The following is an excerpt that is abridged from my most recent book, Beauty and the Bitch: Grace for the Worst in Me, published by Bondfire Books.
I remember the first time my family began what was to become a solid tradition in our family. I was eleven years old, and it was early October, at midday when we first trekked to the little village of Chimayo, nestled in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains north of Santa Fe. We were a limping and bleeding family, but when we loaded up the car to head to Rancho de Chimayo for a special family dinner outing, all was well for a while. When we came to the crest of the meandering road, the fire of golden cottonwoods smoldered in the valley floor. Chimney smoke carried wafts of pungent pinion into the arroyos, weaving through juniper and sage. Chamisa added dots of yellow to the perimeter of the village. Maple splashed red, here and there. The sun was long over the creviced mesas, accentuating every eroded pocket in the hillsides, its finger stretching to the top of Truchas Peak. Even if I had never heard a word about the Spanish and Native American beliefs in the sacredness of this territory, I would have intuitively known that where we lived was holy. The land itself asked me to contend with God. The beauty of the land comforted me, even when my lungs sputtered for breath. No amount of internal struggle, rage, fear, bitterness, confusion or conflict could remain intact in the presence of such beauty. I share C.S. Lewis’ sentiments: “And if nature had never awakened certain longings in me, huge areas of what I can now mean by the ‘Love of God’ would never, so far as I can see, have existed.”
We passed the old wooden sign carved outside the church, “El Sanctuario de Chimayo,” and my mom relayed the mythic reputation it had for its healing holy water. We pulled the Ford into the gravel parking lot of the restaurant, surrounded by groupings of olive trees and cottonwoods, and saw the adobe building bearing wood shutters, red geraniums cascading against clay from window boxes. A sampling of all of New Mexico showed up here— Hispanic, White and Pueblo Indian. We blended and comingled and never gave it a thought.
It was apparent who had driven from my hometown, Los Alamos, though. There was a slightly stuffy, subtly stiff quality to us. Maybe it was the bolo ties our men tended to wear— they may have been silver and turquoise, but they were donned on men who had spent the day with laser technology or plutonium processing, not out harvesting a field or laboring until sweat beaded on bronze skin. Maybe it was the way our women fretted over their food choices, or wore large brimmed hats to protect them from the sun. Whatever it was, was unmistakable.
There were warm, quiet conversations and tables filled with laughter. We smelled the familiar charred smell of small, corner adobe fires. The earthen walls were covered with intricate rugs woven by the Ortega family for generations. Red chile ristras hung close by. The smell of a deep fryer filled with sopapillas produced an instant anticipation of green chili enchiladas or chili rellenos.
But even at age eleven— for many reasons you will come to understand— I was uneasy and agitated in the presence of my family. We sat down at a lovely patio table, but within five minutes the jabs, sarcasm and contempt began to show up— not blatantly, but they showed up. My father sat silently, and as we felt our unmet longing for him, a thick uncomfortable cloud descended on us. My mother anxiously fretted about how much the meal would cost. In turn, I began to mimic my mother’s eating habits, sarcastically mocking the way she unsteadily brought the guacamole to her mouth. I rolled my eyes at my father. I went from sarcastic to sullen— clearly embarrassed of my family, for no reason other than it was this family. What was happening in me was beyond pre-adolescent frustrating behavior. It was a fledgling bitch finding a way to navigate very unmanageable emotions in a family that was disconnected and unstable.
But even this fledgling bitch melted in the presence of the glory of Chimayo. My disappointed heart and my pithy and dour demeanor could not be sustained under the inextinguishable beauty of this place— in part because this place helped my family become something more like what a family should be. The warmth of the servers, all from the Hernandez family, began to soften us. The acoustic guitar quietly reverberating on Spanish tile, the winding clematis on the rod-iron windows in the old wood doors, the intensity of the heat from the chiles— all of this gave us the ability to have a kind conversation rather than our practiced contempt. I came to cherish these treks to Chimayo, because here we morphed into a family, as we gathered round the food we loved. The beauty of Rancho de Chimayo was a culinary salve holding our fractured family together for one more day.
Jan Meyers Proett has been a counselor for over twenty years and is the author of The Allure of Hope, Listening to Love, and Beauty and the Bitch: Grace for the Worst in Me. She has worked on behalf of exploited women internationally, but also loves the trails of Colorado, where she lives with her husband, Steve. Follow Jan at her Facebook author page, and her blog.