We had a gas stove in the kitchen. It was almost always on. Good things came from that stove and the best part was that my mother was always there, at the stove, near the stove, using the stove and wherever my mother was, I wanted to be.
My mother made flour tortillas for every meal. She was in the kitchen making the dough–the masa–before the rest of us were out of bed in the mornings. When I was dressed and ready, I would go into the kitchen and watch her. I sat at the red formica table and watched my mother bring the rolling pin out then she would dust the table with flour and take one of the little dough balls and set it in the middle of the flour. She’d begin to move the wooden rolling pin back and forth over the little ball, flattening it, turning it over, and flattening it some more until it grew big enough and thin enough to cook. By then the black cast iron griddle (called a comal) was hot enough to cook the tortillas and my mom would put the thin layer of masa on the griddle for just a few seconds then flip it over. She would spend the rest of the time walking the four steps between the stove and the table to flip the tortillas over as she kept rolling out more tortillas to cook. I was always scared that she would burn her fingers when she turned the tortillas over.
I loved the smell of tortillas cooking on the griddle. Tortillas, when they are cooking, smell of warmth and freshness. The smell meant that when the first one was cooked and had cooled a little, my mom would let me have it. I would be the first one to take the round flat tortilla and fold it in half, tear a piece off of it and put it in my mouth, tasting all the work and the love my mother had put into that one perfect tortillas.
I was always amazed that none of the tortillas burned while she rolled out more and more. It all looked so easy. Somehow my mother timed it just right. While she rolled out the tortillas, I would sit at the table and talk to her, asking her questions about what she was doing and why she was doing it and what would happen if she did it differently. She would answer my questions and sometimes she’d laugh and ask me why I was so full of questions. I asked her once why her fingers didn’t burn when she turned the tortillas over and she said it was because she didn’t use the fingers. She said she used her fingernails. That’s why she couldn’t ever wear pretty polish on her fingernails, because if she did, it would burn. Another time I asked her how she got the tortillas so round and perfect. My mom said the secret was to run the rolling pin over and back just one time, then to turn the tortilla a little bit before running the rolling pin over and back again. She said you had to keep doing it like that, roll over and back, flip, roll over and back, flip, until the tortilla was ready to cook. Sometimes she would tell me I should run and play outside with my brothers and sisters but I never did. I liked to be inside, with my mother, next to her, talking to her and learning from her. As she cooked on the white O’Keefe & Merritt gas stove, my mother and I kept each other from being lonely.
When the tortillas were all done, enough for the nine of us, she would put everything away and start on the food. I got to stay and watch and when I was old enough, I got to help her with the cooking. That’s how I learned to make tortillas and my three sisters didn’t. That’s how I learned to make the enchiladas, tostadas, the menudo, chile verde, and all the other foods our family loved to eat every day and my sisters didn’t. That’s how I got to spend many hours talking to my mother and listening to her, learning from her and letting her learn about me, and my sisters didn’t.
My mother did other things in the kitchen and I learned to do those, too. I remember that she used to iron in one corner of the kitchen and I remember her sewing our clothes when we tore holes into them. But one special thing that I loved most that my mother did in our pink kitchen was sing. She almost always had the radio on and when the radio was on, she would be singing. She knew the words to all of the songs and when there was a new one, one she didn’t know, she would take a piece of paper and write the words then she’d put it next to the radio until the next time they played the same song and when they did, she’d rush over to the radio, grab the paper and write down more of the words until she had them all. Then the next time the new song was on, she could sing it without looking at the paper. I loved hearing the music but I loved hearing my mother sing more! I learned the words to some of the songs and sometimes I would try to sing them too. One song I liked was called El Caballo Blanco. It told the story of a white horse that escaped and ran from one city to the next, admiring the countryside of Mexico. I liked that song because I had been to some of those places. When the white horse died in Ensenada at the end of the song, it always made me sad.
Sometimes my mother would take me by the hands and twirl me around the kitchen as the music played and as her mouth sang the words to the songs. My mother loved music. She loved singing. She loved dancing.
When I think about my mother, these are the times I like to remember. Those days were filled with wonder and love and the promise of good things.
(This previously appeared as The Gas Stove on this blog.)