The Abuelita Project

Storytelling is a big part of our culture. We need to tell our stories today, for tomorrow.

Author: Sylvia

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Looking toward the future

It’s been a little while since I’ve posted, I know.  I spent most of November working on a project for National Novel Writing Month.  I did not win.  However, I did write a great deal that I otherwise might not have composed, so I consider that a win.  Especially since I’m an advocate of recording stories – albeit we deal in true stories for The Abuelita Project, and NaNoWriMo was just a big exercise in fiction!  It was fun, it was a valuable learning experience, and it was insightful to me – do I really want to be a writer?

That being said, and with Thanksgiving behind us and Christmas just ahead, my thoughts wander toward 2017.  My E-mail inbox is filled with sales ads, tempting me to purchase this supplement or that book to improve my diet/physique/mind in 2017.  With just one click, I can join THOUSANDS who have lost 10, 20, 50 or more pounds with this one trick – just $19.95 plus shipping for one month, when you subscribe and agree to pay $49.95 per month for ETERNITY!  Who could resist?  Yeah, right.

Or I could earn my Ph.D. online, starting today!  Just enroll in Griffin-Slyther-Huffinpuff U and 2017 will be the year of my success!  Well, the only problem [not the only problem] is that one usually has graduated from a bona fide university with a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree before they begin a higher level course of study.  Alas, I have not.  So, I might consider finishing my B.S. – Tennessee has a remarkable network of higher education options, which include online classes as well as on-campus experience.  But I think I’ll pass on the GSHU doctoral program.

But wait!  THERE’S MORE!  Always that extra little enticement… as though they sense, through the elements of time and space, that there is a hesitation.  The fingers quivering above the keyboard – will it be yes?  will it be no?   There’s a great deal to ponder.

In my case, it will almost always be NO.

“ponder” by Adam Hewett (c) 2016

You see, 2017 will be the year of my success, but not because I buy into some magic-sauce-formula-work-out-video-self-help-platform-internet-fairy-tale.  It will be because I value my family; because I treasure my friends; because I enjoy my work; because I’ve answered my calling.  So while many of us make resolutions – and there are always stories behind the resolutions – many of us abstain from making resolutions , with tales to tell there as well.

We look toward the future, we recognize the past, and we embrace the present.  Happy 2017!

Stories in our Holiday traditions

It’s officially autumn – my favorite time of the year!  And the major holidays are coming up, which for many people is their favorite time.  Folks are starting to make plans for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year.  Church musicians are getting excited about music for Christmas, and if you haven’t already bought your Halloween decor, it’s probably on sale now, as retailers put out stuff for the BIG day!

Many plans will revolve around the activities, decorations, recipes, and destinations that are part of a family’s tradition.  As we grow older, however, our family dynamics change.  We lose members to distance and to death.  We gain members through marriage and birth.  With these changes, traditions may also change.  Now, before the holidays are in full swing would be a good time to record traditions you remember; your favorite childhood holidays, the feasts you shared as a young parent, and any new customs you’ve added that may be cherished by your grandchildren.

Things like recipes – every family seems to have a talented cook or two that has a “special” recipe for stuffing or cranberry sauce.  Or a weird quirk – it’s not Thanksgiving at our house until someone puts black olives on all their fingertips and chases somebody.  Or maybe you have a favorite side dish that might be a little less holiday traditional, like fried pickles.  Have you changed the menu to accommodate new family members?  Or made it more fancy it as you’ve grown more skilled in the kitchen?  Is there a family heirloom gravy boat or turkey platter?  Do you always have turkey at Thanksgiving?  What are the stories your family has?  

thanksgivingI remember very distinctly the year that we had chicken for Thanksgiving.  My family was hard-working, but on a budget, as were many families in the ‘60s.  For whatever reason, we all piled into the car to go pick up a turkey.  But at the store, there was a HUGE pink teddy bear that somehow spoke to my baby sister’s heart.  She WAILED for want of that thing.  I don’t remember if we had a vote or if it was just a nonverbal consensus of the collective, or a parents-only decision, but she got a bear and we ate a chicken!  I don’t think she has that bear anymore, but I remember how happy she was that day.  I don’t remember how good that chicken was, or the next year’s turkey.  

