Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Blessed Art Thou.

Years ago, when cleaning out a storage area, my mom gave me a large, dusty container filled with various linens. She said they belonged to her mother, who had amassed a large collection from her mother. Although I regular champion the cause of decluttering, delivering uninvited sermons on a regular basis about the merits of  mercilessly rooting out and eliminating all hoarding tendencies, my mom still knew my affinity for the seemingly impractical yet romantic things of the world. She wisely figured that a collection of handmade doilies smelling faintly of must and cigarette smoke would only have a chance of survival if left under my care.

I stored them away for a couple years - unable to muster the grit to say goodbye during my semi-annual garage purges. I wasn't sure if I loved or hated myself for the attachment. The jury was still out as we carried the container between moves and across statelines. All I knew was that I simply didn't have time to render final judgment on whether or not the contents of the mysterious box stayed or went out with the goodwill piles.

I finally found time to sort through the pile of cloth last month. Among countless doilies and half finished, cross-stitched runners (which I love), I found these unbelievably, amazing, gorgeous, pinch-me-beautiful old tablecloths.

I excitedly texted photos to my Mom, who mentioned that they were probably worth a fair amount of money. They will not be sold. Nor, stored away in a hutch for display only to be retrieved on special holiday occasion. I decided I will use them. For Sunday family meals. Such times are sacred enough in an otherwise manic, microwave-meal sort of world. I like to think my deceased grandmother, Mary Jane Bergese Amaro, would agree.

My grandma was a large, colorful, Portuguese woman with enormous breasts that literally suffocated you when held in her grandmotherly embrace. Once you emerged for air and managed to untangle yourself from the long crucifix necklace around her neck, you could stand far back enough to momentarily examine the trace whisker growing from her chin. She had a distinct, grandma sort of smell. Perfume laced with the slightest bit of old lady. A smell that I'm really quite fond of. She wore orthopedic white shoes, complained of her bodily ailments with brief grunts, and regularly prayed the rosary each night before bed. 

We visited with her a few times a year, when we either managed to make the trip to the farmlands of the Sacramento area, or when good ole' Mary Jane tortured our Grandpa Al with a drive over the mountain pass to our home. On the few times I had the good fortune to ride as a passenger witness, I'd watch from the back seat as she gasped for breath and clenched the handles of the door nervously,  constantly bracing herself for perceived impact while alternating between making the sign of the cross and using the Lord's name in vain. This was her standard, protocol reaction to Grandpa Al driving a reckless 47 miles per hour down the slow lane of the highway. 

They always arrived with a trunk filled to the brim with fresh, California produce. The kind you purchase at farm-stands along the side of the road. It was completely dreamy, especially to a Nevada desert kid like me who had been mistakenly born in the wrong climate. As they would open up the car you could just smell the air of California with the crate of fresh bell peppers that our family would inevitably never eat. They also brought a large tub of licorice, and big liters of Coca Cola and Mountain Dew. My mother would shoo us away as we lunged for the desired carbonated goods, annoyed with the fact that Grandma Amaro willfully chose to repeatedly ignore the fact that for a circa 1995 Mormon family, Coca Cola was widely rumored to be on the list of forbidden beverages. Hmmmff. Grandma Amaro. Catholic.

Grandma took her professed Catholic faith very seriously, something which served as a source of wonder and mystery to us grandkids when we'd visit her home. While there, we always slept in what seemed to be her personal holy grotto, a detached office and living quarters in the back of Grandpa Al's pristinely landscaped California backyard. The yard always smelled of fresh lemon blossoms and the carefully laid brick path led into a room filled with dozens of statues of Catholic Saints and candles. Some were as tall as we were. Looming, stone-carved eyes of veneration surrounded us upon entry, with Saints crying tears that had been crystallized on their porcelain faces, holding crosses or naked babies with with adult-like facial features. It was a scandalous, visual feast that greeted our little Mormon eyes at every turn. It scared my younger siblings late at night to be sleeping next to Saint Agatha or Augustine, staring down at them, weeping. Personally, I relished its Da-Vinci Code vibe and spent most of those night hours imagining myself as an enchanted, fully-garbed nun tucked away in a medieval monastery in Europe.

