season, one not recorded in the almanac or calendar, an unexpected season with unpredicted fruits. I’m delighted she had a chance to live it, and that I was able to see her savor it.
Oh, don’t these shorter, colder days sharpen our urge for connection with friends and family, and for rituals of light and hope! We have several exquisite articles in this issue on the theme of “Tradition” — rediscovered, reexamined, recreated, perhaps rejected.
Jocelyn Salaz, native of Cuba, New Mexico, shares memories of baking biscochitos and other treats with her grandma and family, and the priceless ways that family members support one another in hard times. You’ll find it in English (“The Secret Ingredient”) and in Spanish (“El ingredient secreto”), translated by Flor de María Óliva.
Alicia Inez Guzmán, Tumbleweeds' assistant editor, also writes about the biscochito,
New Mexico’s beloved New Mexico state cookie, and the intercontinental journey of its key spice, anise (“Global Goodies”). Did a batch of her mother’s cookies actually help Alicia pass her doctoral dissertation? Let’s just say, I call her, “Dr. Biscochito.”
Haley Loveless, board member of the Santa Fe Youth Symphony Association, describes the ways youth music concerts continue the age-old tradition of caroling (“In The Footsteps of Carolers”).
Jennifer West of The Food Depot encourages developing a family tradition of giving and helping, at the annual Souper Bowl fundraiser (Feb. 2 at the Santa Fe Convention Center), or a host of other charitable opportunities throughout the year (“Serve it Up!”).
New mom Lisa Moore plumbs how parenthood has changed her own sense of tradition, and its relevance in her present-day life (“Traditions Reborn”).
Los Alamos-based writer and editor Natanya Civjan describes her journey of rediscovering and recombining traditions in a religiously and culturally-blended family, as her young children grow up (“A Picnic Basket of Faith”).
Helen McDonald, director of La Casita Preschool, shares her gentle wisdom about navigating holidays with young children, in this season that can be so overloading to little bodies and minds (“Tending the Hearth”).
Whitney Spivey, author of the new children’s book Goodnight, Los Alamos,and a world snowshoe-racing champion (yes, there is such a thing), passes down another sort of tradition to her twin daughters: her love of snowshoeing, and in a broader sense, love for the outdoors and athleticism (“Walking in a Winter Wonderland”).
Also in this issue, you’ll find Abby Bordner’s suggestions for the five most important things you can do for your newborn baby, and Rev. Talitha Arnold’s thoughts on helping children (and ourselves) through the dark seasons of the calendar and of our personal and social lives. You’ll see: It’s an exquisite issue.
For my part, I’ve been reconnecting with traditions of another inevitable, transformative aspect of life: grief. My Jewish heritage observes the ritual of shiva, an intensive mourning period in the days after the death of a loved one. It’s a cleansing experience. Friends and family bring food, company, a caring ear or just a quiet presence. You may have similar rituals, from your faith tradition or other avenues. Every experience of grief, I’ve come to believe, is unique, but each one springs from a shared pool of feeling and understanding.
Several years ago, I dreamt I was on a trip to France, a place that has figured prominently in my dream journeys. Just as I got to my hotel room, I heard the phone ring. Even before I picked it, I knew it was my mother.
“She always knows how to reach me,” I thought, rolling my eyes. “Even on the other side of the world, Mom knows where I am.” And then, still in the dream, I thought, “That’s not such a bad thing.”
Mama, you always know how to reach me. I’ll feel you in a beautiful flower, a cute kid I see on the street, a great meal, the color yellow. And I know how to reach you, too. I love you.
And to you, dear readers, I wish a joyous, safe and healthy season, in the presence of loved ones in body and heart. Keep reading, and keep in touch.