Shared Stories: Abuela's Art of Self Expression

A note from Carol Kearns:

This month marks the five-year anniversary of a weekly column in the Patriot publications – “Shared Stories: The Ties That Bind.” The featured stories are all original literature written by local friends and neighbors who attend a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center led by instructor Bonnie Mansell.

The first story to appear was by Norwalk resident Kay Halsey in September 2013. Years later I discovered Kay was a golfing and tennis buddy of people I knew in Downey. Small world.

The class has an emphasis on writing memoirs, so most of the stories are true - although authors are always free to be as creative as they wish. Story topics that have appeared include descriptive memories, reflections about life, comedic episodes, and even tales of tragedy and redemption.

This writing class has been going on for so many decades that it has changed instructors and venues several times. Bonnie has been the instructor for over 19 years now, and it is her talent that keeps people coming every week. She maintains the supportive environment that is essential for successful writing. Writing takes courage - we are vulnerable when we share our words. Bonnie inspires a climate of trust and perseverance.

I went home in awe after attending my first class eight years ago. Attendees were from other cultures and continents as well as the United States, and they supported each other’s efforts with genuine enthusiasm and interest. Why couldn’t the rest of the world be like this group of people, I thought. We have so much to learn from each other.

This experience was so powerful for me that, after several years, I approached Editor Eric Pierce with the idea of a weekly column. Since then, with the permission of the class, it has been my pleasure and privilege to curate and prepare the material for press. Two years ago we published an anthology to celebrate the third anniversary of the column.

I look forward to our gatherings every Thursday. Sharing our stories is the most important tool we have for strengthening the values and experiences that define us as human beings. We think about what it means to walk in another’s shoes, we develop our empathy, and we enjoy our common humanity.

It is with bittersweet feelings that I announce this week’s column is the last appearance of “Shared Stories.” I am not leaving the class, but other activities prevent me from continuing to prepare the material. Bonnie, myself, and all of the authors have appreciated the positive feedback from readers.

It is fitting that the last story to appear is by Yolanda Adele who is the longest attending member of the class. Thank you to my classmates and fellow writers for your friendship and trust, and for teaching me so much about life as well as writing.

Carol Kearns

Yolanda Adela shares loving, and funny, memories of her maternal grandmother, who was a forceful figure even as she was expected to be submissive. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

By Yolanda Adele

My maternal abuela (grandmother) was born on October 5, 1897 in Zacatecas, Mexico. Her name was Acacia Castaneda. She had six sisters and a brother she helped raise. Though she was poor most of her life, she carried herself with grace and charm.

My abuelo (grandfather), Jesus Garcia, said he fell in love with her at the first glance of her Spanish green eyes. And he was further captivated when he discovered she possessed a good sense of humor.

They married in 1916 after a short courtship and had eleven surviving children. At that time women were expected to suppress their negative feelings, to be submissive. I suspect that it was Abuela’s wit that got her through the difficult times that came with raising so many children.

As a little girl, I used to visit mis abuelos at their home in El Paso, Texas. For the thirteen years that I knew her, my abuela was rather Victorian in her dress. She wore her long, thick dark hair pulled back into a tight bun, and always wore a dress with leg hose that were kept in place with special skin-tone rubber bands just above her knees. On her feet were black lace-up shoes with small heels. Best of all, she always wore a smile whenever she saw me.

Mis abuelos
lived in El Paso, but occasionally my grandmother came to visit us in Los Angeles. I knew she loved me even when she punished me for skipping school while my mother was at work one day. She agreed (as I pleaded with her) not to tell my mother.

She was also watching out for my best interests when she threw a glass of water out the window one night at a young man who had come to serenade me on my birthday. Unfortunately, her false teeth were in the glass and they went out the window as well (but that is another story).

Because I remember her as a “proper lady,” it is difficult (and amusing) to imagine her doing some of the outrages acts that I have been told about. One of the stories told to me was about what my abuela did to my abuelo’s prominent mustache, a mustache that he wore with much pride.

Story has it that someone told Abuela something about Abuelo (of which I’m not privy to) that infuriated her. It wasn’t until Abuelo was sound asleep that she retaliated.

Abuela gave my cousins some pennies to go to the store downstairs to buy Bazooka Bubble Gum. This pink gum was very thick. Abuela collected the chewed gum, one by one, from my cousins. She melted it until it became a lot of warm goo. Then she went to where my grandfather was in a deep sleep and smeared the goo all over his masculine mustache.

She must have done a thorough job of it, because my abuelo’s only recourse was to shave it all off, completely! This must have been very humiliating for him with good reason.

For people of my grandparent’s generation, a Mexican man’s mustache was very symbolic of his manhood, his machismo. I can only imagine how his amigos reacted when they saw him shaved.

Another story is about the way my abuela used to wake up my abuelo in the mornings after they had stopped sharing the same bedroom.

For as long as I knew them, Abuelo’s bed was in a closet. The bed was the only piece of furniture that fit in the tiny space. The door may have been removed to make room for my Abuelo’s head and knees as he sat and leaned forward at the edge of his bed to put on his shoes.

The wall behind his bed was made of corrugated aluminum with a faded color image of a “Gibson Girl” sipping a Coca Cola from a soda fountain glass. There was a hole in the aluminum that let the end of a broom handle fit through. And that is exactly what my abuela used to poke my abuelo in the back with to wake him up.

Still, it was easy for me to see through her antics that she loved my abuelo by the way she smiled at him and in the care she took to prepare his meals.

The culture of my grandparents emphasized that women be submissive and suppress all negative feelings, but my abuela always seemed to find a way to let her thoughts be known. That is why, with a giggle trapped in my throat, I have to admit that I’m proud of my abuela’s art of self-expression.