But I will never forget that sweet baby girl, with a teddy larger than she was!  We don’t tell that story every Thanksgiving, but it hasn’t been forgotten over the last 50 years and is told at least once a year… just not always on Thanksgiving.

Some families meet in a central location and have a catered dinner or a meal in a restaurant.  Other folks rotate mealtimes or holidays, or take turns hosting a family potluck.  I know a few couples whose children are grown and gone that enjoy a day trip to a fancy buffet instead of trying to coordinate with so many people out of town, or compete with in-laws – they just enjoy a feast with no prep, no clean-up and no drama.  Sounds like a perfect Thanksgiving date!

Sometimes a sporting event is the main attraction.  We’ve had holidays highlighted with local marching bands in the Macy’s parade or hometown heroes starting for their college team in the big bowl game.12-20-bulldogsantahat

A lot of people view Thanksgiving as the beginning of the Christmas season, putting up a tree before the leftovers are even thoroughly frozen.  Some folks like a big, fancy fresh-cut Christmas tree.  Others opt for artificial varieties.  A few are just as happy without a tree at all.  Trees have never been hard and fast for me:  cut trees – besides killing a perfectly good tree – shed needles, become a fire hazard, and with small children or pets (especially cats!) just a hazard in general.  It can be a bit of trial and error, taking into account the traditions and desires of whoever is sharing the holiday – large tree, small tree, put up on Thanksgiving, take down on Boxing Day, left up until Twelfth Night… outside lights have been known to stay up all year long in some instances!  Sometimes it’s tradition, sometimes it’s just a matter of whose chore it is or who enjoys decorating more.

What traditions do you keep at Christmas?  Do you draw names for Christmas gifts?  Are family gifts handmade?  Do you have any rules about when gifts are opened?  

Personally, my favorite thing is tamales at Christmas-time.  It was just always a thing in my family.  I remember my mom and her sisters getting together in my Abuelita’s kitchen and making what seemed like a million tamales!  When Tom and I first got together, I told him that in the Hispanic community, we always have tamales for Christmas so we’ll have something to unwrap!  He didn’t get that I was joking at first, but as he became accustomed to my weird sense of humor, it was okay.  Since then, whether we have kids at home or it’s just the two of us, we have tamales on Christmas Eve after church.  Especially if both of our churches have services at the same time and we can’t worship together.  We’ve already scoped out the tamale situation here in Tennessee, so that our tradition can continue.  We also like to watch the recorded broadcast of the Pope’s Christmas Eve Mass, even though neither of us is Roman Catholic.

Do you attend a Christmas Eve service?  Do you open any gifts before Christmas morning?  Do the children get an Advent calendar?  Do you leave cookies (or at my house, a tamale!) out for Santa?  Do you go caroling?

Of course, if you celebrate Kwanzaa or Hanukkah or any other holy days, you will have precious memories and traditions to share, as well.  The holidays offer so many opportunities to create memories and stories to share.  Even with treasured friends included, the holidays are so personal to families and worthy of preservation: so take photos, write out menus, enjoy old traditions and explore new activities to share with your family today, and in the future.  

Roots or regrets?

Photo by Sandy Ballard

Photo by Sandy Ballard

Last week there was a memorial service for a well-loved parishioner at Tom’s church.  It was the third one since we’ve been here, the second for someone whom we had grown to know and love.  We did not have the pleasure of meeting the first woman, who had previously been a member at St. Raphael’s but moved from Crossville before we arrived; her friends and family that remained are cherished in our church family.  

In all three services it was wonderful to hear the stories that folks shared, to learn something new of someone whom we have only known in one dimension.  How Geri had been a camp counselor in college, touching lives and making people feel valued throughout the rest of her life.  How Jim prized education and valued his students, and how much they respected him.  How Dan loved and served his country, his community, and saw a “wild beast” housecat.

These tales were touching and heartwarming; these are the stories which The Abuelita Project encourages us to record, to share with our loved ones now, and after we’re gone to avoid any cacophony of crickets at our own memorial services.

