9 Things I Learned from my Abuelita
Many Mexican American moms are lucky; we get two days to celebrate motherhood. American Mother’s Day on May 8 and Mexican Mother’s Day on May 10. While Mexican Mother’s Day is a quieter celebration on this side of the border, every May 10 I can’t help but remember my grandmother.
My abuelita, as we called her, came to the U.S. from Mexico in the 1950s. She, my grandfather and uncle settled in South Texas where their growing family would take root. Her door was always open, she made amazing food from scratch (and sometimes let you help), she loved with everything she had and always made sure you were taken care of. As I grew up, I started to realize just how amazing she was, not only as a grandmother, but also as a woman. She left a bigger impression on me than she knew. These are the things I’ll never forget.
1 There is always time for lipstick.
I don’t believe my grandmother ever left the house without her signature lipstick shade — a pretty, pearly pink. A quick application was the final flourish to her ladylike and feminine style. It was her way of presenting her best self to the world. Today, the memory of my abuelita and her lipstick reminds me that small efforts make a big difference to your appearance.
2 Write letters.
On my vanity table, I have a framed letter my grandmother wrote me in her own hand. It’s a poem to me, about me. Her perfect teacher’s penmanship tells me a story about myself that I never knew. It’s one of my most prized possessions, not only because it was from my grandmother, but also because it reminds me that I was loved and how simple it is to make others feel loved. Just put it in a letter.
3 Sometimes thankless work is the most important.
My grandmother raised seven children. Seven. She raised them in a new country, surrounded by a language she didn’t understand. I’m in my native country and have my hands full with one son. When I feel overwhelmed, I like to think of her as a young mother with five young children, a baby and another one on its way. How hard were her days? How long? How tiring? How many times did she hear ‘thank you’? She might not have heard it often, and maybe she never knew the significance of her work. But, it’s because of her that her children went on to marry, have kids of their own and grow the small army that today we call “our familia”.
4 When you cook, make it a production.
Make the masa. Dust off the tortilla press. Bring out the good plates. Every meal at my abuelita’s house was made from scratch – even the tortillas! She took time to make things carefully, slowly. Beans took hours to cook and sopas simmered on the stove for what felt like forever. She knew she was nurturing and caring for her family with her food, and she found happiness in that. For her, cooking wasn’t a chore, it was a joy.
5 Never be too busy to help someone.
Abuelita’s name was Consuelo. That name, which translates roughly to “comfort” and “solace” in Spanish, seemed a perfect fit. Her home always felt full, either with children, visitors from Mexico, friends from church or anyone else from her community. What I didn’t realize until later is how many of those visitors needed her help, and how willingly she gave it. If a child was sick from school, but their parents could not miss work, off to abuelita’s they went. If a friend’s husband was ill, they went to my grandma to talk. If one of her children was going through a rough time, their mami’s door was open. People came to her in need and left comforted.
6 When you speak to elders, use “usted”.
I never used the informal “tu” when speaking to by abuelita – never. Not only was it simply not done, but I (and all my cousins) wouldn’t dream of considering our abuelita, or any older person for that matter, as our peer. She was a matriarch, a position that deserved a little reverence. It was our job to recognize and respect that.
7 Take time to be creative.
While in the U.S. she was primarily a stay-at-home mom, in Mexico she had been a teacher. She was also an artist and a poet, and like any artist, she took time to explore her creativity. When she was inspired, she went for it. She painted, made sculptures, embroidered fabric, made paper flowers, did some light ceramics and always, always wrote. Her creations are our family’s treasures.
8 Value your comadres. They’ll be friends for life, and maybe even after.
At my grandmother’s funeral, one of the most endearing speakers was her comadre. She spoke of her friendship with my grandmother and of the time they spent together. I like to think of their friendship and how two women who came to a new country to build their lives must have leaned on each other during through hard times and blessings.
9 It’s the every day acts of love that people will remember when you are gone.
When I think of my abuelita, it’s the small flashes of daily life that spark in my memory. I remember sitting at her big kitchen table, sorting pinto beans to soak for dinner. I remember how she made tea from flowers in the backyard. I remember her “curing” us when we got sick by praying and rubbing an egg on us. It’s in these small ways that she showed she loved us.
I may not be my grandmother – I have one child (for now), a faster life and am always in a hurry – but because of her I try to make every day moments matter. This is on my mind more often as I prepare for the arrival of my second child. It’s in the small ways that I hope to show my children, and one day my grandchildren, how much I love them.