THERE SEEMS TO be a lot of home repair work being done in my neighborhood this week, and I’ve become accustomed to the sounds of construction. Hammers banging against wood. Electric saws grinding through planks. Drills boring through two-by-fours. The shouts of construction crews as they communicate their needs, accomplishments or humor to their fellow workers.
They are pleasant sounds. I’ve always liked the sounds of people building things, mending things, reinforcing things. Maybe it’s because they remind me of my grandfather, Alejandro Palomo, who was a carpenter.He built his home and the home of each of his four children – Benita, Gertrudis, Domingo and Adrián – who made it to adulthood (many others didn’t), and he spent the rest of his life taking care of what he had built, until he died of a heart attack in 1957 while picking prunes in an orchard near San José, California. He was 83.
A strong and stubborn man, he had little trouble hauling heavy ladders and other equipment to and from his job sites. He would often be seen carrying two-by-fours and other lumber from the lumberyard downtown to our neighborhood – about a mile away.
As a child, I was often recruited to be his assistant, especially if he was working on our house. I didn’t do any of the heavy work, but it was up to me to hand him whatever tool he needed, to carry material to him (a scary task, if he was working on a roof; I’m scared of heights!). Sometimes he would allow me to use a hammer to nail some tejas (wooden shingles) on a roof, but he had little patience with me when I hit my thumb or fingers or, worse, bent a nail or damaged a shingle. I spent a lot of time straightening nails for him, with a hammer, so he could reuse them. I hated that job.
BUT THIS POST is not about my grandfather. Believe it or not, it’s about tortillas. A while ago, after I finished reading the newspaper, I decided that taking a nap might help me feel a bit better. I’ve been suffering from the effects of a long and brutal cold and I still go through periods of feeling just plain yucky.
So I lay down and dozed off. Sometime later (not too long, for my naps rarely last longer than 15 minutes), I moved into that strange sleep stage where you’re not exactly awake but you are aware of the smells and sounds around you, and your senses send you briefly into your past.
It’s happened to me many times. Perhaps the most memorable time was one early morning while I was in a hotel room in downtown San José, Costa Rica. It was around 6:30, my normal waking hour. I could hear the sound of metal grinding against metal, like the sound a porch swing makes as it moves back and forth. And so I thought I was on a porch swing. And I could even feel the gentle rocking of the swing. A pleasant sound and a pleasant feeling that ended abruptly with a sudden jolt that jerked me awake: an earthquake! My first ever.
ANYWAY, THIS MORNING, as I began to emerge from my nap, I pictured myself lying, as I often did as a kid, on the cool linoleum kitchen floor of my childhood home, as my mother made her tortillas somewhere in the shadowy edges of my dream. I could hear the distinct and steady cadence of her palote as it made contact with the tabla and began to roll under her steady hand, flattening out the masa into the rounded shape of a tortilla.Clump, it went. The sound of wood meeting wood. Clump. Clump. Clump.
It lasted for just a few seconds before I awoke and realized that the sound came from the construction crew across the street and I was not too far from downtown Houston, not in the kitchen of a small Southwest Texas town.
Rather than feeling sad, as I probably would have in earlier years, I lay there filled with a great sense of joy at having spent those few seconds back in that simpler, more comforting space and time.
If there was any regret, it was that I didn’t get to take in the aroma of the masa as it transformed into a tortilla on the hot comal.
Take comfort in the fact that, much as your grandfather could turn two-by-fours and bent nails and wooden shingles into a sturdy home, you’ve proved yourself a master craftsman who can turn well-chosen words, phrases and sentences into stories that carry weight and convey emotion. I’m sure he’d be proud.