Sunday, January 30, 2005

Cookies and Lemonade

They say that taste and smell are the two most powerful memory triggers. I can easily accept that as true. Even now, a taste of homemade applesauce or a whiff of freshly baked bread and I’m transported to Grandma’s kitchen. A sip of pink lemonade and I’m in a fort made out of two dining room chairs with a sheet strung over top of them, usually with my sister Cara and my cousin Rob, Grandma’s head poking inside saying, “I thought you kids would want a snack”. Then she would slide in a plate of cookies and glasses of pink lemonade.

Rob’s yearly visits from Denver always garnered us the dining-room-chairs-forts, and a slippy-slide in the backyard made out of heavy-duty, huge garbage bags and a garden hose. We thought it was better than a real slide. And Grandma didn’t even care that we killed her grass in a large swath then moved the whole shebang over to a new patch of grass to decimate.

Ah, the easy days of childhood at Grandma’s house. Spending the night was a nonstop feast for us kids. What Mom wouldn’t buy or serve, Grandma would. Daily. Cocoa Krispies for breakfast with Grandpa. A cookie to get us through our morning of “work” as we tore up the yard, played on the big swing suspended from the walnut tree, or helped Grandpa cleaning up some little old lady’s yard. Grandpa sometimes let us ride in the back of his hand-fashioned wood hauling trailer, which had his name stenciled on it in black letters. Grandpa would trim bushes and trees, and we’d help by throwing the debris in the trailer. After, Grams would serve up a hearty lunch (Grandpa needed it!) with homemade bread and homemade applesauce and homemade roasted chicken for sandwiches. Always with Ballreich’s potato chips. Usually with Grandma’s signature homemade potato salad. After lunch we’d pick and eat fresh raspberries.

I never remember taking naps at Grandma’s house. There was too much to do, too much fun to be had, too many cool old toys to play with. Lemonade would accompany raucous games of rummy, Grandma being a very sore loser, her screams would bring Grandpa scurrying up from the basement, saying, “Gracious Ma, I thought the world was ending!” Evenings would involve a full meal then a trip to the Auto Club to clean up, a little side job for my grandparents. We’d work up another appetite doing cartwheels in the front of the office, helping empty the trash cans, and playing at the desks pretending to be travel agents (who would have thought then that I’d actually end up working as one?). Arriving home would lead us to more food, naturally, as Grandma said we had to keep our strength up. She always teased Rob that he had a hollow leg, because he could have eaten triple the amount he was offered and cleaned up every crumb from every plate, including a plate of coffee cake with ants on it, as I recall. Evenings also were when the real treats came. We’d be plied with root beer floats, ice cream sundaes or maybe just ice cream with a topping from Grandma’s raspberry patch. If we were really good, or still hungry, after that we would share potato chips with Grandpa when he had his nightly chips and beer. He’d even sneak us a sip of his Rolling Rock when Grandma wasn’t looking.

Grandpa would fall asleep in his recliner, mouth agape and snoring lightly. We’d delight in placing a small dill pickle in his open mouth, usually waking him, sometimes not, as he sucked on the pickle, or would open one eye and say, “Somebody’s looking for trouble!” We’d giggle and pretend we’d had nothing to do with it, Grandma playing along while watching TV or reading the Readers Digest. Then we’d be sent off to bed, and wake up with the church bells of Saint Mary’s to begin it all over again the next morning, starting with “Good morning, sleepy heads” from Grandma and then the Cocoa Krispies, and …

The food was always central to Grandma showing her love for her family. She was in the kitchen most of her day, turning on the little TV in there to watch her “program” (soap opera) while baking bread or cookies or cleaning up after lunch. While Grandma didn’t verbalize her affection much when we were kids, she showed it in a thousand ways with
a thousand cookies. And lemonade.

copyright 2004 Valerie Schneider

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Acoma Pueblo - Living History

December 2004
With company in town for Christmas, we wanted to show them some of the uniqueness of our state so we headed to Acoma Pueblo, the most dramatic of the 19 pueblos in New Mexico. Situated atop a 360 foot mesa, it is the oldest continuously inhabited town in the United States. (Yes, St. Augustine, Florida tries to claim that title, but it was established in 1565 and the city’s website then qualifies the “Oldest City” claim with “oldest continually occupied settlement of European origin in the United States”. Ah. Evidence places Acoma in existence since at least 1150.)

