Family stories history books for next generations

I was watching TV with my grandson, Giovanni, recently when out of the blue he asks me, “Grandma, did you wear glasses when you were a little girl?”

“No, I didn’t, mijo,” I shook my head and laughed.

What Giovanni was really doing was trying to picture me at a time when I didn’t wear glasses because that is all that he has ever seen me in.

Not long before that, I don’t know how the subject came up, but I told Giovanni the story about the night he was born. My mom tells me the story about the day I was born on my birthday every year. It’s something I have come to look forward to and cherish.

“It was a cold November day. It was snowing, and the doctor told your dad that only one of us would survive this birth, either me or you,” Mom always says in a dramatic, suspenseful tone every year. I never get tired of hearing the story.

The stories our parents have shared with us and the ones that we will share with our own children and grandchildren become the history books for our next generation. But it’s not just the stories. Sometimes it’s the photos too.

Last Memorial Day, I shared the story of how the man on the wall of my childhood — the one dressed in military attire, with a flag draped in the background — often penetrated into my consciousness as I was growing up. He had such a serious look in his eyes, like if he was trying to tell me something.

That man was my maternal grandfather, Santiago Salazar, who was killed in World War II. I never met him, yet in many ways, I felt like I had.

I recently listened to a recorded interview with famed New Mexico writer Rudolfo Anaya, often referred to as the father of Chicano literature. Anyway, in this interview by the National Endowment of the Arts, Anaya relays how a portrait on his wall spoke to him. It was a portrait of an old woman with a shawl, dressed in black.

According to Anaya, he was up late one night writing when he said the woman in the portrait spoke to him, asking him what he was doing.

“I am trying to write about my childhood,” Anaya explained in this somewhat bizarre encounter.

“Well … you will never get it right until you put me in it,” Anaya said the portrait said to him.

“And I said, well, who are you?”

“And she said, Ultima!”

Ultima is the central character in Anaya’s novel-turned-movie, “Bless Me, Ultima.” In his novel, she is a curandera, a folk healer who many accuse of being a witch.

As I was preparing a writing lesson on characterization for my high school English classes recently, I wondered what my students would say if I asked them “Who is Ultima?” Or more importantly, “Who is the Ultima in your life?”

Who is the woman, or man, on the wall speaking to you? Who is that long gone relative who wants to use you as their book? If walls could talk … if pictures could talk.

Perhaps they do.

Do we listen?

Who is or was that ancestor with a blast from the past for you to capture? Or maybe it is an artifact?

I shared the story before of the old rifle that hung above Grandpa Chico’s bed that was exploding with an old-fashioned Wild West ghost story. Ultima was also my Grandma Chaya and sometimes Grandma Emma.

Mom shared the story with me of how Grandma Emma climbed on top of the roof and placed the cross on top of the church in Encino when none of her brothers or brothers-in-laws could climb up there. This was in the 1920s or 1930s.

As a grandmother, I realize I may very well be the Ultima speaking to my grandson. He has the curiosity of a great adventurer or writer. Many of our children and grandchildren do, too.

But it just may be up to us to nurture that, to open the door to that adventure waiting to be retold and captured.

There is a story inside of each one of us. But we may also hold the pen, the unfilled pages or someone else’s story.

Helena Rodriguez is a Portales native. Contact her at:

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