Once we went to your house for the afternoon. You met my brother and I with a gleeful smile, telling us you had a “little project”. The project turned out to be a veritable forest of cut willow you wanted neatly bundled into latillas for her ceiling. Here we were, teens with all the bad attitude and slump inherent in the years between twelve and twenty and somehow, we enjoyed the project. Swept up in the tide of your enthusiasm, we enjoyed the simple, rhythm of our task and the supple bend of the sticks in our hands. Later, you fed us soup and tortillas on a pile of adobe bricks. That day, bellies full and backs warmed by the sun, we were all part of your growing home.
“You know,” my Dad said once, “she could have been a beauty queen. The real deal, Miss America and everything, but here she is out here in the sticks. A real diamond in the rough.”
Back in 1984, when I was a junior in high school, I brought home one of my first dates, a tall, shy fellow that I thought was the living end. A city boy, he had no idea that he shouldn’t drive his little car all the way to the bottom of my steep and icy driveway and we were immediately stuck. After a few tense, tire-spinning moments, we ventured into the house to enlist the aid of my parents and walked right into the Australia slide show. You and my dad and my stepmother had been drinking wine, clicking through slides and re-living your travels and your welcome was, shall we say, most effusive. My tall, shy date suddenly became a bit taller and a lot shyer. Arriving near the end of the show we were just in time for a series of photos of you and my stepmother in teeny, tiny bikinis culminating in a grand nude beach finale. The last slide clicked up and the carousel rotated, leaving a bright square of white on the screen and my Dad lurched up and outside to heave against the tail end of my date’s car and shout directions over the roar of the engine. I huddled on the sidelines and prayed for this night to end. When the car was finally unstuck, Dad gave me a wink and left my date and me for a moment alone in the driveway, but my date was flustered and fled into the night and I returned, unkissed, to the company of these so-called “adults.” I collapsed into a chair and you leaned over me and, put your cheek against mine and said, “our girl’s all grown up.” I leaned back against you and felt the weight of your hair on my shoulders like a mantle.
You are one of my stepmother's dearest friends. I grew up watching her get decked out for her annual holiday lunch with your merry trio. She’d pull on a pair of tall leather boots, a furry skirt from Panama, perhaps a silver sequined tube top or a spangly cardigan that belonged to her Grandmother. I knew that in two other houses a similar costuming was underway. In my twenties, I was asked to join this threesome for holiday sushi and this invitation was enough to make me feel that I had become a woman. Since then, I’ve raised a fair number of champagne flutes with you, my self-proclaimed “Auntie.”
On one of these outings, your car wouldn’t start and we all stood shivering and laughing in the snow in our jewel toned dress up clothes while you poured a can of Coca-Cola over the encrusted battery poles and banged on the thing with a wrench. When the truck turned over and revved to a steady chug, we all cheered and hugged and I wished we could start the night all over again.
In the first hard months after my Dad died, at least once a week, I’d find an envelope addressed in your elegant looping hand. Inside there might be a clipping from a local paper, a photograph or a couple of postcards. Sometimes you wrote a long letter, but often there were just a few scattered post-it notes with hearts and exclamation points. It was not until some time later that I realized you weren't just sending me articles, you were reminding me that you were there, that you cared. From two states away, you were keeping me company in my grief.
Just as long ago, I had a hand in building your home, you have had a hand in building me.
I am sending you love.