At Home With Hospitality

MY neighbor says that her aunt Susie's house has always been ''a happy house.''

Susie lives there to take care of her elderly mother, Eremita, who was born in a mountain town in New Mexico like so many generations of Quintanas before her. They sometimes call her la Quintana or las Quintanita -- although her married name was Maestas. She is more often called la gramita (grandmother), in the fused Spanish and English spoken here.

Susie was born in the house. Eremita's mother also lived in this tan adobe house overlooking the Rio Grande valley.

Whenever I would stop at their door during my first months here, Susie's stock phrase would be ''Entra, entra! Come in.''

Before I met them, I got to know their cookies, which were sent via Susie's niece when we moved in.

They always have a hot drink for me and some tortillas with green chiles or perhaps chokecherry jelly -- or yela in local dialect -- that they've made or someone gave them.

Or they offer something they have just cooked on their wood stove, which fills the room with its fervent glow. Almost everything has chile sauce on it or green chiles that the women roasted, peeled, cut, and froze in the fall.

Susie is the one I talk to the most, because I haven't caught on to the old dialect of Spanish spoken here, and Susie speaks more English than Eremita. We often talk about family matters, as I have been more or less pulled into their extended family through the gravitational force family has in Hispanic life.

I think no one is more trustworthy than Susie for this kind of personal chat, because of her bone-clean honesty. She tells me, ''I don't steal anything, not even a needle,'' which I recognize as a phrase from Spanish -- ''ni una aguja.''

We talk also about the very different life they were both born into, when cooking was done in black clay pots made by women in town, when goats trampled on pinto beans to thresh them, and water for drinking and washing was hauled from the irrigation ditch. Children had no toys, and the farm chores Susie did were to put food on the table.

The women now own a microwave, a television, a space heater, and other modern wonders, mostly gifts from friends. But it wasn't until the 1970s that they got a sink; before that, they just had a faucet on the wall with a bucket under it.

Today, they still wash dishes in tin basins, and there is a little white enamel washstand in their kitchen for rinsing hands. They still use the wool mattresses that were made when people tended sheep here, which Susie likes because you can wash them. In many ways, their life is a page out of the past.

During the warmer months, I noticed that there would almost always be people at their house, either in the kitchen or in the front room where chairs were set up. Usually, their guests are relatives from nearby, or from as far away as California.

But somehow people outside their family get to know them, too. An anchorman on an Albuquerque news show, born in a town 15 minutes away, visits them once in a while and renews the contact. A Hispanic superintendent of schools from Arizona stops by with his wife when he's passing through.

A woman from California, who summers in Truchas, sits and jawbones with them for hours. A woman from Indiana gave them the pink roses that climb up their shed. This year Susie even got two letters from people she doesn't remember, one from Texas and the other from New York.

When Susie and Eremita were recuperating for a few days from a car accident last year, they went ahead and entertained guests while lying in bed in the front room. I remember hearing Susie saying cheerfully to the rather embarrassed UPS man, ''Sientate! Sientate!'' (Have a seat).

It took me a while, but one day I told Susie that I had finally figured them out. After close observation, I had realized that this is what they do all the time -- they just have guests over and dish out food and conversation. She said, ''Mm-hmm,'' looking at me straight in the eye with a wry smile.

I say to her that she should hang a sign out saying ''Susie's Cafe,'' and she laughs. Their hospitality is no light thing, considering that they are both on public assistance. But it is a tradition that runs deep here.

In 1810, when New Mexico was part of colonial Spain, the American explorer Zebulon Pike wrote feelingly that the people ''exhibit, in a superior degree, the heaven-like qualities of hospitality and kindness.''

The beneficiaries of Susie and Eremita's generosity, family members and others, are not just there for the bischochitos or enchiladas, of course. As they take in the incense-smell of cedar wood that Susie likes to use in the stove, they also draw in the aroma of the old ways that are vanishing. Eremita, especially, born near the turn of the century, is a life-link with the past for them.

To me, their house, with its nearly constant circulation of people, food, and talk, and its central location in town, situated like the prow of a boat over the valley, is the hub of town. When I talk to other locals, I am surprised when they say they don't know Susie and Eremita very well.

But somehow they seem like famous people to me, at least on a local level. Famous maybe because of their stance toward the world, radiating and giving outward like spokes of a wheel. Famous at least to those of us fortunate enough to know them.

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