The unfortunate reality is that death is no respecter of age.  When we lived in Carlsbad it seemed there was a disproportionate number of young men dying.  The majority seemed to be oilfield workers involved in motor vehicle accidents due to exhausted drivers and dangerous roads, although there is always the potential of dying when you work a rig, and we knew of a few who died on the job.  Every day that my boys came home safely from their jobs in the patch was a day to give extra thanks to Heavenly Father.  Other youths died in wrecks due to speed or impaired driving; some were taken tragically through violence.  

How many stories are lost when our youth are ripped from this realm prematurely?  I know my kids had a few tales to share about their shenanigans as children and teens that they guarded carefully until they were adults, when I couldn’t ground them!  The stories we should record include these youthful forays when they occur, and not just our aged memories of them.  Years ago, people kept hand-written diaries to safeguard the events and emotions of our lives as we matured.  It’s a lovely habit to encourage, and if you were forward-thinking enough to do this, your project is halfway done already.  You’ve planted roots that will branch out into memories and memoirs.

Then there are the stories we should be making today.  I recently learned that a lovely young man back home in Carlsbad, just turned 24 years of age, had passed away unexpectedly.  This was the second time since we moved here that we received news of a beautiful hometown boy who died suddenly.  I didn’t know Malachi, but I know how amazing his mother is.  I didn’t know Josh’s family, but I know how Josh touched my life.  I noticed one thing in common for both of these men according to the posts on their Facebook pages; they had so many friends!  However, too many were expressing their REGRET for not having kept in touch.  

Young people tend to think they are ten feet tall and bulletproof (my boy, who is 25, learned last year that he is NOT).  They feel that there will always be time to catch up with their friends, to call or write or text them later – right now they’re too busy with life to be concerned with death.  Yet, these busy young people have stories that need to be recorded.  

I think that ALL of us, young and old alike, get caught up in the minutiae of daily living and do not always take the time to send a note or drop by or call the people who matter to us.  Instead of harboring regret, reach out to someone – make a memory, share a story, say “I love you” – we can’t go back and make up these missed opportunities.  That’s one of the things I like about social media; you can stay in close touch even when life keeps you apart, whether you’re in school or retired, we have a means to connect with one another instantaneously.  So, reach out, share your stories, glean stories from others, and make memories together.  

The Abuelita Project:  it’s not just for old folks anymore.  


Stories in song…

Since we have moved to Tennessee, I’ve been given so many opportunities to share and to serve.  Most notably, St Raphael’s Episcopal Church allows me to sing with the choir.  I’m not a terrible singer, but usually, I am the pianist and don’t get to sing, so this means a great deal to me.  

The choir is so vibrant and so much fun.  But the contribution they make – setting the tone for worship and contributing to the sung praises throughout the service – is so meaningful.  The director is a dynamo!  She has managed to take a disparate group of parishioners and mold them into one voice – not an easy task!  To me, music is – to borrow a line from a favorite hymn – the tie that binds – in this case, binding the message in the spoken word to the gift offered by song.  

As you may have noted, I tend to ramble a little bit.  The point I wish to make, as related to The Abuelita Project, is that music plays an immense part in life.  Are there songs that stir memories or emotions for you?  For example, do you feel like jumping to your feet and cheering when you hear your high school or college fight song?  Unless your children and grandchildren attend the same schools you did, they may not know what those songs are or their significance to you.  These are probably wonderful stories waiting to be shared.    

Were the special moments in your life marked by song?  What was playing on the radio the day you got your driver’s license?  What were you dancing to when you fell in love?  Did you have “a song” as a couple?  Was there a traditional wedding march at your wedding or was there another tune more meaningful to you?  For example, when Tom and I married, we had a traditional organ processional (I can’t recall what it was right now other than it was not Wagner (“here comes the bride”)).  The recessional was not the usual Mendelssohn, but “Anchors Aweigh” since Tom had served in the Navy.

It really is amazing how music can infuse the present with a whiff of the past.  If I hear an instrumental version of “He’ll Have to Go” I’m immediately transported to the Curry County Fair carousel. I can taste candied apple, I can smell popcorn popping, and I can feel my father lifting me up onto a giant, beautiful carousel horse!  When I hear Jim Reeves sing it, I just want to sing along – it’s only the instrumental that reminds me of those long-ago late summer evenings at, what was to me at that time, the BIGGEST event of the year!  

