My grandmother sits in her recliner rubbing her hands. Of all things that have been taken away from her in her lifetime - an education, a newborn daughter, her eyesight - it is her hands that have molded her story. Hands have been used to build and sustain civilizations, to create masterpieces of art, and to radiate love through human touch. In my grandmother's lifetime, she has accomplished all of these and more. Her hands have the marks of years of tireless labor and the scars from managing her life with diabetes. Age spots have invaded the spaces between the wrinkles on her translucent skin, revealing her 83 years. Even though her hands appear delicate at first glance, they are deceiving. It's what they don't reveal at the surf ace that makes her so extraordinary to me.
My grandmother is one of the most independent people I know. Still living on her own, she rarely asks for anything beyond the necessities. Her experiences growing up in Mexico instilled in her a hard work ethic beyond my understanding. She spent all of her life taking care of others. Instead of attending school, she stayed at home to take care of her younger siblings while also sharing some domestic duties or working in the fields. Later she married my grandfather, a strong silent type who was ten years older than she. They immigrated to America from Mexico to find work for him.
Once she was settled in Montana, my grandmother spent a lot of her time tending to her garden of vegetables and patches of flowers, an activity she had carried over from her life in Mexico. Her garden was at its prime when all of her grandchildren were available as eager helpers, willing to trudge around in the clods of dirt in our quest to keep all weeds away from my grandmother's glory. I remember summer after summer, the image of my grandmother on her pastel green foam knee pads, stained with patches of fresh mud layered over the dry dirt from days before, always with her handheld shovel and a watering hose. Wisps of her thin, silvery hair would slip out of the braided crown atop her head and frame her face as she bent on her hands and knees, hard at work. 7:00 a.m. until 10:00 a.m. was devoted to weeding, watering, and pruning the plants. The cut-off time was always the same because ten o'clock was when her day-long series of soap operas began. She would spend the rest of the day on her recliner, her latest crochet project in hand, to enjoy her marathon of soaps. I don't think a tornado could have shaken my grandmother from this routine.
Her hands were always moving. The rest of her body could be perfectly calm, but there was always a new project at her feet and a needle in her hand. When it came to crocheting or sewing, my grandmother was a master. She would complete one blanket and immediately begin the next without ever needing an excuse to start a new one. It would become a varying array of striped, bright colors that had no distinct pattern to it, developing its own design as she progressed.Anyone who received one of my grandmother's creations was the envy of the family. There was always an abundance of crocheted treasures lying around her house - stretched across the back of her couches, folded over the ends of the beds, and tucked in storage containers for bitter winters.
The toll of a lifetime of continuous work began to minimize what my grandmother could tackle with her hands in a day. Slowly over time, the garden ceased to sprout but has still lived to keep its namesake as 'The Garden.' It has become nothing more than a small field of thick grass, dried and yellowed by the damage of years of smoldering summers with little tending. Still, with the help of my aunt, my grandmother is determined to see a few plots of flowers dispersed through her backyard grow back bright and colorful each spring. Likewise, her crochet projects may be untouched for days on end, but they are never fully forgotten.
Not only were my grandmother's hands used for growing and creating, but also for teaching her expertise in the kitchen. My grandmother, my mom, and I have been a trio, a team, a well-oiled machine in the kitchen as far back as I can remember. My mom was the captain and navigator of all our expeditions in what I would call the heart of our home. I could easily read directions and measure out ingredients. I was the one to slice, stir, or sauté whatever I was ordered. My grandmother's contributions have been the ones that have changed the most as she has reached her eighties. The loss of her eyesight and the gradual dwindling daily portions of energy have demoted my grandmother to a sous-chef. no longer is she the one to command, but the one to follow instructions.
When I was a girl, I saw my grandmother and my mom as equals in the kitchen: the oldest generation a master of her traditional Mexican recipes that have never had a science to them but have never changed as long as I've been able to enjoy them. The other is a pupil in the Mexican dishes but a master in her own Better homes recipe book style of cooking where she has developed a collection of her own specialties throughout her experiments. The most iconic memories of my grandmother have been of her in her small kitchen, commanding her daughters in how to make mole or menudo, tamales, or tortillas.
