Saturday, January 18, 2020

Remembrance of Things Past

Well at last it is official, “Marsha & Jim now New Mexicans!”

It says so right here in black (actually blue) and white. And not just on some stuffy old bureaucratic form, but in the personal handwriting of one of this state's leading historians. (That’s got to count for something. Right?) A moment to remember, which followed another pair of memory engendering events of a different kind.

On back-to-back days in December, we saw the Tom Hanks film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” followed by “The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited” at the Albuquerque Museum. Mr. Rogers and the Muppets were both constant presences in our family’s life during Bram’s early years.  And each event triggered in us what are sometimes called “madeleine moments” of memories. (In Marcel Proust’s novel “Remembrance of Things Past” the act of tasting a madeleine cookie sets off an involuntary, multi-volume, stream of conscience retelling of the narrator’s entire past life.)

The movie was based upon a 1998 Esquire Magazine article about the beloved public television personality. Two decades later Jim still remembers reading the 10,000 word essay.

The museum exhibit, which is on tour, features “a broad range of artifacts related to Henson’s unparalleled career, including more than 20 puppets, character sketches, storyboards, scripts, photographs, film and television clips, behind-the-scenes footage, iconic costumes, and interactive experiences”

Then, forty-eight hours after bidding adieu to Miss Piggy, we attended the book-signing for “Timeless Caravan,” an historical novel based upon the true story of a New Mexican family whose forebears were part of the first group of Spaniards to set foot in the Land of Enchantment in 1598 – “prototypical of the thousands of young men and some women who sought a new life in the new world and became odyssey shared by any number of families in a region.”

At the gathering we got the autograph of one the story’s main characters, Ed Romero – a thirteenth generation New Mexican and former Ambassador to Spain under President Bill Clinton. And, as noted above, we also had our own Land of Enchantment credentials “officially” certified by Thomas E. Chavez PhD, former Executive Director of the National Hispanic Culture Center in Albuquerque, and before that Director of the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe – as well as author of ten previous historical books and numerous articles on the people of our new home state.  And himself a multi-generational NM inhabitant.

The book launch was held at El Rancho de las Golondrinas – at which we have volunteered for the past two years. And where we have learned many of the facts, dates and names that make up the past of our new home (the only officially bilingual state in the union.)  But in his book “New Mexico Past and Future” Dr. Chávez minimizes the significance of dates and names. Instead, he says, history is “the story of human beings – people who feel sadness and happiness and pain, people who lived in the land that came to be called New Mexico.”

Some of which we have had the good fortune to hear during our costumed docent duties at the living history museum.

But first some background on Las Golondrinas. 

Most of the structures at El Rancho are original, although many of those were moved here from other parts of the state.  For example “Grandmother’s House” (“Casa de la Abuelita’) in Sierra Village (a part of the property intended to show a late 19th century family compound farm) was built in the mid 1800s in Truchas, NM (forty miles to the north of Santa Fe) and was occupied as a residence well into the 20th century. It is a one-room, 400 square foot (being generous), log-and-adobe building, with a pitched wooden roof, and a wooden floor.

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The adjacent “Casita Primitiva,” from the same time and place, consists of two rooms with a dirt floor and a flat roof.  Both were disassembled (all of the pieces were numbered first) then moved and reconstructed at the museum in the 1970s.  Both have mica-stenciled walls as well as entry doors that require those of Marsha’s 5' 5" height and above to bend down in order to enter. Plus ceilings that 6' 4" Jim can just barely stand up under – as long as he avoids the rough-hewn support beams known as “vigas.” (“Cuida tu cabeza!” (“Watch your head!”)  is the most commonly heard phrase at El Rancho.)

Each residence is furnished with original period objects. Grandmother’s furniture is sparse and simple. But because the railroad came to New Mexico in the late 1800s she has a cast iron heating stove and nice spring bed. The neighboring primitive house is fitted out as if a Grandfather lived there – and he still prefers to sleep on a wool mattress on the dirt floor rather than a raised bed-frame.

Grandfather’s tables, chairs and tools reflect his work as a Santero – a maker of religious figures known as bultos (wooden statues) and retablos (paintings on wood.) Grandmother meanwhile is the guardian of traditional domestic skills such as grinding food and herbs with her sandstone mano and metate, sewing, embroidery, spinning, weaving – and preparing herbal remedies in her role as a healer (curandera.) She passes these skills on to her grandchildren, who often spend extended time with her, sleeping on a small second bed in her casita.