  A list of songs that you should consider putting together if music is an important part of your life, should be the songs you would want to be played or sung at your funeral.  Too often, people do not mention their preferences to anyone, and truthfully, it might not matter – after all, the funeral or memorial service is for those left behind, not the deceased.  However, I imagine it can be somewhat awkward, especially if the survivors are not close friends or relatives of the deceased, to try and choose hymns and anthems for someone else.  At that point, selecting the music is usually left to the clergy or musician involved in the service.  And there’s nothing wrong with that; it can be overwhelming to deal with details whilst you’re in the throes of grief.


However, some of us might want to make a final posthumous statement in the form of music!  I have a beautiful, witty, funny friend who has a warped sense of humor.  She likes to say she wants a closed casket service, and at some appropriate time, I should play “Pop! Goes the Weasel” (I like to think I would play it very slowly, in a minor arrangement, building suspense).  Okay, we probably won’t do that, but it’s funny to think about, it’s funny to say, and it makes a funny story to share!

Composing a list is also an opportunity to share your stories – why certain songs are important, what they mean to you.  What do you want your survivors to think about as they bid you farewell?  (Some churches may not allow secular choices, which may be a consideration, as well).  For example, I would like to have a verse from Linda Ronstadt’s rendition of “Old Paint” but I don’t think it would be allowed in certain churches.  I can’t say why I love this song so much, other than the picture it paints is heart-warming to me, of a faithful steed carrying his companion on a final earthly ride.  To me, it says that death is just the beginning of the next journey.  The last verse of “Away in A Manger” is important to me, too.  It reminds me that we are loved and there is a place for us with Jesus.  And the reprise from “Bring Him Home” – a lovely, heartfelt prayer, speaking in faith and asking for a place in our heavenly home:  Bring me home.  Or you may want to rejoice in the fact that you lived your life fully, without regret… the chorus of “The Dance” might be a nice way to say that.

Of course, there are a million hymns that are beautiful or uplifting, bolstering our faith, sharing our sorrow, comforting our loved ones.  What stories will you tell about music, with music?  

18b867b83fc12939ced073f11afc2a74.jpg (520×342)


Lost stories

The Abuelita Project is a format designed to preserve everyday stories from regular people, specifically for their progeny, but also in the generic interest of anthropology.  So many simple things are not recorded, and sometimes monumental records are lost.   Whether you write in a journal, record a video or audio, or blog, there are stories your family might enjoy learning, today and after you’ve left this earth.   I’ve made a list of ideas that you’re welcome to use to start your own record or to ask your loved ones to share.

This is a list of the type of stories The Abuelita Project would like to capture:

