There was a humble stuccoed house down in Imuris that my father used to take me to when I was a little girl. It had once belonged to his grandfather Cirilo, a blacksmith. My father spent his summers there as a child. He’d wake up to the smell of his step grandmother Julia roasting coffee beans with sugar in a cast iron skillet on a wood burning stove. He spent summer days with his brother, riding horses in the sierra and old Model A’s on dirt roads, painstakingly rebuilt by Cirilo.
By the time I came around, Cirilio had passed and Julia now lived in the house with her sisters.
My dad and I would drive to Price Club in Tucson to buy her things like Irish Spring soap and then drive his truck through Mexico while The Beach Boys played on repeat. It was just the two of us and I was free to ask him any question my mind could conjure. He always had a thoughtful answer.
The road was rough and narrow, banked on both sides by mesquite and tall grasses that greened up after monsoon rains. We’d pass farms and skinny horses and raggedy cattle. Barbed wire fences and half-built brick houses with rebar poking out the top. In October, pilgrims would walk alongside the road, day and night, on their way to Magdalena to make their offerings to San Francisco Xavier.
When we’d arrive at the house, we’d be greeted by the three women; their craggy caramel faces wrinkled in delight. They would pinch my cheeks and offer me cajeta flavored candies. While the grown ups would talk over coffee and pan dulce, I would explore the house, quietly, tracing my tiny fingers over crocheted doilies and milk glass serving dishes.
These women were Protestants and very religious. There was a painting of Jesus in the china hutch. And next to Jesus was always a picture of me in some frilly dress.
A few years later, my father took me to visit Julia for the last time. She was on her death bed in the room right off the kitchen; her sisters praying and gently stroking her head. The Jesus painting was still in the china hutch, along with a new photo of my sister and me. Julia kept us in a place of pride next to her lord and savior. She saw me every morning as she drank her coffee.
I was loved of old. And that connection, as tenuous as it could seem, flows through me this many years later. Sometimes love is not measured in hugs and kisses and words. Sometimes it is measured in bars of Irish Spring soap, cajeta candies and a picture of you in an old woman’s kitchen.