Crystal Pennell rolls out tortillas on a sheet pan March 27 in Kinghorn. Pennell makes tortillas in memory of her grandmother. Rebecca Slezak, DN
Over the Rainbow: On the importance of remembering how to make tortillas
Crystal Pennell is a sophomore telecommunications journalism major and writes "Over the Rainbow" for The Daily News. Her views do not necessarily agree with those of the newspaper. Write to Crystal at email@example.com.
The steam from the taco meat fogged my glasses as I took the pot off the hot stove. I handed it over to my roommate while she put the ingredients in a self-serve style, I proceeded to heat up the packaged tortillas on the stove, making sure that the coil marks were present on them. I had made a comment to my roommate, I said “You know, whenever someone gives me tortillas and they don’t have these coil marks or any indication that it’s been cooked on the stove, I automatically assume it isn’t real, or that my meal with an uncooked tortilla isn’t complete. I don’t know why.” She agreed, and we made jokes about it and then continued on with our taco making.
I do know why I feel that way. When I was growing up, my great grandma Sanchez would babysit my cousins and me. She was always over precautious and protective, she was stubborn and may have come off as harsh, but that woman had the biggest heart I had ever felt. The strength it takes to care for 8 of her own children, her grandkids, her great grandkids and even other people’s children when she worked at the hospital. She loved babies, her hands were accustomed to gently coddling and rocking them to peace.
She would make tortillas from scratch what felt like almost every day. I’d sit at the kitchen table in an oversized apron and watch her hands knead the flour into the dough, it was almost magical to a 3-year-old. Her hands popped and kneaded through the air bubbles formed throughout the dough. She always poked my nose with the flour and told me she could finally see it. (My family joked I was born without a nose, but really it was just very small). I had a part of the magic; my small hands were the perfect size for individual balls of dough, so she could roll them out. It was a very messy process … or maybe I just made it a messy process, I liked to play in the flour. Sometimes she would let me use the rolling pin to shape my own tortilla, and you know, they came out like long ovals more than circles, but I tried.
Cooking them was strictly Grandma’s job, the open flame was a badge of honor to veterans in tortilla making. I would watch how swift her fingers would move as she flipped the tortillas and those beautiful brown spots would surface on them, indicating that it was cooked.
As we both got older, my Grandma stopped making them as often. It was up to the rest of my family and me to really keep this tradition going. It wasn’t because she just didn’t feel like it anymore, it was more, she forgot how to. In fact, she was starting to forget a lot of things. In 2001 she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, a disease where the brain cell connections and the cells start to degenerate, causing memory loss and mental functions.
But that never stopped her from being present to almost everything that my family had, she was there through all me and what seems like 1500 cousins baseball/softball/soccer/ and swim meets, birthdays and graduations … All of them, she was there. She rode her bike around the block with us, she danced to all her favorite Banda songs, she celebrated every holiday with us. She was funny and never failed to make you smile.
As it got worse, she would often repeat herself, her common questions to me were “Where’s your mom? Where’s your dad?” I would always tell her that mom is working, and I don’t really know where my dad is. In which she would say “Ah, tell him to jump in a lake!” She’d throw her hand in the air then laugh and smile at me. Her laugh filled the air, her smile; melted your heart. It made it you sit there and wonder if she knew. It got to the point where she wouldn’t respond as much, and if she did, you had to speak to her in Spanish, and my grandpa is the only one who can. Simple tasks started slowly escaping her.
My Grandma Sanchez fought and defied Alzheimer’s for 17 years. On March 20, 2017, the first day of spring, she left on her terms. A year has passed since then, and It’s been unreal, almost incomplete without her.
Sometimes I find myself in the kitchenette in my hall making tortillas, knowing they aren’t complete. Knowing, that they’ll never be the same without her.