The end of the year marks many of the Native American pueblo tribes’ ceremonials. As our tour of the pueblo village was ending, low rhythmic drumbeats and soulful chanting could be heard echoing from the small plaza in front of the mission church. We hurried over to witness the scene. In the plaza, the tribal elders were sitting in a semi-circle in front of a carefully tended fire as the ceremonial dancers entered the church. Inside were assembled about a hundred people, mostly Acoma tribal members, old and young alike, and a handful of tourists like ourselves. The deer dance was in progress, a beautiful ritual dance performed by men and involving amazing costumes of antlers perched atop their heads with their faces covered by pine branches. The drumbeats and sing-song chanting became soothing as we watched the drama of the dance unfold. When this dance was finished, they exited the church to perform in front of the elders, and then another group arrived for the next ceremony, this time the female rainbow dancers. The scene was played out similarly but the movements were different. The women in their pretty but sleeveless dresses must have been freezing. They were followed by the buffalo dancers, arrayed with animal skins and buffalo horns. Their dance, too, conveyed strength and rhythm. These dances are not whirling or frenetic, but measured, steady, purposeful. We stood in the dusky and cold interior, the chill emanating up through the stone floors, observing the ancient rites being played out in dance. Toward the end of the hour all of the previous dancers assembled for a kind of “grand finale”. It was a very intense dance, and the entire experience was moving and dramatic.

My parents and my brother, who had never seen an American Indian ceremonial before, were amazed by the almost primeval beauty of it all and repeatedly said how glad they were that we had chosen that day for our outing. One day later and they would have missed it all! They approached the tribal elders and shook each one’s hand in turn, a mark of respect that was outwardly appreciated by the elders with their smiles and nods.

We returned to the visitor center by way of the ancient trail down the steep cliff of the mesa, using the time-worn hand and foot holds that are carved into the sandstone, weaving through a cleft in the rock and enjoying the views of the surrounding countryside and Mt. Taylor rising in the distance. Looking back at the mesa rising above the high desert, sparks an awe at the ability of the Acomans to persevere and retain their ancient rites.

It is times like these that make us glad to live in such a unique place. While Albuquerque has become much more homogenous through the years of our residence, scenes like these remind us that our state is diverse and, in many ways “old world”, with a rich history and amazing natural beauty.

copyright 2004 Valerie Schneider

The luminarias of Christmas

December 2004
The Christmas season is such a great time of year to be in New Mexico. The distinctive aroma of pinon wood burning in fireplaces; the outing to the National Forest to cut down our Christmas tree; the tamales and posole; and of course the beauty of the luminarias on Christmas Eve, the dimly glowing candles inserted into paper sacks which festoon the homes and sidewalks, and which sets New Mexico apart from the rest of the country. While the simple decorations have caught on elsewhere, nowhere is it so ubiquitous and traditional. There is always much debate around the state as to whether the proper word for this traditional luminous decoration is luminaria or farolito. Northern New Mexico calls it a farolito, the Spanish for little lantern. Central and Southern areas of the state refer to it as a luminaria, firelight. Use of these little fires for Christmas began early on in New Mexico, in the Pueblos and in Santa Fe, in honor of the birth of Christ and to light the way to church, tradition says to light the way for Mary and Joseph, and so they are lit only on Christmas Eve. Electric luminarias are now available, but the traditional paper sack version is still only used on that one night each year.

We enjoyed the company of my parents and my brother this year for Christmas, a nice change from our usual party of three (with my sister) and a nice opportunity to share the traditions we have enjoyed here through the years.

Christmas Eve is celebrated in Old Town. We always make dinner reservations for one of the great restaurants and then stroll around enjoying the festive glow of the millions of luminarias placed throughout the plaza and the country club neighborhood. This year, dinner was at Seasons, a contemporary American bistro just north of Old Town. Lively and understated, the service and food were fantastic and a great way to kick off the holiday weekend. After the wine and copious amounts of food we really needed the stroll. Unfortunately, it was finger-numbing cold outside and it hit us like an arctic blast as we emerged from the warmth of the restaurant. We wanted our family to partake of the spectacle, though, so we herded them down the crowded streets into the center of the plaza. We took some photos, they “ooohed and aaahed” over the scene of the gazebo and central plaza with thousands of softly glowing paper sacks filled with candles, but then wanted to get out of the frigid wind. So, alas, they didn’t see the really impressive, extravagant display of light in the country club area, but we were none too upset to be able to get home to a warm fire, our twinkling Christmas tree, and hot tea.
We had our own luminarias lit and they glowed softly as we arrived, lighting the way in the darkness, just as they have for hundreds of years on this one special night.

copyright 2004 Valerie Schneider

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree

December 2004
Every year we venture the short distance to the Jemez National Forest to choose and cut our Christmas tree. It’s an annual tradition we look forward to as soon as the calendar page reads December. There is something about snow-covered mountains, a walk through the woods, enjoying the silence and calm and beauty. And there’s just something about bringing home a real tree, one growing naturally on a mountain slope, fresh and fragrant with space between the branches, un-groomed and unadulterated. We pack a picnic lunch, pick up my sister and head for the hills.

