Juanita

January 5th, 2014 | Rachel

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I just returned from spending the holidays back south. I was in Alabama for a week and a half for Christmas and Charleston, SC for a weekend for New Year’s Eve. This morning was my first back in Sonoma.

I had a leisurely morning of watching Zoolander and then walked down to my neighborhood coffee shop to catch up on some work and say hello to some of the baristas and regular patrons. On my walk home, an elderly woman whom I’ve passed many times with a hello and a wave was standing at the gate of her picket fence. She asked if I had heard of some sort of food item that involved artichokes and spinach.

“Spinach artichoke dip?” I asked, crossing the street to where she stood.

“That sounds right,” she said. “Do you have a recipe?”

I said I didn’t but it was something I frequently saw at parties so it shouldn’t be hard to find. She said she was going on a walk to find someone who had it. I wished her luck on her quest and returned home.

I sat down on my sofa, opened up the old laptop and found a highly rated recipe for spinach artichoke dip from allrecipes.com. I printed it out and headed out the door, saying hello to my neighbor who was working on his car in his driveway. The woman was no longer by her gate so I stopped to write my name and address on the recipe before tucking it in her door.

“Did you find it?” a voice said. I turned and saw her standing in her garden. She had an empty lot next to her house that had been turned into a beautiful garden. I stopped by there many times during the spring and fall to take photos of her roses.

I gave her the recipe, and she told me one of her neighbors said they bought some over in Petaluma. I suggested a market in town that would probably have it too. She looked at the recipe and said she would try it, and I told her I loved cooking too and actually owned a food business.

I soon learned her daughter loved to cook, one of four children plus several she had adopted. “I told you I lived in Alaska, didn’t I?” she said

She had not.

I learned she lived in Alaska for over 20 years working on pipelines. She went to school to learn welding. “It’s a wonderful occupation for women,” she said. She stopped and asked if I wanted to see what her grandchildren made her for Christmas.

I did.

She instructed me to sit in a chair in the garden while she fetched a book. The title page revealed her name: Juanita. The book was a biography of her life. In the back was a report one of her grand kids had written about her for school, along with a copy of a newspaper article about her contribution to the “new gold rush” in Alaska.

She actually started off as a nurse but didn’t have the stomach for it like her sister did. So instead she became a welder. Later she would relocate her family plus two of her neighbors to Boyes Hot Spring (our neighborhood right outside the Sonoma city line). She’s been in her house for over 50 years.

“You have come to the best neighborhood. It is very special,” she told me, although it wasn’t always that way. After a violent crime not far from Juanita’s house, the whole neighborhood banded together to make the area safer. They had street lights put in and agreed to be more vigilant. Today, the neighborhood is practically Mayberry.

She pulls over a short gardening stool and sits on it. I learn she is 87. She brags about being able to lift anything in her yard, better than some men. The secret to long life, she said, was staying active. I agreed and told her about my busy grandmother who just turned 85.

Juanita credits the women’s liberation movement for the life she has had. “We can do anything now. And the thing that makes us so successful,” she said “is our ability to multitask.” She also expressed thanks for being born in the United States, being well aware of the lack of opportunity for women in many other countries. After moving to Sonoma she went back to school and got a job as a psych tech.

We talked about different people living in the neighborhood, as well as the businesses nearby. She told me about her neighbor across the street who was the person she called when one of her children died. A young man in a black t-shirt walked by and I learned he worked at the local development center and had injured his back subduing one of the patients. Juanita had worked at the same institution but took a night shift and agreed to be their news writer for seven years so she wouldn’t have to tackle anyone.

“So your name is Juanita?” I asked, since we hadn’t actually introduced ourselves.

“Actually my name is Anita, but when I moved here I thought I’d fit in better if I had a more Hispanic name.”

The conversation turned to me, and I gave her a synopsis of my own working life so far: attorney in New York City turned food business owner.

“Then you know exactly what I’m saying!” she exclaimed. “You are going to fit in well here. People are going to love you.”

As the conversation wound down and I got up to leave, she asked how old I was. When I said I was 30 her eyes lit up.

“If only I knew what you know when I was 30,” she said emphatically. “I can tell you are going to do great.”

She gave me her phone number, and I said goodbye and walked back to my house, stopping to chat first with the neighbor working on his car and then my next door neighbor who recent listed her house for sale.

A special place indeed.

 

6 Responses to “Juanita”

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    Love this!!

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