Last night, I got together with a friend for dinner. I ate a greasy taco and washed it down with a beer. Tacos — in fact, almost any kind of Mexican food — are my happy food when I need a little culinary comfort. While crunching on my taco, my thoughts ran to my grandmother Frannie, as they so often do. Frannie introduced me to Mexico, and at the end of her life, I supplied her with tacos.
When I was thirteen, my father remarried. My grandmother must have thought my father and stepmother could use a reprieve from a teenager, so she and my grandfather took me on a month’s driving tour through Mexico in their pink (yes, pink!) Mustang. We rented a cottage in back of a house near Lake Patzcuaro. The cottage was draped in orange and fuchsia bougainvilla. I slept on a hard cot built into the wall of the living room. A girl my own age named Graciela lived in the house in front of the cottage. I wanted to talk to her, but I didn’t speak much Spanish, and I felt shy about approaching her.
“What should I do, Frannie?” I asked.
“You’ll figure it out,” she said, closely her eyes to indicate she wanted to nap. “I’ve noticed, though, that most people like something to drink,” she added.
The family kept a Coca-cola ice chest in their back yard. They sold Cokes from the chest. I’ve never understood how they could have sold many Cokes since it was in the back yard where few people saw it. This remains just one of the many mysteries of Mexico, mysteries I’ve learned I don’t want to solve but prefer to savor.
Graciela and I became friends when I bought two of the Cokes from the chest and walked through the papery trail of bougainvilla blossoms to offer one to her. I can still remember clutching that cold, wet bottle on that hot July day and taking the first gulp of spicy, sweetness.
“Es delicioso,” I said.
In halting Spanish, I learned that she, too, liked Coke and boys with white teeth and black hair. We happily sucked on the sugary drink and giggled at the boys that strolled by.
Graciela and I never met any of the boys we admired. We didn’t really want to. We were more interested in our friendship, which grew over the time we spent together, as did my skill in Spanish. In fact, I think I learned more from speaking with Graciela than I did in my junior high school classes. To be fair, though, I probably worked harder at communicating with Graciela than I did with my teachers. I know I had more fun. I have my Grandmother Frannie to thank for my love of all things Mexican, including the food.
Toward the end of her life, Frannie was living in a retirement home in Carlsbad, a beach community north of San Diego. She was mentally alert but was trying with no real success to recover from a broken hip. Nothing ever really broke her spirit, though. At least once a week, my two children and I would steal her out of the home in her wheelchair and race her down the alleys of Carlsbad to a little Mexican store that served tacos. The owner had a big green parrot that sat up on the high white shelves stocked with bread, beans, and coffee. The parrot would squawk, “Hello,” when patrons would enter. “Hello,” we would call back, and I would order Frannie a taco and one beer. When I brought them to her, she would inevitably smile up at me and say, “ I do like a taco and something to drink.”
We often think that wisdom is big, grand, life-changing advice, and sometimes it is, but sometimes wisdom can be found in simple observations, like Frannie’s. People like to share a drink, to commune with others; this is a way to lift ourselves out of ourselves and make a connection with another human. My grandmother knew this, and I have never forgotten it.
A writer and storyteller from Carlsbad, California, Catherine Close won North County's Greatest Storyteller of 2012. She has also published a short memoir called "Pillow Flipping."