The Whistling Waitress

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Meredith told me recently that she misses me blogging about what’s going on in my life. Right now seems like a really good time to rectify that.

It’s been a rough couple of weeks in many ways, but above all, there’s this: My grandma Marie passed away just after her 77th birthday. I’ll be heading home to Silver City this weekend to attend funeral services. Since she was diagnosed with leukemia in December, my thoughts have often turned to her. Her passing has only amplified that effect.

I’ve remarked before that the only hard part of leaving Silver City to move to Washington/Baltimore was leaving my grandmothers behind. Both of these women had an inexplicable impact on my life: My grandma Flora helped raise my sister and I when we were young. In what I could call my more formative years, I forged a relationship with my grandma Marie, a friendship I’d never known I could have.

I don’t know if her passing is just pressing on my mind or what, but I’m noticing things, remembering things that make me think of her. In the supermarket on Monday, Meredith and I saw a family who were checking out using a government check. They were marking off the items that their fixed income check would provide, and I couldn’t help but think of the many times in her life that my grandmother struggled to feed her family. She was never what one could consider wealthy, but she stretched every bit of income the family generated. She told me stories of her youth, of washing the laundry of richer families and lugging it around her neighborhood and the city of Bernalillo. She told me the precious value that a penny could hold for a child in those times, and why a dime could mean so much to her family.

It’s easy in our modern society to lose sight of the truly important matters in our lives. You needn’t look further than the Story of Stuff or the nightly news to understand how that happens. But watching that family check out with their $15 worth of groceries really jolted me. I recalled my grandma Marie and her mantra of always having something to eat in the kitchen: often a pot of frijoles and a pile of tortillas (though, if you ever ate either, you wouldn’t say ‘only’). But it was there. She fed my father, sister and I after church every Sunday, and she also welcomed my high-school buddies for lunch every few weeks with open arms and a friendly smile. And, as if she didn’t have enough grandchildren already, many of my friends were often in her thoughts and prayers. My grandma last year rejoiced when Harmony was married and at the news that she was expecting a baby.

Grandma Marie was a pious woman, selfless and humble. If anybody could demonstrate how to live without regard to their material lives, it was her. She enjoyed the simplest of pleasures: a long phone call from a friend; her novellas (and certain American soaps as well); a Cowboys victory on Sunday afternoon. She was the one who taught me the value of shopping with coupons, of finding the bargains. Grandma Marie was also the woman who taught me that family comes first.

Many of these lessons occurred between 2003-2005, when I had left California and returned to Silver City, pretty much with my tail between my legs. But I had my family: my father was gracious in letting me have my old room, and my aunts and uncles helped me look for a job. Perhaps most welcoming of all, however, were my grandmothers. Flora and Marie, so similar and yet so different. While much of my father’s family had remained in the Grant County area, my mother and her siblings had all moved away. Grandma Flora’s closest family is my Aunt Margie, in Alamogordo. There now comes her grandson, living in town once again. We watched Wheel of Fortune together, and went hiking at Little Walnut. We met for lunch once I had a steady job and played dominoes every few weeks.

I wasn’t yet so close to my Grandma Marie, and really, I don’t know how our friendship started. Somehow, however, two things were happening on a regular basis: I was driving her to the grocery store, or to her doctors appointments, and I was stopping by her house every morning after class. These were the years that set me on my path to Washington: the chance encounters at WNMU, and the job at the student newspaper. Next, the internship with Sen. Bingaman, followed by a stint at KNFT as news director. Quitting school, to work full time, and then quitting the radio business to write for the Daily Press.

It started with the 4 a.m. mornings, driving to Arenas Valley to record the morning news. Sometimes I left in time to catch the sunrise, though I mostly hung out at the station waiting for my morning class to begin. But every day, after class, I’d head to my grandma’s house. I’d arrive in time to see The Price is Right. I’d have some lunch (usually the aforementioned beans and tortillas), and catch the news. We’d watch the Young and the Restless, and then, exhausted, I’d pass out on her couch.

More times than I’d care to admit, I wouldn’t wake up in time for my afternoon class.

The pattern continued after I stopped school, and when I was working full time at the Daily Press. Her house was a 5-minute walk, and that left more than enough time to eat lunch and grab a quick nap. What did stop were the trips to Wal-Mart and the Food Basket and the Dollar Store. We weren’t going to the doctor’s office any longer. I had a full-time job, and couldn’t take off the time.

Those trips are what I remember most fondly, partly because I think she was in her element, but also because it was time we spent alone with one another. She cracked jokes constantly: about Silver City’s bad drivers, and the guy who couldn’t steer his cart at the Wal-Mart. I remember the staples: blocks of cheese, bags of potatoes, generic, store-brand Kool Aid. We’d lookout for good frozen chile, and search for a deal on ground beef.

I also remember those stories of life in northern New Mexico, of the boy who drowned in the arroyo, and the rush to get to the hospital when my father was being born (it almost happened in the elevator). She told me the story about my dad’s nickname (Shorty) and the day he insisted she call him thus. I remember the day he told me that she was once known as the Whistling Waitress—a connection I cherished, as I whistle all the time.

Reflecting on those days has brought back so many memories, and also reinforced some thoughts I’ve had since moving to the big city. Namely: I’ve got it pretty damn good. Like anyone, I have problems. But wow if my problems pale in comparison to my friend Leah, who is doing an incredible job as a single mom raising her son, this bright young kid with a physical disability. My problems are nothing like those of the blind woman who rides the MARC train with me every day. My problems are nothing like that family at the grocery store on Monday night.

And more than anything else, I think that is what my grandma Marie embodied: she didn’t complain about the little stuff, or the big stuff for that matter. She felt so blessed to have a large and loving family. I can’t imagine going through life visually impaired, but she was blind in one eye. It hardly slowed her down. Every morning that I had to wake up at 4 a.m., she was already going, rolling tortillas and getting the house ready.

I don’t know: I guess I just needed a little perspective, something to pull me back from the daily buzz and grind of life. I need to remember my job is not my life. I need a comfy couch to rest on, a good story about a simpler, harder life. I need that incredible smile, and that “God bless you,” as I walk away.