Pablo was looking carefully across the cañón at the dry oak brush and dry, yellow, grass. He removed his jacket quietly; his rifle rested across his lap. The sun warmed him, his shirt damp from his long walk. He looked intently for a change of color, telling him that a deer was inside the oak thicket. And then he heard her singing. “Adiós, oh madre mía, adiós, adiós, adiós.” It was his wife Lucía’s voice, plainly heard in that stark fall, just as she had always sung at church and at wakes. Very concerned, Pablo gathered up his jacket and rifle and quickly began his long walk home. Lucía and Pablo’s youngest child was 7 months old and their oldest was 15, both girls. They had eight children. Pablo arrived home, alarmed but too late. Lucía had died of a heart attack. She was 37 years old. Sixty-eight years after Lucía’s death, I sit in a downtown restaurant across from Pablo and Lucía’s son, Patricio. “What made your best Christmas?” I asked.
“You have to excuse me,” he said. “Sometimes I cry when I remember these things.” Tears began to glisten in his eyes, and he began to describe memories of his favorite Christmas.
“My relatives had gathered in the small unfinished cabin, three rooms heated with two wood stoves, and after my mother Lucía’s funeral and their simple goodbye, they suggested that my Papá Pablo separate the family, giving one or two children to each aunt and uncle. My father listened to his brothers and sisters, and he said to them that he would not take a chance that his children would be mistreated or harmed in any way. He did not consider that he was a laborer, his house was not yet finished, or that it lacked indoor plumbing, electricity, or running water. An acequia meandered close by, and from this he drew water for us. Our house stood at the edge of a cañón; the acequia watered fields and a garden, and Pablo worked, hunted, and gathered wood to heat our house. He decided to raise his own family without Lucía.
“Rosalie was 7 months old, and I was not yet 2 when my mother died. My father packed his sandwich to go to work. When he returned home, he would take half of that sandwich, unwrap it, and divide it between Rosalie and I, as we each sat on one of his knees. On cold days, he rose early, and warmed our clothes on the wood stove. Rosalie and I were consentidos or those who were treated with the utmost compassion and sensitivity by our family, aunts, and uncles, and certainly by my father.”
Patricio’s tears flowed freely now as he continued. “I remember Papá warming our clothes on the morning of the Christmas that I remember best. My oldest sister was Isabella,” he smiled, remembering her. “She was a voracious reader. She made us read The Power of Positive Thinking. Isabella would tell me to be ‘ positively focused, to be determined, and to believe in myself.’ Isabella was 15 and the oldest. She also read Napoleon Hill, who said that from every adversity there comes an equal measure of good. Isabella was inspired to dream from a message more appropriate to a place where there was opportunity, and not for a poor family in rural New Mexico.
“Our family life was centered around the wood stove and an oil lamp providing light for reading. Pablo would begin each day by warming our clothes. He would go to work. Rosalie and I would wait for our half-sandwich on his knee, and sometimes he hid a piece of gum in his pockets. Life in our little house in the cañón was beautiful — the garden, rain, the green grass, the fall and winter when all the leaves would fall and snow would come. We read books, while Papá sat quietly weaving cuartas, intricate woven decorative horse whips which he sold for $6 each.
“Townie was our dog’s name,” he said. “I remember him waiting for us when we returned home from school. One time, our teacher asked us to write down what we ate. Isabella told us to write that we ate chicken, oranges, bread, and bananas. We were ashamed to write that we ate potatoes, beans, chile, and tortillas every day,” he smiled. “To help us, people would give us clothes.”
Patricio’s tears had momentarily stopped, and he held his hands a foot apart. “We had a very small Christmas tree that year. It was maybe a foot tall, with two shiny balls and a bit of shiny tinsel.
“My father was very protective— he was a laborer at the highway department or he fought forest fires, and he was a keen deer hunter. My mother’s memory and her singing were never forgotten, and we were reminded of her in every song at church. Sixty-eight years have passed, and I still hear her voice. My father had a thirdgrade education. He never forgot my mother, and he loved us all,” he said, as his tears returned.
“I never spent a Christmas without my father. I was 22 when I installed a phone at his house, and I called him every single day of his life. When I told him that I was accepted at Harvard Law School, he asked me why I would go so far away. He said that there were jobs in the local sawmill. And I answered, ‘ But, Papá, this is the best law school in the country,’ and he agreed to let me go, saying simply, ‘ Que Dios te ayude’ (Let God help you).
“Christmas when I was 5 and Rosalie was 3 was my very best ever. My father had warmed our clothes, we awoke to that beautiful little tree, and under it were two rolls of LifeSavers. My father told me that as I ate each one, to remember my mother. And so, taking each piece, I broke it in half, and then in quarters. They lasted me for most of that winter. With each piece I did remember my mother, and each day brought me closer to the springtime that I loved so much. I always remember her in the fall, when she sang to Pablo as she was leaving us, and he was out hunting in the cañón.”
I sat quietly in front of Patricio. I have known him for 25 years, but I never knew about Lucía, Rosalie, Isabella, or Pablo. Patricio told me about a family who lived in a house with no convenience other than a wood stove and an oil lantern and a mother who continued her song wherever they went. I sat quietly, happy to have asked, “What made your best Christmas?”
I asked a question innocently, and I received an answer that I did not expect. I received my own very special Christmas, sitting in front of this man, who gave me a renewed understanding of what Christmas, family, and togetherness truly mean. Patricio told his story of the house in the cañón, of the magic inside a package of LifeSavers, his mother Lucía’s song, and Pablo’s love.