My Grandma in one of her extravagant Hispanic get-ups
"Home of Buffalo Bil" by Elizabeth Grimes
“Did your family go on a vacation this summer, hon?” asked my third grade teacher in a high pitched, deliberate tone with her hands on her slightly bent knees to maintain eye contact with me. “Yeth,” I had a slight lisp until I was ten and still do when I get nervous, so I’ve been told. “We went to North Platte.” After a moment of confusion, she laughed. North Platte, NE isn’t a typical vacation spot for most people. However, driving three hours to a tiny town in Western Nebraska and staying for two and a half days in the local Holiday Inn every summer as a child gave me memories that help define me still today.
Who even knows how we found out about it in the first place? My Grandma possesses an innate talent for locating community events from plays to rodeos to craft shows; in this case, Mexican fiestas. My Grandma, or Granny Pooh, as we so lovingly call her, is full-blooded Mexican. Her large family re-located from a small town in Mexico to 912 Peach Street Lincoln, NE where she was born and raised. After years of relatives and siblings moving in and out of the old house, my Grandma has come full circle and lives there once again. We just call the house nine twelve. The walls and shelves are decorated with sombreros, mariachi figurines, and family photos. She is responsible for dragging my sisters and I to every local Hispanic gathering in the surrounding area and of course, the Nebraska Land Days Hispanic Festival in North Platte, NE.
Planning for the June vacation began in May. My mother, a meticulous organizer, made charts, budgets, schedules, and dozens of lists that were to be carefully followed to the letter by my sisters and I when packing. Our outfits were planned, washed, ironed, and folded. Ziploc bags and Rubber bands bound together our games and plastic toys and they were placed in a duffel bag labeled, “car games.” She kept our meals for the weekend in a red and white cooler in the trunk to avoid the extra expense of fast food. Chicken and broccoli enchiladas were our breakfast, lunch, and dinner throughout the trip because they could be eaten without being heated (not the most appetizing meal, and I’m starting to think that’s why I was so skinny as a child). My grandma brought her faithful thermos of red Kool-Aid, a package of pecan shortbread cookies, and a supply of peanut M&Ms. The time of departure and each rest stop was carefully planned. We took the same route every year. We ate lunch at the same small town park halfway between Lincoln and North Platte and played on the same teeter-totter, my sister and I on one side, my Grandma on the other. We stayed at the same Holiday Inn (with a swimming pool). We knew we were nearly there when we passed the yellow billboard that said in red, old western style letters, “Welcome to the Home of Buffalo Bil” (the last ‘l’ was missing). I still remember exactly how to get to our hotel from I-80, where the pool is, and the ice machine locations (to keep the chicken and broccoli enchiladas cold). We arrived on a Friday, the fiesta was on Saturday, and we attended North Platte Baptist Church on Sunday with our junky 87 Buick (appropriately named Sludge) loaded up and ready to head home after a quick lunch.
On Friday, after we settled into our hotel room and my sister and I fought over who would share a bed with Grandma, my mother took us to the same old Buffalo Bill museums while Grandma went to the hotel lounge to hear the Mariachi band play and flirt with the available, over 60 señors.
My mother made everything as educational as possible. We read every memorial, plaque, and sign we encountered on our trip. We went to three museums every year: Buffalo Bill’s Ranch, Buffalo Bill’s Home, and the World War II Canteen. My sisters and I would have much rather been swimming in the hotel pool and playing the Little Mermaid, but I learned to love those museums over the years. I remember the exact layout of Bill Cody’s home. I remember where the piano was, I remember the picture of his daughter hanging in the kitchen. She died when she was three. I remember the illuminated, glass display case in the hall that held Bill’s jacket, hat, and pistol. I recall the vending machine in the barn where, if we were good, we were rewarded with a can of pop.
The World War II Canteen Museum turned out to be my favorite. I always got chills looking at the black and white photos of American Soldiers. That museum helped to embed in me the great love I have for my country, and ignited a spark that eventually led to my service in the military. We usually had the whole place to ourselves, and the same two, bored senior citizens who volunteered at the front desk eagerly gave us tours of the new displays. Manikins showcased the 1940s apparel. The low ceilings and beige, dirty linoleum floor added to the vintage atmosphere. A layer of dust coated everything, and it smelled musty. One exhibit was of two children playing the violin and clarinet, reminding me of my older sister who played clarinet, and myself who once attempted the violin. There was an iron lung, a fire engine, an old washer, a rusty typewriter, jewelry, photos, and more. In the back room sat an old upright piano. One year, I got the guts to play it, despite the “Do not touch” sign. I played “Sentimental Journey” and like moths to a flame, the seniors gathered around and clapped as I finished.
One year, my older sister and I got the giggles in the museum so bad (for some reason we thought it would be hilarious to call my mom, Slim), that my mother finally got fed up with us and sent us to the car, where we continued to laugh uncontrollably for at least another half hour.
On Saturday, we were up before the sun. It was the big day of the fiesta – the reason for our vacation. The local stadium was filled with activities that included a piñata, cakewalk, and a ton of food carts that made us salivate for beef and cheese enchiladas at eight o’ clock in the morning. On the stage, there were contests, music, and dancers. The dancers made me wish I had more of my Grandma and mom’s genes. With their gorgeous dark hair, and big brown eyes, I longed to look more Hispanic. I was hypnotized by the way the bright colors and lines on their skirts moved so fluidly with the rhythm of the music when their hands moved back and forth in perfect unison. Their heels stomped to the music on the plywood stage and they tied knots in ropes with their feet, all while dancing gracefully.
Another favorite event was the “gritar” (yelling) challenge. Contestants competed in one of two categories, the cowboy yell or the Mexican yell. The cowboys did a yodel-yell hybrid thing, while the Mexicans did a tongue roll and high-pitched laugh. Of course, the Mexican yellers always won. The jalepeño eating contest was next, which I am proud to say my Grandma won one year. She also won the costume competition, as did my little sister…I think. One year I sang and played “Solo Tú” and won $20 for first prize in the talent contest. Some were upset because I had green eyes, but most were supportive, commending my mother on my good Spanish and pronunciation. I’ll never forget the year Freddie Fender held a concert. My mother caught his eye and he waved to her. Since then we’ve constantly teased my dad about mom’s “boyfriend,” Freddie.
We left the fiesta sticky, tired, and cranky. Our suitcases were no longer neatly organized, but rather stuffed with wads of clothes, barely able to zip shut. Our Kool-Aid thermos was empty. My sisters and I no longer bickered in the back seat, but rather slept, using one another for a pillow. We were home by five on Sunday and welcomed by our dad waving us hello on the front porch. Next year, it would all happen again.