This year we rented a four wheel drive truck. This made for easier transport of the trees (toss them in the back); and it was a very good thing we did as the forest road was very snow-packed this year and would have been impassable to us if we’d arrived in our sedan. In previous years, we would drive the car down the road without much problem, actually making better time than many of the SUV drivers who, despite having four wheel drive and road clearance, don’t seem to want to proceed very far off road, apparently afraid of getting a scratch in the paint or dirt on the tires, which makes me wonder why they bought an SUV in the first place if they’re not going to use it for the purpose for which it was intended. But that’s a rant for another day.

Once we ventured behind the one mile that these other, wimpier tree-seekers had braved to go, we found ourselves alone in the vast silence of the forest surrounded by towering pines. Beautiful. It was a typical cloudless day, with azure skies and bright sun which warmed us up so much I was sweating in my sweater. Now I understand why they are called that.

We behaved like children, trudging in knee-deep snow, throwing snowballs, running to and fro from tree to tree in search of the perfect one. All in all, it was a blast. And the tree we brought home was the best ever. It made me want to sing a rousing rendition of “O Christmas Tree”, if only I could carry a tune. We sipped spiced cider and let Harry Connick croon the Christmas carols for us.

Now, decorated, brightening up the living room, with the collection of ornaments arrayed just so, we anticipate the holiday. The ornaments are special, each one like an old friend or a childhood memory I’d faintly forgotten, when I pull them out of the box. I have collected Christmas ornaments since birth, my mother passing on the tradition from her mother. Every year we were taken to a local nursery which had a spectacular Christmas display where we could choose for ourselves a new ornament. We also received new ornaments from everyone – grandma, aunts and uncles - to add to the collection. When I got married, I had enough ornaments to cover our first small Christmas tree. It makes decorating the tree fun and bubbly as we remember who gave which ornaments, which are our current favorites, which are most precious.

Sing with me, “O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, how beautiful your branches!”

copyright 2004 Valerie Schneider

Setting the Scene - The Nativity

December 2004
As I was setting up my nativity scene I looked more closely at it and was a little puzzled by the haggard, almost tortured, looks of the villagers in my set. This set was given to me as a gift, a precepio, Italian nativity set, made by Fontanini in Lucca. My friend Cindy used to live in Lucca and she assures me that not all the figures looked as anguished as mine. Now that she is back in the States, she wishes she had purchased a set to remind her of her Lucchese friends, as many of the figures bear a little bit of a resemblance to people she knew.

But as I was assembling the pieces I had to wonder at the accuracy of the scene. There are the aforementioned figurines, who may be actually somewhat accurate as the angels did announce the birth to the shepherds, humble and rugged outdoorsmen; yet oddly the figures of Mary and Joseph, who would have had cause to be haggard or anguished-looking after their ordeal, instead look rested and serene. The wooden stable is clean and even quaint, but the real stable would probably have been stone, either a cave or the lower level of a stone building, with dwelling space above, and the animal stalls below, dark and damp. The manger looks more remarkably like a crib than a feeding trough, which probably would have been hewn from stone along one wall rather than fashioned from wood, small and delicate, fitting only the little baby.. And my animal figures are looking so cute and quiet off to the side, gazing at the babe in the manger, rather than occupying the majority of the stable, dirty, snorting and stinking.

No, I think the real scene literally smelled to high heaven. Instead of the fragrant incense which rises to heaven as an offering, He was placed where the smell of manure, urine and animals rose…a sign of the stinking, unjust world He came to redeem. He endured the stench of sin so that we could become the sweet-smelling aroma of praise to God. The babe in the manger took his first breath of life on earth amid the refuse of the world. But even there the fragrance of new life emerged, and He was praised by the angels and shepherds, a faint wisp of fresh air entering the world.

With this picture, my little nativity scene looks so tidy, so modern…so sterile.

copyright 2004 Valerie Schneider

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The Dreaded Blank Page

The first sentence is always the hardest to write. I have been staring at the blank page trying to figure out how to start my blog off with a bang. Alas, no bang, just a few blips on the computer keyboard instead.

I decided to start a blog as a sort of catch-all for my various writings, some travel-related, some reminiscences, others just random thoughts, scattered about on my desk, on my word processing program, and scrawled quickly in a notebook. Some may not make into the blog at all, but I figured organizing them into one place would be more efficient, and may help me to be more methodical or diligent in my writing. It may even be the mother of inspiration from which great articles will flow. Lofty goals for a new year!

So, I am sure that I will face many more blank pages. But that’s a good thing. Right?