Dear Early Show,
The women in our family — aunts, cousins, grandmas — still gather in a warm kitchen at the break of dawn in an assembly line, laughing and gossiping, while busily spreading and filling hojas (corn husks) to make hundreds of our Christmas tamales. And although invited, the men curiously never materialize until later in the day when it's time to try our tasty creations. It is an all-day process with a role for every person, no matter what the age.
These special love-laced tamales are served at our annual Sanchez Family Christmas Party. When we were young this event was traditionally held on Christmas Eve but as everyone grew older, got married, had more kids and were split between the in-laws, we decided to change the date to the first weekend in December so our "immediate family" (50-60 family members) could attend.
In 1992 when the party started to wind down about midnight, our abuelita and family matriarch, Luz Gonzales (better known as "Mama Luz") and our step-grandfather left for home. Mama Luz & Gus were a very active and dare I say feisty couple in their mid-80's who never sat still — fishing, cooking, gardening, canning, crocheting and dancing.
We received a phone call from their neighbor at 6 a.m. informing us their house was on fire. Phone calls were placed in a hurry and we all raced down to the scene. Cars were parked haphazardly all throughout the street with family members from in and out of town. It was unclear for quite some time whether they had gotten out or not, when we were finally told that both had died in the fire.
We were devastated. My Auntie Carol, who was in her late 60's at the time, remarked. "I'm not anyone's daughter anymore." On the other hand we felt very fortunate that we had all been together as a family in a festive environment the night before they passed away.
A closed-casket funeral was held with over 1000 people attending. Mama Luz had retired from her cannery job 20 years earlier. Everyone at that funeral was there neither because she was a high-powered or wealthy woman nor because they worked with her but because she affected their lives with her kind ways and love. I looked around at all those people and thought, "This is a successful person."
Being together as a family for our tamale-making days and Sanchez Family Christmas parties means more to us now than ever because you never know when it will be the last time you see someone.