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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
to be diplomatic, I said, "Well, I don't remember seeing
such an interesting floor."
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.
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
asked her, "But didn't it smell, all that blood?"
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
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
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."
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.
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.
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.