When morning came round, we would listen in wide-eyed amazement as Grandma would tell us of Manuel, her elderly hispanic neighbor who regularly met apparitions of our Lady of Guadalupe on his back lawn. She would pull down a binder, with carefully laminated pages of documentation, pointing to photographs she had taken of the particularly greener patches of grass in his backyard; clearly the indisputable proof of the monthly miraculous appearance. She would direct us and say "Look at dis. And dis. And dis!"

I had always assumed her mispronunciation of the word "this" was a remnant of her Portuguese heritage; the product of a good, authentic foreign accent passed down along with colorful mosaic tiles and chinaware. I didn't figure out until more recently that she was born and raised in Hawaii. That really rocked my world. Anyways, even as naive children, we casually dismissed Grandma Amaro's declarations of faith, preferring our much more sane and superior religious narratives about angels with swords and golden plates swallowed up in mountainsides and three tier-ed heavens, all made accessible by peering into stones. Don't listen to Grandma, we'd whisper...she thinks you're eating Jesus during the Sacrament! She even prays to a GIRL!

{Hand embroidered. Scalloped edges. Portuguese. Perfection.} 

Most every Easter, we would attend Mass with Grandma Mary. Wearing our Easter Sunday best, we would walk with our mother, and her mother, across the street to the church, a small sanctuary brimming with fresh lily flowers and ancient ritual. The pews would fill with families, the congregation peppered with elderly women's heads, covered in lace. Incense filled the walkways, carrying with it the prayers of the people, circling aromatically towards heaven. The priest proceeded along the stone path to the decorated altar, wearing white robes which symbolized reverence for the blessed mother Mary and the celebration of Christ's renewal, victory, and resurrection. Later, we would hunt for treats and eat the glazed ham that Grandma had prepared in her small kitchen. 

I still miss Easters there.  

I can feel her in these cloths, my Grandma Amaro, as crazy as it seems. That is just the sort of idealized, romanticized statement any family member would expect me to say. But it's true, damn it! Am I crazy? I am crazy.

Mary Jane was a unique and complicated woman, a reality I continue to discover as time passes, even long after her death. Merely tracing out her children's multiple paternal lineages has made more sense of her almost compulsive need to pray the rosary nightly in her later years. I imagine that after confessing her more scandalized {and even downright shocking} past with multiple men to the wise priest, she was instructed at some point that she probably needed to pray an approximate 7 million Hail Mary's to clean that mess up. Most likely a Listen girl, you best start prayin' and beggin' Jesus' Mama to help YOU out kind of advice.

She was complex and secretive and difficult to understand in many ways, but also simple in the universal fact that she was human. And by my recollection, a very loving and inviting one at that. I definitely loved my Grandma Mary.

My Mom frequently remarks that I remind her of Grandma, with my love of cooking and affinity for fresh produce. I am happy she lives on, particularly in my passion for stuffed bell peppers that nobody else enjoys quite like I do. 

This Thanksgiving, I will use these tablecloths for my first official time hosting family in our home. And true to my penchant for daydreaming, when I shake them loose and look them over, I will wonder about the few generations of women who owned these linens. 

She who laundered, who scrubbed their small stains and folded and tucked them away for the next meal. Meals on hot, hurried days. Meals on holidays. Meals hosting family or friends. Meals welcoming one in on a freezing, wintery evening. Meals prepared with care that had been simmering in the small kitchen throughout the day. Meals prepared in haste for hungry mouths and served up by tired, overworked hands.   

I can feel the work of women who didn't have the convenience of take-out. I can feel the luxury they must have felt running their fingers over the colorful stitching as they unfolded and pressed the scalloped seams in preparation. I can feel her satisfaction over a well set table. I can feel the resolve of a single mom, trying to feed her children, regretful of failed relationships, poor decisions and vulnerable choices. I can feel the fatigue, and the ordinary, and the extraordinary of a life spent cooking for the people you love. I can feel her faith, her presence in my memory, her pleading prayers...Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee...blessed art thou among women...

1 comment:

Lacy said...

Wow, I have told you this before but you are an incredible writer. I cry in a lot of your posts because your writing is so perfectly detailed and colorful. You feel the emotion. You have a real gift and like I've said you should write a book! Great post