One morning during the weekend of my abuelito’s funeral, over 2 years ago, Manito D and I got up super early to go to my Tía Rafaelita’s house. It was still dark outside when we pulled up in the driveway. Tía Rafi, of course, was already up and looking beautiful as always. I can only hope that I will look as wonderful as she does when I turn 92.
Tía had invited us to join her, her novio, Manjo, and my older prima, Eva, for breakfast. As the oldest of thirteen, my tía had been responsible for much of the cooking at a young age. She is still the best cook and baker of all of them. And over the week prior, she visited my abuelita daily, always with a cake, or a pot of pozole, or chile and beans, in hand.
That day, she’d invited us over, so that she could teach us to make tortillas. Now, we’ve made tortillas many times before. In fact, Manito D has become quite the tortillero extraodinaire over the years. Tortilla-making is a favorite activity that he and mi sobrino do together, whenever Sobrino visits, which unfortunately is not very often these days.
We stood in front of the oven watching the sun rise, a soft yellow glow over the sage-brush-covered llanos from the kitchen window. Tía pulled tin canisters and bags from the pantry and began throwing handfuls of ingredients into a giant bowl. Her voice still sings in the way that the voices of viejitos in northern New Mexico do. Spanglish, always. I could barely keep up, she was moving so quickly. Before I knew it, she had 4 comales going at once and was expertly flipping tortillas, warm and fluffy and fragrant, with an energy I’d never witnessed in person, but only imagined.
After an amazing breakfast consisting of the usual — papitas, huevos, frijoles y chile, and of course, tortillas — we sat in the living room with our cafecitos. Manjo had been talking non-stop. Like my abuelo, he was a WWII vet. He told me that he had recently been declared “legally blind,” but that many people didn’t believe him. From his shirt pocket, he pulled out a tattered letter from his doctor and handed it to me. Sure enough, the doc said he only had less than 8 percent vision.
Not before too long, Manjo got up from his chair and said it was time to go home. His house was just up the street from my tía’s. I motioned to Manito D to walk with him home. But Manjo, insisted, “no, no, it’s not far and I go home by myself all the time.” We hugged him goodbye and Manito D sat down, as Manjo walked out the front door with his white cane outstretched ahead of his steps. Before we knew it, he folded up his cane, shoved it in his pocket, and hopped in his truck and was roaring out of the driveway! We laughed until our sides hurt.
A few months later, my prima Eva passed after a long battle with cancer. And just a few weeks ago, Manjo got very ill. He had been in the ICU at the veterans hospital for weeks. Manito D went to see him and they’d talked for a while. To my surprise, Manjo always asked about me, even when he wasn’t completely lucid–your sister who lives out in LA. For some reason the viejitos always ask Manito D about me, even if they don’t always know who Manito D is. Strange.
Early morning phone call from Manito D today. Manjo passed away last night. Our elders have been leaving so often lately. And I am just so grateful to have shared these small, but joyful, moments with them over the years. From them I have learned so much.
A Manjo y Prima Eva, I send my love to the heavens and cherish the love and warmth you gave us in this life.
[Okay, you got me — this photo is of sunset, not sunrise. I am just not enough of an early bird to get a good photo of sunrise…or to remember my camera when I do get up early. I still think it’s an amazing sun photo, even if it *is* taken through a bug-splattered windshield.]