Village Matters: Savoring a Mother’s Kitchen

By Ann Christoph.
By Ann Christoph.

It was a “Leave it to Beaver” kitchen, Mexican style. Simple stained and varnished plywood cabinets, well-loved and clean. They had the original 1960s slim copper handles with the tapered ends. These and the matching hinges were polished bright. Aqua tiles and the aqua walls and ceiling added intense color, the Mexican touch. Ruffled cherry print curtains framed the window above the sink.  hese were what I noticed as I sat at the plastic covered kitchen table listening to the Spanish conversation between my husband, Alfredo and his comadre, Berta. Alfredo was godfather to Berta’s daughter, thus they are “co-parents” forever.

What we saw when we first entered the small kitchen was the stack of home made tortillas fresh off the grill. There were balls of dough still in the bowl, a floured board and small rolling pin. Several more tortillas were still in the works.  A pot of stew or soup was steaming on the counter.

Would we like something to drink, coffee or soda? I had an orange Fanta, and Alfredo a coffee. “How about some tortillas, some of that stew, some beans?” I remembered how similar situations had happened long ago, so many times, visiting Alfredo’s family, sitting down in his mother’s kitchen to a simple unplanned meal, one that could not have tasted better if it had been ordered in a fancy restaurant. Right before us casually manipulating that ball of dough into a perfect eight-inch disk, she laid it on the grill, talking all the while. “Will she remember to turn it before it burns?” I wondered. Quickly it was flipped over and soon there it was on top of the stack. Eating it hot off the grill, with a little butter, I was reminded that the cold tortillas in the plastic bags from the market are only placeholders in our memory, telling us that someday we might again be treated to the delicious real thing.

Berta is the widow of Alfredo’s cousin, Julian. She’s diminutive, lively, and although in her 80s, is very much in charge of this household and its decor. The front yard is a complete display of Christmas figures and decorations, and any space on the living room bookshelves that is not taken with framed photographs of members of the family is consumed with dozens of Christmas figurines. Next to the front door is a photograph of a young man and woman, perhaps from the 1940s.  Both are handsome and hopeful. Yes, this is Berta and Julian before they were married.

Since that photo was taken they had come to the United States from Mexico, sponsored by Alfredo’s uncle, who gave Julian his first job, driving trucks.  Berta was a hard-worker too, doing what needed to be done to keep the family going, from picking cotton to bundling onions. It was a long and happy life, but about two years ago Julian was taken with a heart attack.

As Berta told it, about a month after his death, while the family was gathered in the kitchen they heard a crash from the living room. They found the couple’s picture on the floor, unbroken. The nail was still on the wall and the wire on the back was intact.  A week later another crash–this time the glass fell out of the frame. Again it was unbroken on the floor below the rest of the frame.

Now the family stories go on.  Alfredo tells of his dad being seen in the living room after his death, turning on the porch light and explaining that his youngest daughter would be coming home soon.  And he was heard in the kitchen making breakfast.

Are there explanations for these mysteries?  Does the spirit remain and continue to try to make contact after death?

How do we just go on eating tortillas, stew and beans, thinking of the startling evidence of life’s mysteries?  We sit there wishing we could talk to those departed loved ones.

Our answer is to love a little extra those we still have here with us.


Landscape architect Ann Christoph is a former member of Laguna Beach’s City Council.

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