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Her voice was magic. Thick, husky, rich and warm. I could listen to it for hours, falling asleep to the melody of each new word. I can still hear the smile that played on my Abuelita’s lips, see her soft eyes crease in delight. The smooth planes of her face punctured by dimples and creases from laughter and frowns. She always smelled of the earth. A slightly sweet smell with rich cinnamon undertones and a hint of cloves. Autumn spices. And her blankets. I remember burying deeper and deeper under the thick, woolen material, trying to hold in constant flurries of giggles, squirming away from her soft strokes.
“When you close your eyes and sleep, a portal is opened into another world. You enter a place where past, present and future merge. Stories are created when dreams are born. “
I steal a peek at my Abuelita’s through the blanket’s fringed edges and watch her through a shield of red fabric. Her arms are neatly folded in her lap, mouth smiling calmly, eyes curved into rainbows, pinched at the edges. Her tan skin is leathery from age, like a firm tomato exposed to too much sun. She does not see me looking at her, or if she does, ignores my gaze and continues her lesson.
“Each dream you have is a new opportunity for you to explore who you are. As you grow, your dreams will change. If you are feeling angry, sad, confused or lonely, you may take solace in the dream world and work thing out from there.”
Abuelita always talked about things this way. As if one could just turn the lock and step straight into other dimensions. Meet old friends, deceased relatives, animals that could speak and go adventuring in foreign lands. When I was very young I would stare at her in awe, mouth agape, eyes gleaming.
“Oh, will you tell me how to go there here?” I remember asking her once, cheeks flushed and eyes bulging.
She always chuckled and shook her head.
“In due time, little one,” she would say, touching me lightly on the knee, “soon.”
That comforted me, and I would patiently listen to all she had to offer, soaking it all in like a dry, porous, overly eager sponge. She told me how all cultures interpret dreams and their importance. She showed me her many dream catchers, many made by her own hands. The fine string woven so like a spider web haunted me. Many times, out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of the strings vibrating, almost glittering. Shiny crystals implanted in the mesh like dragonfly wings refracting rainbow light that danced around the room.
One of her dream catchers was very plain – a dark brown frame made from a twisted branch, sparsely woven and an absence of ornaments. There were no figures or feathers or beads on it, but still it intrigued me. I loved the feel of running my index finger over the smooth wood and the silky tracery of fine string. I shuddered as the delicate twine grazed the pads on my finger. It was relatively big compared to most of the other dream catchers, about 15 inches in diameter, and hung on the side of a painted light yellow shelf in “Amanecer’s” bathroom (each room in her house had a name, this one meant dawn).
Every summer my family would go to New Mexico and live in my Abuelita’s small terracotta cottage. It was small but cozy: never cramped. Rows of books rested peacefully spine to spine on her multiple bookshelves. Each little room was filled with trinkets and symbols, paintings and musical instruments. Little drums and rattles painted red, black, yellow, blue, green blazed with the four directions. Horses poised mid-gallop and bears dressed in turquoise. She was a loud woman and filled the house with her boisterous laughter ricocheting off the walls. She loved to sing. Each note filled with rusty honey, dripping from her worn, cracked lips.
When I was younger I would nestle myself on her lap, head resting on her soft stomach, eyes closed. She would weave stories for me from her memories and dreams, from folklore told to her as a child, creating wondrous landscapes. They were my many playgrounds. At night when everyone slept I would be jumping off raging waterfalls, ears rushing, heart about to pop. I would be running through cornfields in dusky sunshine, frolicking in faerie circles, sipping moonlit tea. And always safe. Always a glance away from her, my protector.
She told me about Spirit Animals, dream catchers, mythical starry realms. As the sunlight faded into evening, I would always find her sitting on one of the large, craggy rocks on our secret cliff, fingers deftly moving in loops around the round wooden skeleton of her many handmade dream catchers. She could weave them perfectly with her eyes closed, meditating. I remember trying a couple of times, grasping the string and clumsily thrusting it around the wood as if trying to strangle it. She would always laugh silently to her self, head bobbing back and forth in amusement.
As the years passed by I became more and more skilled at the craft, and began to sell my dream catchers at local art fairs. I began challenging myself, trying to weave bigger and bigger dream catchers. Each time I would weave in my memories and my spirit, my experiences, just as Abuelita taught me. According to her, imbuing art with personal meditation was what distinguished a dream catcher that was living art from one that was a purely commercial venture. Last year I created my biggest dream catcher yet. Two meters in width and length, I used my grandfather’s old fishing rope, found coiled in a rotting wooden box, and decorated it with a spattering of collected sea glass, battered shells and even a witch ball at the center.
Mom often laughs at me. She calls my fantastical dream catchers ‘theatrical’ but I can see the wistful twinge of pain in her eyes. I know they remind her of Abuelita. Mom masks her sadness with sweet words and little smiles. She remembers Abuelita through her delicious cooking. Abuelita also told her stories and cast her spells through her wonderful kitchen craft. The taste of each dish brimming with memories and rekindled laughter. With each taste of sweet fried plantains, tangy roasted tamale, steaming corn soups and salty saffron rice comes a warm flood of emotions which envelops my being like a hug from Abuelita.
Mom makes the most beautiful soups with red, ancho chilis, green poblanos and yellow bell peppers, creamy black pinto beans and sprinkled with crystallized sea salt and cilantro. She often recalls Abuelita dipping her wooden spoon in the thick broth, swirling it occasionally “just like a magic wand.”
“I wanted to absorb and commit to memory each cooking spice, herb and sauce used. I recited them under my breath like an incantation.” Mom told me once, laughing as if to brush off her remark. I listened just closely enough to hear her mumble discretely under her breath, “I was bewitched.”
Abuelita’s personality was so warm and magnetic that we constantly had company. Often we had dinner guests whom she met on during her habitual afternoon paseos about town. People from the market square who had purchased one of her dream catchers, would often drop by to lunch on her famous Chili Rellenos and Corn Tamales. Milling about her house, like a swarm of bees, crowds of artists and fellow craftspersons came to sip her famous warm honeyed ginger lemon or sage and rosemary teas together with the sweet inspiration Abuelita’s big hearted stories and earthy optimism.
Last winter after a bad fall and a broken hip Abuelita stopped cooking. That is why Mom stepped in and discovered her own talent. The doctor said Abuelita had a mild concussion with attendant memory loss. But Abuelita never truly came back to her normal life. When we moved to New Mexico to help out we found Abuelita sitting empty but serene on her front porch. Names became ghosts. Abuelita would stroke my head absent mindedly, tongue twisting at a loss of words. She was exploring worlds that were as yet closed to me. That was the hardest to watch.
I made it my job to bring back the stories. Many nights I would tuck her in, wrap soft folds of fleece around her shoulders and tell her about my dreams. I would cocoon her in the warmth of the sweet stories that I had first heard from her lips. I became the storyteller and she the new babe that needed comforting. Like a new baby she was transitioning into her world of dreams. Each day she would stay there longer: her gaze now focused more and more inwardly. But after years of dream travel, I was sure that she would be comfortable in her new world. The last night, she flew away from us, quietly but permanently, to her dream world. She left behind all earthly possessions, body included.
And this morning I saw it. On the bare wooden dream catcher there is a single bead of sparkling micaceous clay - my Abuelita, my shining north star.