Sierra Village’s main building (“Mora House”) is a constructed adobe replica of a residence in Santa Gertrudis de lo de Mora, NM within which a young family would live.  It has four to five times the square footage of its older companions, three main rooms, and a food storage attic under the wooden pitched roof. As well as a sitting porch – and doors and ceilings that do not threaten Jim’s cranium. There also are several corrals, pigpens and chicken coops – plus a goat pen, which currently is home to three nannies. Like the small houses, all of the animal enclosures were also brought here from northern New Mexico villages.

And as we have learned these past two years, any of the above can trigger a “madeleine moment” among our visitors. And not just people of a certain age. Or only native New Mexicans.

Jim walked in on a Millennial generation woman who had just entered Grandmother’s House and was already on the verge of crying. When she was able to talk, she told of being born and raised in the country of Colombia in an almost identical casita – including the blue stencils, which apparently was the initial trigger for her nostalgia rush. According to the “Encyclopedia of the Nations,” in Colombia “three-fourths of all dwellings were made of bricks, adobe, mud or stone; nearly 15% had external walls of wattle or daub” – building materials totally foreign to those of us who grew up in in the northeastern United States. 

Also unfamiliar to us staid, stoic New Englanders was how emotionally draining being a docent in New Mexico can be.

But it is not only familiar buildings that set off the extreme expressions of nostalgia. A self-professed eighty year old widower from Iowa was moved to tears by the three goats that hang out in Sierra Village and, when they are in a good mood, interact with our visitors. For most of his adult life the visiting gentleman from the midwest had raised the same type of animals on a small farm, which he and his wife had in the Hawkeye state. His day job was at an automobile parts factory. And in late afternoon he would return home to care for his flock. Wiping away the moisture from his eyes he recalled the almost spiritual sense of relaxation he felt while sitting on the hillside at the end of the day with the animals, looking out onto the horizon.

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However most of the visitors who share their stories have New Mexican grandparental memories. 

This happens most frequently in the weaving area where guests recall for Marsha watching their own abuelitas spinning on wheels and malacates, dyeing with vegetable dyes and weaving on two  four-harness looms – in a similar setting to that which they see before them.

In Sierra Village one woman of that demographic was transported back to what she told Jim was an almost identical compound in Southern New Mexico where her grandfather was a successful commercial cotton grower. She proudly, yet wistfully, recounted how buyers would come from the east coast specifically to bid for his bales of the white, fluffy crop – turning her head and looking around as if she were actually there on his farm, and not at the museum.

Mexicans, we have also learned, have a different connection with death than other cultures – particularly the New England one within which the two of us grew up. “Our relationship with death is intimate,” Octavio Paz, Mexico’s most celebrated 20th-century poet, explains. “More intimate, perhaps, than any other people...The Mexican... is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it.” Families build altars in their homes with framed photos of the departed next to candles, fruit, bread and candy. They celebrate their lives during the Days of the Dead. Roadside shrines (descansos) marking the deceased’s last place on earth are visited and decorated for holidays. (One in our area had a small Christmas tree with flashing lights and presents underneath.)

So we are no longer surprised when some visitors tell us that they actually see their ancestors at Las Golondrinas.

At the Mora House in Sierra Village one female visitor explained to Jim that she was watching her grandmother walk up the ladder leading to the attic carrying strings with strips of freshly killed venison to cure and dry. And in the weaving area Marsha met a man in his mid-fifties who went into her part of the ranch to decompress from seeing his late abuelita in one of the other buildings – an event too intense for him to stay in that space and just let it naturally play itself out.

And our guests are not the only ones at the museums with remembrances of things past. There are a good number of volunteers and staff with multigenerational New Mexican family ties. However – either because of their day-to-day familiarity with the property, or their realization of what would happen if they dwelled too long on the topic – their recollections take more of the form of almost throw-away comments. 

One of the longest serving docents occasionally remarks about such things as being “born in his grandmother’s small adobe house just like this one,” and then quickly moves on to another topic.

And one of the staffers, a woman in her early forties – while likewise off-handedly mentioning her upbringing with her own abuelita on a farm in Las Vegas, NM – also sometimes recalls, in greater detail, aspects of her past life that are not unique to New Mexico.  Such as the early childhood memories engendered by her own recent viewing of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Where she, along with the two other people in the theatre (all admittedly sipping wine at the time), sat sobbing throughout the movie.

Likewise we ourselves began to get tearful when watching the film a few days later. But the New England reserve that was ingrained in us for over seventy years (plus a lack of alcohol) limited our expressed emotions to a few eye dabs with a Kleenex.

We may be “Marsha & Jim now New Mexicans!” – but, as Mr. Rogers once observed “who we are in the present includes who we were in the past.”  Dr. Chavez, and many of our Golondrinas guests, would probably agree.

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