  • Your first memory as a bona fide “adult”
    • When you moved out of your parents’ home
      • College
      • Military service
      • Marriage
      • Mission
      • Any other event that thrust you from youth to adult
    • Other event that you feel gave you adult status, regardless of residence, i.e., first time to vote, reaching age of majority, etc.
  • Your favorite photo and why
    • Photo of friend, family member or event
    • Photo of yourself
  • Your first love
  • Your saddest memory
  • Where were you when…?  i.e., how do you remember events in history?
  • The funniest thing you ever…
    • Saw
    • Said
    • Heard
  • Is there a story behind your given name?
  • Is there a story behind the names you gave your children?
  • Your proudest moment
  • Your favorite childhood memories
  • What advice do you have for today’s youth?
  • What do you remember about your parents?
  • Did you have siblings?
  • Do you have stories of favored pets?
  • What extracurricular activities did/do you enjoy?
    • Sports
    • Hobbies
      • Reading
      • Dancing
      • Music
      • Crafts
      • Etc.
    • Charities
    • Church
  • When you met your significant other, what was your first impression?
  • Tell us about your first job
  • What were the highlights of your career?
  • Tell us about your last job
  • Do you have an interesting tale to tell about a friend or relative?  (e.g., Granny’s uncle and the pig)
  • What fears did you face in your lifetime?
  • What are you afraid of today?
  • What challenged you and how did you meet the challenges?
  • If you could change any part of your history, what would you change and why?
  • Who/what influenced your youth?
  • Your favorite things
    • Car
    • Garment
    • Food (recipes are always appreciated!)
    • Movie and/or book
    • Art and/or artist
    • Sport or team
    • Etc.
  • Describe your formal education
  • What have you learned outside of school?
  • What is your pet peeve?
  • What is most confusing about the world today, in your opinion?
  • What has been the greatest innovation in your life?
  • When you were a child…
    • School
    • Friends
  • Traditions you have observed in your home
    • Childhood
    • Young adult
      • Single
      • Married
    • As a parent
    • As a grandparent
  • Places you have traveled
  • Do you speak another language?
  • Will you describe the most difficult decision you had to make?
  • What adjectives would you use to describe yourself?
  • Do you believe in an afterlife?
  • What is your philosophy of life?  (e.g. the hokey-pokey)
  • What do you want your family to know about you?
    • Professional accomplishments
    • Personal milestones
  • What is the most profound counsel you have received?
  • Do you have a personal mantra or motto to share?  How has it helped you in day-to-day life?
  • How do you want to be remembered?
  • What do you wish you could have done that you did not?
  • Have you always been a member of the same…?
    • Church
    • Political party
    • Service organization
    • Other
    • If no, why did you choose to leave or change?
  • If we made a movie of your life, who would play you?
    • Child
    • Teen
    • Young adult
    • Mature adult
    • Today

You probably have many more ideas – there’s no right or wrong way to begin.   Just begin… for your children & their children.

All my children & their children... Photo by Barbara Brittain

Tom’s last Sunday at St. Paul’s before seminary
Tom, my children & their children, and me…
Photo by Barbara Brittain – August 2012

We are the abuelitas…

Today, I got my Tennessee driver license.  They put my grandmother’s picture on it.  Her name was Weelita.  

photo by Ashley Samaniego-Ramirez

Sylvia Hewett Schneider

Well, that’s what I thought anyway, in my innocent, English-only elementary brain.  It wasn’t until I was much older and taking conversational Spanish that I realized “weelita” was what I heard when my “primas” said “Abuelita” – my cousins affectionately saying “grandmother” in Spanish.

And looking at this – this official document that tells the world I am now a Tennessean, qualified to operate a motor vehicle and donate organs – begs the question; “When did we become the Abuelitas?”  Wasn’t it just a few minutes ago we were young girls?  Long of limb and smart of mouth, frolicking like newborn colts, sassy and free of worry, as yet unspoiled by heartache.  Each a tabula rasa waiting for life to etch our stories upon our psyches, our very souls.

We were friends with each other, and we befriended girls that were like us – laughing, dreaming, loving our abuelitas – those wrinkled old crones with the cheery laughter and dancing eyes that could flash fire faster than a chancla after a disrespectful kid.  In retrospect, I remember work-worn hands that made Christmas tamales and perfectly round tortillas every day for decades, which folded in prayer before each meal; our own hands are skilled in their own ways, but smooth, manicured, defying our standing as someone’s Abuela.  

When we think of grandmothers, we think of soft, pillowy bosoms – when enfolded therein, nothing could touch us… not the dark, not el cucuy, not our own chancla-wielding mothers*.  Cradled in Abuelita’s arms was the very definition of safety.  No one thinks that of us.  In fact, we have been fighting against becoming pillowy soft since we first discovered boys and Seventeen magazine; not always successfully, but that’s why Sara Blakely invented Spanx.  

We don’t make empanadas; we make corporate mergers.  We have laugh lines; we also have bottom lines.  And although we do have grandchildren, we don’t have that relationship with them that we enjoyed with our Abuelas.  We go to their soccer games, not their First Communions.  We give them gift cards to the Apple Store but we’ve never picked apples with them.  We love them, and they, us… but we are not their destination.

Now, we are the Abuelitas.   


*Editor’s note:  To be perfectly honest, I don’t ever remember my mother or my tias threatening anyone with a chancla – I think that’s a more contemporary cliche!  El cucuy – yes, we were afraid!