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... DO MRS. GOMEZ' KITCHEN

When my daughter was small, I made all her clothes and mine as well. I mentioned to a neighbor once that I had a bagful of sewing scraps. "I just wish I knew someone who could use them. I hate to throw them away, but this place is small and I need the room."

My neighbor said, "I know an old lady who makes quilts. She would love to have your fabric scraps. If you want, the next time I am in the neighborhood, I'll ask her about it, since she doesn't have a phone." It sounded like a good idea to me. Having come from very frugal women who believed in making do and letting nothing go to waste, I was happy to have a place to take my leftover materials.

Mrs. Gomez was happy to learn that I had the material and invited me and my four year old daughter to come for a visit.

Her home appeared deceptively small from the street. Traditionally, as families grew, rooms were added to adobes as needed, one behind the other. Her house was only one room wide, but long, with rooms that sort of snaked on and on behind the plaster-over-adobe wall that surrounded her yard.

There was no grass in her yard; it was all hard-packed dirt, used as a driveway, except for a patch of green near her door outlined by stones. A large trumpet vine grew against a trellis, splayed out along the wall and climbing over the doorway, its brilliant red-orange blooms showing up well against the green leaves and the brown of the adobe. On the other side of the doorway, a large wooden half-barrel held an assortment of kitchen herbs, including rosemary trailing over the edges.

Mrs. Gomez was a tiny woman, her gray hair pulled back in a bun like the kind my grandmother wore. When she heard our car drive up, she rushed out to greet us, clapping her hands as if we were long awaited relatives. I introduced us and she took the bag, peering in as if it were treasures. "Gracias, gracias, mija," she said and then invited us in to her kitchen, which was cool even in the heat of the day.

Despite the spareness of her outoor greenery, Mrs. Gomez had a green thumb, with plants clustering in the deep window sills on either side of the room. Geraniums bloomed in one window and a bouganvillea in another, long limbs arcing up and back down to form a curtain, its bright pink blooms standing out against the mellow aged white of the walls. "I love your kitchen," I said.

"Gracias," she said. "It's old, but I am, too," and laughed. "Sientese, por favor," she said. "Sit down, mijas (daughters), and have some coffee." From a paper-lined box we helped ourselves to small oval cookies rolled in powdered sugar. My grandmother used to bake what she called teacakes. They were delicious, like these, not too sweet.

As we sat, my daughter, her small mouth rimmed with powdered sugar, began rocking her chair back and forth on the uneven kitchen floor, which was glossy reddish-brown with a somewhat wavy appearance. I reached out to stop her, embarrassed, but the woman just smiled and leaned over to ask her, "Do you like dolls?" When Dana nodded yes, the old lady said, "Come with me."

I quickly wiped my daughter's mouth with a napkin and followed Mrs. Gomez through a doorway into another room that contained a small bed with a white spread, a chest with colorful but faded painted designs sitting at the foot. A large wooden cupboard extended almost to the ceiling on one side of the bed, and a small table was on the other. Her treadle sewing machine was in front of another window with a single ivy plant, and a table in the corner was stacked with fabric and sewing items. A wooden ironing board leaned against the wall in one corner.

"This is my daughter's room, but she doesn't come home very often, so I use it for my machina," the old lady said, running her hand over the spread, smoothing an imaginary wrinkle on its immaculate surface.

"You may play with the dollies if you want to while I visit with Mama," she said, opening a small box on the table and giving my daughter a handful of old-fashioned clothespins with painted faces. Then she opened a large box next to the sewing machine that was filled with tiny scraps of fabric and laces. "I think the dollies must be cold. You can make them clothes."

I caught my breath, because it was so much like my grandmother letting me play with her button box and fabric remnants and trims when I was a child. And for the rest of our visit, while we chatted, uninterrupted, in the kitchen, I could see my daughter through the doorway playing happily with scraps of fabric as she dressed and talked to the clothespin dolls.

Mrs. Gomez' kitchen table was in the center of her wavy kitchen floor. At one point I gestured while talking, my chair rocked unexpectedly and I grabbed for the table. She laughed at my wild-eyed look and said, "Mija, you are having an adventure with my old floor, aren't you."

Trying to be diplomatic, I said, "Well, I don't remember seeing such an interesting floor."

She told me then that her great-great-grandfather (not sure of how many greats here) had built the house long ago, and this was the original kitchen, although it had been updated with appliances over the years. The cord to her refrigerator snaked out the door to an outlet but she still used a kerosene lantern much of the time. "I don't trust this electricity," she said.

She explained that the floor had been made from packed earth mixed with ox blood. Her ancestor had bought barrels of the blood from a slaughterhouse and added it to the adobe, making it harden to a stone-like finish. Apparently this was not all that common around here, although she said relatives in Northern New Mexico had similar floors. She gestured to the rooms behind us, "Some of them, the later ones, didn't have the blood mixed in, and now they have, what do you call it, lino on them. Ugly. My son did those floors. But I wouldn't let him put it in my kitchen."

I asked her, "But didn't it smell, all that blood?"

She shrugged and said, "No; nobody remembers it smelling; maybe at first until it got hard." She laughed then and said, "Not any more than the abono de la vaca (cow manure) some people used, Mija."

I loved that old house; everywhere I looked there was something fascinating. I just wish I had pictures of it. Each time we visited, I learned more about it and the various items in it, some of which had been sitting in the same place probably for longer than I had lived. Mrs. Gomez was a very friendly, sweet person and I learned much about the Hispanic culture from her.

I saw her periodically over the years after I started to college in 1963, taking sewing scraps occasionally and visiting, but when I started teaching, my sewing came to a halt and we lost touch, and some years later I heard that she had passed on.

Years later, I attended a Christmas Tour in Old Mesilla, NM, near Las Cruces and on the tour was another old adobe much like hers that snaked on and on behind a walled yard. As I walked over its uneven floors in the candle-lit rooms I felt a pang of affection for the old lady who first called me "Mija."

In the late 60's and early 70's my husband used to visit a man named Buster down on the Chinate, up river about 20 miles from Presidio. He had an adobe house with hardpacked dirt floors; the old Custom House where people used to cross over the Rio Grande from Mexico. My husband explained that Buster's Mexican wife, who was a meticulous housekeeper, used to sweep the hardpacked earthen floors clean, then sprinkle them with water to keep down the dust and cool the house.

It gets blazing white-hot around Presidio, but DH said it was always cool inside Buster's house. Because of their thick walls, adobes are well insulated and stay remarkably cool in summer, warm in winter. Buster and his wife (don't remember her name) had running water and a bathroom, but no electricity. They had a homemade cooler, a cupboard on legs that was painted white with a burlap curtain hanging in front. The burlap was kept wet and the milk and eggs inside were kept cool by evaporation.

So, with these and other adobes for inspiration, it was also almost inevitable that my curandera scene will be an old adobe kitchen; perhaps with one of those coolers.

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