Papa Loves Mambo: On encountering the spirit of my grandmother

Papa Loves Mambo: On encountering the spirit of my grandmother July 11, 2022

Roughly five years ago; late-summer day under a New Mexico sky, the blue of which rivals all sky. Blue like taffeta. Like a French painter’s dream of sky—which is what lured painters to Taos in the 20th century to eventually become the “Taos School,” setting stage for an influx of artists and intellectuals including the likes of Georgia O’Keefe and D. H. Lawrence. I drove out of Taos where I’d retreated to an adobe, pond-side casita on a farm, attempting to mend my heart with beauty, art, and spicy-good food. Early that year, my then-husband had left our marriage in the midst of personal crisis—a blind-siding departure that nearly shattered me. But not quite.

That day the highway carried me north into Colorado and across to Four Corners where New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona share a geographical hip bump. I was on a pilgrimage of sorts, to sleep over in Cortez, Colorado, the childhood hometown on my maternal grandmother (who I and the family called ‘Nana’), en route to Four Corners. I was unprepared for the experience I encountered.

{Photo by Tricia Gates Brown}

Driving into Cortez I headed for Nana’s girlhood home, but instead of finding her 30s-era State Street neighborhood, discovered a 1970s off-ramp. Disappointed, I photographed two houses remaining from Nana’s era before turning toward Cortez’ Main Street that features buildings from her childhood. Training my imagination on Nana, I pictured her walking those streets as a girl. I felt closer to her than I had in decades—since her death. After parking on a downtown side street, I strolled to Nana’s high school, a building as rundown and defunct as an old drive-in; and as I ventured, kept her ever on my mind.

Though Nana and my maternal grandfather (who we called ‘Papa’) were pivotal in my earliest years, they had lived a full-day’s drive from our family for most of my life. I hadn’t been close to Nana until her waning months. Through my time in middle school, my siblings and I shared short visits with Nana and Papa only once a year.

Which turns me to the beginning.

At the time of my birth, my father was a naval officer stationed in the Pacific. Overwhelmed and lonely, with toddler and baby in tow, my mother moved to her parents’ home where, in my first year of life, Nana and Papa were ancillary caregivers. I especially bonded with my grandfather. Warm and affectionate and effusive, Papa was an inwardly and outwardly beautiful man. Apparently when I was old enough to crawl, I propped myself on the sliding door, crying as he went off to work—already attached to his magnetism. With the dark features and coloring of his ancestors from southern France (northern Spain?), Papa could have passed for Hispanic, his smile brilliant as New Mexico’s sky. In fact, he’d resided in The Land of Enchantment for several years as a boy.

Nana and Papa were deeply in love and loved to dance. They went out dancing; they danced to records in their front room; they danced at their golf club. Somewhere exists a photo of Papa dipping Nana in a dramatic move not long before his death. Their life was not without challenge, as Papa hid an anxiety condition that crippled him in certain respects, and a since-childhood heart condition that stole his life in his 50s. And Nana ran out her days waiting to join him.

In her 70s, Nana developed colon cancer, coming to live with my parents for care and help with treatments that ultimately failed; and it was in this stage that she and I bonded. Nestled into the corner of her tiny grandmother apartment was a hospital bed, and on a handful of occasions I sat alongside that bed brushing her hair, grooming her nails, or simply talking. I was 23.

When I visited Nana’s childhood home roughly twenty years later, it felt like a historical pilgrimage more than a personal one. My roots interested me; roots I might have in a place where my ancestors had roots. I wondered if the place influenced them in ways that conferred influence on me. The curiosity was abstract, impersonal. So as I walked around the abandoned schoolhouse where Nana attended high school and felt a chilling, overwhelming sense of something spirit-y bearing down on me, something I would describe as a presence—the presence of Nana—I was not at all prepared. It felt heavy. Eerie. Charged. Unexpected. Certainly, I was not seeking it out. Since I’d never experienced such a thing, I wouldn’t even have known to seek it out.

I immediately felt incredulous. Why would Nana—Nana’s presence, her spirit—have been closer or more present to me there than in any other place? She had not lived in Cortez since her childhood and as far as I know, had no special attachment to the town throughout her life. I had not known her there. Yet, it did seem, suddenly, that she was with me. Despite what I felt, however, I was—as I said—incredulous. The words: You’re gonna have to be more obvious, passed through my head. If, in some strange never-before-experienced way, Nana was making her presence known to me, I was going to need something more.

After leaving the school grounds, I headed for downtown. Strolling through blocks of historic buildings, I visited a fabric store in a building that housed the post office in Nana’s day, buying fabric to craft a table runner for my mom. I then headed to find a meal. As it was happy hour, the Loungin’ Lizard pub drew me with promise of a G & T. During the 1930s, in Nana’s high school years, the ‘Lizard’ building was home to the local soda fountain. Though the space had been refurbished in many ways, it still featured the ornate early-20th-century ceiling tiles Nana would have seen when looking up, perhaps giggling with her friends or flirting-up the soda jerk.

As I spent an hour at my table, sipping my gin and tonic and enjoying a Reuben, I noted the music playing conspicuously in the background. It was an 80s/90s mix, mostly rock—everything from Journey to Dire Straits, the classics of my high school and college years. At one point, after I’d sat a good while, I gazed up at the 1930s ceiling and thought: I’m going to tell the waitress my grandma grew up here. Then just after this—out of the blue—started a song in such stark contrast to the preceding playlist that I immediately noticed it. And the incongruous song that blared through the speakers was the early-50s Perry Como tune “Papa Loves Mambo.” (Remember, Nana and Papa loved to dance.)

Now, could this mean something? And what could it mean? For me, it did mean something. What it meant, I was not entirely sure. But I did at the time, and continually in intervening years, see it as something … meaningful. The occurrence of that song, at that moment and in that place, felt playful. Was some—something—in the universe—playing with me? Was Nana saying, Yes, I am here? Was she conferring what I had asked for—the something more?

Though this incident occurred a number of years ago, I have not written about it and have relayed it to few people—to avoid subjecting the experience to dismissal as coincidence or worse. But I felt my dead grandmother near to me, communicating with me. Perhaps for no other reason than at that time, I was open. I was focused on her in a particular, unique way. Leaving the mystery right there is enough for me. Perhaps it is enough for you too.

WREN: Winner of a 2022 Independent Publishers Award Bronze Medal.


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