Life, death and tortillas
Reflections on life, death and the art of making tortillas
The last time I saw my youngest cousin Delilah was a month ago at her mom’s funeral in New Mexico. I was one of the pallbearers, carrying my aunt to bed in the desert that is our home. After my aunt was lowered into the ground, all the pallbearers grabbed shovels and began filling the grave with dirt. Delilah watched while holding a bouquet of flowers for her mom.
Today, we are in the Chuska Mountains of Arizona for a family reunion. The gathering is at my family’s sheepherding site on Roof Butte, the highest peak in the Chuskas. Relatives are setting up their campsites while others move about in the shade house (chaha’oh in Diné), preparing a fire for cooking. The mountain air is resurrecting, and in the shade house, Delilah is showing me how to make tortillas.
For years now, I’ve been trying to replicate how women in my family make bread. And Delilah’s gained a reputation for top-notch tortillas. Also, we have to feed 30 relatives, so it’s all hands on deck. So I clean my hands and reach into the container of dough, and because time is non-linear, I’m taken back to that afternoon at the cemetery. As I grab a ball of dough, all I can hear is the sound of a shovel digging into sand. There’s a distinct music to it, but it drops to a minor key when you’re doing that work to bury a loved one.
The campfire burns, and I’m in wonder over the labor our hands do for life and death.
I want to mention all this to Delilah, but I don’t. More than likely, it’s already on her mind. We’re also in a different atmosphere. Laughter surrounds us. The evergreens tower over us. To the south, clouds congregate, ready to drop rain like roses. A few more cousins help us prepare food. Joy abounds today.
On the rez, the work of shaping and stretching torillas (náneeskaadi in Diné) is done by hand. I douse the sticky dough with flour, and Delilah watches me. At a certain point, stretching the bread gets unwieldy for me. Nearby, some of my uncles watch and chuckle. “Just put it on the ground and step on it. That’s how the Pueblos do it,” one of them jokes.
Delilah intervenes and offers tips. “It’s kind of hard to explain,” she says. “Just watch what I’m doing.” She shapes the dough until it’s a little bigger than her hands and then folds her fingers partially into fists. She pounds the dough back and forth against her hands while rotating it. A clapping sound emanates, and it’s gentler than a metal shovel stabbing into sand. The dough is stretched just enough and then placed on the grill where it comes to life over the fire.
I follow Delilah’s technique, and a round shape forms. It feels like I might be getting good at this, but as soon as I place that dough on the grill, it folds up and the circular shape is ruined. It’s too late to undo. But there’s plenty of dough, so I try again. Turns out I’m still hit or miss. “They look like footprints from Bigfoot,” one uncle says.
Delilah laughs, and not only does she look like her mom, but she laughs like her. Immediately, childhood memories are unshoveled in my mind. In one, I’m 10 years old, driving with Aunt Jen and Uncle Dave. I’m in the backseat with my other cousins, Third Eye Blind plays on the radio. Aunt Jen turns up the volume while everyone else groans because they prefer heavier stuff. But I like her taste in music, from Gin Blossoms to Mariah Carey, so I speak out to support her. In the passenger’s seat, Aunt Jen laughs at the uproar and smiles at me.
My cousins and I eventually complete our task. That mound of dough turns into a stack of tortillas. Yesterday we butchered a sheep. Now we have made a feast out of its life. We add the bread to the table, and everyone gathers. My mom says a prayer as rain arrives. It taps on the tarp we use for a roof.
At these gatherings, we can’t help but think of the many relatives lost. I pray for a year without death, but that’s a difficult demand. Maybe it’s better to tell god that we deserve to die peacefully. I look at my cousin, and I see my aunt. The rain remains throughout our meal. One of my elders reminds us that the rain is our loved ones letting us know they’re still here. Amen.
– Kirbie Bennett
Kirbie Bennett is part of the creative team behind The Magic City of the Southwest – a podcast aiming to add new stories to Durango’s history books. The series premieres Sun., Sept. 10, on KSUT Public Radio. Find out more at themagiccity.org