The most memorable culinary missions were those at my grandmother's home. It was a place where all of the cousins, aunts, and uncles were drawn by the scent wafting from the cracks in her old house. No couch, chair or spot on the floor would be left uninhabited for long when my grandmother's food was involved.
Stories of my grandmother's earlier life in Texas and Mexico spurred up most often when she was slaving away in the kitchen or after our bellies were full of her spicy dishes possessing the power to warm us from the inside. She always told her tales in a weaving of broken English and once-flu-speaking Spanish. She would begin speaking in English until her memories couldn't translate into anything but their native language. There was never any conscious evidence that she had changed languages besides the Spanish words rolling off her tongue a bit swifter. All I could do when she got onto this tangent was listen intently, as if each alien word didn't slip in one ear and exit out the other without any registration of meaning. My Spanish was limited, but it was her tone and pace, the adjustment of her expression, and the way she moved her hands or held them still that told the story to me. I learned as I got older that if I interrupted with questions, she would add enough English that I could use context to piece together what she was trying to say.
The first place I picked up my limited Spanish vocabulary was in the kitchen. It was always, "Grab the manteca, Maria" or "Dame la leche." It didn't take long to learn the daunting lingo. I was conditioned each time I had to return the butter to the fridge - that was not the 'manteca'. There was always one word that didn't need a definition, one that made everyone's mouth water in its anticipation - tortilla. My grandmother has a certain magic about the way she makes the seemingly simple flour tortilla dough. The best tortillas I've ever tasted were made solely by her. No batch of tortillas has been successful without my grandmother's guidance. She uses her experienced touch to combine the flour mixture and water into a dough that is treasured as if it were family gold.
When we were younger, we played a game to see who could master the art of rolling perfectly round tortillas. I always remember my grandmother being the patient one when we attempted the impossible as children. Our geometry skills were obviously lacking. We tried to name which state our tortillas resembled most, or any object really. My mom was the opposite. She has always been a tortilla rolling machine, and the games would end as soon as she decided she wanted to be done with making tortillas. My grandmother always let us taste test anything she was cooking, and I was always the first. I can't count how many tortillas I tasted: a warm one straight off the griddle, the one shaped like Florida, the one on the bottom of the stack.
It's a first-come, first-served event for those tortillas. Each aunt and her family would be given a share of the goods to distribute - it's the family distribution that isn't always fair. I've seen some tragic fits, and taken part in some, when 32 only a measly portion of the prized tortillas are left for the last person. One rule has never changed: the final few off the coma), made extra big, have been the claim of my grandmother. There has always been a silent code of respect towards my grandmother. She is served first, thanked first, and always given the most admiration on the wonderful food, no matter if she was the cook or not.
The work done with my grandmother's hands have always been special to me. Her entire life seems to be molded and shaped by them. Everything she has crocheted, cooked, and grown was always, and always will be, the humble things that remain of her. She has tenderly made them with her finest tools. Besides having the privilege of sharing my grandmother's name, I have yet to develop that connection to her accomplishments in the garden, in the kitchen, or in the home like my mother and aunts. But I will not let this hold me back from appreciating everything my grandmother has given me or taught me through her most valued experiences. The way I see it, there's always more to learn from her, and whether or not she will be around to see it, I will make her proud with what I can bring to the earth with my own hands.
Grandmas' Flour Tortillas
12 cups flour
1 cup shortening
1/2 T. baking powder
1/2 T. baking soda
1 T. salt
Mix flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt completely in a bowl with your hands. Add shortening, and incorporate into flour really well. Add enough warm water (approximately
2-3 cups) until it makes soft dough. Knead for about 4-5 min. Cover with a towel and let rest for about 10 min. In the meantime, set your griddle on medium heat - a cast iron griddle works best. Form dough into 1 ½ - 2 in. sized balls. Roll tortillas out to about 1/8 of an inch thick. Cook on griddle until nicely browned.